Emma Donoghue Says All the Smart Things (and Still Gets Mansplained To)!

Twelve years ago I picked up a racy-looking paperback with a gaping bodice on the cover and a dictionary definition on the title page: “Slammerkin, noun, eighteenth century, of unknown origin. 1. A loose gown. 2. A loose woman.”

As it turned out, Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin had a lot more to do with slimy breeches than heaving bosoms. Set in 18th-century London, the novel is almost straight naturalism, a grimy, depressing, but riveting story that follows a young girl on her path from prostitute to refugee to [spoiler alert!] murderess. Mary’s psychology, such as it is, is almost entirely molded by outer circumstances, accidents of birth and station and bad timing. Given her environment, it only takes a soupcon more than the usual amount of envy in Mary to set the wheels in motion that lead her to her ghastly fate. It’s enough to make you listen to your elders.

It wasn’t until I read the historical notes at the back of the novel that I realized this wasn’t just a realistic story, it was a real story. Like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it was inspired by a gruesome murder about which the historical record says little. Many (though not all) of Donoghue’s other books have done the same type of historical reconstruction work: The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, and the short stories in The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits and Astray, her latest collection, which covers four centuries of wanderings, migrations, and peregrinations from the micro-perspective of those caught up in the crosswinds. Emma Donoghue thinks like an academic and writes like a woman possessed by the ghosts of historical nobodies, whose minor, idiosyncratic histories tell a larger story about their time.

In 201o, Donoghue’s contemporary novel Room appeared, a gut-wrenching account of a mother and son in a captivity scenario out of your worst nightmare. Room‘s unconventional narrator is a five-year-old boy who has lived his entire life in a tiny, one-room prison with only his mother for company. Trapping the reader inside a child’s head is far from just a gimmick, or even a tool for ongoing dramatic irony. It conveys at once the airless, stunted quality of life in the room and also the astonishing potential of the human mind, its almost sublime ability to reach beyond its narrow limits to the incomprehensible beyond. Jack and his mother shape one another asymmetrically but wholly; Room is Emile written as a love story between mother and child, boxed in by their bond of love and the utter dependence of one on the other just as they are by the literal prison around them. Room was masterful, and it should have won the Booker Prize, or the Orange Prize—it was shortlisted for both.

So, given all that, let’s just say I was excited to get a chance to interview Emma Donoghue for CultureMap. I was nervous, and consequently listening to the recording was not fun: I sound dumb as a rock. I asked questions that made it seem like I hadn’t actually read any of her books; I blanked and failed to listen properly or follow up. Luckily, Emma Donoghue was smart enough for the both of us, so my awkwardness didn’t ruin the interview.

And anyway, I’m proud of it. It’s a landmark for me. At the beginning of 2012, having just graduated and not knowing what was next, I conceived of this ludicrous idea to interview all my favorite contemporary female writers. Jennifer Egan and Emma Donoghue were at the top of the list. Along the way, I’ve fallen in love with a dozen more female authors, and have been fortunate enough to interview a couple of them. But to speak to someone who was an initial inspiration for this project, whatever it is, that was really something.

Interview after the jump.

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The Oeditrix: The stories in Astray are based on crossings between the continents: travelers, immigrants, exiles–so I wonder if you could tell me a little about that theme in your life.

Emma Donoghue: I think immigration is a very interesting matter anyway, but it’s certainly true that I’m preoccupied with it because I’ve emigrated twice. And not just that I happen to have emigrated, but that being Irish I was raised to emigrate. When I was growing up with my siblings, my seven siblings ahead of me, I saw them all head off automatically, and although some came back, there just seemed a natural rhythm. Especially if you have aspirations to any decent kind of job, if you were a college graduate, you were planning to head off into the world like migrating birds. Ireland is just too small an island to stay home. But I think even though Ireland’s had times of mass immigration, say in the late ‘90s when it was doing well, it’s such a small island that it always looks to other countries to orient itself. So I think it’s very natural for the Irish to want to go out into the great big world. So yes, I moved to England for a PhD and then to Canada, so I’ve done this twice now, and although I remain really attached to my home country and I go back there a lot, I’m really aware of all I’ve gained by leaving it. So I have very mixed feelings about immigration. And mixed feelings are always a good basis for fiction.

