EMMA DONOGHUE is an Irish-Canadian playwright, literary historian, novelist, and screenwriter. Her 2010 novel Room was an international bestseller, and a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. The film adaptation of the book was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Her most recent novel, Akin, was published in 2019.
This interview with Declan Meade took place in Dublin in October 2001, at which point she had published three novels: Stir-fry (1994), Hood (1995) and Slammerkin (2000).
Perhaps you could begin by telling me how your writing career began.
Like a lot of people I wrote poetry, from about the age of seven – dreadful, dreadful stuff about fairies and the Holy Spirit, but I think the key moment was in my second year at college, in UCD. I got the idea for a novel and I thought: No, I can’t write a novel, I’ve never even written any short stories. I assumed you had to serve an apprenticeship by writing short stories first. But I suddenly wanted to write a novel so I leapt from writing poetry and being in the Literary Society to writing my first novel. It felt very pretentious as a thing to do but I also found it really exciting.
I think one thing I liked about switching from poetry to fiction is that readers aren’t afraid to engage with fiction and to come up and tell you what they thought of it. I think they see it as more like real life, whereas poetry can intimidate people. I used to find any time I published a poem in a magazine – on very rare occasions – my friends would say, oh yes, I read your poem, and then they’d shut up and not say a word more.
So I drafted the novel while I was still at UCD and it’s set at UCD. But it was no good. I hadn’t written fiction before, so it felt very awkward. I didn’t know how to get characters from one room to the next, for instance. I used to say: She got up, pushed back her chair, went over to the door, turned the handle. It was very creaky. And even now when I read a few scenes of my first novel – Stir-fry – I can see the joins. Anyway, I wrote it and I vaguely hoped that some small Irish publisher might take it on, maybe Attic Press, but by the time I had it finished I was going off to do a PhD at Cambridge, so because I was living in England I thought I would try a British press. I made the classic beginner’s mistake in that I sent it to the wrong press. I thought that it would suit a young readership and Virago Press had at the time a series aimed at young people. I sent it to them not realising that they had finished their youth series a year and a half before. That’s a classic example of how you need an agent. You, on your own, wouldn’t be up to all the changes in the publishing world. I got an immediate rejection from Virago. It’s funny because now I’ve ended up being published by them about ten years later. But anyway, after I got that rejection I just stuffed the novel in the bottom drawer.
But then I wrote a play and that got me in touch with another author who passed me on to her agent. I sent the novel to this agent in London. She was very kind. She said to me that the novel would need loads, loads and loads of work, but if I was willing to do the work, and in particular if I was willing to rewrite the book for an international audience, then she was willing to take me on. She wrote me a letter saying that my novel could be read by a lumberjack in Texas or an opera singer in Sweden. She said: ‘You can’t assume that your readers will know what you’re talking about; and you should always aim for the broadest possible audience.’ So she really hoisted my ambitions up.
She didn’t manage to sell the first book on its own. I got so many rejections, from every tiny publisher. They said the writing was talented but not good enough. My agent told me to go ahead and write the second novel. I thought she was just being nice. But she said that it was often easier to sell the first two together, because then you ‘re more of a going concern. So I started writing the second novel and she sold the two together, a two-volume deal with Penguin.
Getting an agent early on is really crucial. I know there are still a few cases here in Ireland of people sending the right book to the right publisher, and the publisher buys it, but it’s increasingly rare.
But you did have a complete manuscript to show your agent.
Yes I did. I would say draft the first novel before you go to an agent. And if you write short stories, wait until you’ve got a good batch of them, and try to get a couple of them published on their own before approaching an agent.
Beginner writers are often really nervous of agents because they think of them being like crooked lawyers who will take their money and give them nothing. No agent will ever charge you until they’ve managed to sell your work. They only charge a percentage of what they earn for you.
You mentioned writing a play. Had that been produced by then?
I had put it on just at student level in Cambridge, but then three years later it was put on in Dublin, at the Project Arts – the old shabby Project with the rain coming in the roof. I was very lucky in that a woman I’d known at college set up a theatre company called Glasshouse and they put on my first two plays. So that was really helpful for getting my theatre career kick started.
