Ideas

The Enright Files: Conversations with some of Ireland's finest writers

If any nation punches above its weight in literature, it might be Ireland -- a small island nation that has produced four Nobel Prize winners in literature and countless other poets, playwrights and novelists of international renown. On this month's edition of The Enright Files, conversations with some of Ireland’s finest writers about the art of fiction and a literary sensibility that is both universally resonant and discernibly Irish.
Left to right: Colm Toibin, Anne Enright, John Banville, Colum McCann. (John Phillips/Getty Images; Sandra Mu/Getty Images; Stephen Hird/Reuters; Kenzo Tribouillard/Getty)
Listen to the full episode53:59

There may be no nation more literary than Ireland. As much as the Irish are renowned, or notorious, for their abundant gifts of gab and blarney, it's the written word where they've proven to be global cultural heavyweights.

With a population only slightly bigger than that of the Greater Toronto Area, Ireland has produced four Nobel Prize winners in literature — William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney. A list that doesn't even include the most renowned prose stylist of the 20th Century, James Joyce. 

On this month's edition of The Enright Files, with Bloomsday a little less than two weeks away, we revisit some interviews with Ireland's finest writers of fiction: Colm Toibin, Anne Enright, John Banville and Colum McCann, conversations about the art of fiction and a literary sensibility that is both universally resonant and discernibly Irish.

Colm Toibin 

Colm Toibin (Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images)

Colm Toibin once said that he finds no pleasure in writing — other than the fact that he doesn't have to work for someone who bullies him. And he doesn't have to leave the house in the morning. But you don't have to spend much time with his nine novels and two collections before it becomes evident that he does take tremendous care with language and his characters. 

His books have won — or been shortlisted for —  dozens of awards, but he may be best-known for his novel, Brooklyn, in no small part because of the Academy Award-nominated film adapted from it. 

It's the story of a young woman who, like so many of her fellow Irish in the past two centuries, crosses the Atlantic to start a new life in North America. She leaves Enniscorthy, the small town in southeastern Ireland where she grew up, by a priest who says he can find her work in his parish in Brooklyn. Enniscorthy also happens to be Toibin's hometown.

Brooklyn is about a woman longing for home and looking for her place in the world. It's a spare, quiet book ... one which, as one reviewer noted, makes the mundane seem momentous. Michael Enright interviewed Colm Toibin in May 2009, shortly after Brooklyn was published.

Anne Enright

Author Anne Enright speaks on stage at The New Yorker Festival on October 10, 2014 in New York City. (Credit: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images The New Yorker)

The celebrated Irish novelist Anne Enright, once observed that being a mother means "being nice to your children as often as possible". It's a great idea, but tough to achieve. Or, just easier to ignore if you're the matriarch at the centre of Ms. Enright's novel The Green Road

Rosaleen is in her late seventies. She presides over the Madigan clan — which includes four grown children: Constance, Dan, Emmet and Hanna. She's grumpy and demanding, self-centred and self-pitying. None of her children measure up to expectations, and she lets them know it. Which may be why all but one have scattered around the globe, spending as little time as possible in her company. When Rosaleen decides to sell the family home, everyone gathers for one last Christmas dinner, and mundane tensions erupt into a crisis. 

Anne Enright often writes about the complicated stew that is a family. In her novel The Gathering, a sister tries to understand her brother's suicide. And The Forgotten Waltz is the story of an adulterous affair. Critical response to The Green Road has been rapturous.

Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize and the Irish Fiction Award for The Gathering. Her novel, The Forgotten Waltz, was awarded the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. She is also the author of a collection of short stories entitled Yesterday's Weather

John Banville

(© Douglas Banville 2010)

John Banville is one of the most prolific Irish fiction writers living today. He's written eighteen novels under his own name and another ten works of crime fiction under his nom de plume, Benjamin Black.

But it's the quality, not the quantity, that is most remarkable about Banville. He's widely considered one of the greatest living writers in English and has very few peers as a prose stylist. 

More than anything else, the experience of reading Banville is one of luxuriating in the pleasure of the perfectly chosen word. the thrill of exquisitely turned phrases and sentences that could not have been engineered more sleekly. 

He won the Booker Prize for his 2005 novel, The Sea, the Franz Kafka prize and several Irish Book Awards.

In 2015, he published The Blue Guitar, a funny, arch and erudite novel narrated by the quaintly named Oliver Orway Orme.

Oliver is immensely gifted in three ways: as a painter, as a thief, and as a raconteur. Two of those vocations lead to ignoble ends: he abandons his art out of indolence and lack of inspiration, and he gives in to his kleptomaniacal impulses.

He is also, by his own admission, self-sabotaging, weak-willed, hypocritical and unethical. But as a narrator, Oliver is as engaging and entertaining as he is unadmirable.

Michael interviewed John Banville a few months after The Blue Guitar was published.

Colum McCann

Irish-American author Colum McCann’s new book, Letters to a Young Writer, includes reflections on character, plot, and how to locate the 'human music' that turns facts and ideas into literature. (Penguin Random House; Dennis Aksland)

Like Colm Toibin's heroine in Brooklyn, Colum McCann left Ireland and found himself making a new life in New York. 

His most celebrated work, Let The Great World Spin, captured the New York of the mid-1970s with an uncanny ear for the symphony of voices of the wild and gritty diversity of the city from a 38-year-old sex worker and grandmother to mothers stricken by the loss of their sons in the Vietnam War. 

That ear, and a talent for turning historical events into the stuff of fiction, has led him to re-animate historical figures like Frederick Douglass and the architect of the Northern Ireland peace accord, writing them as complex characters full of very human irritations, doubts, and loves. 

Those talents have won him the National Book Award, in addition to many other honours for his ten books. 

His latest book, Letters to a Young Writer, includes reflections on character, plot, and how to locate that "human music" that turns facts and ideas into literature. 
 

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