Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is a writer of contemporary and historical fiction whose novels include the bestselling Room, Slammerkin, Frog Music, The Sealed Letter, Landing, Life Mask, Hood, and Stirfry. Her story collections are The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, Kissing the Witch, and Touchy Subjects. She also writes literary history, and plays for stage and radio. She lives in London, Ontario, with her partner and their two small children.
This very special joint spotlight interview was conducted by Cara MacNeil and Jennifer Carter.
Interview with Cara MacNeil
TCJWW: The debate of nature versus nurture is very prevalent in books with child narrators that come from troubling homes. Which do you think impacts Jack more? How will this affect Jack’s adjustments to the outside world?
Donoghue: I think nature (meaning genetic inheritance) probably has the strongest effect on things like how long we live or which diseases we get, but character owes much more to nurture. And oddly enough from that point of view Room is a kind of idyll: I tried to give Jack the best kind of committed parent, who does her best to shield him from, and fortify him against, the privations and dangers of his upbringing. So really Room is the opposite of an abused-child story. Which means that although his transition to the outside world is brutal, my sense is that he will survive it and thrive.
TCJWW: How did you choose to write from Jack’s perspective and how did you keep the narration realistically childlike?
Donoghue: Jack’s perspective WAS the idea for the book; I never considered telling this story any other way, and even though readers regularly ask me for a do-over from the point of view of Ma or a therapist, I think either would be banal. As for making the narration realistically childlike, I cheated: I followed my five-year-old son around and wrote down his obsessions, his mental leaps, and his quirks of grammar.
TCJWW: One thing that was stable for Jack in both Room and the Real World was television and books—how influential do you feel media is becoming to the modern child and the modern parent? Do you find this influence positive or negative?
Donoghue: I dithered over whether to let them have a TV in Room, as I didn’t want the book to be all about tv watching, but I thought if they didn’t have one, Jack would be like some time traveller from the nineteenth century once he emerged. So I decided to use TV in a very sparing way (since Ma worries about its impact on Jack). Of course like most parents I fret about my children’s addiction to screens, but actually I think a game like Minecraft is far more active and creative than the kind of dull TV we sat around watching when I was a child. This is a golden age for TV (I’m a fervent Netflix watcher myself) and the best shows, such as Phineas and Ferb, really expand my children’s range of cultural references and sense of irony. The show I chose for Jack to get fond of was Dora the Explorer because it’s about a child who is always actively tackling adventures outside the home, and I was thrilled when the creator of the show wrote to me to thank me for not having Jack renounce Dora once he goes outside and starts growing up fast! I feel unequivocally positive about books in children’s lives, and I knew I was being cruel when I only gave Jack five of them in Room, but really through oral transmission from Ma he gets the benefit of thousands of years of stories too.
TCJWW: Old Nick’s name is a pseudonym for the Devil and there is a very eclectic religious tone to how Ma teaches Jack about the world. How important do you believe religious mythology is to human understanding?
Donoghue: Eclectic is the right word for it: I tried to give Ma and Jack a sort of island culture of their own, based on—but varying from—the cultural elements she has brought into it. I knew religion would be important because prisoners generally turn to religion to sustain them, but I figured that Jack’s magical world view would probably combine aliens with Baby Jesus in an unpredictable and eclectic way. To me this story is very much Mary and Jesus against the Devil, but I hope the non-religious reader can simply ignore all that and believe in the love story of the parent-child bond.
Interview with Jennifer Carter
TCJWW: I read that your inspiration for this novel came from a write-up of Jeanne Bonnet in Autumn Stephens’s Wild Women: Crusaders, Curmudgeons, and Completely Corsetless Ladies in the Otherwise Virtuous Victorian Era.What was it specifically about her story that intrigued you above the others?
Donoghue: Jenny’s sense of style: the overt crossdressing (rather than attempting to pass as a man), the bar fights, the wisecracking, the irreverence that comes across in every tiny newspaper article about her. And the fact that she—gunned down with no warning, by persons unknown—was in a literary sense the perfect murder victim, because she lived as if she knew she wasn’t going to make it to thirty.
TCJWW: From the beginnings of your research to the final investigation, how long would you say it took to do the legwork and piece everything together from your various historical sources? For writers contemplating the journey into historical novels, what tips or advice could you offer?
Donoghue: Impossible to quantify, because I did bits of research every now and then over about a dozen years before I worked on it full-time for maybe two. The fact that I never totted it up reveals that I don’t find the research a slog, anything but: it’s way easier than writing! I could happily research obscure lives till the cows come home. I would encourage writers contemplating historical fiction to ask themselves if they’re going to find the research a joy, rather than resenting the extra effort. You can’t do it in a sparing way; you need to find a hundred details and then throw away ninety-nine of them.
TCJWW: What led to the novel being told from the perspective of Blanche Beunon, French burlesque dancer and Jenny Bonnet’s ami?
Donoghue: I didn’t decide that until I was a couple of scenes in. I’d always planned that the novel would alternate between Jenny and the other woman who was in the room when the bullets rang out (because to solve a murder, you need a survivor to play sleuth), but when I tried it I found that I didn’t want Jenny to let the reader into her head and find out all her secrets; I wanted to keep her at an enigmatic distance, dancing at arm’s length. So it became Blanche’s story, and because of her missing baby it turned into a sort of double plot, in which Blanche needs to find her baby (and find out whether she can become a real mother) as much as she needs to find out who killed Jenny.
TCJWW: Blanche begins to see her world in a different light once she befriends Jenny. She comes to certain realizations about her maquereau, the baby she farmed out, and where she works at the House of Mirrors. Did you intend to draw the parallel of Blanche’s social awakening with Jenny’s non-conformity?
Donoghue: Of course. I like playing with pairs of characters who are rebels in different ways; my novel about a Victorian divorce, The Sealed Letter, looks at the similarities and differences between an adulterous wife and a feminist spinster, and Frog Music does something similar with the crossdresser and the whore (I suppose conventional women just don’t interest me enough to write about much!). Because the gist of what I knew about these real people was that they all became friends and then feuded and Jenny ended up dead, I seized the chance to write about friendship not as a bland panacea but as an exciting disruptive force: two billiard balls touching and then spinning off in new directions.