OED: Are the characters also “astray” in other ways? Many of them deviate from the social and sexual mores of their day.

ED: Definitely. And that wasn’t just some sort of little clever idea because I had to pull the collection together, I think it just makes absolute sense that when you’re writing about characters who not just traveling for fun, but going on serious life-changing journeys, it’s going to mess with them morally speaking as well. Because either they’re going to shake off the old rules of home, and one of the great pleasures of immigration is to get away from whatever the natives would have thought! Or the dream of going somewhere wilder, the whole notion of the “Wild West” where anything was allowed. I think people have always had their sense of what was allowed shaken up by travel, and by encountering people with different codes, and I’ve always been very interested in people who are either permanently on the margins because of who they are, people with the faces of freaks for instance, or who choose to step over that line by doing something like having an interracial relationship in a time period where it was forbidden. It’s funny with fiction and history—history is a really rich source of fiction, but you’re never looking for the most representative, substantial, typical person of the day. You’re always looking for the oddities, because they illustrate a different kind of truth. So I found that almost every story in the book naturally touched on not just the traditional meaning of “astray” as travel, but all the other ones as well.

OED: Half a dozen of your novels are based on historical characters, even I would say your contemporary novels like RoomRoom is based on something from the headlines.

ED: Clearly I have an impoverished imagination! I can’t seem to get by without these little nuggets to get me started.

OED: Why is that do you think?

ED: I don’t think I’m an natural at plotting. I think I’m really good at imagining up characters and I think my natural talent is the dialogue. But I’m not somebody who just naturally rolls out of bed in the morning with great plots in her head. So I find history a particularly useful source because not only do substantial and dramatic things happen, but they also have that edge of oddity to them. One example would be my novel The Sealed Letter about a Victorian divorce case. If I was just making up a Victorian divorce story, which of course I could do, but I would probably have gone for one that was relatively clean in its lines. One husband, one wife, and maybe she would have one affair. But the woman I was writing about in the real case, the Covington trial, she was carrying on simultaneously and in an overlapping way with two of her husband’s military colleagues! I would never have made that up, that would have just seemed preposterous. So I love that sort of rough edge that history has, that hasn’t been smoothened down. There are all those details that you just can’t quite believe, and yet they ring true because they’re genuinely odd.

OED: There’s this specificity to them that’s really astonishing. If I were reading Astray and I didn’t see the historical bits at the back of each story, I would assume that they had been made up, because many of them are really out there. Is your Phd in history? 

ED: No, it’s not. You know, I was turned off history with a capital “H” by the fact that I was growing up in Ireland. The Irish high school curriculum, the history they taught was the minutiae of Irish doomed revolutions. We’ve got a lot of tiny doomed revolutions, microscopic, you know, it’ll be like six guys in a field with three pikes between them. We concentrated entirely on that, and on British parliamentary politics. So I found history really pretty  boring. What I liked was what I now realize is called social history. My mother used to take me to graveyards and stately homes, those kind of things. I loved that. But I just didn’t think of that as the official “history” subject. So no, I studied English, which I loved too of course. But now I realize that really I’m a natural historian, but it just didn’t really occur to me to do it at university, because I thought it would be more of those damn Irish revolutions. The “national question” has just this terribly dominant hold on our minds.

OED: You became a literary historian, though.

ED: It’s true, in a way. But when I’m writing my fiction, I tend to feel terribly, terribly grateful to the scholars that I’m drawing on. Because every time I write a thing set in, say, the 18th century, I’m drawing on twenty different books about roads in the 18th century, currency in the 18th century, clothes in the 18th century. Somebody else has done a lot of that hard primary research. I think often reviewers overestimate the extent to which I have dug up these cases. I mean, very often other people have dug them up and all I am doing is turning them into fiction. So It feels like good karma to me that I’ve also done some of that quiet digging up of tiny details for the historical record, making it available to others. It’s a very different kind of work doing primary history, it’s very slow and painful. But deeply satisfying too. . . . I did a slim biography of a pair of Victorian poets, Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who wrote as Michael Field. I was writing a very small book about them, and it includes the best bits of twenty five years of their diaries. And so I read every word of their diaries in the British Library, and that was deeply satisfying. And you know it was a very small publication, it was never going to make me famous, but just the satisfaction of seeing them get their first really comprehensive modern biography was really enjoyable work.