I find theatre in some ways harder to get access to than fiction, because a fiction publisher doesn’t care where you live or whether they’ve ever met you, they just want your book whereas theatre tends to be done between people who know each other. I don’t mean to make it sound like a sinister conspiracy but very often a writer will know or work with a theatre company and therefore his or her plays will rise out of that. It’s not as common to just send your play into the Abbey and they’ll put it on. It’s much more a matter of working relationships.
In terms of writing the plays, how did you find that experience?
I find plays much easier in terms of writing the lines. They’re pure dialogue and I love dialogue. I would have my characters just natter on forever. As you can tell by how much I talk!
I found with my last novel, Slammerkin, I had to do actual descriptions for the first time, really. They were very new to me. I kept thinking it’s pretentious to start describing what the trees looked like.
Plays pose a particular challenge in terms of structuring them. A novel can afford to be much baggier and messier, just scene after scene, whereas a play really has to have a very satisfying structure, or the audience will start getting restless. If it’s a novel they can read it anywhere according to their own pace but with theatre your audience is trapped, and if your first half goes on too long or is badly structured, then they will literally start shifting in their seats. You can hear it! But, on the other hand, there’s the thrill of seeing actors bring your words to life! And they add such humour. Everything becomes funnier when the actors do it and everything becomes more moving. It’s remarkable. I would ay the very best experiences of my career have been the three times that a play of mine has been put on, and working with the actors.
You’ve also had some experience working on screenplays. How has that been?
I haven’t had much luck with screen so far. It’s so expensive to make films that your script can be hovering around for years and nothing happens. I mean, finally, I’ve had one short film made – a ten-minute film called Pluck. That was shown down in the Cork Film Festival the other week. I wrote several scripts for my novel Stir-fry but it didn’t get filmed and I wrote another script that’s been hovering and not filmed. This is a really common experience. You work on a screenplay and it perhaps gets some funding, but perhaps not enough.
I would like to write for screen, but I’m very aware that the writer is under particular pressures. You have to please all the funders basically, whereas theatre is a much more artistic space: you’re allowed to say Tm writing the play the way the play has to be,’ rather than always worrying about what your audience will think. I don’t think there’s any form other than film where they show the rough cut to an audience and then they make changes. That really is pandering to your audience in ways that I don’t think writers in any other form would do.
Which writing do you enjoy most then?
Fiction is the most satisfying because I’m making up the whole world, and I’m the only one who is making it up, it’s entirely mine. With theatre the thrilling bit is when you get to work with the actors. The writing experience for me is at its best when it’s fiction, and I would say that equally for contemporary and historical fiction. I really like them both. They offer different pleasures. I find writing historical fiction that often the plots are very dramatic, the stakes are very high, but then it doesn’t tend to have much humour. My contemporary fiction tends to be much wittier.
I definitely like fiction best. But then every now and then there’ll be some irresistible non-fiction project like when I did that biography of the poets who worked under the name of Michael Field. I knew their work and I knew that there were volumes and volumes of their diaries, unlooked at, sitting in the British Museum. So when I was asked did I want to do a biography of anyone, I just thought: ‘Oh I can’t resist, I have to do the Michael Fields.’
After writing two contemporary novels, was it a liberating experience to work on something set in the past?
I think what was really helpful was the third fiction book which is the fairy tales, Kissing the Witch. They weren’t set in any particular time, but in the imagined fairy-tale past. That got me away from feeling that I had to write naturalistic fiction set in the city I knew. I think they were quite liberating for my style. I was able to write lines that I would never have written in a contemporary novel. I was able to be a bit more dramatic, follow my imagination rather than feeling it had to be real life. That helped me, then, turning to historical fiction, which is harder in some ways because you have to do so much research. There’s a huge amount of dog work.
For instance, if I’m writing a scene with two people having a meal: if that’s set in modern Dublin I don’t have to do research, I can say what food they were eating based on the last time I was in a restaurant. If it’s historical fiction, I find myself thinking what did the meal cost, what did they eat, was the food hot or cold? You have to look into so many tiny, petty details. On the other hand, writing historical fiction allows you to live in that particular era, so it really is a kind of time travel. Because I had written historical plays before, historical fiction isn’t as big a jump as it might seem.
