Hugh Chaloner

Anne Enright: 'Pre-Trump, if you had a problem it was your problem. That's another head-wreck'

The author speaks to us as she publishes her latest novel, Actress.

AFTER ANNE ENRIGHT became the first Laureate for Irish Fiction in 2015, she wrote a number of lectures that ruffled feathers in the literary world. 

In one in 2017, she explored the perception that creative work by women isn’t as good as work created by men. She launched a rallying cry for more “ghastly plays by women”, in order to prove that gender isn’t a barrier to greatness – or mediocrity.

The Bray-based writer, whose first short story collection was published in 1991 and who worked for a number of years in RTÉ television, didn’t spare anyone’s blushes in her dissection of gendered criticism.  “If a man writes ‘The cat sat on the mat’ we admire the economy of his prose; if a woman does, we find it banal,” she wrote in the same 2017 speech, which was published in No Authority, a collection of her writing from during her laureateship.

She also used her position to point out that Irish newspapers have a gender imbalance when it comes to their book and theatre reviews. 

Her words must have had an impact – as one of Ireland’s foremost novelists, she was able to speak out for those who can’t. No doubt she had a few book pages editors furiously thumbing through past issues and counting the bylines they gave to women. 

The literary world, after all, has never been a bastion of gender equality. It’s only when people take a risk and speak up that things start to change.

But speaking to Enright as her latest novel, Actress, is published, it becomes clear that she’d rather not have had to write these essays at all. “I am a reluctant feminist,” she tells, when I ask her about them. I suspect she means reluctant about ‘performing’ her feminism rather than holding feminist beliefs, and that is the case.

“Because I’d rather be writing my books, thanks very much,” she says in her whip-smart, to-the-point style. An eyebrow might have been raised, too.

90098184 Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

“You’re in a trap,” she goes on. “Why do you have to fix the situation when you’re not causing the problem? Why do you have to do the extra labour, and the emotional labour, and all the labour – when you could be off writing your books and selling them in Germany and maybe doing a deal in Norway, and just being happy?”

She does concede that the writing she did was “very practical work, about statistics and about reality”. Her position on the top tier of Irish literary writers helped too. 

“I did feel that I had built myself a place to stand. Creatively, then I could move on. I did find it bullying and oppressive to be in a country where these things were not ever acknowledged or stated, and if you spoke it was your problem. And that was the case pre-Trump, if you had a problem, it was your problem. And that’s another double-bind and another head wreck.”

Enright wrote about Trump in one of her Laureate essays too – an essay that mourned the loss of her father, and the loss of innocence that came when Donald Trump ascended to the US presidency. The personal and the political fused to become a lesson in how some men are born great, and some just believe themselves to be great.

Enright says that her writing on these topics wasn’t for the people who are talking about them. “It was the people who are not talking about the problem. And it was great to get that really clear.”

“But also, I think in other corners gradually, I felt that people thought it was time and it’s always… slightly mysterious how this situation has developed. You know, against everyone’s intentions and against the better interests of the wider culture.” That eyebrow raise again. 

The essays cleared a space for her to move on. “And once that was out of my head and in the world, then I could go back and write my books and be happy.”


So back to the book: Actress.

Narrated by Norah FitzMaurice, it’s about her relationship with her mother, actor Katherine O’Dell. But of course, it’s about more than that too. Zoom out, and it’s about Irish society, how Ireland and Dublin have changed from the mid-20th century to today; about fame and the Irish theatre world; about a single mother and her daughter.

Zoom in and you start to see the other layers: the lies that we tell ourselves in order to present ourselves to the world; the push and pull of a mother-daughter relationship; the sticky ties of gender and sexuality; the sly sexism that was once upon a time considered normal.

Zoom in once more and you spot something else – a celebration of a monogamous, long-term relationship.

The world of Dublin in the 1970s is depicted in all its smoggy glory in Actress. There’s a part where Norah recalls winter nights by the canal, and how “you could hear women crying and men saying ‘come on’”.

