Anne Enright: Jordan she ain't, but the Booker is banking on misery

Anne Enright had sold 3,553 copies of her suicide and sexual abuse potboiler (that's around 157,000 less than Katie Price) until she won literature's big one. Katy Guest on the triumph of a rank outsider
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The Independent Online

In the run up to last week's Man Booker Prize, the serious literati were troubled. News was out that one novel was outselling every book on the Booker shortlist put together; that novel was Crystal, by the glamour model Jordan.

That was not the least of it. Nielsen BookScan announced that Jordan's British sales stood at nearly 160,000; the Booker team's at 121,000. Of those, about 109,000 were of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, the favourite to win the prize. The rank outsider, Anne Enright, had sold a mere 3,553 copies of her dense, fraught, Irish family saga, The Gathering, which describes suicide, loss and childhood sexual abuse. She was 12-1 to win, and William Hill had only taken one bet on her in the UK.

Whoever made that bet must be almost as happy as Enright is now. "I didn't bet on myself because I didn't want to queer my luck," she said through a daze of champagne and sleep deprivation on Wednesday morning. Her husband, the actor and director Martin Murphy, had more faith: he placed an accumulator in Ireland and stands to win more than £1,000.

"Unexpected things happen on the night in those rooms," is how Enright, herself a former prize judge, explains her win. "There is probably a little writerly monster in me that definitely thought I could do it ... But it is lovely to be lucky, and there have been times when I haven't always felt very lucky with books." What was she going to do with her £50,000 prize money, the interviewers wanted to know. "I don't know," she replied. "But I bought a new dress this morning which I am very pleased I can now afford."

The dust had hardly settled on the win, and the subsequent media scrum (she gave 32 interviews on Wednesday), when Enright left London on the last plane to Ireland on Wednesday, from where she will head to Canada for a book festival and then on to tour Europe. She will have a lot to think about on that long flight west. Organisers of the Man Booker are able to make big boasts for their winners: in 2005, John Banville's The Sea saw sales rise above a quarter of a million, and his publisher, Picador, reported a huge increase in sales from his backlist. In 2004, Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty reached the bestseller lists. Previous winners Life of Pi (2002) and Vernon God Little (2003) were among the bestselling books of the year. Most winners can expect to see a 15-fold bounce in sales. Last year's winner, Kiran Desai, saw sales rise from a measly 2,396 when her book, The Inheritance of Loss, entered the long-list, to 500 copies a week at the shortlist stage. She has not stopped touring since. But winning the Booker can be a mixed blessing. Since winning, Desai has been so busy giving interviews and readings that she hasn't had time to read a book, let alone write one.

Yann Martel, who had wisely started his next novel shortly after finishing Life of Pi, agreed. Immediately after the Booker win, he said: "All hell broke loose, and I haven't written anything for 18 months."

Fortunately, it seems that Enright has anticipated the pitfalls – and has no intention of dropping into them. "I remember Kazuo Ishiguro saying he was delighted that he hadn't won on his first book because it would have been the ruin of him," she said pragmatically. "But I'm no spring chicken so I don't think it's going to stop me squawking."

Enright has published four previous novels, all critically, if not commercially, acclaimed: The Portable Virgin (1991), The Wig My Father Wore (1995), What Are You Like? (2000), and The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002), as well as the non-fiction book Making Babies (2004). Her editor at Jonathan Cape, Robin Robertson, tells me: "I have been her editor since 1991, and we've all stuck with her over the years. It's great to see patience rewarded. Too often now it's all about the cult of the immediate, of the celebrity, of the first novel." He is also quick to point out that the measly sales reported before the Booker do not tell the full story. Nielsen's figures only include hardbacks, and do not include Europe and Ireland – where Enright is very popular. "The figures I have are about 35,000 and we expect it to grow to about four or five times that," he says. The publisher has already called for new print runs totalling about 100,000 books, including backlist titles.

Enright did not find the route into writing an easy one. Born in 1962 in Dublin, she studied philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, studied in Canada and took the MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia (as did Ian McEwan). Then she returned to Ireland. During her twenties, she worked for the Irish television channel RTE, where she found the culture of long hours, hard drinking and ruthless ambition contributed to years of depression. "They say that working on TV has the same adrenaline levels as being in the army, and it was like that for me," she recently explained. "There was a great buzz and sometimes I felt like awarding myself purple hearts for the work I was doing. But it really had a cost, which was that I was drinking too much and not doing what I ultimately wanted with my life. I felt trapped, and the question for me, after several months of depression, was: how do you leave your job?" In another interview she recalled, "One doctor asked how many times I had thought of killing myself. I said, 'About 243 times before lunch', so he sent me to a psychiatrist and she wanted to put me into hospital. The minute I got into hospital and sat on the bed I was gone for three weeks."

Like many authors, she writes from a kind of neurosis, she says. But meeting and marrying her husband helped. "I became a full-time writer in 1993 and have been very happy, insofar as anybody is, since." She later said: "I recommend it." Not depression, but "having a breakdown early. If your life just falls apart early on, you can put it together again. It's the people who are always on the brink of crisis but don't hit bottom who are in trouble."

Since her win, however, Enright has been accused by some of intruding on the misery of others. On 4 October, the London Review of Books published an article in which she examined her feelings about the McCanns, and the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine. She admitted to feeling guilty about her suspicions of the couple, and revealed how her own feelings as a parent cloud her opinions. "I realise that I am more afraid of murdering my children than I am of losing them to a random act of abduction," she said, going on to add, "I disliked the McCanns earlier than most people (I'm not proud of it)" and comparing Gerry McCann's words to those of Lady Macbeth. Until Tuesday, nobody seemed to notice. After she won the Booker, all hell broke loose.

Why would a writer as sensitive as Enright, whose novel is a haunting portrayal of a fictional family's grief and loss, so brutally hold forth about another, real family's? Some have wondered whether the shortlisted author, also a jobbing hack and writer, wanted to make the most of her 15 minutes of fame. Others disagree. "If you're looking to cause a controversy then saying something in the London Review of Books is equivalent to not saying it at all," says one literary insider. In previous years, the journal has published articles in which Enright admits to hating Catholicism but sending her five-year-old daughter to learn the catechism because the child wants to "become a Muslim", and feeling "disgust" about breast-feeding and milk. In that diary, she called her baby daughter a "white Dracula". Before she became a Famous Writer, nobody cared.

Like she says, it is unlikely that this win will stop Enright squawking. Her book of short stories, Taking Pictures, will be published in March. She has a new novel on the back burner – "where it will probably stay for a while," laughs Robertson. But if she fears a life of infamy, she should take comfort in a cautionary tale from Bernice Rubens. Spotted at a Booker Prize night party some years ago the author, who died in 2004, was cornered by a patronising young PR girl. "Maybe one day you may write a Booker-winning novel, too", she gushed. Rubens was too kind to point out that she had, in 1970.

Opening lines of this year's prize winner

"I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother's house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me – this thing that may not have taken place. I don't even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.

My brother Liam loved birds and, like all boys, he loved the bones of dead animals. I have no sons myself, so when I pass any small skull or skeleton I hesitate and think of him, how he admired their intricacies. A magpie's ancient arms coming through the mess of feathers; stubby and light and clean. That is the word we use about bones: Clean."

(c) Anne Enright 2007

Further reading 'The Gathering' by Anne Enright is published by Jonathan Cape, price £12.99