Photo credit: Hugh Chaloner
Anne Enright is an extraordinary, masterful writer whose prose brims with confidence, intelligence, and wit. She might be best known for her Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Gathering, or perhaps The Forgotten Waltz, which won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Her last book, The Green Road, was named one of The Guardian’s 100 Best Books of the 21st Century, and Enright served as the inaugural Irish Fiction Laureate. Actress, her newest novel, is the story of Katherine O’Dell, briefly one of the most famous actresses in Ireland, as told through her daughter Norah’s eyes. It is an indelible portrait of an unforgettable character, and encapsulates two generations of women’s lives in Ireland, including marriage, politics, affairs, love, and tragic secrets. In a starred review, Kirkus calls Actress “[a]nother triumph for Enright: a confluence of lyrical prose, immediacy, warmth, and emotional insight.” We are proud to choose Actress as Volume 85 of our Indiespensable subscription.
Jill Owens: What was the genesis of Actress?
Anne Enright: Every time I finish a novel, I think the next novel I do is going to be set in the theater, so I half-research it. I’m always half-researching theater stuff.
My previous book had been The Green Road, and there is a theater scene in The Green Road. It’s the day that war is declared, when the mother in The Green Road is watching Anew McMaster, who is also a character in this book, on stage playing Othello. So there’s a little bit of a thread there.
Also, when I was writing Hanna, who is the daughter in that book, she became a kind of actress/unemployed actress. [Laughter] At one stage, she’s going through her disappointment in her chosen profession. She thought she’d end up at the red carpet in Cannes at the film festival.
But there was no path. I was writing this, and I said, “There was sexual humiliation, but there was no path.” I paused and really thought about that line for a while… it gave me a kind of pang. It was something that was true but you couldn’t really say, because it seemed to reflect badly on people who choose to be actors — that they would put up with this somehow.
Of course, in 2017 and onward, the actors of the world were saying, “We really are not putting up with this. We really are very aware of it indeed,” and were vocalizing all of that.
So those are two tiny little seeds. But I’ve always been really interested in theater scenes in movies, the melancholy of actors, the hopefulness and slight tawdriness, the glory and all of that, the ups and downs.
Jill: Do you have experience in the theater, or is this just something you’ve always been interested in?
Enright: Many, many years ago, I was a student actor in Trinity College Dublin. I spent a lot of my time in the theater there. The people that I worked with went on to set up a professional theater company that is still producing plays today.
For maybe a year after I left college, I worked as a professional actress, mostly on the fringe, but also a little bit on the main stages in Dublin. I was an extra, like at The Abbey.
It took me about six months of that to realize that we were having such an amazing time as a gang of thespians turning our barn into a theater and slapping a bit of paint onto some old furniture to make it look right that we didn’t really realize how bad the big world was when you were looking for a job. [Laughter]
In fact, most of my generation made their own work, but it was a hard enough ask, their amazing energy notwithstanding. Anyway, I had the choice of whether to write or to act at one point. I took the writing job. Neither offer actually really panned out, but I accepted one non-job over another non-job. The non-job I took was a writing gig. [Laughter]
I used to think that the smell of perfume was actually the smell of a woman leaving.
Jill: Katherine O’Dell’s life is such a fully realized life in the theater, starting there as a child with her father, and then going on to her own career on the stage and in the movies, and then on to her own writing and scripts at the end.
Enright: There is a kind of hyperreality to her career path. She does fit in more than your average declining diva in 30 years. From the beginning of the book, her daughter Norah says that she took solace in her craft. So it wasn’t all just about the bright lights for Katherine O’Dell. That is actually what kept her going and kept her moving. She was an artist within her craft.
Jill: There’s a description of Katherine changing into her public self before she leaves the house at one point that really stuck with me: “Finally, at the hall door, she turned to the mirror to put herself together and this was a wonderful thing to witness — the way she locked eyes with her own reflection and fixed, by some imperceptible shift, into her public self. A tiny realignment of the shoulders, neck, chin; each element lifted and balanced, as though on hidden weights and wires, around the taut line of her gaze. Hello, you. And then she walked out the door and was famous all day.”
I so loved that. There is that doubleness, throughout the book, of her mother’s public and private selves that Norah sees.
