When Irish novelist Emma Donoghue, 46, began writing "Room," the heart stopping tale of a mother and child held captive for years in a tiny shed (for which the film version is up for four Oscars next month) she didn’t worry for a minute that the thoroughly unpleasant subject matter would turn her readers off.
At the time she was neither a bestselling author nor much given to crowd pleasing, she says, so she could afford to take a huge gamble with the undeniably dark theme.
The gamble that she took certainly paid off. The book became a literary sensation and was eventually nominated for the Booker Prize. Later Donoghue, her star firmly on the ascent, was approached to write a screenplay by Irish film director Lenny Abrahamson, who then came on board to direct.
But what has the Oscar nomination has meant for Donoghue personally? Is she giving impromptu acceptance speeches in the grocery store when no one's looking, or what has the experience been like?
“I’m absolutely delighted not only by my personal Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay but by the three others that "Room" has received, for Best Actress, Best Director and Best Picture,” Donoghue tells the Irish Voice.
“Best Picture is the biggest deal, in that it’s the one that persuades cinemas to show the film, and individuals to buy tickets, so that actually thrills me even more than my own personal nom. ‘Nom’ is one of those bits of film jargon I’ve had to pick up! Unlike a novel, a film is all about teamwork, so for instance at the Golden Globes we all felt like we’d triumphed when Brie (Larson) won.”
The Irish can often be a bit unnerved by massive international success but Donoghue doesn't appear to be one of them.
“Hmm, I don’t know is that true of the Irish, and personally, I lap it up. But I don’t let success go to my head, or radically re-calibrate my expectations, because then its only long-term effect would be bitterness. For instance, when "Room" the novel sold so well, I enjoyed every minute of it, while reminding myself that this was a fluke, and not the way publishing my next book would likely be,” Donoghue says.
“It’s really helped that this kind of success has only come in my forties. I’ve been a full-time writer since my early twenties, so I have lots of experience of the kind of low-profile, non-bestselling, but still very satisfying business of being an author to draw on.”
Donoghue's first impression of "Room" director Abrahamson came from the uncommonly direct letter he wrote to her pitching "Room" as a feature film and the quietly confident way he conducted himself.
What was her experience writing the screenplay for "Room," and what opportunities did filming the story allow that novel writing can't?
“A film speaks a whole other language. Adapting 'Room' to the screen brought out the role of Ma (because the film is less limited to Jack’s child perspective than the novel), the physicality of the characters, and the realism of their confinement in that shed. Film can make people cry more easily than fiction, and this one certainly does, but I find the audience comes out uplifted when 'Room' is over.”
Has the surprise of being nominated passed?
“I was extremely surprised for myself, as the pundits on the various websites all seemed to be saying I was out of the running. And we were all staggered by Lenny’s nomination as Best Director, because nobody seemed to think (for those mysterious Academy reasons) that he had a chance, even though we on Team Room all know he’s a genius!”
This really is a banner year for Irish film talent, and Donoghue is thrilled to be part of the strong Irish contingent that also includes Saoirse Ronan as a Best Actress nominee for "Brooklyn," and Michael Fassbender for "Steve Jobs."
“It doubles the fun, to feel that the astonishing success of 'Room' is part of something bigger and derives to a great degree from Irish talents across the board, from novelists through directors and actors to post-production,” Donoghue says.
As an emigrant to Canada, where she lives with her wife and children, Donoghue has the outsider's perspective that actually helps her as a writer she says. But is Ontario home now or does she bring Ireland with her?
“Two kinds of home, I suppose: my everyday, now home in London, Ontario – not a particularly cool city, but I’ve ended up being very happy there – and my deep down where-I’m-from home of Dublin. Emigration is something I’ve done twice, first to England and then to Canada,” Donoghue says.
“Though it has its poignant moments, it’s very educational for a writer. We should always feel slightly on the outside.”
Being gay puts her slightly on the outside too, or did the marriage referendum last year change how she thinks of home?
“Yes, I must say I was deeply moved not just by the result of the referendum and the sweeping support it won in rural and working-class areas, but the way it happened: so many of my friends (straight as well as gay) took on this cause as the defining one for their sense of the new and just Ireland.”
There's always one pressing question everyone has to answer about Oscar night. What is she going to wear? “I never thought I’d have reason to say this line in my life, but… a designer is making me a dress,” she laughs. “An Irish designer based in New York, Don O’Neill of Theia.”
In September Donoghue will release "The Wonder," the highly anticipated novel that sees her return once again to Ireland, this time in the 1850s, where we meet Anna, a bright but strange 11-year-old girl who has stopped eating but remains alive and well, and Lib, an English nurse charged with determining whether the girl is a fraud.
Aren't questions of faith and doubt perennial Irish themes? Aren't we always looking for a revelation?
“Unlike my other historical novels, 'The Wonder' is not based on one real incident; it’s more like 'Room' in that it takes a spark of something real and spins a fictional story about it,” Donoghue says.
“There were dozens of cases of ‘fasting girls’ in Europe and North America between the 16th and the 20th centuries. Every few years, basically, a woman or girl would hit the headlines for what was claimed as a magical, spiritual or scientifically extraordinary ability to live without food.”
“For me, Ireland is a really unusual country in that it’s so dominated by one particular cultural heritage: Irish Roman Catholicism. Even if Mass-going numbers are way down nowadays, the flavor remains. So I set 'The Wonder' in 19th-century Ireland because I wanted to explore that culture in its most intense form, at a moment when, after the Famine, the church had a very tight grip on a nation wrecked by its losses.
“But as I wrote the novel, I became more aware of a broader context in our current terrorism-haunted world: zealotry and fundamentalism (especially among idealistic, naive young people) are more of a scourge than ever. So I suppose The Wonder is my way of mulling over both the good and bad aspects of faith.”
The publishers excitingly refer to it as Donoghue's masterpiece, setting the scene for its launch later this year and doubtless for the film that will inevitably follow. So it seems whatever happens on Oscar night, 2016 will be a banner year for the Irish novelist.
“The nice thing about hitting the headlines with one of my works is that it shines a bit of a glow on the others too. So people seek out my previous books, or will be a little more open to my next ones, because of the magic glow cast by that Oscar word,” Donoghue says.