 OED: What kept you from writing a novel about that? What made them a better subject for a biography than a novel?

ED: Because the source was wonderfully thorough. And so any novel about them would have been effectively just taking that source and putting a skin of fiction on it. They wrote so eloquently about themselves, and, yeah, it would have felt a bit like cheating! The source was full enough that actually all that it needed was a very straightforward approach where I mostly let them speak for themselves, and I just quoted all the best bits. Whereas the stories in Astray, these are the kind of people who—well, Jumbo [the elephant] has had a couple of biographies written of him, but most of the people in the book are too odd or obscure, or we don’t know enough about them, that you’re never going to be able to do a biography. So I think fiction is enormously good at reaching into those little crevices that history as such is not going to be able to get to.

OED: Do you feel a fidelity to these historical characters, to really tell the truth about them?

ED: You know it’s not that I feel I have to stick to every detail that’s in the sources, because luckily—well, luckily from my point of view!—sources contradict each other. And they’re often full of lies. Like the court case I used in my novel The Sealed Letter, I mean nobody in that court case was remotely credible. You can just smell the lies. And one advantage to having done a lot of historical reading is that I think you do develop a good kind of ear for lies. You know, like you can tell when the language gets more conventional, you can tell that now what you’re hearing is somebody’s sort of, you know, souped-up theme that they’re making up. And other passages really ring true. So sources, I don’t feel obliged to always stick to exactly what they say. But I do feel obliged to say at the back which things I’ve made up and which things I’ve changed. I do like to be very transparent about my process, because I have a historian side as well as a fiction writer side, I don’t want to muddle the two. I can in a way combine the two in my historical fiction, but I wouldn’t want to pretend that my fictional versions are the gospel truth either. I think especially as I’m writing about such obscure people often, I feel obliged to let people have the facts as much as we can find them, so that my short story won’t be the only version I’m offering. I think it’s up to me to resurrect these people, and then let the readers go off and find more about them and write their own version. I don’t feel that I own these cases.

OED: Strangely, every time I read one of your books I forget that there’s going to be that section in the back.

ED: So you enter the pure fiction moment!

OED: I do!

ED: Good, because I wouldn’t want readers to be stopping after every paragraph and saying, “I wonder which bit is the fact.” I mean, fiction is deeply relaxing that way.

OED: Well, that was kind of my question. Do you think that interaction between the two sections of the book . . . In one way it adds ballast to the story that came before. In another way it almost undercuts the story as well. Because you’re disclosing, “Here are some things that might be different.”

ED: That’s true. Or, if historical fiction is in the form of a long novel, you don’t get the history until the very end. So it has a different effect. And the reason I put the notes after each story is that when I did my first book along these lines, which was a collection called The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, my editor at Virago Press said, “These notes that you’ve got at the back? We’ve got to put them after each story.” And I said, “No, that’s embarrassing! They’re just my sources, I’ll keep them hidden away at the end, I’m sure nobody would be interested.” And she said, “Everybody will be interested.” She was firmly convinced that most readers would be riveted to hear about the element of the real. And that maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it somehow does matter to us. Now I would say there are exceptions, some readers are irritated by them, and would be even if if it was just at the back. Some people just think it’s indecorous to bring fact into fiction at all. So you know, that’s not for them. But I think others are really enjoying it and they’re enjoying that moment of discomfort, that gap between the fiction and the life. But the main thing, I brought it in not because I thought readers would like it or wouldn’t, but I honestly put it in for ethical reasons, because I don’t own these lives, and I wanted to give credit not only to the academics who’ve dug up these cases, but in a way just give full respect to the people I’m writing about. And say, look, here are factual sources about them, go look at those too if you want.

OED: When you talk about the gap between the fact and the fiction, it’s like it’s another kind of crossing.

ED: Indeed! I was thrilled by one reviewer [Caroline Leavitt of the San Francisco Chronicle] who said the book was an “interactive narrative hybrid.” And I thought, oh, how cool!

