When Emma Donoghue claims she’s never written with the goal of being a bestseller, you can’t help but believe her.
Since earning her Ph.D. in English in 1997, Donoghue has been enthusiastically amassing a body of work inspired solely by her personal passions, with little concern for the market. As diverse as she is prolific, she’s written historical novels; literary criticism in the forms of articles, essays and three complete books; countless short stories and fairy tales; both historical and contemporary fiction exploring lesbian themes; and plays for stage, radio and screen; in addition to editing anthologies of fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
That impressive range goes beyond form and genre. A Dublin native now living in Canada with her partner and two children, the 41-year-old has published in several international markets, with varying degrees of commercial success, over time garnering modest awards and even her first taste of bestseller status in the U.S. and abroad for 2000’s Slammerkin—the story of a prostitute in 18th-century London, inspired by an actual murder case from 1763—which showcased her ability to enthrall readers with her reimaginings of real life.
And then, in September of 2010, she published Room.
Room wasn’t just unlike any other book Donoghue had written—it’s unlike any other book, period. Told from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy who was born to a kidnapped woman and knows nothing of the world beyond the room in which they’re held captive, Room is a haunting, powerful tale of the effects of isolation as well as the bonds between mother and child. The public may have first taken notice when Donoghue admitted she’d been inspired by the notorious Elisabeth Fritzl kidnapping case, but readers and critics alike soon recognized the book for its remarkable achievements in voice, perspective and story. The international bestseller landed Donoghue on the 2010 shortlists for a trio of giants—the Man Booker Prize, Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award and Galaxy International Author of the Year—and won both The Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for the year’s best Canadian novel. But if you think this means a new, mainstream direction for Donoghue, think again.
In the complete WD Interview featured in the March/April 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest, Donoghue shared her thoughts on the intersections between inspiration, work and unexpected success. Here, the discussion continues with a few more questions for Donoghue on researching, plotting and writing for multiple genres.
You’ve said that writing historical fiction was the ideal preparation for writing a book like Room. Can you explain why?
Yeah, I know it seems strange, but Room—although the second half is set in contemporary America, the first half is really set in a bit of an isolated world, and it’s both smaller than the social world we all move in, and it’s more limited in its resources. So in both those ways, it feels kind of pre-modern.
I didn’t want it to feel too old-fashioned, so I debated over whether or not to let Ma and Jack have television, and I decided in the end that I would let them have television but that Ma would ration it, because I thought if they don’t have TV and they don’t have the internet, they’re going to feel a bit like 19th-century homesteaders in some cabin. I just wanted them to be weirdly isolated from the modern world. So I decided on no internet, but yes TV.
But in conjuring up this very limited space, which is absolutely natural to the people living in it, I thought, well, I have done that before in describing some of the kind of smaller worlds of, say, 18th-century London. And above all, you don’t want your reader to suspect that you’re using the protagonist as a tour guide; you want your protagonist to only comment on whatever he finds unusual.
Writing historical fiction has given me more generally a trust in the reader, that for all we hear that books are meant to be easy for readers to relate to, I think in fact readers absolutely adore being drawn into a world where they’ve never been. So long as the human essentials are there, you know, strong human drives that they can connect with—fears and longings and loves—I think readers will have no trouble with the exotic quality or the strange limited quality of the environment they’re in.
Do you feel other writers could benefit by exploring new genres and forms to find new ways of looking at the writing that they’re doing?
Absolutely. I think it would be a shame for any writer to let their publishers in any way coral them into a single genre. I remember a period where my publisher said to me, “Look, your historical work is selling much better than your contemporary work, so please give us more historicals.” And I said to them, “Look, I’ve got two on the go, Life Mask [set in 1790s London] and Landing [a contemporary love story], and what I will do is I’ll let you have Life Mask first and then Landing after.” That’s one of the only times that I’ve sort of bowed to pressure from my publishers, but I didn’t bow to it to the extent of saying I’ll only write historicals—I just slightly let them dictate the order of what I’d write. But I just seem naturally to go back and forth between stories set now and stories set then. And of course now, my publishers would probably say my contemporary stuff is much more sellable after Room. So, you can’t let them bully you.
And there are so many examples of writers stepping out of their comfort zone and it paying off beautifully. For instance, just about my favorite historical writer [was] Diana Norman, and a couple of years ago, she did a historical murder mystery as Ariana Franklin, and I think she’s been even more successful with these ones, and they’re each great in their own way. So in that case I think trying out a new form worked beautifully for her.
What is it about a story in life or in history that will grab you and compel you to tell it, or just inspire you to imagine what might have been?
