Irish author Anne Enright stopped in Chicago last Friday as part of a two week book tour to promote her latest novel, The Forgotten Waltz. The Forgotten Waltz is the story of protagonist Gina Moynihan and her love affair with Sean Vallely, a work colleague who is married and has a daughter named Evie, during the final days of Ireland’s most recent economic boom. Enright, perhaps most well known as the winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Gathering, has published a total of five books (four fiction and one non-fiction) and two volumes of stories (collected as Yesterday’s Weather). The day that she spent in Chicago was her first in the city and although she didn’t have much time to spend here, she hoped to at least be able to explore a little. “I like to walk a town,” she said. “Chicago is probably too big to walk.” After discussing some pedestrian-friendly Chicago sightseeing, we sat down to discuss Enright’s career and The Forgotten Waltz.
After you won the Booker Prize did you feel any additional pressure for your next novel?
No, I felt like winning the prize was a whole extra job, an extra full time job on top of my other two full time jobs at the time, one of which was writing and one was rearing children. I started to resent the time I was spending going around being the Booker Prize winner, existing in that sense, and was very happy to get back to the desk…Everyone was asking me “Do you feel the pressure?” to which my answer would be “Not until you asked that question.”
How did you choose the topic for this book?
I had been looking for a good topic for a boom because when The Gathering came out, everyone in Ireland was saying “Why so miserable? We are now officially happy. And why are you bringing that book out when everything finally, when all of the bad stuff is over, and we have money and we have to move on. So why are you dragging all this up?”…In 2007 there was a kind of hectic feeling to all that, that you weren’t allowed to be down on the whole thing, you know? Because if you said “Hang on, prices of houses are going to crash,” they would crash because it’s a confidence trick. If you undermine confidence in the economy, all that money turns into debt. What is it? What was it? Was it not debt in the first place? So…I thought adultery was a great subject for a boom. It was a great subject for the post-war boom and Updike and Cheever and Richard James here. The 60s as well. And actually, I do look at the 60s as a boom, which produced many different exuberant types of book, but also the Hampstead novel in the UK, which was a great adultery form as well. So it’s just a really great way to show a society breaking up – the old values going and people having to form their own rules, make their own morality. That they’ve – I was going to say “They’ve lost the map,” but they’re making their own map, you know? It’s a very individualistic activity. Of course, the book is an Irish book because it’s all ultimately back about family and land.
There was a big emphasis on what to do with the house in the novel (Gina’s mother’s house) – how it should have been worth a lot, but was actually worth nothing.
There was quite a lot of money in Victorian books. There’s not enough money in ordinary books. And there aren’t enough children in ordinary books. Because our lives, or my life, at times has been full of money concerns and children. It’s quite taboo to talk about money concerns, but everybody has them. I remember this psychoanalyst Adam Phillips was talking in Dublin and he said “My clients tell me anything about their sex lives, anything, but if I asked them about money, I just get a big silence.” So that’s very telling.
I read in an interview that you’re thinking about switching over to third person for your next book. How do you think the first person point of view affected The Forgotten Waltz?
It’s all about the first person because we’re listening to Gina and the whole fun of it for the reader is believing her mostly and then less and less, and seeing her catch up with our appreciation of what’s going on. So you think “Get real here” and by the end of the book she does get real. It’s a tricky enough technical thing to write a voice that is realizing something. Actually, a lot of time when I talk I start realizing something in the middle of it…That to me was the line I was walking, and I wanted to walk a moral tightrope as well. I wanted people to empathize with her, to feel for her, and perhaps to judge her, but not too much of either, do you know what I mean? So I’m playing with the reader a bit. And some go with that, but others don’t quite get it.
How did you decide to write the character of Evie with epilepsy and how did that effect the story?
I actually probably started with a much more disturbing child and then I thought “No, that’s unfair to children.” And what I’m doing is taking a quality that they have and making it into something more, something much more than it is. You know, you give a character epilepsy and that’s a, it’s a terrible thing to do. I was very careful of not using it as a metaphor, or illness as a metaphor, because I wanted to show something that I have observed very keenly, which is how anxious children make their parents and how a small thing with a child, you don’t know. The child is growing so fast and changing so fast. A childhood illness is very different to an adult illness. We don’t know what the edges of it are. You don’t know what the end will be. It’s just amazing, the anxiety it provokes. So that is why, in my very heartless fashion, gave Evie epilepsy. But it also keyed in a little to her solitariness. You never know, with Evie, what the cause and effect is, you know? At the end the counselor says to Sean and [his wife] Aileen, “Now’s the time to talk about you” and they run out of the room…and it must be the fact that a lot of Evie’s stress is from living in, that the house is a kind of lie. I don’t know; I have a lot of faith in Evie. I think she’s lovely and I think she’ll be all right. It was funny actually, to have such feelings for a character you invented yourself and I really do like her. You don’t get that much with 12-16 year old kids. You don’t get them much playing a role.
I thought it was interesting that at one point Gina says that Evie was the catalyst for everything that happened.
“Without Evie, none of it would have happened,” she says, but does she mean Sean and Aileen wouldn’t have broken up, would still have been together? It’s an absolutely contradictory thing, that she’s the one that held them together, that she’s the one that broke them up. She may have been the thing that finally made Sean run out of the house. She doesn’t know what’s going on in that house. I mean, he’s actually going back to sleep with her some nights, did you see that? This mirrors situations I’ve seen in real life.
