The worst part of being a writer is the book tour. More precisely, it’s the endless interviews with the press.
They won’t have read your work. If you’re Irish they will almost certainly mispronounce your name. Worse, you’ll be expected to keep smiling when you notice all of these tiny humiliations because your publisher and your agent have insisted.
It’s enough to make you dread the publication of a new book. But Emma Donoghue — having sold 2.5 million copies of her last novel Room — is now at a place in her career and life where being called on to humor others is not her top priority.
That said, she’s very friendly and chatty on the phone from London, Ontario where she lives with her longtime same sex partner Chris and their two children. Currently she’s gearing up for the international release of her latest novel Frog Music, a pulse pounding literary whodunit set in San Francisco in 1876 that quickly establishes itself as a tense and involving mystery.
The book opens with the shocking real life murder of a young woman named Jenny Bonnet, who is shot and killed through the window of a broken down saloon on the outskirts of San Francisco. Bonnet is just 27 years old and already notorious in the locality for dressing in men’s clothes. Before the shooting she had been employed as a “frog catcher” for the local French restaurants, we learn.
Next to Jenny on the night she dies is her friend Blanche Beunon, who finds herself on a mission to track down the killer. It’s an indication that Donoghue has become increasingly comfortable crafting plot driven narratives that appeal to much wider audiences.
But don’t try to tell her she’s famous yet. She can’t compare her book sales with thriller writers.
“It’s still only within literary fiction. It’s a small genre. If you compare it with a self-help author or a cookbook author it’s not that big a deal,” Donoghue, 45, tells the Irish Voice.
“My kids were asking me the other day, ‘Are you famous?’ And I was saying, ‘Well, listen, imagine Miley Cyrus, that’s really famous – well I’m like a pebble under her shoe, you know?’ My fame is not so great as to be burdensome, put it that way. I might have someone talk to me at the supermarket, but it’s all quite manageable.”
In conversation Donoghue has a lovely, understated wit that gently betrays her family’s already famous academic background. In conversation she’s mercurial and somehow ponderous at the same time, which reminds the listener that her father Denis Donoghue is one of the most respected literary critics in the world. That must have been a formidable training in exactitude.
But from her first moments as a playwright back in the 1990s it was clear that her trajectory would take her out of Ireland for a while, not only to step out of her family’s shadow but to explore alternatives to the still insular and often closeted gay life in Dublin.
By any yardstick London, Ontario was an unusual place for an Irish person to fetch up in the end, and Donoghue admits it.
“I do find myself occasionally dreaming of Tayto crisps,” she laughs. “I didn’t make a fuss about them when I was there. It’s like traditional music. I had no time for ballads at home, but when I left I discovered I’d memorized the words to ‘Danny Boy.’
“Emigration brings out these new traits in you. When I go to Ireland now I bring back a sack of 20 Tayto bags and my kids rip them out of my hands.”
Donoghue met her partner Chris at Cambridge University where she studied for eight years for her Ph.D. Moving to Canada with the woman she describes as the love of her life made her wonder if she’d be forgotten about in Ireland, where her literary talent was first acknowledged.
“I wanted to do a Ph.D, but not in a subject that my dad was a specialist in. I went to Cambridge to do English literature, then fell for Chris and ended up in Canada,” Donoghue recalls.
“It wasn’t that my career forced me out of Ireland. I just happened to end up out of Ireland. I would have thought I would have been forgotten about there, but it seems I have a strong following who think of me as an Irish writer.”
What’s so surprising, she says, is the sheer diversity of the readership she has inspired.
“You can never tell. Men in their sixties will come up to me sobbing and saying that they read Room and it made them think of their grandchildren. It’s wonderfully unpredictable who will click with your books. I never try and imagine a certain kind of reader. I never label demographically.”
Frog Music itself becomes a metaphor for the kind of promiscuous, interracial and intercultural fiesta that is San Francisco itself, then and now.
“I hadn’t expected music to become such a big part of the book,” Donoghue confesses. “I chose the title, and then I thought I should have a few songs in there. Then I got more and more interested.
“Songs are just like people. They hop over walls, they sleep with each other, they hybridize and they make mixed babies.”
Researching the songs that comment on and create the mood of her new novel was a fascinating undertaking, Donoghue admits. What she discovered was that songs that were familiar to her, songs she thought she knew, had origins that could often astonish her.
“I was shocked to find the ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew You’ song, which I always thought was very poignant, was in fact an English music hall piss take. They were making fun of us,” she says.
“The musical traditions of the different ethnic groups are not at all pure. I love that about music, it’s so promiscuous. It became more and more important in the book as a way of suggesting the cultural mixtures that were going on.”
Blanche has many secrets, one of which is an infant son that she never sees and barely thinks about. When challenged over it by Jenny the pair discover the child is being kept at a wretched orphanage and she is forced to bring him home.
The sharply contrasting mothers of Room and Frog Music make for a particularly engrossing study of the maternal instinct (does it even exist?) and Donoghue keeps her eye on the way that our choices are complicated by personal autonomy and desire.
It’s Blanche’s own struggle with the loveless and unlovely child she has borne that gives her character such dimension and the book it’s philosophical heft. Donoghue refuses to make things easy on her characters, and in Frog Music she has crafted a heroine and a tale that casts a particularly cold eye on life and death.