Monday 20 September 2010

Dancing With Myself: EMMA DONOGHUE interviews EMMA DONOGHUE

Sorry I'm late with this one. I've been away for the weekend and had a wonderful time in swimming pools, woodland and on coastal walks delighting in the sense that my three children are like strong friends, the best part being that they take each other (or are taken) everywhere we go. How lucky is that?

Anyway, to business. In this case, the business is very much a pleasure.

Emma Donoghue has had her novel, Room, shortlisted for the Booker Prize. There aren't many writers who can say that about their work.

I decided the best way to introduce her would be to say something really clever and revealing about her, but I guess that's why she's here. Instead I decided to rely upon a quote about 'ROOM'.

"Room is a book to read in one sitting. When it's over you look up; the world looks the same, but you are somehow different and that feeling lingers for days."

Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveller's Wife)

That's what I want people to say about my stories.

Today at Sea Minor Emma Donoghue asks herself ten questions.

Q How important is it to be part of a national literary tradition?

A It would be convenient, certainly if only I (as an Irishwoman who has lived first in the UK and then in Canada, and writes books set in various parts and centuries of the English-speaking world) could figure out which. Literature is generally classified by nation, and book prizes and many other facets of the publishing-related world too; publicity works most smoothly if a person who lives in X Place has written a book set in X Place. A man at a party, soon after I moved to Canada, warned me darkly that like Brian Moore, I would fall between various stools: never fully appreciated as central to the literary traditions of any of his native lands. That’s probably true – I’m seen as Irish sometimes, Canadian sometimes, even vaguely British sometimes, and I’m probably assumed to be American by the Americans who make up the majority of my readership. But that’s just how it is. I grew up reading books from just about anywhere and I still do; I believe a writer’s imagination carries no passport.

Q What’s the hardest book you’ve ever written?

A SLAMMERKIN (2000), by a long shot. I knew that the basic kernel of fact (a girl murders an older woman for the sake of ‘fine clothes’) could make a really strong novel, but I sweated blood over it the writing of it. At one point it seemed as if I’d been writing about menial housework (scrubbing carpets with used tea leaves, for instance) for months on end. I knew it would be hard to sell to publishers: historical literary fiction wasn’t yet fashionable, and 1760s in the Welsh borders was not a sexy period. And indeed both my publishers dropped me the minute I showed them the novel. SLAMMERKIN went on to find new publishers who made the book a bestseller, which just shows that you never know.

Q Are you part of a community of writers?

A Only in the sense of reading their books and responding to them, not in the sense of knocking back martinis at the Algonquin with them. Despite being a city-lover, I’ve spent my adult life in two smallish places (Cambridge, and London Ontario) and I don’t drink, so I’m doubly barred from that classic salon/cafĂ© style of interaction with my writer peers. Which is fine by me. I find it more interesting to have friends from the ‘real world’ anyway!

Q Do you have a mentor?

A All honour and glory to the incomparable Caroline Davidson who took me on at her Caroline Davidson Literary Agency when I was a raw grad student. She put me through seven drafts of my first novel (STIRFRY), got me a two-book deal with Penguin, and continues to welcome every notion of mine (whether it seems likely to sell a million copies or a dozen) with equal zest. She advises me wisely on everything and edits all my writing before we ever show it to a publisher – so she’s a mentor and so much more.

Q What mark has being raised Catholic left on your work?

A An enormous one, I suspect. As I child I loved novels that hinged on some terrible promise to God, such as Graham Greene’s THE END OF THE AFFAIR and Evelyn Waugh’s BRIDESHEAD REVISITED. My second novel, HOOD (1995), is the most obvious example of the Catholic strain in my work, being narrated by a discontented, closeted Irish lesbian in the first week of bereavement, and structured around Catholic ceremonies of visitation and funeral. The period of Catholicism I was raised in was what we called post-Vatican-II, meaning that it had moved closer to Protestantism in many ways (Mass was said in English, there was a new emphasis on understanding rather than just obeying), although it retained its narrow obsession with sexual morality. So the emphasis on self-questioning, the struggle to understand oneself and act ethically, which permeates novels of mine such as LIFE MASK (2004) and THE SEALED LETTER (2008), might seem classically Protestant but comes right out of my 1970s Catholic childhood. Most recently, ROOM (2010) is soaked in Catholicism: Ma and Jack play both Eve/Adam and Mary/Jesus in relation to their devilish captor Old Nick.

