I first became cognizant of Anne Enright for what feels like the wrong reason. She’d written a slim volume of essays, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, that I read in a somewhat besotted haze the summer my daughter was two. Published in the US in 2012, I didn’t realize the first British edition came out almost a decade earlier, which meant that Enright was now well beyond that moment of motherhood. But no matter. Enright wrote Making Babies, as she explains in the introduction, “to the sound of a baby’s breath… which might account for the wildness of tone.” And it is wild, is a rare document that truly captures the weighty, fleeting, ridiculous, choking, marvelous period of mothering a child under two.
This is all ancient history in Enright’s career, relatively speaking. Though already a prize-winning author in her native Ireland and in Great Britain in general, in 2007 she won the Man Booker prize for The Gathering. Her latest novel, 2015’s The Green Road, tells the multi-decade story of the Madigans, an Irish family led by the difficult matriarch Rosaleen. The narrative begins as Dan, the family’s eldest son announces he’s entering the priesthood. Devastated Rosaleen takes what her younger son Emmett calls “the horizontal solution,” refusing to leave her bedroom, even as Dan and his siblings, including daughters Constance and Hanna, attempt to rouse her. The story continues in this darkly humorous (and often plain dark) vein, ranging from the family’s small town to the AIDS-ravaged New York art scene of the 80s, to a Norman Rush-style NGO in Mali, to boom-time Dublin in the oughts.
This spring, Enright is teaching in New York, at NYU’s MFA program, as the Distinguished Writer in Residence. With The Green Road newly out in paperback, and the time zones aligned, it seemed a perfect time to talk to her. Enright offered generous conversation via phone about both her most current work and Making Babies’s blast from the past.
The Rumpus: I read Making Babies when my daughter was two—she’s five now—and I gasped for breath many times when I was reading it. You were saying what we mothers all think, but don’t say aloud. You explained you were interested in “the drama of being a mother” as opposed to (I guess) the drama of having a child. As a novelist, did you find that drama was fresh for you when you become a mother?
Anne Enright: You know, I haven’t read that book since I wrote it. My children [who were babies in the book] are fifteen and thirteen. I didn’t realize it would be so interesting to other people. I had been asked to write about the birth of my first child, and it was published in a small periodical called The Dublin Review. A woman came up to me in tears, and said I just read that essay in The Dublin Review. No one has cried, grasping my hands, because of anything else I’ve written. I thought I was culturally placed to do—not an apolitical book, but a book that went under the politics and the ideology of motherhood and went to the experience itself. [When I had my first child] I had no idea what was ahead. I had no idea. Every fool has had a child, but I thought that I was the only one…
Rumpus: We all feel that way I think.
Enright: It’s quite useful to think it’s never happened before. Making Babies was also written when I wasn’t well-known as a writer. Now I might think it was too much information. But it was interesting information. In all my reading of psychoanalysis [I’ve found] no proper description of the state of motherhood, from Freud on. The child growing up, that is a universal. There’s quite a big gap when it comes to that dual identity of mother and child, or even a pregnant woman, or a nursing woman. It kind of begs the question of that very strong Western idea of the individual self. There’s a particular kind of narcissism when the mother falls in love…
Rumpus: …with this weird unseen creature. My husband fell wildly in love with our daughter when she was born. I thought there was something wrong with me for being suspicious of that. Then I realized, I already knew her, and he was having this love at first sight relationship.
Enright: I think it plays out in different ways for every kind of triad, every mother, father, and child.
Rumpus: I found his besotted love quite irritating for a while.
Enright: There is a certain amount of irritation! It’s a big time. It’s a big time. I wanted to capture some of that kind of madness. More literally, I just wanted to type before I forgot it all. Some of the things I thought were universal were just me, but I don’t know.
Rumpus: If you wanted to open the book up again and check it out, it feels universal. My friends who I’ve given it to were like, “I cried the whole way through it.”
Enright: Well, yes! It was a very long time before it was published in the States. My fiction had been published [here]. I felt I was breaking some kind of taboo of apple pie and perfection. It felt like this was an irony-free zone, and it certainly wasn’t an irony-free zone in Ireland when I grew up, when you were talking to your mates who were in the middle of it. The official discourse it so absolute.
Rumpus: Your mention of apple pie makes me think of the apple tart being divided into five in the Green Road… [When Rosaleen’s son Dan announces he’s joining the priesthood, she refuses to eat Sunday desert, forcing her child to cut the traditional tart into an unexpected number of pieces. Then she takes to her bed.] I’ll transition to that now…
Enright: There are a number of different mothers in The Green Road. We think of “mother” as a kind of universal, but actually, they are very different. Rosaleen expects a lot of her children and is endlessly disappointed. She does it all wrong. She knows she has favorites, she loves one more than the others, she’s lonely, she’s a bit of a child herself, she doesn’t really grow up. Constance and Hanna her two daughters have two very different experiences of childhood, and then motherhood. Constance finds her space as a mother that she couldn’t find previously. She’s always putting her thoughts, her life, within the conventional confines. She’s the little mother, who’s been rearing [her siblings] all her life. When she gets three of her own, it makes sense. Meanwhile Hanna—all her abandonment issues become completely urgent when she has a baby. She’s half bonkers with it all. That first year in your child’s life is a very distinct and different… Physically, babies are not very easy. They really do need an amazing amount of attention. When I was looking at it afterwards, I realized Hanna behaves the way men are often described. More often, it’s that the men are complaining about being sidelined.