And I don’t see it as a permanent switch. I think I’ll go back and forth between contemporary and historical fiction.
But I wonder is it a liberating experience in the sense that you can ignore the world around you, and concentrate more on the characters you’ve created and the story?
Certainly it is liberating in many ways. For one thing there’s nobody around from the eighteenth century who can tell me that I’ve got it wrong. I may choose to be as accurate as I can be about certain details. I’m presenting my own slant on that world. And it is a thrill to move away from your own stuff. It’s a very common trajectory for writers to start out working through their own issues and then at a certain point to start doing their own thing. Beryl Bainbridge has said she started writing historical novels because she’d run out of her own life – and she’s had a lot more life than I have! I clearly ran out fairly fast.
No, the next contemporary novel that I’ll publish, which is a couple of books away, will be fairly autobiographical because I moved to Canada a few years ago and I found that whole emigration process really fascinating. And so many of my friends are in this situation. We move away from friends and family and we find ourselves missing them, yet wanting the freedom. They call us the Ryanair generation: we get to fly back to Ireland more often and more cheaply than previous emigrants. Yet visiting friends and family is not the same as actually being there, so I’m very interested in the geographical confusion so many of us live in. So the next contemporary novel will be about emigration and immigration and all that zig-zagging around the planet that we do.
And is that what you’ re working on now?
No, at the moment I’m doing another historical one, but the contemporary one will be after that. They’re stacking up!
And how do you cope with that stacking up of projects?
The mind is a bit of a contrary organ, because I do occasionally find that whatever project I’m working on becomes the ‘schoolwork’ as it were. And then I get brand new ideas for other stories, and they’re like the little temptations at the side. So sometimes you have to force yourself to stick at something for a particular time. On the other hand, it’s comforting and reassuring to know what I’ll be doing a couple of books ahead. For many writers when they’ve finished a novel, there’s just this black hole, and they’ve no idea. I tend to have long-term plans for the books I want to write. That means I don’t feel afraid of running out of ideas.
There is the danger that when you finally get to the next book you don’t like the idea anymore. I’ve had a few in the past that I’ve shelved.
And do you just forget about them then?
Well sometimes I’ll see something in them that’s worth salvaging. My second novel, Hood, was two separate novels originally. I wanted to do a novel about two sisters and then I wanted to do a novel about two girls in a choir. I fused the two. I took the elements in each that I was most interested in. So sometimes letting a project sit for a few years allows you to really look at it from a distance and say: ‘Am I still interested?’ or ‘What is it about this that really appeals to me?’
You’ve said that Hood is your favourite of the books because there’s so much of yourself in it.
Yes. I’m not sure that’s a very high-minded reason to like a book, but that is the most autobiographical one so far. All the convent school stuff is just word for word from my diaries. Which has the frightening effect that now my memories are overlaid by that novel! I occasionally remember scenes and someone will say to me: ‘Emma, that didn’t happen, that’s just in the book.’
You have no qualms about admitting that you write from your own life?
No, I don’t. It’s not like I’d be saying exactly which bits are autobiographical. I never write books that are just my own disguised life. In Hood, I’ve never had a major bereavement, so most of it was made up. I don’t mind admitting when I’ve drawn on things in my past. I had such fun in that novel taking the piss out of the convent where I went to school. All I did was change the uniforms from green to red.
You’re back living in Dublin for a while. How are you finding it?
I have to pretend that Irish pounds are Canadian dollars, because otherwise the prices would just choke me. An Irish pound is nearly two Canadian dollars but I have to pretend they’re the same.
I’m enjoying it very much in terms of the buzz on the streets and cultural life. But it is a bit more like every other city in the world now. It’s a sad consequence of our success that there’s so many of the chain stores from Britain and the traffic is just astonishing. It doesn’t seem to have the slightly slower pace that was a nice aspect of Dublin-but everyone is saying this, I’m being very cliched here. I don’t think it’s absolutely ruined.
