While it may have failed to win the Booker last week, Room is the novel everyone’s talking about. Paul Fennessy interviews its author, Emma Donoghue
Imagine you’re a precocious child whose just turned five-years-old. Now imagine a constricted shed which you inhabit with your mother is the only reality you have ever known – a reality which is offset by a heightened knowledge of pop culture and in particular, cartoons.
Furthermore, imagine that the sole male presence in your life is a nameless occasional occupant of the shed, who consistently beats and rapes said mother. Such is the premise for Room by Emma Donoghue, a novel which is in equal parts brutal and uplifting, and which was published to rapturous critical acclaim – praise which increased once the novel was shortlisted for 2010 Man Booker Prize. Donoghue was even installed as favourite to win the prize by Ladbrookes.
“There’s a large percentage of fluke to these things,” Donoghue modestly claims. “I was lucky that Room appealed to enough of the judges to get me onto the shortlist; it doesn’t mean that I’m carrying the torch for my generation.”
Room – like many of Donoghue’s previous novels – was inspired by real-life events. It appears to be influenced around Josef Fritzl as well as other recent discoveries of harrowing stories in which kidnappers kept victims in solitary confinement for prolonged periods, such as the Jaycee Dugard and Natascha Kampusch cases.
However, Donoghue stated in a recent interview that to say her book was based on Fritzl case would be “too strong”. With this in mind, I enquired as to whether the novel could be considered in more of a loosely autobiographical vein and as a metaphor for the type of solitary, claustrophobic lifestyle in which novelists are often obliged to live.
“Good point there!” she exclaims. “I’d say Jack’s situation is an analogy for any human conscious locked in the bone-box of the individual skull, but perhaps a writer glimpses that because so much of her time is spent in one chair.
“Actually, when writing Room I often felt in the position of Old Nick rather than Jack, in that I was the sometimes merciful, sometimes cruel Bringer, deciding whether to allow Jack and Ma vitamin pills, sunlight, books, treats.”
The novel is told from the viewpoint of Jack, the five-year-old-boy, and it thus adheres to a long lineage of literature using child narrators. This tone is also reflected in everything from the early parts of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with its slightly surrealist though unmistakably child-like tone, to the sheer innocence and naivety which permeates language employed by the child protagonist in Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, The Road.
Donoghue explains how the novel would have been inconceivable in any other form and says that the child’s perspective was integral to the narrative, also enabling her to gain further insights as a human being: “No, I wouldn’t have written a word of it from any other perspective: the child’s-eye was the whole concept. And yes, the task gave me a lot of insight into, a sympathy with, kids, especially my own; it made me slow down and smell the roses with them.”
Yet irrespective of the inspiration from which it was derived, Room has captured the hearts of readers and critics alike. It has sold well, with a further increase expected in the coming days amidst the final trinkets of post-Booker hoopla. However, such success is well deserved, based on critics’ reaction to date. For example, Eileen Battersby of The Irish Times described Room as “an important novel,” adding that it “seethes with the fears, injustices and courage of victims who refuse to be beaten. It is inspiring.”
However, Donoghue has not always been the toast of the literary critics. When asked to name the nastiest comment which a critic has ever made about her work, the author’s memories are vivid, as she recalls her earliest taste of criticism which she received at the tender age of 23.
“Reviewers have said much worse than this one,” she says, “but it’s the one that always sticks in my head because it was about my first novel, Stirfry. I don’t even remember who wrote it but it always makes me howl in mirth and anguish: “‘The narrator has many things to say but none of them are very interesting.’”
Few people would begrudge Donoghue her belated acquisition of mainstream success, having the travailed the perilous world of semi-literary-obscurity for seventeen years beforehand. However, Slammerkin, her first novel in the historical fiction genre, would be regarded as her first brush with a mainstream audience, as it became a surprise bestseller despite its dark subject matter (it was based on a real-life murder) and was a finalist in ‘The Irish Times Irish Fiction Prize’.
In contrast with the majority of her recent works, Donoghue began her literary career with novels that possessed a decidedly more autobiographical feel. One of the most prominent themes of her earlier books, such as the aforementioned Stirfy (1994) and Hood (1995), was homosexuality and the lack of tolerance for it in pre-Celtic Tiger Irish society. As her literary career flourished, she swiftly emigrated to Canada, where she has lived since 1998.
Donoghue explains how she has few regrets about leaving her native country behind. “Well [the move] helped me as a person, in that I could forget about being a lesbian, most days, and get on with my life. So yes, you could call Ireland’s neurosis about homosexuality one of those nets that Joyce said writers need to fly through.”
While her formative Irish years were not exactly pleasant, Donoghue retains a certain level of affection for the time she spent on these shores. In particular, she talks glowingly of her three-year tenure in UCD in which she secured a first-class honour degree despite, as her website curiously notes, not “learning to actually speak French”.
Donoghue also reserves high praise for the doyens of the UCD English department: “Well, the study of literature doesn’t lead directly to the writing of it,” she says, “but I think it can help; it can let you name and analyse your mistakes, at least. My inspiring professors included Tony Roche, Eibhear Walshe, Lance Pettit, Mary Montaut, Redmond O’Hanlan.
“But the best thing my undergraduate degree [in English and French] and then my PhD [at Cambridge] did for me was, they gave me years and years of time to write, which a proper job wouldn’t have.”
“Sometimes young writers do more talking about writing than writing”
Donoghue’s emphasis on the importance she placed on writing continually, encapsulates her nature as somewhat of a disciplinarian and pragmatist, who consciously eschews the haughtier and more romantic notions to which novelists are often associated. Such refreshing lack of pretentiousness regarding her occupation is evident throughout the interview. For example, unlike many other writers, she has no bizarre rituals which she goes through before or during the process of writing.
“Not only do I not have these rituals but I try to avoid the mindset behind them: the rather precious, ‘my holy vocation’ sort of attitude. Of course it is a holy vocation, in some sense, but I find that it’s more useful in practice to think of as a craft. Anthony Trollope described it like carpentry, I seem to remember.”
Donoghue reiterates and develops the explanation of her anti-sentimental approach to writing fiction while discussing the mechanics of the experience and her earliest memories of becoming a writer. “The main obstacle was my own ignorance of how to write a book. I overcame this by practising in solitude: Stirfry wasn’t published till the seventh draft,” she reveals.
“Sometimes young writers do more talking about writing than writing. Others get a third of the way into a book and then lose their way. The best cure for that is to plan a lot: it really doesn’t kill the magic to sketch out your plot in advance and decide more or less what will happen in each chapter; it’s like using a blueprint so your house won’t fall down.”
A far cry from the characters in Room, Donoghue seems as if she could not be happier at this moment in time. With a happy, settled life with her family in Canada and heap of Booker prize-related praise to boot, one suspects she cared little when Howard Jacobson secured the coveted award a few hours after this interview took place.
Indeed, a sense of optimism infiltrates Donoghue’s outlook. She is currently working on a novel set in “1870s San Francisco” which revolves around “an unsolved crime”. And she dismisses commentators who claim the novel is either dying or dead: “The novel seems to me to be alive and kicking. It’s a commodious and flexible form; it can take on all sorts of experimental qualities without having to shed that fundamental power to make people laugh and cry.”
However, despite her obvious passion for literature, it is no longer the number one priority in her life, as the dedication at the beginning of Room attests. “I have an 8.30 to 3.30 existence,” she admits. “Those are the limits that daycare and school set to my writing time.”
Room by Emma Donoghue is out now.