OED: That sounds very fancy. 

ED: I know, doesn’t it?

OED: When you went in for a PhD, did you already know that would write novels?

ED: Yes. I started my first novel in the second year of my undergrad. I remember my mother saying—it was time to study for my exams—and she said, “Do you have to write a novel right now?” And I said “Yes, yes, I’ve got an idea, I’m inspired!” And she said, “Couldn’t you be inspired after your exams?” So yeah, when I did my PhD I already had a draft novel. However I assumed that I would need a solid job to pay my rent, and that I could maybe publish fiction on the side, so I thought I would be an academic as a solid job. And what I really couldn’t imagine was that I’d be lucky enough to publish enough fiction that I could live off it. So that’s been the big treat. Because I love academic research but I don’t really want to be a teaching academic. My partner is one, and I see how she’s incredibly busy, always meeting with students, and it’s very hard to get time for her own research. I think I would have been a very cranky and crabby academic.

OED: And had you been writing your whole life, as a child?

ED: Yes, yes. Before I turned to fiction at 19 I wrote a lot of poetry. It’s funny, I was bundling it all up the other day, because I’m giving my papers to an archive. And there I have my “collected works” as I called them, you know, “Collected Works, Volume I, Age 7.” So pompous! I’ve always had an alarming amount of confidence in myself! And there I had my twee volumes of poetry, and I had no impulse the other day to read any of them. But it was a very good training. It was a good start.

OED: Let’s talk about Room a little bit. Room really changed your profile and your image, at least here in the states. So I wonder, I’ve read a lot about how you came up with the idea and such, but I’m wondering what the effects of that have been on your career, to have this book that is so different from everything else be the thing that gets shortlisted for the Booker, etc.

ED: It’s been great. It really hasn’t transformed my relationship to my own writing. Because I was writing full time anyway, I’ve been writing an unpredictable mixture of genres anyway, and I was already successful on my terms, meaning that I could do nothing but write and didn’t have to have a real job. So you know none of that changed, I would say it just got me lots and lots of other readers, which is great. And also that whereas I might have been seen before as kind of a niche writer, either focusing on women’s issues or focusing on queer issues, and I think since then I’ve been seen as a bit more mainstream, so that’s good too. But it really hasn’t changed my writing, it’s just changed my profile, as you say. You know I try to worry as little as possible about my profile or image, because writing really, it’s not like being a model, you know, it is about the substance of what you write. So the less you worry about your image, the better.

OED: So your next novel is historical.

ED: Yeah, but it’s a crime novel, so in a way that’s a different genre too. It’s the first time I’ve just plunged properly into suspense, even though there’ve been suspenseful elements in things I’ve written. I would say Slammerkin was in a way about the lead-up to a killing, but this is the first genuine whodunnit, so I’m really enjoying that challenge. It’s funny, I’ve read so many thrillers in my life but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you think you’ll do it! So it’s very good to be trying new things. It’s about a murder that happened in San Francisco in 1876. A young woman was shot through a window and the police never solved it. San Francisco was the most wonderfully modern and crazy town. It was the exception to all the rules, a huge percentage of people lived in boarding houses, it was more like modern condo living. It was multinational, it was sort of unstable and wild, but very sophisticated too. At one point somebody tried to donate water fountains to the city as part of the temperance movement, and the people of San Francisco just trashed them. It was a very lively town. And most of the people I’m writing about are all sort of lowlifes and scum, so I’m really really enjoying it.

 OED: Do you have any particular favorite milieu or time period?

ED: No, I like all these trips. I love the challenge of saying to myself, okay, and the allure around death in 1730s New York. . . . I like these challenges. It’s not like I write all these stories or books out of this encyclopedic knowledge, not at all. I’m just a confident researcher. But I would say I have no favorite period. But certainly I’ve got a few 19th-century projects in the works, so I seem to be staying there for a while.

OED: Do you always have several things going on at the same time?

ED: I usually have at least a few things hovering on the horizon, yeah, yeah. Though they may change by the time I get to them. But you know I want to keep trying different things. I would like to try some children’s fiction. I think I always be going back and forth between the contemporary and the historical things, because they’re different pleasures. Probably contemporary children’s next.

