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.
“Usually writing the next book keeps me occupied, but I have to say the publicity around this one has gotten so intense that it’s distracting me. I do find the mockery of my friends is keeping me grounded though. It’s the most helpful thing,” she says.
“The night the Booker shortlist came out I had friends over for a curry and they were making fun of me for being included in the list. It was just deeply relaxing that they were celebrating it and simultaneously taking the piss.”
For now though, there’s no escaping the glare of the nomination and all the madness that follows it. Donoghue knows this and is determined to enjoy the ride.
“I’m going to try to fully enjoy this year, and then I’ll get right back to writing the books I write and not worry about who’s going to read them. What I don’t want is to be all bitter and twisted when the next book doesn’t sell like this one does,” she says.
“I realize that yes, people like my writing but it’s mostly just the concept of the book. It’s just that most people are disproportionately fascinated by the concept of a kidnapped or enclosed life. They’re also responding terribly strongly to the mother and child bond.
“People bring all sorts of aspects of themselves to the reading of a book. In a way I feel only partly responsible for this one. Room has become a bit of a phenomenon and I’m trying not to take it too personally, you know?”
Asked if the experience of writing Room made her examine her own parenting skills, she laughs.
“I’m a much more salty and bad tempered mother than the one in the book. But I’m not known to be a bad tempered person otherwise. I’m usually considered to be equable and calm yet I shout at my children every day,” Donoghue shares.
“I mean I don’t shout at them all day, I try to be great company in between times, so they’ll have something nice to remember. But they drive me to distraction.”
Room has made Donoghue horribly self-conscious about her parenting, she confesses.
“I tried to make the Ma character as realistic. I didn’t want her to be this heroic figure. And you know, they do say if you’re a gloriously saintly mother that can mess up your children. My children will be in no danger of that.”
Asked how she keeps her level headedness amid the press frenzy, she has a pithy answer.
“This is my seventh book of fiction. I’ve lived through the exciting times when publishers call up saying we’re reprinting more, and comparing that with other books of mine when publication day came and went with nothing at all happening.
“It would mess with your head if you thought badly of your book just because nobody liked it. So I really try to give each book my best, and let them go out into the world where some will be luckier than others.”
Room is published by Little Brown.