AMONG THE many illustrious visitors to this year’s Galway Arts Festival is writer Emma Donoghue, author of the international best-seller and multi-award winning novel, Room.
As well as Room, Donoghue has also written a host of other much-praised works in the fields of fiction, drama, and literary scholarship. Her most recent work of scholarship which, like Room, was published last year is Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature; a witty and scholarly guide to storylines of passion between women in Western literature since mediaeval times. The American Library Association recently awarded it the Stonewall Non-Fiction (Israel Fishman ) Prize.
Born in Dublin in 1969, Donoghue is the youngest daughter of noted critic and academic Denis Donoghue. Since 1998 she has lived in Ontario where she has made a home with her partner Chris and their two young children.
Speaking by phone from her Canadian home, she talked about her work and her forthcoming visit to Galway.
As Donoghue is someone who has written successfully in a range of forms – novels, short stories, plays, and scholarship - I began by asking whether she always knows in advance which form a particular idea or inspiration will end up as.
“That’s a good question,” Donoghue replies. “I do tend to have an instinct for the ideal form for a particular idea when I begin working on it. If a storyline is rather bleak then I tend to use that as a short story or novella because I just can’t face being committed to it for too long!
“Sometimes ideas do end up taking different forms; I did a book of modern versions of old fairytales which was subsequently adapted for the stage. I enjoyed seeing the stories taking a different shapes.”
Speaking of adaptations, Donoghue reveals she has recently completed a screenplay version of Room. The novel tells the story of a five-year-old called Jack, who lives in a single room with his Ma and has never been outside, as they are being kept captive there.
When he turns five, he starts to ask questions, and his mother reveals to him that there is a world outside. Told entirely in Jack’s voice, Room is a remarkable celebration of resilience and the love between parent and child.
An international best-seller as soon as it was published in August 2010, Room has won the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (for best Canadian novel ), and the Commonwealth Fiction Prize (Canada & Caribbean Region ), as well as being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and being named as one of the five best fiction titles of 2010 by The New York Times. The novel has now been sold in more than 40 languages.
“I’ve done the screenplay for it but I haven’t sold the rights yet,” says Donoghue of the mooted film version. “I’m very cautious of the film world because you hear so many stories of writers or books not coming well out of that experience. But hopefully, in the fullness of time, Room will appear as a film.
“I was really stunned by the level of response it prompted,” Donoghue continues, as she reflects on Room’s impact. “You can never really tell in advance how a book is going to go but it seemed to tap into a universal theme of parenthood that readers really responded to. At my readings, I always enjoy the question and answer sessions with audiences about the book.”
Nothing if not industrious, Donoghue reveals she has two other books well advanced. One is a collection of short stories on the theme of migration from the 17th century up to the present while the other is a novel about an unsolved murder in 1870s San Francisco that features frog-catchers, cross-dressing, and the sex trade!
“The short story collection has been a joy to write,” Donoghue enthuses. “Each one inhabits its own particular world and they were all inspired by factual cases. One draws on letters by an Irish couple who went to America after the Famine and another looks at this early Puritan community in Massachusetts. I’m really fascinated by what happens to people when they uproot themselves and move to a new country.
“As for the novel, I got the idea from a single paragraph I read in a book about women in the wild west and I started researching the case more. It’s about this woman who used to catch frogs for local restaurants. She had to wear trousers for the job and she got into trouble over that. Then she ended up being shot dead so I try and figure out just what happened.”
Donoghue also reveals her pleasure at the fact that another of her books, The Sealed Letter, which has already appeared in the US, will be published by Picador in Britain this autumn. Based on a scandal that gripped Britain in the 1860s, it’s a domestic thriller that explores a feminist spinster’s reluctant involvement in a sordid divorce. It was joint winner of the 2009 Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction.
So plenty more literary delights to come from the pen of Emma Donoghue in the months ahead. In the meantime, readers can look forward to her Galway Arts Festival reading which takes place at the Hotel Meyrick on Wednesday July 20 at 8pm.