Anne Enright is the author of "The Gathering," for which she won the 2007 Booker Prize, and the new novel "The Forgotten Waltz." We caught up with her to ask why she wrote a book about infidelity, how she feels about her female characters, and how she balances work and motherhood.
"The Forgotten Waltz" is about an affair. What inspired you to write a novel about cheating?
I was under pressure to write about "Ireland as it is now." It was undergoing an [economic] boom and everyone was complaining about [our] miserable writers, saying, Why would a writer sound miserable when the boom was happening? We should be happy now. We should be writing more shiny, happy books.
I thought adultery was a great subject for a boom -- no one could afford it in Ireland until 2001. What happens when money shifts a conservative social fabric? Things become possible. Suddenly it's that individual choice, personal morality, not playing by the old rules anymore.
Also, it's enormous fun to write about adultery, so that was a help.
This book is very much about sex, but it's not sexually explicit. Why not go into more, well, detail?
One of the journalists who read "The Gathering" complained about the number of explicit sexual references especially to the male member. I wondered why a smart woman like her found references to the male member disturbing, and I realized that women don't talk about sex that way, they about love -- even in their own heads. So I had a lot of fun writing the explicit parts and then taking them out. Not saying everything is much more [erotic].
Do you find it difficult to write about sex?
Writing about sex is like writing about swimming, they are both wonderful physical activities and they are both very difficult to describe. So you write about the the emotions. And you write from the point of view of the character, what they're thinking or how they describe it to themselves.
How would you describe your main character, Gina, who gets involved with a married man?
She is busy and she's ambitious -- I like that in a female character. She presents well in the world -- she knows how to dress. She is honest without being self knowing. She's passionate. She wants to live a proper life, a passionate life, an engaged life. She really doesn't want to do the 2.4 kids thing.
Do you ever feel pressure to make your female characters likable?
Can I tell you my thoughts about likability? I was raised in a very old fashioned Ireland where women were reared to be lovely. (That excluded the options of contraception, divorce and abortion from our society.) Women are often judged sexually and mythologized sexually -- pure or impure or they are demonized or whatever. I write women who are normal, which means that they are neither good nor bad but mostly doing their best. Their faults are not mythical, they are ordinary. Women would do anything not to be disliked. They find it incredibly uncomfortable and upsetting if they're not liked, whereas I really think men aren't that bothered. They say, "You don't like me? That means I'm winning."
I think it's very important to write a demythologized woman character. My characters are flawed. They are no better than they should be.
Do you think your husband worries that you're able to imagine an affair so vividly?
I run things past him all the time and he just says, "You write whatever the story requires." If I ever ask him he says, "You know you can't really worry about me." Which is sort of familiar to what my mother said to me 30-40 years ago, she said, "If Joyce was worried about what his auntie would think he would never have written Ulysses." I meet so many would be writers, particularly women writers who say, "What does your family say?" And the answer has to be, "Who cares!" In fact, I'm really lucky with the people around me. They know me, so they don't confuse the issues really. They know what a book is and they know who I am and they know the difference between the two.
Where do you write?
I write anywhere -- when I have an idea it's hard not to write. I used to be kind of precious about where I wrote. Everything had to be quiet and I couldn't be disturbed, it really filled my day. And now I have kids and I['m] less interested in the kind of grandeur of being a writer and I just get on with the gig.
With children, how do you make time to write?
They go to school, [but afterwards] I work when they're in the room sometimes. It's sort of ongoing.
What book changed your life?
I think you change your own life. I'm not sure if a book does it for you. I suppose the poem that changed my life is Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." There's a line in it that says "She looked at me as she did love,/ And made sweet moan," and we all know what that means. I was actually shocked -- I was 16, you know. That [introduced me] to the idea that you could write anything.