Enright: It’s something that everybody recognizes, the idea of walking out the door and being yourself in some more public way. It’s also something that children will recognize from watching their mothers, that anxiety that a child has.
I used to think that the smell of perfume was actually the smell of a woman leaving, because my mother would always put on a spray-on perfume when she was leaving the house, so it was a sign of imminent loss.
I’ve seen friends do it, and I do it a little myself. It is that idea that… it’s not quite a mask. It’s pulling yourself together. That’s what she’s doing. She’s pulling herself together and going out to meet the day.
She does it by looking herself bang in the eye, which is also interesting. She’s meeting herself in the reflection, and then she’s able to go out and meet the rest of the world.
So I was pleased with that. People who write about the theater do a lot of writing about the mask. I’m not really all that interested in the mask. I don’t think of acting as a fraudulent activity. I think of it more like fun.
I never regarded nationalism as a jaunty tune.
Jill: There is a scene at the beginning of the book in which Norah is trying to define her mother. They’re at breakfast, where Katherine’s eating toast, smoking a cigarette, and talking on the phone.
Was that always the beginning of the novel, and what did you want to explore about seeing this character through the lens of her daughter and that child-parent dynamic?
Enright: That was the very beginning. I stayed for a very long time in the kitchen with her. There’s always this idea that the queen eats cornflakes out of a Tupperware box [laughter] and that famous people are, in some ways, even more ordinary than the rest of us. So I thought, Yes, I’ll get her to eat toast and marmalade and see how that could work.
Of course, for her daughter, she’s already somehow larger than life. She’s already a little idealized. Also, the more I watched her there, and her impatience with the toast, and her relationship to the toast…
She waves it away, finally. She doesn’t finish her food. Then she looks up at the line between the ceiling and the wall, and her eyes are up there. She’s talking, and her daughter is wondering what it is she’s looking for.
Of course, what she’s looking for is justice. That’s the way she talks, “There’s justice up there somehow.” They’re all tiny details, but as they became more right, I got more and more of the story of what was going to happen and where Katherine O’Dell’s need for justice came from, and where it finally brings her in the book.
Jill: Then there’s the secret at the heart of her, which is that she’s not, in fact, Irish — that the most Irish actress of her time is not Irish. [Laughter] Which honestly doesn’t seem to bother Katherine that much, but Norah comes back to it over and over again.
Enright: I remember seeing a wonderful redhead in the hairdresser’s, and was really surprised, in my innocence. It was this marvelous auburn color, a little more red than auburn. The hairdresser was laughing at me, because I didn’t realize such a color came out of a bottle. I thought it was completely natural. He said, “No, there’s no such thing. You’ll never see that in the wild.” So Katherine is constructed, and these images of Irishness are constructed.
I know that, when I was growing up, Ireland was a construct that was sold to the general public of America and Germany that didn’t exactly agree with what I saw or knew of things.
The Irish coffee, for example, was made up in the 1950s. There is absolutely nothing authentic about it. People would come to Ireland looking for authenticity, and we sold them this strangely glamorous (or sadly glamorous) and very friendly sort of fake.
And I love the glamour of it… the Aer Lingus air hostesses in the 1950s, and how we were reared to think that being really friendly and lovely Irish girls was not just in the national interest, it was also in the national character.
The national character was also something that we sold. It was a part of our tourism industry, the welcome and the smiles and all the rest of it. I didn’t necessarily feel very smiling or welcoming [laughs], and I certainly didn’t feel very red-headed. Although I had actually cut turf in my day, I didn’t feel like the little girl on the tourism posters or on the postcards. That construction of Ireland, which was a benign enough event, just wasn’t true. I think that’s one of the reasons that Katherine O’Dell is a fairly benign iteration of Irishness.
I have a great suspicion of nationalism, because this lovely turf farm-thatched cottage nationalism that I grew up with was also the cause of bombings and shootings in the north of Ireland in my teenage years. So I never regarded nationalism as a jaunty tune. I always thought of it as a bit of a dangerous construct.
And most of all, because you’re Irish, people think that you are authentic, that you somehow have it on tap. You’re no more authentic than anyone else. How could you be?
Of course, what she’s looking for is justice.
Jill: It’s a good question.
Enright: There were two amazing men who ran the Gate Theatre in Dublin called Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards. Hilton Edwards was known to be English. They were both known to be gay, and they lived together. This was quite accepted, despite the rise of Catholic respectability in my childhood.
