WON­DER WOMAN

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.

Real Style - - Contents - BY CATAL INA MAR­GULIS

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.

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