Are there things happening here now which inspire you as a writer?
I think the whole immigration thing is fascinating. To see faces on the streets that aren’t pasty, white Irish faces is a thrill to me. It’s very interesting, the issues this new ethnic mix raises. What is nationality? What is identity? I find that the Irish are extremely essentialist about national identity. They wouldn’t tend to think of someone as Irish until they’ve been here fifty years whereas in other countries national identity is much more a matter of where you happen to live.
I noticed that when Michael Ondaatje won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Irish Times described him as Sri Lankan-born whereas in Canada we call him Canadian, because he is, he’s lived there for ages. But by Irish standards, he’s still Sri Lankan. This whole phrase non-nationals is funny. And to see the outburst of hostility and xenophobia here when we still have relatively tiny numbers of immigrants compared with anywhere else! It’s very interesting to me. It’s as if Irish identity is completely open to question for the first time.
You have an African character in Slammerkin. Is that just a coincidence?
I wouldn’t say that came about because of the changes in Ireland. The reason the novel is set in the mid-eighteenth century is that I’m very interested in that moment when people started thinking about civil rights: the rights of women, the rights of slaves, the rights of animals. It’s sort of the very beginning of our idea of a pluralist, meritocratic society. I got interested in slavery in Britain because of visiting places like Bristol and Liverpool. There are a lot of slave characters in American historical novels. American writers are really aware of their past and slavery. In Britain people still tend to assume that slavery happened elsewhere. That was a major reason I put her in.
But also I wanted it to be a novel about being powerless and about inequalities. Mary Saunders [the main character] would not have been at the bottom of the heap. The bottom of the heap would have been a slave. So to get the full spectrum from the lords and ladies in the manor to the scum of the earth I really wanted a slave character in there.
I do think growing up in Ireland we tend to be very unaware of how different people can be. We have such a common heritage. I remember when I was growing up I assumed that everyone else in the world had parents who were married and wept to mass on Sunday and had a white face. When I was nine I went to New York for a year and I couldn’t believe it. Meeting black people, having friends in my class who had divorced parents, I was astonished by these differences. I suppose I feel that having grown up in a very homogenous country, going abroad to England and then Canada has been enormously good for me, just in teaching me how much variety there is in the world, and how little you can assume about people’s backgrounds.
It will be really interesting to see what happens to Irish fiction, how Irish fiction takes on all the incredibly rapid changes that there’ve been. I was at Roddy Doyle’s play in the Theatre Festival recently. I thought it was great fun, his Guess Who’s Coming For The Dinner. I didn’t think it was a brilliant play, but the idea of taking a very dated American text and showing how completely relevant it is to Ireland right now, that was a very telling point.
A few years ago I did wonder how Irish fiction would cope with all the success and money around. That’s not usually what we write about. We’re used to melancholy and angst. So I wondered how they would deal with the squeaky clean Dublin. But of course pretty soon all these problems developed (laughs), so I think there’s plenty of room for melancholy and angst still.
So is there a Canadian literary scene?
Absolutely. They take their books very seriously, they’re very proud of their writers. There are lots of literary festivals. I find the atmosphere at their literary festivals and in their book reviews is peculiarly gentle. There’s a lot of praising of writers and books. In Ireland, we’d be far quicker to get the dagger out. But certainly it’s a very thriving literature. Like in Ireland, there’s a lot of state subsidy of the smaller magazines and so on. It would be more like Ireland in those ways than like America.
I find fiction is a very strong form there, and, unlike Ireland, their fictional tradition is really dominated by women. You have a lot of big names like Alice Munro, Carol Shields and Margaret Atwood. It is certainly not as male dominated a literary heritage as Ireland. I also find
they’re very open to newcomers. They were putting Canadian Author stickers on my books last year and I’ve only been there since 1998.
Just to go back to the writing of historical novels, there is a certain amount of prejudice against that type of writing. Is that something you’ve experienced?
