Sinead Gleeson interviewed Emma Donoghue at The Arms Hotel on Friday.
Emma: I don’t remember a time before books. I used to make my mother read to me all the time, in particular one of those Andrew Lang fairy tale anthologies. I think it was called The Yellow Book and there was one particular fairy story about a witch which I got her to read to me nightly. Now when I’m reading to my kids I think, oh no not that one again, and there’s certain books that I hide away, hoping they won’t ask me to read them.
Sinead: I’ve talked with Anne Enright and Deborah Levy and they’ve both said they trawled the bookshelves when they were young, looking for the sex bits. Did you ever do that?
Emma: I didn’t have to look through the bookshelves because I had older siblings and they put the rude books under the bed. So it was like a special dirty library. I could pull out horrendous stories about junkies and Victorian prostitution and so on, so I had a special select library of filth.
Sinead: Did you ever have any fear about your subject matter when you were starting out?
Emma: No, except that when I sold my first two novels. the publication date was a milestone for me because I knew I had to ‘come out’ to my mother by then. I had to mention to her about being a lesbian before the Irish Times did. Far from being a traumatic occasion, my mother said to me, you’re still my baby, which I still think is the ideal answer whenever your child has anything worrying to tell you.
Sinead: There isn’t a huge history of lesbian writers and characters. What did you think when you first encountered them?
Emma: There was one particular book about a nun having a break from the convent and exploring her sexuality, and I remember reading that standing up in a bookshop on Grafton Street and literally shaking with horrified excitement. I didn’t buy the book of course, because that would involve meeting the eyes of the person selling the book and they might know that…. you know! Apart from my worry about being a lesbian, I had a very confident upbringing, because I was very happy with books and schooling and writing. I was writing poetry from the age of seven, so it was like this secret world that buoyed me up.
Sinead: In terms of starting to write and actually physically doing it, do you wait for an idea to hit you or do you shackle yourself to the desk and make yourself stay there until the words come?
Emma: I wouldn’t say shackle. It’s more a case of hurrying the children out to the school bus and then running to the desk with glee. I find motherhood in particular has really brought back that zest to my working life. When I’m with the kids I’m being sat on and I’m bending over to pick up the pieces of lego that have stuck themselves between my toes. When I get them out the door I get to be a ‘mind’ again. I recently started working on a treadmill desk because I was worried that my sedentary lifestyle was going to kill me off. They’re also called ‘working workstations.’ It’s the first time I’ve ever been cutting edge, and adopted the technology before my friends. I stand there on this ugly great treadmill, walking at two and a half miles an hour typing at the same time! And contrary to what all my friends warned I do not fall off. And you get so engrossed in the work that you don’t notice that you’re walking. It’s amazing!
Sinead:. Have you written characters that you absolutely loathed?
Emma: The funny thing is, even if you take on a character like a slave owner and you write something from their point of view and get into their head, you develop sympathy. I would be very wary of writing a novel from the point of view of Hitler because I’m sure I’d be feeling warm and fuzzy towards him by the end of it. There’s something about the writing process that creates empathy. One of my novels, The Sealed Letter, is about a Victoria divorce and I wrote a third of it from the point of view of the husband. I thought he’d be a dry old stick but I was deeply sympathetic to him as soon as I’d written a page in his point of view. So the writing process actually changes what you have to say. The method does not remain fixed. It alters you and you start to see the world from their point of view.
Sinead: In Astray you’ve included explanations or postscripts for each story. Why did you do this.
Emma: When I did my first collection of historical short stories called The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits I remember my editor at Virago saying at the time, oh those little notes you have, put them right after each story, and I said no, surely only graduate students would be interested in that. But she said everybody is interested in reality, so I find that readers are very appreciative of knowing how much I’ve made up and how much I haven’t and it sort of welcomes them into the process. It says to the reader, here’s the facts I had, here’s what I did with them. Feel free to go off and look things up yourself. Feel free to imagine a different way you would have told this story. In a way I was trying to be humble by saying that these stories don’t belong to me. These are not my pure creations. I’ve contributed a lot but these are my versions of events and I really want to welcome everybody into the historical dialogue of how it might have been for say two boys to dig for gold in the Klondyke in the 1890s. What was going on in the minds of an Irish couple who emigrated just after the Famine?
Sinead: You are a novelist and a literary historian. How do you prevent the historical research overshadowing the fictional side?
Emma: It is sometimes like a two person office, where one Emma will spend the entire morning peering at genealogical websites and where I’m utterly rule bound and fact based and careful, and then at lunchtime I’ll say, well, no more facts to be had, and I might even feel like changing a few of them, and writer Emma lets rip, so there’s an interesting tension between the two. One of my stories in here is about Jumbo the Elephant who was forced to emigrate. I didn’t want to always write about emigrants as people choosing to go. Quite often people are shipped off and they’re refugees and they don’t get to choose. So Jumbo the Elephant famously refused to be sold off to the circus in new York. He refused to get in his travel crate and when I was writing his story I shaped events to hurry it up because the whole thing in fact went on for about eight months. But I think it’s very good to have a strong commitment to the facts and then decide which ones you will change and which you won’t.