I get this burning curiosity—really just for my own benefit I just really want to find out what happened—and when I get to that moment, like the sort of cliff edge where the fact runs out … and you know, I’ll pursue it as far as I can. Sometimes you get to the edge of the cliff, and then you’ll find a little path running down onto a ledge below. Sometimes you really can find more facts than you thought were out there, but at that moment where the facts run out, at that point in my head I sort of switch over from historian to novelist, and I start to think, Ooh, I can imagine what happened.
So they’re really two separate pleasures. And it means that I can sometimes spend a day doing research, and come back and announce to Chris, my partner, with delight, “Great! I didn’t find anything, so now I’m free to make it up!” You might say I could have just made it up in the first place, but I don’t know, I find it more thrilling if my inventions are somehow rooted in fact. I find that moment where the facts fall away a very stimulating one. Because often the historical facts are just so wonderfully unpredictable and gritty.
I’ll give you a contemporary example: I recently saw and loved The Social Network. Now, if that film had been written about an entirely fictional social networking site, I don’t think they would have given the main character two different groups of people who were suing him at the same time. Because it’s based on fact, it’s messy: He’s being sued by his old friend and he’s being sued by two other rich guys. If you were writing that as an original script, you would have [just] gone for the old friend plot, because that’s classic. But in the movie, the fact that the other court case is there gives it that messy texture of reality.
Similarly, in my novel The Sealed Letter, if I’d been just making up a Victorian adultery story, I would probably have given the wife one male lover. But as it was, she had two, and I thought that was again, wonderfully real, and it said a lot about her, that this woman was running around cheating on her husband with two of his military colleagues, more or less at the same time. I wouldn’t have made that up, but it was wonderful. So I find the historical facts that you can locate very, very stimulating.
But you see, with people who were dead hundreds of years ago, I feel absolutely free to make up what I can, whereas I could never write about contemporary people that way—ethically, I would find that very dubious. You know, Room was fine because it was very arm’s length. I really took no more than a notion from the Fritzl case, and the same with all the other kidnapping cases I read up on. I deliberately—well actually, the irony is that I thought, OK, all the places I’m reading up on are European and they’re in basements, so I’ll set mine in America in a shed. And then after I’d written the novel, Jaycee Dugard was discovered in America in a shed! And I thought, Oh well—too late to change!
It’s a little bit of the, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”
Indeed, it is.
Do you do all that research and planning up front, or do you find yourself stopping as you write?
I sometimes have to stop and do new waves of it. I do a lot up front, but then questions arise.
Do you outline?
I do, I outline in quite a lot of detail, really. Usually by the time I’m writing a chapter, I’ve pretty much written down what scenes I want to be in there, so that it’ll avoid that kind of drag-y, you know, one thing and then another thing and then what happened on Tuesday and what happened on Wednesday. I find if you plan, it allows you to leap more dramatically from one necessary moment to the next necessary moment.
I also literally write down what revelations the reader is getting at each point, so I can see whether I’m giving away a lot in chapter one and then there’s really no new important information until chapter five.
I’m trying to get better at the plotting, because I don’t think it’s my natural strength. I would say I have sort of a natural gift for character, and following one person’s point of view at a time, and dialogue, but I’m not naturally good at strong plot. So something like Room I’ve done a lot more planning on. And it’s not cold-blooded planning; it’s more like planning a military campaign or something. It’s quite exciting, because what you’re trying to do is to keep up the reader’s energy at every point. You’re looking for those spots where things would sag or get lost or come off the rails. You’re trying to keep up the momentum.
Playwriting is very good training for that, because people are quite indulgent in a novel of any softening in your pace—they can just choose to read faster, or to take a break from it and come back. But in a theatre, your audience is trapped there. So if you’ve got any bits that feel dull, the audience will literally shift and cough. Even if they don’t walk out, you can tell that they’re restless, so you have to really shape your play well, or they’ll be shifting in their seats.
How do you feel you’ve most grown or changed as a writer?
I’d say one of the main changes is that I’ve really worked on plot, and that I’m taking plot more seriously. I probably began with a slightly disdainful attitude to plot, which was, “Oh, I want to write very absorbing, realistic accounts of people’s lives,” but I don’t think I took quite seriously enough the need to make it a story that people are desperate to follow, to turn the pages. So I’ve developed quite an appreciation for plot. I still don’t like very complicated plots. … But I think I have gotten better at shaping books so that they move better.
I don’t know, maybe my interests have grown up a bit. They’ve become a bit broader and more universal. I think I’ve got a bit better at finding subjects that readers will really care about.