Emma Donoghue interview: Room with a view

Katie Silvester

Commonwealth fiction award winner Emma Donoghue steps off her treadmill desk to tell Global about her novel and the forthcoming film adaptation of her bestseller Room 

Twenty years ago, I lived in a shared house with a young Irish PhD student who had just had her first novel published, a couple of streets away from Global‘s present-day offices in Cambridge. Back then, she thought she might need to find a ‘proper job’ and didn’t expect her writing to earn her a living. Two decades later, Emma Donoghue, 43, has 13 novels and short story collections under her belt and has been shortlisted for both the Booker and Orange prizes. 

As a student, Emma was known for her fierce work ethic – not many graduate students find time to write novels on the side – and slightly eccentric dress sense. While the rest of us slobbed around in jeans, Emma wafted through Cambridge in lace and large hats. There was much excitement among the six residents of our Victorian house when boxes of her first novel Stir Fry arrived from Penguin. A coming-of-age tale of a country girl who moves to Dublin and inadvertently moves in with an older lesbian couple, Stir Fry is a light read compared to the more weighty topics of death, kidnapping and rape covered in Donoghue’s later novels. However, it remains my favourite Emma Donoghue book – though I confess to not having read them all. 

Now that she has so many published works in her back catalogue, though, I wonder whether she looks back and wishes she’d done Stir Fry any differently. 

“Ah, no,” she says. “Each book was the one I had it in me to write at that age, so I wouldn’t dream of applying my older perspective to any of them. You have to let your books go out into the world, just like children.” 

Feeling at home with fiction

You’ve written in a lot of different styles – from fiction to newspaper columns, biographies, plays and academic works on literary history. Which are you most at home with? 

“Fiction is my home base – whether historical or contemporary, tragic or funny – but I get a special buzz from theatre too.” These days Emma lives in Ontario, Canada, with her partner Chris and two young children, holding dual Irish/ Canadian nationality. Her 2010 novel Room won the 2011 Commonwealth Prize for Fiction (Canada and the Caribbean) and was shortlisted for both the Booker and Orange prizes, truly propelling her into the big league. Does the Commonwealth of Nations have much meaning to an Irishwoman? 

“I don’t have any feelings about the Commonwealth as such, but fond memories of England – where I spent eight years – and a deep attachment to my native land of Ireland and my homeland since 1998, Canada.” 

Room was inspired by the Austrian cases of Natascha Kampusch and Elisabeth Fritzl, both of whom were kidnapped and held in captivity by their abductors for many years. Fritzl had six children during her incarceration. Room is narrated by the five-year old son of a kidnap victim. At the start of the book, he has never been outside the room in which he lives with his mother. 

How did you research Room? Did you speak to people who had spent time in confinement? 

“No, that would have felt icky. But I read voraciously, not just about kidnap cases but about all sorts of analogous situations, from refugees to prisoners in solitary confinement.” 

How easy was it to tell the story in the voice of a five year old? 

“Really no more difficult than any other voice I’ve written in; in fact, getting into the head of a Victorian navy officer was probably more of a stretch. Our son was five when I wrote Room, so I drew on his remarks and games.” 

On the run

Most of her writing is done at home in Ontario on a treadmill desk “walking at two and a half miles an hour”, but she is equally happy writing on trains, cafés and planes during her frequent travels. 

Wait a minute… a treadmill desk? I Google this at the first opportunity. It is, indeed, a gym-style treadmill, with a small desk where the controls and gauges would normally be. “Contrary to the dark predictions of friends about my being so unco-ordinated I’d fall off, it works fine!” 

Unlike many in her field, Donoghue claims never to suffer from writer’s block. “I refuse to even consider the idea. If new sentences aren’t flowing, I call it a research/ editing/proofreading/planning day.” 

Which writers do you most admire? 

“Oo, agonising to choose… but let’s just say I always have to buy the new Roddy Doyle, Sarah Waters, Barbara Kingsolver, Hilary Mantel and Neal Stephenson.” 

Emma is currently working on the script of a film adaptation of Room, with director Lenny Abrahamson, which is soon to be cast. Her next novel will be Frog Music, based on a real unsolved crime from 1876. “It’s my first murder story.” 

Frog Music is out in the spring of 2014.


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