Sinead: Where do you find the people for these stories?
Emma: I do a lot of browsing and I read a lot. I seize ideas and write them down. I do a few days research and see whether I can smell a story. Often there’s just one little detail that I can feel my pulse speeding up on. I like to write about ‘nobodys’ in general, they often have to be in some way marginalised or odd or unknown or forgotten. I just need to feel that these ghosts are grateful for being resurrected.
Sinead: Some writers say they need a sort of decompression chamber when they come out of writing a book and I’m guessing that with a book like Room you spent a lot of time in that bunker with them. What was it like when you got to the end of that book?
Emma: With small children there’s no time for decompression. But even before the kids I didn’t think breaks after books because I’m often planning the next one. So for me, a more useful metaphor is something like a garden you look after, and you might harvest one thing but then you need to be planting the next thing and weeding the next, so it’s continuous and I’m usually committed to more than one book which is good because it saves you from the terrible downer that some people get after they’ve done a book. I see writing as a craft and a trade and so I try not to be precious about it. I just go to my desk every day and work.
Sinead: Why did you want to tell this story, which has references to the Fritzl case?
Emma: I took one sentence from the Fritzl case which was the notion of a kidnapped young woman having a child and bringing him up incredibly well in captivity. That’s what I seized from it. I changed everything I could about it to make it as little like the Fritzl case as possible, but to no avail. The Irish Times called it the ‘Fritzl novel’, with a photograph of Josef Fritzl beside it, so I realise that if what you write has any connection with a real notorious case you cannot get away. Recently, rather surreally, because of the similar case in Cleveland I saw an article on the online Huffington post blaming me for the Cleveland case. It said how can Emma Donoghue live with herself in that she psychically caused this case and let the genie of evil out of the bottle!
Sinead: I noticed Jack and his mum pray, and I just wondered do you have faith. Are you religious?
Emma: It’s funny because that is a question I’ve never been asked, because only in Ireland do we talk about these things. Anywhere else it would be like somebody asking about your digestion. It would seem too private. I’d say I was a Catholic and I’m now a Protestant, so yes, religion only shows up in some of my books.
Sinead: What fostered your interest in feminism?
Emma: I think I’ve been a feminist instinctively from my teens. My mother might be surprised to hear me say this because she gave up her job to get married and stay at home to raise eight of us. But I think she managed to raise us with a very strong message of us girls keeping our careers in the way she couldn’t. I think there was a strong push to seize all the rights available to us and not be held back because of being a girl.
Ireland in the 1980s was far from a haven for women. I was deeply struck by things like Anne Lovett’s death, and the focus on the rights of the foetus over the rights of the mother, and all those moving statues. I remember Ireland in the 1980s as quite an embarrassment actually. I kept thinking I need to get out of here. I think in a way being in Ireland in the 1980s made me a feminist because I was just so aware that girls were getting these messages of get down on your knees and pray.
Sinead: This year is the twentieth anniversary of the death of Maeve Brennan and last year, your play, Talk of the Town was staged very successfully and got an extended run. When we spoke at the time you said Maeve was a complex, fascinating creature – by no means always likeable but always to be taken seriously.
Emma: When the producers asked me if I’d like to write a play about Maeve Brennan I bristled because I’m used to generating all my own projects, but then they sent me her works. I read all her stories and in particular her New York journalism and she wrote these beautiful pieces for The New Yorker. They’re really haunting pieces and the short stories are just so dripping with pain. I think in a way it really tapped the nostalgia and the sorrow of being an emigrant for me, because like her, I’m another Irish woman who left Ireland. There was this terrible gulf between her glamorous life in new York where she was belle of the ball, so I was thrilled that they asked me to write this play.
Sinead: Staying on the subject of emigration and exile. What kind of writer do you think you’d have been if you’d stayed in Ireland?
Emma: I think my range might have been a bit narrower. I don’t think that Irish writers have a narrow range but I think that I myself might have stayed a bit in my territory – stuck to what I knew. I think living away has literally unmoored me and so I feel terribly free to write stories set anywhere and in any century, and historical fiction is such a great training ground for that.
I think in my case emigration really did help. I’m fascinated by emigration and what it does to people and of course there are sorrows and losses and confusions. I have those moments where an airplane is landing and I suddenly can’t tell what country it’s landing in, so of course there’s stuff I don’t like about emigration but I think it’s terribly educational. And sometimes I see it as a metaphor for life. You know, everyone moves away from their childhood, even if you’re still living in the same house you were born in. No matter what, you’ll never get back to your childhood country.