Writer Emma Donoghue received a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination this year for Room, the film based on her bestselling novel that won a Best Actress Academy Award for Brie Larson and a nomination for Irish director Lenny Abrahamson. Next week Donoghue releases The Wonder, the most spellbinding and arguably most accomplished novel of her career. Cahir O’Doherty talks to Donoghue about the book, the stories that inspired it and the ways in which its 19th century setting reflect modern Ireland.
You thought the triple Oscar nominated film Room was a rollercoaster ride? Wait till you pick up The Wonder, Emma Donoghue’s startlingly powerful new psychological thriller.
It will captivate you from the opening paragraph, so much so you may very well have to read it from cover to cover in one sitting. Set in Ireland in the early 1860s, when the scars of the Great Hunger are still visible on the landscape, The Wonder tells the story of Lib Wright, an English nurse summoned to an Irish village to investigate an apparent miracle.
Anna O’Donnell, a young girl, is said to have survived for months without a scrap of food or water. Is it a miracle or a trick? Is the girl a saint or a scam artist?
Donoghue’s multi-layered portrait of the girl and the small Irish town she lives in is a marvel, as she once again convincingly portrays the emotional life of a child who may well be exploited, or protected, by the adults around her.
“I’ve been fascinated by fasting girls cases for a good 20 years,” Donoghue told the Irish Voice last week, “but I never found one particular case that gave me that kind of hammering heartbeat that said I must write about this one.”
It wasn’t until she decided to break away from her usual historical research method and just make a story up that the work began.
“I’ve gotten so used to writing cases that were inspired by real individual historical events (the horrifying Josef Fritzl case in Austria-inspired Room, for example). But I thought in this case I wanted to write a novel that owed a lot to the reality of the lives of these famous fasters but that was a fictional case. That made me a lot freer to craft this story the way I wanted to,” Donoghue said.
Being free to make it up also means being free to decide where it happens. Donoghue, 47, has lived in Canada with her partner and two children for years, but she chose Ireland. “I had to set it in Ireland, because not only do I know it best, setting it in the 19th century gives a really interesting context to the question of hunger,” she said.
To fast deliberately when just a few years earlier Anna’s relations were all dying of hunger puts what’s happening in a very dramatic context. It raises the stakes and the questions the reader is forced to ask.
Fasting girls, whether through anorexia or religious mania or cynical calculation, are nothing new. What is often new are the reasons that can contribute to the occurrences.
“Anorexia is very mysterious,” agrees Donoghue. “I found that the pre-modern fasters weren’t the typical profile of the anorexics of today, but of course there’s a lot of overlap.
“Because even if they had more overtly religious motives, they were still clearly trying to be ‘good girls’ to be pure and spiritual rather than physical, trying to transcend any of the needs of the body and come across as the ultimate in purity and goodness and virginity.
“I think its no accident that these were teenage girls typically. They were socially completely powerless, and so in a way they were taking their societies rules about how to be good and how to be no bother and taking them to a bizarre extreme and becoming famous.
“So fasting is a very strange way to try and get power and fame if you’re a nobody. You say, ‘I’ll be no trouble at all, I will not eat at all,’ but perversely it puts you in the position of being the focus of attention.
“One thing I tried to get across is that even if you’re reading this book as an outsider and you don’t believe anything that Anna believes and you think she’s freakish, I want you to realize that she’s doing her best. She’s idealistic, she’s zealous, she had all sorts of strength and intelligence and gifts that, yes, she’s pouring into a rather perverse contract she’s making with God.”
There’s a lot that’s admirable about Donoghue’s mysterious young girl. It’s intentional.
“I didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh, yuck, what a crazy little girl.’ I wanted them to see the idealism and the amazing strength too. Her amazing will to make her life into a gift to God.”
For Donoghue, children are particularly interesting characters because they tend to work within whatever system they’re being raised in. They are obedient, they don’t know any different, so whatever extreme setting they’re growing up in – just like Jack in Room – they’re going to take it on its own terms and do their best to be successful within that.
“Rather than questioning the rules they’ve been raised by, they will often take them very seriously. So you see young people getting caught up in fundamentalist causes of all kinds,” she says.
“Teenagers are the easiest to recruit to cults because they absolutely love that sense of certainty and belonging. This novel happens to be about 19th century Irish Catholicism, but you could tell a very similar story set in any number of communities.”
When you write historical fiction, unless you never read a newspaper, you’re going to be aware of the ways your old story echoes modern ones. Is Donoghue?
“I wouldn’t say I write my historical novels as an indirect way of commenting on modern times, but yes, they do end up commenting on them. The important men of the village are all standing around discussing this little girls body and attempting to set rules for it. That’s very reminiscent of the debates over abortion today.”
In The Wonder, Anna is not an assertive character. She’s just a little girl who’s very quiet but is still managing to make potent statements about her society through the negative expression of fasting.
Into this combustible mix Donoghue places Lib Wright, a Florence Nightingale-trained English nurse who is tempermentally at odds with the piety and pretension she sees all around her.
“I liked the idea of bringing in someone whose job is to heal and look after people, but in this case her job is to watch Anna like a hawk to determine she’s a fraud,” Donoghue said.
“Lib is a woman of her era, she has all kinds of unthinking prejudices about the Irish, such as they’re all lazy slobs that brought the Famine on themselves. But her experiences lead her to question everything around her.”
The tale is so gripping you’ll be hard pressed to put it down. Another thing it is is cinematic. “I do think it could be a film,” Donoghue agrees. “It’s a story that would make the transition well.”
Donoghue was lucky as a first time screenplay writer, winning the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay and then seeing Room pick up multiple Oscar nods.
Many writers, she realizes, have gone to Hollywood and been badly burned by the studio system that can take a work and shape and reshape it until it no longer resembles the original work.
Keenly aware of the potential pitfalls, she and director Abrahamson took careful steps with Room to avoid them all.
“They kept saying to me, ‘Let’s keep the money people at bay, let’s not allow the money people in.’ It was a very carefully shepherded project. We did it independently of other considerations and that really benefitted the final result.”
The Wonder asks questions about women, power, and autonomy that are as relevant now as in the era the book is set. Donoghue anticipating loaded questions about attacking religion, slating Ireland and stirring up controversies, but she’s ready to tackle them all.
“This book is part of a conversation. The Irish themselves have been criticizing their own culture for quite a few decades now,” she says.
“I’m just joining a conversation. I see myself as absolutely part of my Irish generation.”