Room with a different view
Since the success of her novel ‘Room’, Emma Donoghue can write whatever she wants and never what she’s told to. But things changed when she was asked to write a play about Maeve Brennan, the hard-living Irish-born ‘New Yorker’ writer
IT ALMOST BECAME the story of the producer, the director and the novelist who told them to take a hike. When the author of the phenomenally successful Room, Emma Donoghue, was approached with an idea for a play, her initial reaction was not at all positive. “I bristled slightly,” she admits. “I thought, I don’t write to anybody’s suggestions. I only follow my own particular passions. How could I possibly write a play about what somebody else wants me to write?”
The subject of the play was Maeve Brennan, the Irish-born writer who went to live in New York, wrote for the New Yorker, was the darling of the glittering set around that magazine and then imploded into mental illness and self-destruction. But it was Brennan’s writing that, in the end, won Donoghue over.
“They sent me a batch of her books and I fell in love with the writing,” she says. “For me, it’s not about the glamour, the beauty or the lifestyle. All that is interesting, but what’s really interesting is that she was a truly great writer.”
Clad in midnight-blue silk and an embroidered dress coat, Donoghue is no slouch on the glamour front herself. She is brisk, articulate and funny, and although she has lived in Canada for more than a decade, there is no trace of it in her voice. She scans the menu at the Dublin hotel where we meet and groans. “Can I order a BLT? It’s so American.” She orders it anyway. A day in the rehearsal room is hungry work.
It will be a busy autumn for Donoghue. Her new collection of short stories, Astray, is scheduled for publication the day before the new play, The Talk of the Town, previews at Dublin Theatre Festival. A series of captivating historical fictions inspired by real events, Astray opens with a story about Jumbo, the elephant who was a reluctant emigrant from London Zoo to PT Barnum’s circus in the 1880s. As she munches her sandwich Donoghue muses about her own migration and that of her theatrical heroine, Maeve Brennan.
“Like me, she left Ireland early – she left at 17 – and I would say both of us benefited from a lot of freedom in living abroad. On the other hand, she’s also this bad-girl writer. I’ve never drunk alcohol; I’ve always hated the taste. I’ve never had a recreational drug in my life. I’m very clean-living, right? And she was so much the opposite; so clearly messed up, and so brilliant. Whereas I’m terribly sane and sensible. I get my taxes done in January. I’d never write a play about a writer like me.
“I’m in the Anthony Trollope school. You go to your desk every day, and you write your books, and you enjoy it, and then you have your dinner. With the Maeve Brennan style of writer you feel the stories are being dredged up out of her subconscious, that wounds are being left behind.”
Donoghue has already written three plays, but this time she worked closely with the director Annabelle Comyn, which, she says, made the piece “more intrinsically theatrical” from the beginning. Made by Landmark Productions, which was behind Misterman, the runaway success of last year’s Galway Arts Festival, The Talk of the Town is an appetising prospect.
Brennan will be played by Catherine Walker. “It has been great fun writing somebody as badly behaved as Maeve,” Donoghue says. “The actors will turn to me and say, ‘Oh, what a nasty thing to say to him,’ or ‘That’s a very cheeky line.’ She gets away with it because she’s charming, and Walker’s performance is crucial to that. She can deliver the nastiest lines in a way you can forgive.”