“That reminded me of the 70s, or that was something I dragged up from my own memories of the canal which I’d walked along maybe twice when I was about 13 or 14 years old,” says Enright, whose protagonist is 10 years older than she is. “This very alarming sort of scenario took place back in the day. But also I just remember the country as having a lot of places where women cried in the street quite a lot.”

The 1970s were a time where “there was very little money, there was very little opportunity” in Ireland.

“There was combined with that quite a high-minded sense of ourselves as, you know, interesting and put upon and punching above our weight. And being Irish was an important thing to be,” recalls Enright. “So it was quite high-minded culture with very low resources, so there is a contradiction there that was hard to manage, you know?”

And it was usually the women who ended up crying on D’Olier street waiting for the bus, and everyone smoking everywhere as well. Norah says in those days Dublin smelled like the top of a bus on a wet morning.

Keeping yourself ‘neat’

The book also takes a needle and unpicks the notion of private versus personal life. For Katherine O’Dell, it was all about “keeping herself neat” in her love life, out of the public eye. The book tracks her journey from being born to parents involved with theatre, through to embarking on her own acting career, and then becoming famous in Ireland and the US. 

Those were the days when famous people could have private lives, says Enright (for the record, she doesn’t find people are intrusive towards hers). “And people did have personal lives in Hollywood as well as in Dublin. That when you went out you were glamorous when you had someone on your arm, or you were on the arm of somebody, and that was the official life. And that personal life was somehow kept separate.

“And I suppose women weren’t out as much as well, out and about as much, but [Katherine] knew that such a thing was manageable in those days, that if something was found out about her, it wouldn’t necessarily end up in the press.”

This is in marked contrast to today, where as the tragic death of Caroline Flack recently showed, people’s entire lives can be raked over by certain sections of the media.

Actress illuminates a time when ‘lilac marriages’ (where one partner was gay) were held for the sake of Hollywood careers. But also, where same-sex couples like the Gate Theatre’s founders Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards were ‘left alone’. 

“There was that kind of ring of respectability that you could put around you one way or the other,” says Enright. “And so people had a way of knowing and not knowing things at the same time. So people knew about Hilton and Micheál and yet they did not and it was allowed, because they were free spirits. You know, they were artists and artists had licence.”


She says this notion of being a ‘free spirit’ is “part of the national psyche as well”, since the days of the Celtic Twilight (the Celtic Revival, named after a collection of Yeats poetry published in 1893).

“Since the days of the Celtic Twilight the artist has licence – so Paddy Kavanagh could be drunk in the middle of the day, he could pursue women down Raglan Road and Waterloo Road. He could be a stalker. He could annoy American women, he could do all of those things and write poetry, though people thought he was not respectful. I remember my dad calling him a gurrier because he’d seen him – a bowsie, maybe a bowsie – because he’d seen him shouting and roaring at someone, in really not acceptable behaviour. But on the other hand, he was the poet.”

This was long before there was a “different approach to the business of being an artist”, says Enright. In the days of Brendan Behan and his ilk, “you were supposed to live fast and die young. They were the rock stars of their generation”.

She adds that “Kavanagh’s behaviour around women would not be acceptable now, just wouldn’t be acceptable”.

But Katherine O’Dell is no stranger to ‘bad behaviour’, and one incident in the novel involving a shotgun changes the course of her life.

Iconic female figures whose careers influenced parts of the novel’s world were stage and screen actress Siobhán McKenna, who died in 1986, and writer Maeve Brennan, who wrote for the New Yorker and died relatively young.

Enright knows that she can’t presume anything about these women, “but I can’t think of a woman who had a reputation like any of the men have”, though she mentions other more subversive authors like Mary Lavin and Kate O’Brien.

The dyed-red hair that Katherine O’Dell sports – and which becomes one of her distinguishable features as an Irish actress in Hollywood – of course brings up images of Maureen O’Hara.

“Maureen O’Hara came from Rathmines, she had a very middle class upbringing, and she was able to survive the depredations of the Hollywood system and never, as far as she said, never even saw the casting couch,” says Enright. “But there is a letter that was revived during the MeToo campaign where she was saying that if you didn’t put out in Hollywood people said that you were cold. But she had some sense of herself.”

