In love with life’s losers

As work gets underway on the movie of her bestselling novel ‘Room’, Ontario-based Dubliner Emma Donoghue talks about life as a writer, and why she’s always been attracted to outsiders

Author Emma Donoghue in Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke

The first story Emma Donoghue wrote was a school essay when she was in fifth class in Mount Anville primary school. It was a fantasy about breaking into a temple, Indiana Jones-style. In the story she described the light in a particular cave as “excruciatingly vivid”. Her teacher crossed out the word “excruciatingly” and wrote “very”. Donoghue remembers thinking, “I don’t mean ‘very’, bitch! I mean excruciatingly! I was clearly a bit cocky even then.”

Donoghue isn't cocky though. Confident, sure. But not uppity, and definitely not precious. She discusses her writing in nuts and bolts terms, not highfalutin' abstracts. It's a self-assurance that selling well over a million copies of her stunning novel Room asserts, but also the experience and realism of the fact that Room was her 10th publication – novels and short story collections – brings.

She began writing poetry quite seriously from the age of seven, but it never struck her as a viable career option. Maybe, she thought, she’d die young and her poems would be discovered after. “Teenagers are always expecting to die young,” she jokes, knowingly undermining her childhood precociousness.

Her latest novel, Frog Music , steps away again from the departure that was Room and back to historical fiction. Donoghue does suffocation well. The atmosphere in Frog Music is stifling. It's the summer of 1876 in San Francisco, and in the saloons and burlesque parlours in the midst of a heatwave, a crime unfolds. A young woman, Jenny Bonnet, is shot, her French friend Blanche Beunon is on the tail of her murderer. Or is the murderer on hers?


"Donkeys years ago" Donoghue came across a one-paragraph description of the case in a book about wild women of the Victorian age. Since then, she was drawn into The Wire .

“It struck me that I wanted to write a historical novel which would be like that. It would take the scum of the earth seriously, these drifters, not just Jenny, but all the people she knew, these French lowlifes. Even though they’re sordid in many ways, to take their struggles seriously and give them that moment of dignity.”

Donoghue's mum liked bringing her to Famine graveyards, poking around the headstones and seeing what they said. Or to stately homes and wandering around their kitchens. "For political reasons, I started getting interested in the nobodies," she says of her approach to history. "First of all, women. So my first historical novel Slammerkin was very much like 'Okay, I'm going to take this total nobody and I'm going to find out what made her tick.'"

In her fiction she has a large number of characters who are crippled, or put in freak shows, or slaves or prostitutes. “I got very interested in those who were left out of history.” She isn’t drawn to famous historical figures. “I like the job of digging up the losers.”

The fashion of historical fiction is a kind accident for Donoghue. Once the preserve of niche-nerds, it now feels almost populist. “It was a really despised genre,” she says. “Now it seems as though the average novel in the shops is something set in a time and a place where you’d never been, and you think ‘Ooh! Turkey in the 1300s! Carpet making! Yeah, I’ll have some of that!’ I don’t believe a writer’s job is to write about the time they’re living in. If you can roam freely around the centuries, then why not?”

The word “obsession” pops up a few times in terms of the spirit in which she writes, but she’s keen to emphasise that while geeky about her work, she doesn’t isolate herself.

“I’m not that intensive about the writing process. I don’t go off to a hut in the woods to write my books. I very much, in the spirit of Jane Austen, I write, and when my friends come in the door, I slap the laptop shut and talk to my friends. I try not to be precious about it. But you’ve got to be so preoccupied with the subject of your story that you don’t even count the days you spend researching trivia.

“Does her sock have a tassel on it? You look up the history of tassels. It’s such a pleasure to follow those questions as far as you need to follow them. To look up every picture you can find of burlesque dancers and costumes and try to figure out when the skirt dance arrived, when the can-can arrived. You just need to go down into these wormholes. And then of course throw away most of your research, but it’s not really thrown away because you’ve chosen the very juiciest little morsels from it, and it all enhances what you’re writing.”

