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.”
The Talk of the Town won’t, however, be quite the play people might expect. Donoghue has no time for the much-trumpeted theory that Brennan was the inspiration for Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, nor does she follow Brennan down the dark road of her final years. “Holly Golightly is basically a call girl. Maeve Brennan was this fiercely independent female, a Simone de Beauvoir figure in New York. I think the comparison is insulting.”
The play focuses instead on Brennan’s glory years in the 1950s, which as Donoghue tartly notes, “contained plenty of pain and confusion and at least one breakdown”. It also encompassed Brennan’s brief marriage to a colleague at the New Yorker. “They were very alike; sociable and charming. She would probably have been better off with a really sensible dentist. Of course, she wouldn’t have gone for a sensible dentist. They were just this pair of sparklers. They had lots of fun, racked up huge amounts of debt and then divorced on good terms.”
Brennan fits comfortably into Donoghue’s pantheon of restless, larger-than-life female characters: Mary Saunders, the prostitute in her novel Slammerkin, who finds beauty in a red ribbon in the London of the 1700s; Ma in Room, who creates a loving environment for her child in the most appalling circumstances; and pretty much everybody in Astray, a collection of 14 tales about runaways, drifters and migrants.
“Many writers write short stories: I write short-story collections,” Donoghue says. “I heard Hanif Kureishi say recently that stories should always be published in isolation from each other. I don’t agree. I think the short-story collection is an artwork in itself, as well as the stories in it. And when I’m writing stories for a collection, I’m very aware of doing some in the first person and some as letters and some in the third person, so there’s a balance of perspectives. They form a strange kind of chorus in my head; a bit of a rabble.”
Astray features a historical note at the end of each piece that explains the “real” story behind the story, a format Donoghue also used in her 2002 collection, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits. The new volume features a tough-nut gold miner; a respectable middle-class London woman who works as a prostitute; and a successful New York politician who, upon his death, is discovered to be a woman.
“A quote from Dante stuck in my head,” she says. “ ‘I’ve wandered off the path of truth and woken to find myself lost in a dark wood.’ So many of the people I’m writing about never meant to go over a certain line – never meant to end up murdering their master and running away with his wife, like the slave in Last Supper at Brown’s – but by taking one step in that direction, suddenly everything has changed.
“Of course, the obvious reason I did it is that I’ve emigrated twice myself. For me it was 20th-century emigration and not particularly painful, but, still, things get altered.”
Since 1998 she has lived in London, Ontario, with her partner, Chris Roulston, and their children, eight-year-old Finn and five-year-old Una. “The first winter, I was completely freaked out by the icicles,” she recalls.
“Very often you’d have snow in Ontario from Christmas to April; it sometimes feels like the perpetual winter in Narnia before Aslan comes. Now, when we have the big icicles, I bring the kids outside and we bring the hammer and smash them and it’s all great fun.” These days, she says, she’s neither fully Irish nor fully Canadian. It’s the classic emigrant’s conundrum. “You end up as this funny halfway creature, liking and disliking aspects of both places. But that’s good for a writer. A writer should always be slightly off-balance, should never settle in and get too comfortable.”
It’s hard, frankly, to imagine Donoghue ever turning into a “comfortable” writer. Her work is too edgy, too interested in the offbeat, for that. “I like oddities,” she says. She looks at the contents list of Astray, and laughs. “My partner, Chris, she said: ‘When you give a reading, which story are you going to read? You need to pick a funny one. Don’t pick a downer.’ As I scan the contents list I’m thinking, Ooh . . . lots of downers. History is full of meaty plots and darkly interesting events. But life is tough.”
A sprinkling of fairy dust: ‘I feel extremely free now to write whatever I want
The success of her novel Room, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010, has had a huge impact on Emma Donoghue’s writing life. “Room has sprinkled its magic fairy dust over every aspect of my career,” she says. “It has been marvellous.”
The book tells the story of a child, born to a kidnapped girl, who grows up in a locked room. Was she daunted by her abhorrent subject matter? “Not at all. I knew that I was going to make it a best-case scenario. So, compared with any of the real cases, including the cases of Josef Fritzl or Natascha Kampusch, there was going to be far less of that horror.
“I knew I was going to design the set-up in Room so that the child has everything he needs except freedom. And so I knew that it was not going to be an unhappy story.
“Some of the research was very distressing, because I had to read about a lot of miserable cases. Not always of kidnapping, but neglected children and children in orphanages. I needed to look at all the ways in which you can stunt and damage a child so that I would know, what does Ma in the book have to do to protect him being stunted?
“What are the crucial patterns that any family establishes, even under those weird circumstances? Things like routine and rhythm and ritual. You need those, but you don’t need parenting books and you don’t need lots of money. You need love and a lot of sanity and protection.”
All parents, she says, have their Room moments. “I’ve had those Sunday mornings where I feel I’ve been there for seven years, you know, and I’m sure every kid wonders sometimes, Why did I get stuck with this particular mother? I’m quite a controlling mother myself. I’m always hovering over my kids saying: ‘Do you know what that word means? I’ll tell you what that word means. Have you done your homework?’ So I can easily imagine a child feeling, you know, get me out of here.”
Having followed Room with a play and a collection of short stories, does she feel any pressure to produce another big-concept bestseller next time around?
“The opposite,” she says. “I know that Room is likely to be my only runaway bestseller. Room is going to fund lots and lots of books that maybe nobody will read. Not that I want to jinx my chances, but I’m not going to chase success. I feel extremely free now to write whatever I want.”
The Talk of the Town is at Project Arts Centre, September 27th-October 14th; dublintheatre festival.com. Astray will be published by Picador next month. Emma Donoghue will give a reading on September 29th at the Hugh Lane Gallery, in Dublin; dubraybooks.ie