Q What did writing a PhD on eighteenth-century English literature do for you?

Over the eight years I spent at Cambridge, my parents always begged me to complete my PhD so it would be ‘something to fall back on’, career-wise. I’ve never needed to actually fall back on it, and I’ve never published a word of it, but I’ve never regretted the time I spent on it either. It introduced me to both the eighteenth century (that century when modern society was born, the vibrant setting for two of my novels, SLAMMERKIN in 2000 and LIFE MASK in 2004) and to research, research in the best, open-ended, won’t-know-what-I’ll-find-till-I-find-it sense. Ever since, I dive into a library as if it’s a glittering sea on a hot day. Also, I suspect those long, often epistolary novels by eighteenth-century authors such as Samuel Richardson have left a mark on me in the form of my preference for chronological, moment-by-moment narration by one narrator at a time. I love swooping, satiric, omniscient narrators as in Zadie Smith’s WHITE TEETH but find it impossible to write them!

Q Is having children good or bad for a writer?

A Both. When I was pregnant for the first time I deluded myself that I would be able to write with my baby cooing in a basket by my side. Ha! I’ve never composed a line of fiction while either of my kids is in the house: my books depend on the hard work of daycare staff. But on the other hand, the kids – not only in their fascinating selves but in how they’ve changed my own sense of self – have been a great source of inspiration, especially in the case of ROOM.

Q What are your gifts as a writer?

A Lack of neurosis. Prolific output. Many passionate interests and the confidence to trust where they will lead me. Humour.

Q What are your faults as a writer?

Ignorance (of so many things, from machinery to drugs to politics to the entire world outside the West). Panic at the prospect of a really complicated structure or plot. Dull sentences. Googling myself too much.


  1. Too many astounding comments in that series of answers to list. Libraries as a "glittering sea."
    alone is . . . well, it just is. And the most astounding of all: A non-neurotic Catholic. Mind boggling. I make my little list of books to seek out every month. Ms. Donoghue's stuff just went to the top of it.

  2. Another very fine interview. Loving this series, Nigel. Well done, Emma, and wishing you continued success.

    Regards, David.

  3. I, too, loved the fact she's a non-neurotic Catholic. I'll have what she's having.

    ROOM is an amazing, heart-twisting book, ajhayes2. You won't be disappointed.

    Thanks for featuring Emma, Nigel. Thank you for the fabulous interview, Emma. I'm rooting for you to go all the way with the Booker.

  4. Great interview. You can tell a writer by their metaphorical turn of phrase even in conversation when trying to answer a question. Props to you both.

    Marc Nash

  5. I cannot wait to read THE ROOM. What an amazing achievement according to all reviews.

  6. I think that this is a brilliant interview. Once again, I find myself being drawn to the parenthood question and love the answer given - less time, better outlook. Reminded me of your mention of your kids, Patti. Great stuff.

  7. I'm really getting amped to read this book. Thanks, Emma and Nigel.

  8. Delightful interview. I am a new fan of Emma Donoghue having read "Slammerkin" and "Landing" in the past couple of weeks with "Room" next on the list. During the last part of "Landing" I was so caught up in the characters that I couldn't wait to see what would happen to them--had to turn to the last couple of pages to find out.

    She writes like a dream.

  9. I'm also a new fan since I listened to Room as an audiobook - one of the best and most well-performed I've ever heard! You did a great job. Loved it.

    I would love to release my novel, Rose's Will, in audiobook format. How did you choose your readers?

    I'm guessing that it will be a bit more difficult for me. One of my main characters is a New York Jew with a Bulgarian accent!

    Looking forward to your next book!

    Denise DeSio