'I've never been afraid of the dark side of life'
Anne Enright (45) is one of the freshest voices in Irish literature and her latest book, The Gathering, has earned her this year's Man Booker Prize.
You've won prizes before for your books - The Rooney Prize for the Portable Virgin (1991), The Royal Society of Authors Encore Prize for What Are You Like (2000) and The Wig My Father Wore was shortlisted for the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Literature Prize in 1995 - but is this 'the big one'?
The Booker Prize is definitely the 'big one' for the trade - as far as publishers are concerned, it's the only one. This is the first time I've been nominated but it's hardly a rags to riches story as I wasn't doing too bad to begin with. It's a great boost mid-career though.
Is The Gathering the book you're most proud of to date?
I don't really feel proud of my books and often find it quite difficult looking at them again. I suppose, if anything, I get fond of them but I always think that the next one is going to be better. Making Babies, the book I wrote about my experiences of being a mother, is probably the one I'm most fond of - it was great fun to write.
What was the inspiration for this book?
I don't know if I ever get 'inspired' to write. It's more a case of sitting in a chair and mulling things over until slowly I realise what it is I want to write. I felt like this story of the Hegarty family had been made up for me - so much so that I felt the suicide of Liam was self-evident and it wasn't until a good way through the book that I suddenly realised I'd better tell people what had happened. I felt like the story already existed before I wrote it.
It brings in issues like child abuse, suicide and alcoholism - did your writing come from a very dark place?
The word alcoholism is never actually mentioned - Liam is more of an old-fashioned drinker.
But yes, the book did come from a dark place - writing is a tragic muse and I've never been particularly afraid of the darker side of things. I felt the story had been sitting for long years and I dug deep inside myself to write it.
Two of the main themes that stand out are sex and death ?
I also write about birth, but there is definitely a theory that most books are 60% sex and 40% death or 40% sex and 60% death! I think sex is a topic endlessly written about by men and I thought I might reclaim some of that territory for myself. There is definitely a ferocity about how I feel that birth is a part of sex and that, for women, sex can last nine months, which is pretty serious sex - I suppose what it is, is I'm protesting against a narrow view of sex.
Your fascination with motherhood and the betrayal of children really shines through in the book.
I've always been interested in biological bonds and a few years ago I wrote a book called What Are You Like about twins, with the same DNA, who are separated. I'm interested in that notion of what is stronger, biological love and chosen love - and by that I mean, loving the family you are born into and almost have to love, or falling in love. In the book the main character, Veronica, comes to the decision that you must always love your family.
So you feel that biological bond is stronger than anything else?
As a mother, I think the bond between mother and child is stronger than any other. But in cultural terms I think Irish people can never leave their families. I think it's more common in Britain that people can walk away from their family and not see them but I don't think Irish people can - they may as well try and leave the universe as walk away from their families. I'm not sure why that is - perhaps because leaving is perceived as some sort of failure, I'm not sure.
What made you want to write about your personal experience of motherhood like you did in Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood (Jonathan Cape, 2004)?
When my daughter was born I wrote an article about breast feeding because I just thought it was the most remarkable thing, that my body had suddenly learnt to do something completely new - it was like waking up and finding I could play the piano. I realised I could say something properly on the subject of motherhood and knew I wanted to write something longer - in part to prove I still could. Having kids can be a bit of a head wreck, and that was how the book happened. It was incredible, I had people coming up to me in tears after reading it - I'd never made anyone cry before.
Why do you think it got such a strong response?
It was honest. It was not a book about mum equals apple pie or mum must feel guilty about leaving the child to go and put clothes on the line. The myths surrounding motherhood are so extreme. One of the cultural myths I wanted to expose in The Gathering is that of the endlessly reproducing, content Irish mammy. Making Babies was a book about motherhood from an entirely selfish point of view. Something that was me, me, me.
Would you be keen to write another book further into motherhood?
I have two children now, a daughter aged seven and a son aged four, and what I will say is that it does get easier. But I don't think I would write another book about my children. There is a column about living with teenage children that I love reading in the Guardian but I couldn't write about my children at that age without it being an invasion of their lives.
Was it your strong sense of the parental bond that attracted you to writing about the Madeleine McCann case (London Review of Books, October 4, 2007)?
I think everybody who has kids or was on holiday this year thought about what happened. I'm still not sure if writing about it was the right thing to do and I still have my doubts about it. I was writing at a time when everyone was blaming the McCanns and I was interested in the different questions being raised.
You follow quite a tough line on the McCanns until the end of the article where you say the next morning you wake up liking them once again - was that a bit of a cop out?
There was a cop out at the end. But I think that's how it is, the balloon of believing all these things about what could have happened bursts, and when that all goes away what we are left with is a terrible tragedy. The McCanns are suspects in the case but I neither condemn or otherwise. I think what made me want to write about it was that I was extremely agitated by the case and what was delusion and what was truth. I think initially nothing was said about their parenting because the worst thing in the world had happened to them and I think people thought they should be left alone. But then there was a rush of parenting hysteria.
Do you think that hysteria surrounding parenting and what's right and wrong is a modern phenomenon?
I think there is a lot of it around. In the 1950s and 1960s mothers were all muddled up together and their mothers would be coming in to tell them where they are going wrong and help them. I think mothers now are more isolated. They are separate economic units where becoming a mother is just viewed as a pause in their earning potential. I think it used to be understood that a new mother would have self doubts and that people would be there to help out, but now people don't recognise the vulnerability of a new mother and child, and instead of helping, the whole world is their mother-in-law, there to complain.
Unfortunately it's been years of women saying 'we can do it, we can do it' that has helped lead to this. We just don't 'do' weakness in modern society.
Anne Enright appears with Glenn Patterson at a talk hosted by BBC Northern Ireland's Marie-Louise Muir in the Harty Room, Queen's University at 8pm tomorrow, as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen's. Tickets £6/ £5, tel: 9097 1197