What wasn’t known was that Micheál Mac Liammóir, who had beautiful Irish, was an English boy — actually, the brother-in-law of Anew McMaster — and was completely self-invented. He just thought being Irish was better. It was a much more artistic idea than being English. [Laughter]
I love these mongrel people who don’t belong in one country or another, who travel around, and who make themselves up as they go along. Because as we know, that’s what the tribe of actors is.
And again, although Katherine isn’t Irish, strictly speaking, she’s not not-Irish. [Laughter] She lived in Ireland from the age of 12. This is beyond the deep history of the book, but her father, Fitz, was the possibly illegitimate son of a man in the Royal Irish Fusiliers; he was an Anglo-Irish man.
We didn’t become this “pure Irish race” until we decided we were, and that happened quite late.
Jill: It’s about halfway through the book when you realize that Norah doesn’t know who her father is. How did you decide to structure the book that way, and time the introduction of that absence in her life?
Enright: That absence is also where the book tilts, because it’s a bit of a game of two halves. The first half is all Katherine, and the second half is pretty much going more towards Norah.
I didn’t really decide. I was writing and writing and hoping. And once I had it, I knew that I was at the tipping point of the book, and that was great.
I don’t really plan a book from the outside. I don’t know where the middle is until I have done quite a lot of writing. The structure announces itself quite late in the process for me. I reorganize the book, or organize the book, around that structure.
It takes me a year or more to realize what my structure is, and therefore, what the story is, and all the rest of it. I do a lot of preliminary work.
Jill: Something that I really loved in this book was the portrait of Norah’s marriage. It’s a long, good marriage, even though it takes them a while to get their timing right and be with each other; and sexually it’s a very happy one.
How did you think about that relationship fitting within the overall story?
Enright: That relationship was a given before I started writing the book. I wanted to write that relationship because I have read so much about bad relationships, and relationships that go wrong, or sentimentalized romantic relationships.
I thought, Why is it impossible to find an account of a monogamous, long-term relationship in fiction? Possibly because half of your readers are more or less in one already, and they want to read about things that are more exciting and distant from their lives. [Laughter]
That is one possibility, but fiction does love a problem. Also, there is a hell of a lot of bad sex in fiction. [Laughter] For years, it was written by men. Then I decided I was going to write some really terrible sex myself. I did that in The Gathering, and that was a kind of, OK, let’s have a look at this now, a darker side of sexuality from the female point of view.
But [with Actress] I knew that if I was going to have a book with some difficult sexual moments in it, I needed to counter that very strongly with the idea that that’s not actually the final story about relationships between men and women. I wanted to have a good, strong relationship in the book to suggest that such a thing is possible and also truthful.
Jill: The tone is so interesting, because I think fairly close to the beginning, you’re describing the summer of 1973, and you write, “You got waylaid. You went out to do your hair and ended up in a rummaging heap, stuck to the wall.” Which is funny and sort of pleasantly raucous and sexual, but after reading the rest of the book, there’s this sinister undertone to it, as well, given what happens to women a lot over the course of the book.
Another example is that story about Katherine stealing the go-cart when she was three, and the man who stopped to pull her along on it. You write, “And it was so hard to tell if this was a story about a bad man or a bad little girl.” There’s this tension between who is in charge, and who is in the wrong, in some of these encounters.
Enright: One of the challenges in the book, and I think this is something that fiction is possibly more able to do than other forms of discourse, is to get a nuanced, multilayered, and historical look at sexual attitudes.
The narrator is 10 years older than I am. I was talking to a friend, who is actually the age the narrator is, and something came up about what was in the book. She said, “But that’s what sex was in those days.” It was the woman saying, “No, no, no,” and the man saying, “You’re lovely.” The idea of pursuit was built into the sexual mores.
No decent woman could pursue. She could only ever give in. That dynamic of “the good woman” resulted in a lot of bad behavior and a lot of bad results, as we know. It’s in part the shifting of that dynamic, where women are no longer ashamed, and therefore no longer have to be pursued, that means that we have to rebalance. We have to talk again.