Rumpus: You talk a bit about the idea of postpartum depression in Making Babies.
Enright: I think I talk about pre-partum depression! [In fact: she talks about her own nervous breakdown, pre-motherhood.]
Rumpus: Rosaleen is described by one of her children as “bipolar.” After that, reading more, I wondered, is she mentally ill? Is that why she takes what her son Emmett calls the “horizontal solution”? Is Hanna depressed? Do we define these? Do we even need to define these things in this time and place?
Enright: This is one of the great joys of fiction. If you start labeling your characters, for example “bipolar,” then they take medications and the story is over. They’re taking pills. What you always resist in fiction is the diagnosis, or even labeling your characters. I had a great time with a character years ago who was what you might call “pre gay.” If she labels herself as gay then that story ends, it goes flat. It was much more interesting to explore the nuances of human feelings without labeling or without bringing it into the official discourse. That’s where I like to function when I’m working, where motivation isn’t necessarily clear. I know that my characters would be described by one kind of professional or another. People say, “Does Rosaleen know that Dan is gay?” “What does Rosaleen want?” Rosaleen doesn’t know what she wants. She’s in a constant state of not knowing what she wants. Because if she knew, she’d be that much further on.
Rumpus: There is a huge generation gap between Rosaleen and her children—the Irish generation pre and post-boom. The idea of getting to “do what we want,” that her children grasp onto, doesn’t seem to work for Rosaleen.
Enright: I don’t think Rosaleen would be different in 1940 or 1840 or 1914. Her difficulty isn’t social, let’s put it that way. Dan is gay, and the world catches up with him. He’s able to live a happier life and to know who he is a little bit because society is telling him who he is. He is a historically contingent character. [When I was writing,] I really wanted the sisters to do better. I wanted Constance and Hanna to have more coherently successful lives, and it just didn’t work out. I think with a Rosaleen type mother, or perhaps with that father—very absent, religious—they just didn’t have a chance. Hanna has got a better chance at the end.
Rumpus: I hope so.
Enright: Yeah—we all hope so! I wrote her further on a few times, and then I pulled back for the purposes of the book. There’s more hope for Hanna.
Rumpus: It will be interesting when her baby isn’t a baby anymore, if she gets it together. Eventually the baby will stop crying.
Enright: Yeah. Babies are out of nappies before college. Before high school at least.
Rumpus: Otherwise, she’s just going to be like her mother.
Enright: But she’s not the same character as her mother! Rosaleen would not have fallen apart in that way. Falling apart tends to make someone put herself back together again, which will make Hanna a different person.
Rumpus: There’s a point in Making Babies where you’re talking about your then toddler-age daughter, and you say the words you’re using “describe every single two year old on the planet.” At what age do we start seeing characters as able to be differentiated?
Enright: How many kids have you got?
Rumpus: Just the one.
Enright: Well you see when you have the second one, you see how immensely different human beings are from each other at the word go.
Rumpus: Maybe I should specify, at what age is it interesting to start writing about people’s personalities in fiction?
Enright: Children in conventional fiction have very little moral agency. They feel slightly uncanny. You get them in The Turn of the Screw. They’re good in ghost stories. They’re good in The Go-Between. They don’t themselves do good or bad. It’s hard to put them into the engine of conventional plot. On the other hand, from my book, The Forgotten Waltz, the kids are highly different creatures. At least, I know they are, though it doesn’t make a huge amount of difference.
Rumpus: Why do you think Rosaleen’s sons don’t have children in The Green Road?
Enright: That’s one of those families that has a certain style of unhappiness. [The boys] don’t breed.
Rumpus: I wanted to talk a little about daughters and sons. Rosaleen feels more traditional, sort of pre-contemporary Irish.
Enright: Rosaleen is a very particular person. She rejoices in the simple maleness of her sons. Or the male simplicity. There are a whole tribe of women who say sons are no trouble and daughters are immense trouble. I do think the need to separate between mother and daughter can be a more urgent process than between mothers and sons. There’s a bit of Rosaleen in many mothers I know. A lot of them can say, “It’s wonderful to have sons because they’re so easy…” I think things are better these days than they used to be. In terms of expectations that your children should do wonderful things. But people function beyond gender in their families. It’s pretty much Rosaleen.
Rumpus: What are you currently reading?
Enright: I’ve been shortlisted for the Baileys [Women’s Prize for Fiction], and three people have asked me what I’m reading and I’m not telling anyone! I’m writing a bit of fiction at the minute, and I have a couple of big books that send me back to the desk, and it would kind of spoil everything to say what they are.