That attitude comes up a lot. It’s funny because if you take a writer like Charles Dickens, who was writing of his own era, very contemporary, controversial books and then one of the books he wrote was set in the French Revolution, which was about seventy years before he was writing. Nobody batted an eye. It wouldn’t have occurred to people to say: ‘Oh no, you mustn’t go back and write about the past.’ He was being just as relevant in the issues and dramas that he was writing about as he was in his contemporary novels. And in hindsight the difference is minimal. We don’t care whether he was writing about the 1780s or the 1850s.
I think there is a real snobbery against historical fiction. People confuse it with romantic fiction because there are a lot of romance novels set in the past. It’s a bit like crime fiction, in that you can have some really superb writing in that genre but it will still be seen as a separate thing.
But I think a lot has changed in the last ten years. Even between when I began writing Slammerkin and when I published it, historical fiction had gone through a bit of a renaissance. What was really crucial was that some writers who were known for literary fiction wrote maybe one or two books set in the past. Beryl Bainbridge turned to it, Margaret Atwood set one in the nineteenth century, Barry Unsworth won the Booker with Sacred Hunger. Instead of historical fiction being something that certain authors just churned out, it became a form that any author could turn to.
The other day I was at the Cheltenham Literary Festival and I heard Irvine Welsh give a reading. His reading was great but then afterwards he completely sneered at not just historical fiction but all other authors. He said anyone who wasn’t writing about life as it is today was basically copping out. I thought that was a very narrow definition of what literature is. I agree that for cutting-edge gritty modern realism his books are it, but that’s not the only effect you can be trying for with your writing. He did make one good point. He said it was silly to write a novel set in the past and then to claim that the whole point of it is that it sheds light on life today. That’s a very indirect way to talk about life today.
Sometimes, though, it’s just a particular story that has to be told and I think a lot of readers love to be taken away from their own lives. Not necessarily escapism-sometimes you are taking them away to a very dark place, like in Slammerkin. I think they like the sheer foreignness of going on a strange, difficult journey. I think people are mistaken if they think that readers always want to read about their own lives-that people from Cork want to read about people in Cork and Chinese people want to read Chinese fiction. I think readers are a lot more flexible and open than that. To define books entirely through how authentically they represent a certain place or a certain group within society, that’s really an impoverishment of literature.
I always like it when I see writers write about stuff that’s not their own experience at all, I think that’s a really good sign. I suppose that’s an escape from the identity politics that dominated criticism in the 1980s. For instance when Roddy Doyle did The Woman Who Walked into Doors, I couldn’t believe that even in the 1990s he was getting book reviews that said: ‘Ooh can a man really write in the voice of a woman?’ I mean writers have been doing this kind of thing since the very beginning. I think it is nonsense to expect writers to stick to the experience of their own life. It’s really underestimating what writing can be.
Slammerkin could hardly be described as romantic fiction.
No, I think of it as kind of an anti-romance. I increased the sense of that by putting in a bit of a romance in the middle. When I’d written the first draft of the novel, it occurred to me that when she’s living in this house on the Welsh borders, she and the manservant there, Daffy, might possibly feel attracted towards each other. So I thought I’ll give them a try, I’ll allow her to get engaged to him, allow a little romance to develop-all the more to crush the reader’s hopes. I added that, I suppose, as an extra turn of the screw.
I think so many romantic novels do fundamentally cop out on the telling of the story-they leap over whatever obstacles. In this case, I just couldn’t see this particular girl escaping from her past. I thought she was damaged and numbed and made cynical by her youth. I couldn’t see any romantic ending to the whole thing. She was really an appalling character. I mean I enjoyed writing it very much, but I did find her to be a perverse character. And the magical thing about fiction is that readers do tend to identify with anyone who is the point-of-view character. That way, you can get them to sympathise with murderers and villains of any kind.
There was certainly a point in the novel when it seemed she had managed to get away from her past and then it comes right back at her. I was certainly on her side then and wanted her to get through, and I wanted you as the writer to give her a break.