It’s so difficult to talk about these things. That’s one of the reasons I wrote a novel. It’s because, as soon as you start discussing these matters, you’re in very dangerous territory. As in, you can say something that people will find hurtful or wrong. So everything that’s in the book is through the eyes and attitudes of the characters who are in those rooms at that time.
And in Norah’s case, because she doesn’t really have the language or the awareness to describe what happens to her, a lot of it is experienced physically. There’s a somatic response that takes over after she has a bad sexual encounter.
I love these mongrel people who…make themselves up as they go along.
Jill: There’s a moment where Norah is thinking about Niall being on the TB ward as a child with no one coming to visit him for a year. You write, “It was a little punch of emotion I often got in those days, thinking, ‘Christ, the TB ward, how hard was that?’ One of those small, dark holes that opened in your morning, into which the whole of Catholic Ireland fell.”
It’s such a devastating sentence and image. It speaks to the nuance that you’re describing, because you do have this moment of suddenly feeling sympathy for this horrible man.
Enright: A horrible man that, at the beginning of the book, she finds more interesting than any other man in the room. The relationship has not yet gone bad, and she’s still in charge of herself at that moment.
In a small society like Ireland, if you’re wondering why so-and-so is a clear misogynist, you’re going to find out some sad, lonely, desolate little fact about them, and that’s just the truth of it.
I suppose there are some people who are just bad. [Laughter] But in a connected place like the one where I have grown up, you do realize that people’s behavior is a usually a consequence of their sorrows, as well as of their fucking — excuse my language — viciousness. That’s just true. It doesn’t make it any better, but it’s there.
Jill: At one point, you write, “We were all half-mad in those days. The men were beside themselves, the women were always crying. Every time you got drunk, someone tried to bang their head off a wall, or they flung the window open and roared out into the night.”
Norah is a teenager, or a very young adult, when she’s talking about this, so initially I thought she was just describing people being teenagers: passionate, weepy, and strange. Then the very next paragraph begins, “That was the winter of Bloody Sunday.”
That adds a whole other level of what was happening in the country politically, and of the violence at that time. It helps explain why everyone was half-mad.
Enright: What I was trying to describe was a kind of ambient sense of shame [resulting from] postcolonialism and the Catholic Church that was lit up by alcohol, so that everybody went crazy.
My memory of the ’70s is that people cried all the time. [Laughter] And it was women crying. Women were always crying in the street. That image she has of crying women down by the canal bank is lifted from a really distant memory of my own. It just seems that people cried more.
If you hear a woman crying now, people turn and say, “What’s the problem?” But a crying woman was just 11 o’clock at night in Dublin back in the ’70s. It was just what happened.
Jill: From the first page, Actress was such a pleasure and a relief to sink into because your prose is just so masterful, playful, and well done. It was like, Ah, here I am, in expert hands. [Laughter]
Enright: Thank you.
Jill: How did you think about Norah’s voice in this book, and then how do you think about your prose? There are so many amazing examples of beautiful imagery and sentences.
Enright: The voice posed several challenges for me. One challenge was the memoir part of the book — I wanted it to read as though it were a memoir. When I look at the tone, and I worked it so carefully, I think it’s somehow endlessly one of tranced loss.
Norah’s trying to recapture something. She’s really trying to make her mother’s life cadenced, coherent, and lovely in some way. But she also needs to get those necessary facts in, to bear witness to this woman’s life.
So that was something I hadn’t done before, because usually I let my narrators just go wherever they want. The voice of the narrator is usually an expression of freedom; they’re somehow escaping from something as they speak.
But Norah isn’t escaping from something. She’s trying to capture something in the first half of Actress. Afterwards, when she’s describing her own life, she has much more flexibility, and bounce, and pleasure in her sentences and in her voice.
I’m addicted to the surprises that sentences can bring. I just love the feeling of a change of weather. If I can do that with a sentence, if I can start someplace and end up somewhere new, then I’m very happy.
Some of those pages move really quite fast, so I had to keep it fluid and dancing. That’s what it’s all about for me now, making my sentences go somewhere new.
I spoke with Anne Enright on February 4, 2020.
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Anne Enright was born in Dublin, where she now lives and works. She has published three volumes of stories, one book of nonfiction, and five novels. In 2015, she was named the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction. Her novel, The Gathering won the Man Booker Prize and The Forgotten Waltz, won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Actress is her latest book.