Fresh off the success of her bestselling book and the Oscar-winning film ROOM, Emma Donoghue returns to her native Ireland to explore themes of belief, country and parenthood.
Fresh off the success of her bestselling book and the Oscar-winning film Room, Emma Donoghue returns to her native Ireland to explore themes of belief, country and parenthood.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, and based in London, Ontario, where she lives with her partner Chris Roulston and son Finn, 12, and daughter Una, 9, Emma Donoghue has built an impressive library of fiction, writing books as well as for the stage and screen. Her bestseller Room became the basis for the Oscar-winning film directed by Lenny Abrahamson, and also earned Donoghue her own nods for writing the screenplay, including the Canadian Screen Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. With the release of her latest book this fall, The Wonder, Donoghue explores the story of Anna, a girl in 19th-century Ireland who claims not to eat, and Lib, the nurse assigned to watch over her. Donoghue spoke with Real Style about the real life events that inspired the story.
Real Style: Your latest novel, The Wonder, comes out this fall. It was inspired by true tales of fasting girls in history. What drew you to this subject? Emma Donoghue: I do so much historical reading and browsing, I keep an eye out for good stories. And every now and then in the papers you would suddenly get a teenager or young woman becoming famous for appearing to live without food. Some got stuck in my mind—some were too sad, some were obviously fraudulent. So I decided to write one which would be fictional but which would draw on real cases. I have found that the tiny little seedling of fact is often what my imagination needs to get going.
RS: What’s The Wonder about for you personally? ED: I think responsibility would be a key word for me. Ever since we had kids— our kids are 12 and 9 now—I’ve been drawn to stories either about parenting or about the connections between adults and children, the responsibilities of adults to children. It all comes down to your personal responsibility to keep a child alive.
There’s also the extent that our entire community can be at fault for the death of a child. You see interesting cases nowadays when a child will die of neglect or harm, and then everyone tries to pin blame afterwards, whether it’s the fault of the parents or teachers or social workers. [There’s] the idea of a social fabric and how it can tear and people can fall through the gaps. So for me it’s an ethical story about responsibility.
But also I like stories in which women’s jobs are taken seriously. In looking at nursing in the 1850s, I was looking at a profession that was only just beginning to see itself as a profession. Before that nurses were seen as semi-employed women who sat up beside dead people and were generally thought of as lazy and drunk. So I liked the idea of a brand new job or a job that for the first time was starting to be taken seriously. [Lib is] doing her best to rise to the occasion and to do her job really well, but she’s still working in a context where she’s seen as an unimportant, menial servant. I found that a very interesting moment.
RS: There’s also the push-pull of EnglishIrish politics, with both sides shown in favourable and unfavourable lights. ED: Oh definitely. I could have set this story anywhere, but because I’m from Ireland and Irish Catholicism has a long tradition of saying no to food—and ‘Oh, you shouldn’t indulge yourself too much, you shouldn’t eat too much, you shouldn’t enjoy food too much,’ and of course we also have our famous famine—I thought it would be interesting to set this story against a context of a country that until fairly recently had people involuntarily starving. But once I set it there, I felt I needed an outsider character, so there’s the English nurse and that gives me the opportunity [to explore] those Irish-English misunderstandings and differences. I also wanted to show her have
questions about her own prejudices too, and the Irish journalist is a great way of undermining all her certainties. You don’t want any characters to finish the book the same way as they started.
RS: Room has been such a phenomenal success. Did you feel a different kind of pressure with this book, this time around? ED: I consider the success of Room a very happy fluke. It’s such a peculiar book, such an unlikely bestseller. It sounds hideous when you describe the story line of Room. I’m amazed it sold so well. So I don’t see it as anything I have to turn into a brand and follow up on. I think how I wrote Room was by not looking for anyone’s advice, but just following my own peculiar interests, the same with every other book. I try not to worry about who will buy it or how many people will buy it at all.
RS: Both Room and The Wonder have an element of seclusion, isolation, with the lead characters confined to a single r oom or space. ED: As a writer, I just find it easier to work on a small canvas and I like what it does to characters when you keep them bound tightly to some place. Often when I read books that roam over many continents, I’m really impressed by the author’s skills. I never feel I can write that sort of book myself. I really love to focus in a myopic way on a small setting. One way or the other I like to box my characters in and see if they can rise to the occasion.
RS: Both Room and The Wonder feature young protagonists—why are they important to the themes you’re exploring? ED: I found parenthood a great shock and a great inspiration. Children see the world very differently; they don’t take anything for granted. They have a wonderful combination of magical thinking and then very scientific thinking. I just love how they see the world. They will grab hold of any system you give them, whether it be a set of superstitions or religion or social rules, and try and make it all consistent and make it all fit. In a way they are all natural zealots. I find it very interesting to contrast how children see the world with how adults see the world.
RS: Room was a major hit and won many awards—why do you think it resonated so much with audiences and judges? ED: Lenny Abrahamson had that really rare gift of making you care. When he approached me to speak about directing the film, I watched all his back films, and he really makes you care about his characters [who are] essentially nobodies. And [all his films are] relatively small-scale stories—none of them are epic, and yet he raises them to great heights. You invest in these stories enormously. I think he did a good job of bringing out the universal. It’s all about how any parent would want to make any child’s life better under difficult circumstances. And of course Brie Larson did a phenomenal job of making us believe in that room. There’s something in the idea of being prisoners in a world where so many of us get to move freely—there are so many technologies allowing us to live in a more mobile way. So the idea of being stuck in one room without even a telephone, and also the question of how a child would learn to be human when they’re cut off from so many things; the question of whether one human parent could teach them the whole human world—I think it brings up all those questions of nature and nurture.
RS: With the success of the films and screenplay for Room, do you plan to do more film and screenplays? ED: Definitely. I’m currently working on the film for my last novel Frog Music and I’m also doing some TV and film adaptations based on other people’s work.
RS: What else are you working on? ED: I do [have a few books on the go]. I have a kids’ book coming out next April, an illustrated book. That’s going to be part of what I hope will be a series of four books, for children aged 8 to 12. It’s about a big family who are very happy but suddenly their grandfather gets dementia and has to move in with them. They can’t stand him and he can’t stand them. It takes an unsentimental look at dementia, which is often portrayed in very sentimental ways.
RS: You are prolific! How do you keep going? ED: It’s not like I’ve been writing in the evenings while building bridges in the day! [Laughs] It’s all I do! Occasionally I envy them [those writers who release one book every 10 years] because they get treated so reverently. [Laughs] I can’t adjust the flow. I don’t think I would write better if I worked more slowly. There’s something to be said for leaping into the river and letting it carry you along.