90098183 Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Enright describes once coming across “this very nasty website” about “starlets who went mad”. “I’ve never been able to find it since but it was amazing how many of them had tried to kill people,” she notes. These desperate actions could be partly put down to what they suffered in the Hollywood system.

“The damage had been done to them,” says Enright, saying that it is “terrifying” how some Irish young women and teens were plucked from obscurity and set to work in far-off Hollywood on their own.

Speaking about the seedier incidents, Enright says that “psychologically the men involved clearly have a lot of problems”. She notes that Shirley Temple’s mother once described being at an audition with her daughter, and a pass being made at her.

“I think narcissism grows to fit the available space. And they were given a lot of space,” says Enright of such people. “There was no one to correct the behaviour. So that kind of feeds itself somehow. And they become more and more outrageous, you know… if there were no consequences. It’s an interesting problem, psychologically.”

“But there are people now – you look at Hollywood, you say there’s clearly people who nobody suspects of anything. And yet the system in itself has so much power built into it.” 

There might be good directors working in a bad town, she suggests. “How do you keep yourself from damaging people when the system in itself has damage built in, or potential for damage built in?”

She muses on the idea of power. “We all, we all have power. I’m a bit kind of worried about – I don’t know if I am worried at all, but we… but you know, the power relationships are built into every part of our lives. So those negotiations are constant. And that awareness is kind of a constant thing.”

She starts to say something else. “Some people can be aggrieved when… oh, anyway.” A shake of the head, and a line drawn under things.

Writing as refuge

With such a long writing career, is writing a joyous escape? And has it always been like that?

 ”I’ve been writing for 30 years and you know, the first 10, which is solid anxiety as far as I can recall and not getting it right and never being sure. I am still unsure,” says Enright.

“But now I know that uncertainty is a way of life for a writer and that it’s not a bad place to be in. And I’d rather be uncertain than doggedly certain the way some people are. And, so I like that, the freedom of the creative space.”

After writing seven novels, three short story collections and a nonfiction book about motherhood, she says that with every project “there is a stage where I say ‘oh, I’ve been here before’”.

“The first year is always improvisatory and anxious and I don’t really know where I am. The second year I’m working more solidly, but still on, you know, still on… and then maybe in year three, I realise I know what the book is. And then that’s just fantastic. That’s a great luxury. And I have the book.”

She recalls a moment of perfect harmony last year. “I was teaching in UCD and I’d go home on a Monday and then on Tuesday I’d be up writing all day, and I just thought I was entirely happy.”

With each novel, you’re solving a problem, she says. But with Actress, she’s still not exactly sure what the problem is. She’s still learning about the book after having written it. I glance at the novel in front of us on the table, with its photo of a young Carrie Fisher backstage, looking on at her actress mother Debbie Reynolds performing in the 1960s. Does she go back to her books once they’re out in the world?

“I sort of polish it in my head for a while afterwards, Gollum-like,” she says.

“Maybe two books further down the line I might open up the previous book and say ‘God I used to be able to write, what’s wrong with me now?’. Or I might say, ‘Oh, this is dreadful’.”

You have a lot of emotions about the work. It doesn’t really matter because it’s words on a page. It’s not a fixed object. Because you’re always doing it in a shifting sort of way. And also individual readers, we get completely different things out of it. But the words remain the same. 

A lot of Actress is, she says, about importance. “So you’re talking about people who consider themselves to be important and are considered to be important in a small country,” she says. “And that makes the whole issue of importance slightly ridiculous. So that’s one of the kind of wryness about it all.”

She acted herself, for a number of years, most notably with Rough Magic theatre company. Does she miss treading the boards? “I don’t miss the acting,” she says, though she did love it.

“I’m up on my hind legs often enough reading, so I get a kind of buzz out of performance,” she says.

“But then I find that a bit wearing. I like not doing that – because when I’m writing a book that’s what I like doing, too.”

Actress is out now, published by Jonathan Cape. Anne Enright will speak to Kathy Sheridan at a public event at Liberty Hall, Dublin, on Saturday 22 February. To purchase tickets, visit this link.

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