What made you decide to start writing and be an author in the first place?
It’s so long ago, dear. I can’t hardly remember. I have a story about it, but I don’t even know if it’s true. My family gave me a typewriter for my 21st birthday. I mean, I know I really did need to write because I left a day job to write, so I really did have a major need to do this thing. I don’t need to do it quite so much anymore, but I can’t imagine doing anything else. You know, it’s so much part of me now. It’s hard to go back to origins.
And you also worked as a producer and writer for RTÉ, correct?
Yes, I did for six years. In my twenties, most of them, and four of them were spent on a show I ended up running which was a three day a week live broadcast, which was crazy. Crazy and quite fun, and a bit of a head wreck and all of that…I gave it up in 1993, which come on, is nearly 20 years ago, isn’t it? There was a while I resented it; I thought I would have been a much more successful writer, much earlier on. I had a tough decade after I gave up the day job. The first two books – they were well regarded and all the rest, and they were slow to write and I thought “Oh god, all my youthful energy now went into RTÉ and I shouldn’t have done that.” I don’t know. I’m almost glad I have experience of the world, in that some writers never have a job, ever, except for maybe teaching in an academic sort of way, so I was really glad that I had that.
How do you think that life experience impacts your writing?
It probably made my work more fast-paced, possibly made it less – although I have quite what you would call a lyrical style – associated with Irish lyrical realism. That was partly because I had been reading a lot of American short fiction, actually. The show I was on is regarded as avant garde or postmodern and the next thing I was writing “post-modern” fiction. I don’t know if I can see a lot of other writers in Ireland working in TV. So it probably did have an influence.
Do you have any ideas of what you want to write about next?
I have bits and bobs. Actually the last couple of months are the first time in ten years I haven’t been working, which is amazing because I always have about six things on the go, so I never get blocked because I always have something else to work on. If I get stuck on one I move over to the other thing and I always have a lot of balls in the air, as they say. After The Forgotten Waltz, I sort of ran away because I didn’t realize the pressure was so much, so we went on a big trip to southeast Asia with family, which was brilliant. Now I’m enjoying the Booker actually, because I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the Booker. And I had three weeks before this and you just can’t start a novel in three weeks… I want to get back to it, but it’s kind of interesting not to be working.
Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to become an author?
Or who wants to have an affair?
Sure, or who wants to have an affair.
I had great fun researching this book because there was one real giveaway. I had considerable difficulty…I had to get them into hotels in Dublin, so they go on the North side because nobody goes on the North side. So then I realize they’re going off at lunch time and I realize check-in at the hotel is 2pm so I posed this problem to various people and there were two people that came back to me really quickly and said, “Either you go to a very posh one or a very cheap one and you get an early check-in.” So I thought, “Ah! They know.”
My advice to beginning writers…I don’t know, it’s all the same. Keep at it. I do think people have a kind of, and writers perhaps particularly, have a little monologue in their heads: “Oh this is no good” or “It’s terrible. I’m getting no where with this and I’ll never be done.” You just have to recognize that that’s just prattle and that everybody has that. Tolstoy had that!…The despair is necessary and it’s part and parcel of it all. You can’t let it overwhelm the work. You have to know what it is. Put it in a box under the bed. Leave it there.
Are there any authors who’ve influenced you and your work?
I’m very happy to take influence from wherever I can find it and it moves around from decade to decade. I was in my early work influenced by Nabakov. I mean, geez, I wouldn’t be influenced by him now…I love Alice Munro’s work. Reading Marilynne Robinson at the moment. I just read David Mitchell, actually. He’s brilliant.
Was writing The Forgotten Waltz more straightforward than some of your other novels?
I’m very jealous of writers who can write a book as a single gesture. And of course that takes a lot of effort and a lot of jazz hands, basically, so I wanted as a discipline to sit down and do something like that and keep the impulse going from the beginning to the end of the book. It took me under two years. I think The Gathering was three or four.
How did you decide to go with the title The Forgotten Waltz?
A: At first I thought I should have called The Gathering that, but The Gathering is quite a good title. The Forgotten Waltz I thought would have suited The Gathering’s concern with memory and loss. I heard it on the radio, somebody said “That is Franz Liszt, The Forgotten Waltz” and I thought, “That is a great title!” You let it settle and then you realize it suits various aspects of the book….Once I had it, then I could enjoy it and weave it into the book. It’s almost like The Forgotten Waltz is the waltz of her and Sean’s love affair. It’s not a very physically-described love affair. It’s described as a shape in the room that they’ve left behind, and things like that. So it seemed as a good way to describe their dance, whether forgotten or denied.
How would you describe Gina and Sean’s relationship over the course of the novel?
She had a one night stand, followed by another night stand – what do you call that? another night stand? – and another night stand and then yet another and then they have an affair. Maybe there’s an underlying story there between them. Then Sean comes to the funeral and she says that she didn’t mind him coming to the funeral. It should have been tactless, but it was as if was part of some underlying story of their lives, that they’re old comrades in the war of love. Yeah, I mean there may be some underlying thing that will keep them together. This may be kind of the unnameable thing, which is love. I mean, which is actually love, as supposed to all the different ways that we talk about love. And the proof of that will be in the pudding.
*We are going to be giving away a signed copy of The Forgotten Waltz. Stay tuned tomorrow for details on how you can have a chance to win a free copy of Anne Enright’s latest book!