Anne Enright“That funny thing happens when people outlive their parents, it’s very odd, an almost biological feeling for a while that they shouldn’t be there.”

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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At the start of his conversation with Anne Enright, Seán O’Rourke brings up the surprise he got reading her new novel, Actress, when he realised that the very studio they were talking in features in the book:

“Yeah, it’s studio 7, isn’t it? Yeah I did my research, you know? She comes in late for – the star of the book is a star of stage and screen called Katherine O’Dell, and she’s in a serious state of decline when she ends up in RTÉ doing an interview.”

The author mischievously adds, “a little like myself, indeed, except she has more intensely-dyed red hair.” But of course there’s no hint of decline in the Booker Prize-winning Enright , who is in sparkling form in Studio 7, telling Seán about her latest novel, from the striking cover image that features the young Carrie Fisher sitting in the wings watching her mother, Debbie Reynolds, performing on stage, to the bohemian theatrical scene in Dublin of the 1970s where Katherine O’Dell was a star. Katherine’s story is told by her daughter, Nora and Seán wanted to know why Anne chose Nora to be the narrator.

“Because she’s one year older than her mother was when she died. So, that funny thing happens when people outlive their parents, it’s very odd, an almost biological feeling for a while that they shouldn’t be there or that they have to justify themselves in some way.”

The bohemian Dublin scene that Katherine inhabits was probably enabled, Anne told Seán, by Mícheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards, a gay couple who ran The Gate Theatre:

“Mícheál pretended to be Irish – he was actually called Willmore and he grew up in Kensal Green – so he’s really behind the book in some way, because Katherine O’Dell was also born in London and – as it were – pretended to be Irish. Although she’s Irish enough, you know, she probably could’ve played for the football team.”

Given that the book is narrated by Nora and examines the life of her mother, Seán suggests that it’s “another Anne Enright look at the mother-daughter relationship”. This is followed by the merest hint of what could be described as bristling on the author’s part:

“Everybody has a mother, you know, so when people say, ‘you write a lot about mothers,’ I kinda think, well, they’re all different, they’re all differently imagined. They’re all not just very different people, but very different relationships.”

It’s a little moment of audio gold, well worth listening back to – it’s available by clicking play above.

And you can hear Anne Enright’s full chat – including talk of Siobhán McKenna’s elegant chairs, the impact of the #MeToo movement on the book and how to slap actors correctly – with Seán here.

Actress by Anne Enright is published by Jonathan Cape.

Niall Ó Sioradáin

© The Listener 2020

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