OED: You were talking a little bit earlier about someone who’s known for writing about women’s issues and queer issues. Did that start out as a conscious choice for you?

ED: Well I mean, they are conscious choices in that you know what you’re writing about! It’s certainly not strategic, you know. It’s not that you think, I’m not one of these writers who thinks “what will the market bear?” You know I’m not that focused. I can never tell what’s going to sell anyway. For instance, Slammerkin was so hard to get published, my publishers at the time dumped me on both sides of the Atlantic over it. They all said it was a grim novel and nobody would ever buy it. I despaired. And then it sold better than anything else had to that point. So at that point I thought, publishers have no clue what will sell! So it gave me a great deal of freedom, where I thought, I shouldn’t be over invested in my publisher’s opinions anymore, because they don’t have a clue. So it’s really unpredictable. And you know, I don’t in any way want to distance myself in any way from either writing about women’s issues or writing about queer issues. I think those are likely to come up on and off during my work. But nor do I see it is a program that I have to follow. And actually my fans in various camps, like say my lesbian readers, they never expect me to sort of stick to a program and always write about those issues. I find the kind of fans I have in certain groups, it doesn’t impose any pressure on me. People seem to like it that I continue to surprise them.

OED: I wasn’t thinking so much about the publishabily, although it’s fascinating about Slammerkin. I’m thinking about your stories about historical figures who either were gay or the historical record suggests that they might have engaged in homosexual behaviors, and I just wondered if you feel that you are recovering these characters, if that doesn’t sound too. . .

ED: I do! But you know, I feel the same way about the other characters. I suspect that realizing I was gay in my teens gave me a fundamental sympathy for outsiders and the marginal and the misunderstood and the peculiar, but you know, as a writer, I would probably have developed those sympathies anyway. Because I mean who’s going to write fiction about the normal? You know, it just doesn’t read well. So I’m not claiming anything unusual in that I’m interested in outsiders. I think you could say that almost the typical historical novel these days is about some misunderstood outsider with, you know, a secret talent. You know what’s really impressive, is somebody like Hilary Mantel, who manages to do this gripping trilogy about basically these insanely efficient civil servants. You know in the middle of Bring Up the Bodies I’m thinking, my god, she’s got me sympathizing with him about the dissolution of the monastery! That kind of revisionism is really interesting, to write about somebody powerful who effectively orders a lot of deaths, and then to make you actually get into his head.

OED: And to write about history that’s been written about a lot, but to make it new.

ED: Yeah, how does she get something fresh out of those sources?

OED: Can you talk a little bit about your process for writing?

ED: This sometimes puts people off. I was giving a reading the other day and you know I answered all these questions with enthusiasm and was very open about my process, and a man came up afterwards and he said to me, “You seem to approach writing from a technical point of view, and the great writers approach it from a creative point of view.” I felt really hurt! I think people sometimes don’t like you to show how the magic’s done. So a lot of writers talk about writing in an extremely mystical and mystifying way. Whereas I really believe that like ballet, like architecture, it’s the craft that has technique. So I’m very aware of the technique, and I don’t believe that it makes it cold-blooded I think in a way if you really work hard on your technique–say in my case, I don’t think I’m a natural plotter at all, so I do a lot of planning to try and make my plots better. I literally chart what’s going to happen in each chapter and this enables me to glimpse the fact that maybe in chapter 4 very little happens, so maybe I should cut chapter 4 before I write it. You know, I do a lot of planning and listing and character files and files on each place, and I will literally list the revelations. Like, at one point the readers learn all these new bits of information. And this kind of technical planning in a way allows my imagination to then take flight, because I know the novel’s not going to just fall apart. So yeah, I’m in favor of every form of planning and structuring, basically.

OED: I’m also curious about your unique ability to capture voice, most dazzlingly displayed in Room, which has one of the most convincing voices I think I’ve ever read.

ED: Well thank you, but you know I did cheat in that I followed my son around a lot. I’m not saying he spoke exactly like Jack, but  he gave me the basic principle of sort of consistent inconsistency. That a bright five year old will be speaking practically pidgin English one minute, like really messy grammar, and the next minute they will throw in some really sophisticated word that they’ve picked up. And that makes them unintentionally funny, because they’re always kind of swerving in registers from the formal to the informal, that’s why there’s so funny and interesting and unpredictable. So I did copy my son a lot there.

