“Misery Makes Us All Complete Monsters”: An Interview With Anne Enright

Anne Enright (c) Hugh Chaloner

Sometimes, structure makes familiar situations fresh. That’s definitely the case in Anne Enright’s The Green Road, which begins and ends in Ireland and makes a number of global stops across a decades-long span along the way. At the center of the book, whether she’s on the page or not, is Rosaleen, a formidable figure with a complex relationship to all of her children, several of whom scatter across the globe in the intervening years. The stylistic contrast between its first half, which juxtaposes a number  I talked with Enright over the phone for a wide-ranging discussion of the novel’s organization, genesis, and influences.

You wrote in the novel’s afterword about how you encountered The Green Road, which gives the book its title. When did you make the decision to work it into a work of fiction?

I was working down in County Clare on the Emmet chapter, when he was in Mali. The guy whose house it was was actually working in Egypt, and then Nigeria, so it was an odd criss-crossing of western Ireland and Africa that was going on. I was going out for my walk; I knew that I wanted kind of a Lear vibe with the character of Rosaleen. I knew that very early. So perhaps I’d been looking for my landscape and walking it at the same time, and it took me a time to realize that I was on it, that I was in my book, and that was the thing to do.

Was there one character that came to you first?

I was very interested in the idea of an aid worker, actually. I had done a lot of research into that community, that very spread-out community in the Third World, and their attitudes. The whole problem of goodness was interesting to me. But I also had an idea of Rosaleen crying at the dinner table. That was a very early scene for me, when Dan announces that he’s going to be a priest. It took me a very long time to get Rosaleen. I was stalking that character for a long time. But I knew how Hanna saw her. It took a long time for me to complete the character in the round, but I had that one perspective, of Hanna at the table watching the tears run down into her hairline, the rhythm of the crying and everything, which I thought was hilarious, because I’m obviously not a very nice person. (laughs) It took me a while to see Rosaleen from all those different perspectives, from all of her children. And also to get her dialogue doing. It seems to me that the second half of the book is essentially a play.

When reading it, I also thought that that action could be set on a stage in a very interesting way.

The thing about dialogue is, it’s incontrovertible. It was a really good way for me to break into an omniscient or neutral point of view. More neutral than omniscient.

You have a passage towards the end: “the fact that each of her children was calling out to a different woman.” How much of that did you have to figure out as you were writing it–the question of how each of them perceived her, and one another?

A surprising amount of the thing that people are interested in in my books are completely natural to me, and I don’t have to figure them out at all; I know all of that stuff. I wrote a book called The Gathering, about history and imagination, but people were just interested in the psychology between the characters. That, to me, is the easy bit. I thought I was writing a book about goodness or compassion or self-absorption.

I’m interested in the paradox that unhappiness makes you very selfish. People who are nicer to other people are generally happier as a result. Misery makes us all complete monsters. That’s interesting, because it does seem to be self-defeating; doesn’t it, really? I’m interested in isolation and connection. For lack of a better word, narcissism and its problems.

There is a fairly substantial shift from the way the first half is told to the way the second is told. What made you opt for that approach?

The first half is really sinking into it; in the second half, you have structural moments, and there’s an easing of the anxiety of what all this is about. I don’t have have a “what’s all this about?” moment as much as “how is this all shaped?” It’s not classically shaped; there are five very distinct sections at the beginning, and there are two sections where they meld together somewhat: Hanna and Dan coming home. I had to draw them together a little bit, and that was a technical challenge more than anything else.

I was very reluctant to put them all around a Christmas dinner table. I was complaining loudly at home, saying, “I can’t do this.” I was saying to my husband, “I can’t! I can’t have it happen at Christmas!” He very kindly said, “Do it in stages–you can hop ahead six months in time.” He’s a low-intervention kind of person. And then it was all okay; it all happened at Christmas. It seemed somewhat catastrophic to put them all in the same room; you get your courage and you go.

In the first half, all of the places where the siblings end up are rendered very vividly. In the case of Dan, that’s the East Village in the early 90s; what led you to settle on that for him?

I knew that for those four sections, those four children would spend a lot of time not thinking about their mother. Someone said, “But the mother will be a thread all the way through.” No, no, no–not necessarily. It’s the avoidance, as much as anything else; the boys in particular leave. Late in that chapter, Dan says, “When is it all done?” The family stuff; when are you finished with it all? Which is a kind of joke, because he’s in his twenties.