I knew she was going to get executed, so in a way that set the tone for the ·whole thing-the ending was never open to debate. I wanted to give her chances. She’s not forced into any of the things she does. A more sensible girl could have settled down, married Daffy and been just fine, so I suppose I was asking questions throughout the book about the extent to which we have choice and the extent to which we are doomed by our backgrounds. It is interesting how we use dreadful backgrounds as a way of explaining how someone becomes a murderer for instance, and yet other people with appalling backgrounds end up as lovely, gentle people.
You’ve said of Mary that her obsession for getting on in the world and rising above her station made her an incomplete person. I had that same sense of the main character in Hood, Pen. She was living an incomplete life right up to the end of the novel on account of being in the closet.
Yes, I see. I see. She wouldn’t have taken that step forward except that the death of her lover forced it on her. So yes, I suppose in Hood, as well, I was wondering about how much the things that happen to you lead to your future and how much of it is down to your own character. Although Hood was about death, I think it was a much more life-affirming book. Slammerkin is much darker. I developed a real gothic relish for all that, piling on the horrors. The historical one I’m writing at the moment is about rich people in the 1790s so there’s far less squalor – no more chamber pots! Lots of vice in high places, drinking, adultery, gambling and so on.
I think of each book as a little world and I get to live in it for a year or two and then move on to somewhere else. Whereas some writers, it’s more like they have a vision and that comes out in every single book that they write. Although you can definitely trace some similarities between my books, I don’t think they’re all postcards from one particular place in my imagination.
You’re a young writer who writes about young characters. ls that difficult? Do young people lack gravitas as fictional characters?
I think I like writing about them because of their very lack of foresight, or an overall view. They’re wholly in the moment. If something bad happens to an eighteen year old they really think the world has ended. As characters, it means they’re wide-awake and startled about things.
I’d say my first two books were technically very simple because they involved a single point of view. In Slammerkin, I set myself a task of seeing whether I could write from the point of view of lots of different people in a household. That felt like the main challenge to me, quite apart from the research. And maybe that’s something that comes with age as well, because you get more interested in seeing how there can be many angles on a situation rather than just the single beating heart.
I’m starting to sound very geriatric at 32.
Have your ambitions changed over time? You were published when you were very young.
Oh yeah, I was very lucky. I think the biggest change in my ambitions was between drafting the first novel and getting it published. My agent was very instrumental in saying to me: ‘Do not assume that just because you’re an Irish woman, you’ll be published by an Irish women’s press.’ She yanked me out of that kind of minority thinking. She really worked on getting me a contract in America as well and that is what has allowed me to be a full-time writer. The American market is bigger and there’s generally more money around. There are many fine authors who are published in Ireland and Britain but not in America and they can find it very hard to make a living.
The biggest difference between Stir-fry and now is that I want to try new things and try out different techniques as well as just different content. At the moment I’m trying to use a narrator, not quite an all-seeing narrator, but one who can float over the whole scene and dive into different people’s heads. I think it’s done wonderfully in Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth. She’s so young, but she’s got this wry, witty narrator who can zoom over all of London. I think that would be something really interesting to work with, rather than always having to see each scene from a single point of view.
I’d like my books to have different tones as well. The one I’m writing now will be a big novel, including lots of different aspects of society in the 1790s-broad and sprawling. But then the one I want to do after that, I want it to be a small, slim, tight, tense little book. So I think the main thing I want to do is not get stuck in a rut and keep churning out novels of any one type. I’d much rather make quick escapes and try different things.
I don’t really have any ambition in terms of sales because my impression is that sales have very little to do with me. Some of my novels will sell better than others but that’s not proof that I’ve written anything better. Slammerkin has sold far more than any of the others just because it doesn’t have any lesbians in it. That was clearly the trick! That’s not my doing. I don’t feel I want to work harder and become a more famous author. You just never know who is going to like your books or how they are going to sell. My ambitions would be more private ones to do with the actual quality of the writing.
What do you think it was that set you out as a writer?
I have no idea. I don’t have any other way of earning my living. That’s quite helpful! I don’t have to choose between a career as an astronaut and a career as a novelist. I was only ever a student and then a writer. I never have any question about how to spend my days, because this is the only skill I’ve got.