OED: So you had the living source. But you have these others in Astray for example–they’re not all in first person, but–

ED: No they’re not, because I thought that would get a bit same-y if they were all in first person. A lot of first person is really tricky. For instance, if you do first person for a very peculiar form of English, like Medieval English, it’s almost impenetrable. You don’t want first person to be too difficult for your readers to understand. In a way, I make my 17th-century character [in Astray] first person, but he’s using a very biblical form of English. And you know a lot of those biblical phrases have survived in our language, so I think the biblical language there actually makes him easier to follow than some other forms of old dialect. So yes, some are in first person, and some are letters, and so on. But you know, even if it’s third person you still have to drop in enough flavorful words that you get the idea of the mindset of the time. Like for instance, my one about the 18th-century lawyer and the widow. That’s third person, but you still want to show his mindset in the language. So at one point he says something like, “You could sell the blacks and other movables.” That’s the most horrifying phrase, because it conjures up so quickly for all of us that in those days people just thought of black people as movable possessions. So that kind of little phrase works just as well as making the entire narrative first person. I don’t think I’m particularly naturally talented at this, I’m not somebody who can just suddenly effortlessly go off in a monologue in 19th-century Jamaican patois or something. I mean I have to do the research every time. But I think I am good at sort of steeping myself in sources of the day, you know letters and so on. I’m picking up flavorful phrases that will work well, and will not sort of stick out to much. So I think I’m good at the research.

OED: And then do you think the psychology comes to you in the same way? 

ED: It’s mostly just really sort of “of the time,” and also sometimes thinking through how the realities of their lives physically would have impacted their minds. Even something like the gold miners in the one called “Snow Blind.” I was thinking, you know, in that kind of context, where the two men are literally pretty much shut in all winter together, I thought you’re going to see a form of sexuality that you find in, say, prisons today. You know, the kind of don’t-ask-don’t-tell, we’ll get through the winter somehow, but don’t make a big deal of it. So often I would be looking at contemporary precedents for a situation like that when I’m trying to work out the psychology of, you know, the one who doesn’t get romantic about it. The same with my novel Slammerkin. I thought a lot about clothes, and what they meant. I remember reading Defoe’s Moll Flanders and, this is interesting, she keeps starting to list literally what her stocks of linen are, in a way that we wouldn’t bother to nowadays, because nowadays clothes are so cheap and disposable. In those days clothes were more like your stocks and shares, especially for a woman, clothes are the only way to make people take you seriously. So I do a lot of thinking about the material circumstances of the time I suppose, and I just read a lot of sources.

OED: Room is sort of an extreme example of this, the way that people are shaped by their circumstances and by the limitations that are set around them. Do you think that’s a preoccupation of yours?

ED: I suppose so. Writers, because we make up our characters, we’re always interested in what shapes the character. And Room in a way was so easy to write, because for once I had a situation in which I knew every object, every color, every sensory input in my character’s living space. So in a way I knew everything he was made of. I wrote down lists of the songs his mother would be likely to know, the pop songs she would have heard before she got captured. So in a way I had all the raw materials, so then it was relatively easy to put them all together and say, this is what Jack is made of. Where usually you’re trying to conjure up a much bigger and more complicated world, and you know usually you’re much more undecided about the influences on someone. So in a way, room was a perfect kind of tabula rasa situation, because you know what this boy is made of. And yet of course he’s greater than the sum of his parts.

OED: Just so you know, coincidentally, I was recently on my honeymoon in Paris and I actually bought Astray at Shakespeare and Co.

ED: No!

OED: Yes! And I read it on the plane on the way back to America. So I thought that there was something very–

ED: The perfect setting.

OED: It kind of was! To be reading an English-language book purchased in France, and then reading it on the way back to America. It was a very fortuitous circumstance. 

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One thought on “Emma Donoghue Says All the Smart Things (and Still Gets Mansplained To)!

  1. […] An enter­taining, wide-ranging interview with Emma on ‘The Oeditrix’ blog» […]

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