Emma Donoghue has plenty of "Room"


This week Irish writer Emma Donoghue is being introduced to the unfamiliar world of cameras and celebrity photo shoots. Nominated for the Man Booker Prize for her new novel Room, she tells CAHIR O’DOHERTY about the inspiration behind her instant bestseller that is catapulting her into the big leagues.

Irish writer Emma Donoghue's new novel Room, which was just shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, is already attracting serious buzz.  It was published in Ireland and the U.K. in early August (where it’s already on the bestseller lists) and it will be released in the U.S. this week; the Sunday New York Times Book Review section contained a glowing review.

Based very loosely on the horrific Fritzl case in Germany, where a young woman was held captive for 24 years in a concealed basement of her family home by her own father, Josef Fritzl, while he repeatedly abused and raped her, Room is a fictionalized portrait of a young woman who has been captured and held under similar circumstances.

The narrator of Donoghue’s Room is 5-year-old Jack, who has been born and raised in the 11 by 11 foot room he and his mother are trapped in. Since it’s all he has ever known he’s still strangely content in it, except when the bad man he and his mother call Old Nick arrives.

Old Nick is Jack’s father, but neither Jack nor his mother ever discuss that. It’s only when Jack’s questions about what’s outside the room get more urgent that it becomes clear it cannot contain them much longer.

Asked how she was inspired to approach a theme that most readers and writers instinctively want to run from, Donoghue, 41, says it’s the experience of being a parent -- and what it teaches you about your children and yourself -- that initially inspired her.

“It happened to be the Fritzl case that inspired the book, but really, my thinking and my interests went way beyond that. I was trying to bring the normal experience of parenting into this abnormal situation,” she tells the Irish Voice.

“I’ve read about children who were locked up in every sense -- children who were raised in prisons alongside their mothers (in many countries they do that). I read about children in concentration camps. I read about children who were hidden away in attics, basements and hen houses because their parents didn’t want to admit to them.

“All sorts of cruelties and miseries and neglect. And I was trying to find that line between survival and permanent damage.”

The book was also inspired by Donoghue’s own growing awareness of her own strengths and weaknesses as a parent.

“As a parent of two young children I had already done a lot of thinking about how you weigh up your duties as a mother with every other force in your life. I was also thinking of all those moments when a parent has to decide whether to give a child protection or freedom,” she says.

“There are moments when my son cycles madly ahead of me and I think no, stop! But I don’t tell him to because I also want him to have a free childhood. When I heard about the Fritzl case it was like a bell ringing. I thought a book from the point of view of a child in a situation like that could be a whole other story.”

Writing Room was a miraculously straightforward experience, Donoghue says.

“I have never had a book come so easily. I had to write it. I don’t come from a background of being a hugely popular, crowd pleasing author,” she says.

“If I had I would have worried people wouldn’t like this. It really didn’t occur to me to recoil from the subject matter. If you try to be a crowd pleaser you inevitably fail at it.”

The book was an immediate sensation when it debuted in Ireland and Britain in August, but the news about the Man Booker Prize nomination still changed everything.  Being selected as a candidate for the biggest fiction prize in the world has just taken the author and her work to the pinnacle of her career.

The past few days have been a whirlwind and they’ve turned Donoghue into something she may never have anticipated: an international celebrity.  So how does it feel?

“I’m feeling great but a little bit intellectually vapid because in between interviews I don’t have any thoughts,” Donoghue says. “I realized that publicity at this level is kind of a full time activity. It’s been phone interviews and photo shoots, and then I go and pick up the kids from the school bus. It hasn’t stopped.”

Home for Donoghue, who was born and raised in Dublin, is now London, Ontario where she lives with her same sex partner, a college professor. When her partner was offered tenure there several years ago the two decided to make a life in Canada together.

The family has now grown to include their two children Finn and Una. And it’s the normality of daily life in a sleepy academic setting that keeps her feet on the ground.