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. Continue reading