It’s not too curious that Donoghue would be drawn to outsiders. She is, in a way, one herself. A member of what we now grandly call the Diaspora, living in Canada. A lesbian, and along with her partner Chris Roulston, the mother of two young children. She doesn’t drink, so when she talks about “the craic”, she’s talking about the default level of satire, mockery and and verbal performance that colours speedy Irish conversation.

Since she left Ireland in 1990, she’s never been away from the country for more than six months. Within a few months of settling in Canada, they began putting “Canadian Author” stickers on her books. “I remember thinking, ‘God, I’d need to be in Ireland a generation before anyone would say I was an Irish writer.’”

The country’s casual acceptance of identity appeals. “I find Canada a deeply civilised country to live in. It’s got full equal rights for lesbians and gays and that makes a difference because it means you can get along with living and not feel like some kind of beleaguered minority, especially since we have kids.” She tries to keep up-to-date with LGBT equality and social progress in Ireland.“I’ve heard bits and pieces about ‘PantiGate’ and so on. I do tend to feel Ireland is about 30 years behind in those ways. But clearly there are changes, even the fact that there’s some kind of abortion provision on the books at all. Clearly there are changes.”

After she gets the kids off to school, she writes for about half the day on a treadmill desk, a habit she began a year ago after she became worried about taking no exercise. “I’m truly a lazy slob, but once you’re into the rhythm of it you don’t realise you’re walking.” At 43, and “all chocolate biscuits and sofas”, she’s hoping the walking and writing combination will make her fulfil a promise to her children that she’ll live to 100. Her kids bring out extreme emotions in her. “I’m this fun mum but also this scary hag. I often finish the day wondering who was that woman screaming, ‘eat that vegetable’. Whoever this scary person is I never met her before I had kids.”

She’s currently trying to write a children’s book, borrowing things her kids say. The problem now is that they’re looking for payment. “One of them came up with a particularly funny story and I said, ‘I’ll pay you two dollars.’ Now the bastards are asking for me to pay for everything! That was foolish. I think I was trying to make them feel involved in the process, the family business. But no, it was a bad precedent.”

There's a lovely giddiness to these family insights. And it's a stability that must have been swept into a maelstrom when Room took off. She was "thrilled to bits" about the success of that book, but is utterly pragmatic about it.

"It only happened to me when I was 40. I know that the literary life is not really like that. Best-sellers are a freak of good luck. I'm not somebody who would write a string of best sellers in that way. I've been lecturing myself ever since, that publishing other books is unlikely to be like that. Since I first sold Room I've been saying to myself, 'Don't expect for it to be like that all the time.' I was enormously relieved to get back to the writing. I think if you hit the big time like that with your first novel, you'd really have your head turned by it. You'd be thinking of yourself as a star. I felt I was a veteran writer and have had lots of highs and lows. And I'm very confident of my writing, but also aware that there's a huge element of luck and fashion to which books sell and which don't. I don't feel it sent me spinning the way it might have if it happened earlier."

The film of Room , which Donoghue is heavily involved in, will be directed by Lenny Abrahamson. "He's intellectually brilliant, but he's warm and down to earth as well, never pretentious. He has such a good sense of what works on film and he's so helpful to me in advising me on how to structure things." They click, in a way, she says, "I can only describe as being based on the fact that we're two Dubliners. There's a shorthand."

For now, she has the next four books planned out, ideas come like mosquitos. Book ideas and research are filed away on the programme Scrivener, which reduces the terror of starting a new book. Downtime involves watching a lot of TV drama. "Modern long-form television drama is probably the nearest equivalent to the Victorian novel." The Wire, The Good Wife, she recently re-watched all of The West Wing . She couldn't write TV though, because of how TV writers work in a collaborative manner. "I don't think I have the teamwork skills."

For Donoghue, each book is its own immersive world. The good times are being lost in that world. Mostly, she doesn’t remember the good moments of writing. “It’s like trying to remember really good sex or something, it’s a blur because you were in the flow.”

When she was finishing the redraft of Room over Christmas holidays, she brought her kids to a gym class in the YMCA, and was sitting in the open seating outside, working on her laptop on a particularly sad scene. "I was crying. And then I suddenly thought, 'Oh my god, I look like a mad woman.' I probably wouldn't have noticed that moment, except I suddenly realised I was in public, and people might be looking at me."