Mehboob Studios in Mumbai is buzzing with people, and a quiet corner is nowhere in sight; so, Emma Donoghue plonks herself down on the ground for our interview. In the city for a literary festival, the 54-year-old Irish-Canadian novelist of bestsellers such as Slammerkin (2000), and Room (2010) has been speaking at several sessions about her work as an author and a screenwriter. But Donoghue is no less than a historian. Long before the global success of Room, she had been time-travelling to the past to look for men and women and locating them in extraordinary circumstances. Excerpts from an interview:
You’d written the screenplay for Room before the novel was published. Now you’re doing the same for The Wonder. Is that a way to take control of your book?
Yes, with Room, I wrote the novel first, and then I wrote the screenplay. I knew there was going to be a lot of interest in the book. There was some talk of films already. I was also aware that the film industry is emphatically male-dominated; so, there are many women writers who write novels and male screenplay writers who adapt them. I thought I’m going to seize what power I can, both as a woman and an outsider.
You were “inspired” by the horrific story of Josef Fritzl (the Austrian man who imprisoned his daughter for 24 years in the basement of his house, subjecting her to rape and physical abuse that resulted in the birth of seven children), weren’t you?
I was, and I moved my story far from that: I set it in America, and above ground, in a shed with a skylight and not an underground basement, with one child and his mother whose captor was not a relative. It’s horrific but these stories are fascinating as well — something about a childhood in a locked space, in a box. And as soon as I finished the novel, the Jaycee Dugard case in California was solved. You just can’t get away from real life, no matter how hard you try!
Recently, you adapted Room for the stage. What was that process like?
I’d done it before, with my book of fairytales called Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins. I have worked a lot with plays. A film is more naturalistic, everything has to look convincing. By contrast, theatre doesn’t have to be so natural — the audience knows it is a set. So, then one can explore more playful, storytelling aspects of it. We cast it differently as well — mother and child were black, while the captor was white. Suddenly, the story had overtones of trafficking and modern slavery situations.
You left Ireland when you were very young, and you’ve never returned. Why?
I was 20 when I left to study at Cambridge. In Ireland, you grow up, you get a degree and you get out of there — you make your parents happy by leaving them. I’m definitely relieved that I don’t live in Ireland, I think I’d find it a bit too small. I’m glad that I am from there, it gives me a real sense of rootedness. It’s a very rich culture, with a lot of humour and storytelling. Canada, where I live now, at times can feel very bland and sedate but it is a very multicultural country.
At Cambridge, your thesis was on the friendship between men and women in 18th century fiction. What is it about the past that draws you as a writer?
It was a feminist project that looked at the ways men and women interacted with each other, without the expectation of sex, or love, as they do today. My thesis gave me a chance to research in a library for three years, which gave me great confidence about history, and looking at any period in the past, and being able to write something set there.
You identified as a feminist when you were 16. What brought that about, so early?
Observation, really. Like most Irish people, I grew up Catholic, not conservative though. I was the youngest of eight children and my mother went back to work after she had me. She was seen as a “career woman”. There was also a lot of debate around abortion in 1980s Ireland, and I became aware of a lot of gender issues in my society. Feminism offered some very sound explanations for it.
Did being a feminist also help when you came out and identified as lesbian?
Oh no, I knew I was a lesbian at 14. But I think I was nudged towards feminism when I realised that I desired women. The politics didn’t precede the desire, but it helped me understand why I was feeling all this stigma and shame. Later, as a writer, I got very interested in telling the stories of forgotten women; I began writing historical fiction with that sense of digging up the nobodies.
How do you choose a moment in history for a longer narrative?
I’m more surprised when writers choose to stay in the present. We know more about the past, and it offers such interesting stories, often because the stakes were so high. In the present day, you could set it in a refugee situation, between life and death; or you could set it anytime before the 20th century, when the whole world was like that — one mistake, of any kind, and people were in the gutter. I look for something in that time that I can tell in a story. I need to find the story, or a puzzling little anecdote first. When I do, it feels like a splinter under my skin, and something I probably can’t find the answers to because the people involved are too obscure. Then, I replace the historian’s hat with the novelist’s.
Both Room and your last novel, The Wonder, play out in rather enclosed spaces. What is about chamber dramas that challenge you as a writer?
It’s like the locked room murder mystery, a good way to turn up the heat and pressure. I’d find it much more difficult to write a sweeping, expansive saga. But also, looking at the lives of girls and women, many of their stories take place indoors — it’s a trans-historical phenomenon.
You’ve written your first book for children, The Lotterys Plus One, this year. When did the idea come to you?
Many years ago, at a dinner party, a friend asked me to write a story for children. She said, ‘Your kids have two mothers, my kids have two mothers. Why don’t families like us ever turn up in fiction?’ I thought about it and wanted to write about a family that was extraordinary and big in every way. So, there are two mothers and two fathers, some children are adopted, some born. I’ve just finished the second one, and my daughter has taken control of the edits.
I didn’t want to do a big ‘explanation’ of things. I find that with kids, everything comes up unexpected and fast — questions like ‘Has any good ever come of religion?’ just as you’re trying to find parking at the mall!