I had to put the Pope in. You work your dates; you realize where you are. You have a scene, and all the time, unconsciously, you have a grasp on what age your characters are. But then, bringing it into consciousness, you say, “It’s 1981.” You start looking around in 1980 and 1981 to see what happened, and there’s the Pope. Of course, you must put in the Pope.

The Dan section is written in the first person plural. And he is, especially at that point in the book, very much a character who isn’t as sure of who he is. Is it difficult to write a character who is much less sure of himself and less likely to fall along predictable lines?

That’s one of the reasons that I jumped out of the normal line of the book so radically in the New York section. It’s not written as close to his point of view as the others are; in a way, he’s absent from his own life, which is something that he then regrets later on, that he got his own life wrong. He says, “How could he be so stupid; he pressed the mute button on his own childhood.” He felt as though he had been robbed of his own life in retrospect, by historical forces and by his own stupidity, perhaps.

It is such a leap from the Ireland where I grew up to the Ireland that I know today, and the international setting that I know today. That absence of Dan from that chapter covers it; he’s somewhere unimaginably different, and it takes him, as a human being, a long time to catch up with his own real life, his own destiny.

The group “we” was a radical decision, but it seemed fine for that kind of setting, which is gossipy and communal. And because so many of those individuals would die; it needed a “we,” because there were so few survivors from that setting and that scene.

About halfway through, you have a scene where Rosaleen realizes that she’s feeling dislodged from time and that she’s having difficulty communicating. Was it difficult for you to get inside the head of a character who’s becoming aware of her own impairments?

Well, Rosaleen is impaired, in many ways, for her whole life. She’s not usually blessed with self-awareness, which is one of the reasons she’s so dismissive. There’s something that’s tugging at her, some idea of criticism, but it isn’t coming from her or from her own awareness, so much. The world is realigning itself into a series of patterns; the meaning is being emptied of things. And I wanted to get a neurological shift there: it’s not just about memory, it’s about shapes, and how she travels through that house.

I was worried that it was a little bit low-key compared to the busy lives that had preceded it. But people seem to be happy with it; she regards each of her children differently. She’s a terrible woman, Rosaleen, really.

Were there any settings that you had wanted to work into the book that you weren’t able to?

It was really interesting, the concept of setting a chapter in Africa and setting a chapter in New York, because I had two key African characters. A guy from Dakar, a Senegalese guy, who is typical of the kind of person you meet in the aid industry: he’s a university graduate from Africa who’s going to take over the programs that the foreign aid workers have started up. There are lots of things that are fascinating about that world, and there are lot of things that I know and a lot of things that I’ve come across that I’d be interested in putting in a book. But because people are not as familiar, in a literary sense, with the African scene as they are with the New York scene of the 90s, everything needed to be too explained and overemphasized.

Nobody knows this guy Djibril, because he’s a particular kind of person. Whereas if you say, “Oh, Max is lecturing in art,” you think, “Oh, Max, of course.” You have an image of him and all the rest of it. That was a regret. You always have structural issues: you pull back and adjust and parse out your reader’s time because of the structure of the book. I had some regrets that Africa is underwritten; I haven’t spent much time in Africa, but I haven’t spent much time in New York, either. And when I say “Africa,” that’s so undifferentiated; I’ve been to three different places in Africa and they are all different. That’s a kind of regret for me.

Do you think that you might return to one of those places in a future project?

It’s a really interesting area, and it’s very hard… I looked for a long time for a way into all of that. There’s not very much written about it; you see Angelina Jolie doing movies about refugees, and the celebrity thing about going to a refugee camp–which very few people go to, by the way. I’ve never been. And neither is anyone saying, “Oh, come on down; it’s really interesting in the refugee camps.” It’s quite a closed zone–artistically, creatively, journalistically. The stories that come out of these places are very managed, in some way, either by celebrity or by the aid agencies. All of this interests me enormously, but it’s very hard to get in there, to establish an imaginary space for that real set of circumstances.

And I ended up with this damn dog. [In the novel, Emmet deals with an ailing dog in Mali.-ed.] There are many things to talk about, and I ended up with the dog dying on the floor. I was thinking, it was the end of a long process, and the dog seemed to do the trick, so I let it be.

Was there anything that you learned from the process of writing this book that you think you’ll be applying to the next thing that you work on?

It’s going to take me a while. I think I learned from The Gathering that people were interested in family. The family was not a particular reach for me, so I turned to look at what was interesting to the reader, to re-inform us in some way or come back to us in some way.


Photo: Hugh Chaloner

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