Emma Donoghue, in conversation with Abby Palko

Author: Emma Donoghue and Abigail L. Palko (University of Virginia)

For the past couple of years, Emma Donoghue has been in the spotlight, with her adaption of her best-selling novel Room receiving a number of accolades. Donoghue was nominated for an Oscar, a BAFA, and a Golden Globe for Best Adapted Screenplay, and she won the Canadian Screen Awards’ Best Adapted Screenplay, the Irish Film & Television Awards’ Best Script Film, and the Independent Spirit Awards’ Best First Screenplay, among a number of other awards. The novel itself has also been high-acclaimed: it was short-listed for the Orange and Man Booker Prizes and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize regional prize (Caribbean and Canada). Readers just getting to know Donoghue’s work are arriving at a party already well underway. This well-deserved success follows two decades of a prolific writing career in which Donoghue freely explores a range of genres and time periods. The entire corpus of her work consistently prompts readers to question the impact of gender on our social interactions, as we explore in the conversation below. Her most recent novel, The Wonder, which was released in September 2016, is generating excitement and garnering Donoghue more praise.

This interview was conducted via email over the course of several months in 2015.

AP: Kirkus Reviews, on the back of Landing, mentions your “fans of her period pieces as well as her gay audience.” To me, this seems to too-neatly dichotomize your fiction—would you agree?

ED: Absolutely. I think my contemporary and past-set fiction both attract a loyal cadre of lesbian readers as well as a lot of straight ones. What Kirkus may have meant was that with Slammerkin I found a lot of new readers (probably straight women) for the first time. But then, Room has sold more than all my other books put together, and it’s not a period piece. The only solid generalization you could make about my readership is that it’s more women than men—but that’s true for fiction in general. When I’m starting a novel, I try to wipe from my mind any sense of who’s likely to buy it (or not buy it): I’m writing for the ideal reader, not for any one demographic.

AP: In Landing, the subject of gay marriage comes up a few times (like when Jude flies to Ireland to attend Marcus and Pedro’s handfasting ceremony with Sile) and the characters are rather matter-of-fact about its lack of legal sanction. And now, with the passage of the May Marriage Referendum, it is legal. Can you share some of your thoughts during the lead-up to the referendum? At its passage? It was striking to me to see the number of people who “went home” to Ireland specifically to vote in the referendum.

ED: Yes, contemporary fiction dates so much faster than historical fiction! The characters in Landing would have been astonished to know that Ireland would vote for equal marriage in 2015. I was so impressed not just by the vote but by the process: the number of straight people I know who took the cause on as their own, and as the cause that stood for the kind of Ireland they wanted to live in; the lesbian friends of mine who campaigned door-to-door, speaking to their neighbors in a way they’d never felt they needed to before.

AP: In Hood, Pen thinks, “This birth is long overdue, mother, it’ll be a tight squeeze. You’d better open your arms to this screaming red bundle, because it’s the only one I’ll ever bring you”[1] right before she comes out to her mother. And in an Irish Times article after the referendum, Fintan O’Toole writes,

“Deep down, it’s a victory for halting, fretful speech. How? Because what actually changed Ireland over the last two decades is hundreds of thousands of painful, stammered conversations that began with the dreaded words ‘I have something to tell you….’ It’s all those moments of coming out around kitchen tables, tentative words punctuated by sobs and sighs, by cold silences and fearful hesitations. Those awkward, unhappy, often unfinished conversations are where the truths articulated so eloquently in the campaign were first uttered. And it was through them that gay men and lesbians became Us, our children, our families.”[2]

How do you see your novels (especially Stir-FryHood, Landing and the story collection Kissing the Witch) as contributing to this public conversation? I’m thinking of your observation in a 2000 interview of the visual blind spot in critical responses to lesbian fiction: “People tend to reduce the work of a lesbian novelist to just the central romantic relationship between two lesbians and they ignore all the other friendships and the social networking and the parents.”[3]

ED: Fintan always puts it so well. Yes, I always knew that Hood had to end with the beginning of the coming-out conversation because it’s such a crucial act; no matter how tentative and familial it feels, it changes the world. (Back in the early 90s people would sometimes congratulate me for having been ‘brave’ enough to come out on TV on The Late Late Show, and what I always told them was that it was easy, whereas coming out to my mother was hard, because I cared what she thought about me so much more than what strangers thought of me.) I do like to think that my Irish-set fiction (and my own outness in interviews, especially about having children in a two-mother family) may have contributed to that Irish conversation in some small way, but to be honest, fiction is a pretty subtle and indirect way of changing the world, so I can’t claim to be a great activist.

Something that strikes me about that passage in Hood now is that Pen uses a childbirth metaphor for the gift of an honest coming-out because she’s sure she’ll never be bringing her mother an actual grandchild. Between about 19 and 24 I felt sure - and was sad - that being a lesbian meant not being a mother. That’s something else that’s changed so fast!

AP: Subtle and indirect, yes—but a very important part of change, I think. Social scientists point to the impact of getting to know people who are different as a key part of overcoming differences in contact theory, and I see that happening through novels as well. There’s a safe space in reading about a character for experiencing difference.

ED: No, it does contribute, of course, but sometimes I envy people who make the world a better place in a more undeniable, hands-on way!

AP: In your FAQ section of your website, you talk a little about how to define “lesbian fiction.” Could you expand on that a bit? Or, from a different angle, do you see a growing mainstream interest in lesbian fiction? If so, do you have any thoughts about why that might be?

ED: Sometimes it’s useful to define it as ‘what lesbians write’ (if you’re setting up a prize fund to support lesbian writers who find it hard to break into publishing, for instance, and you don’t want to limit what they write or how). On other occasions it’s useful to be thematic about it and ask, what are the stories we’re all collectively telling about love between women? (In writing my study of four centuries of lesbian plots, Inseparable, for instance, I took that tack, because it made no sense to limit it to what women-who-were-probably-lesbian had written on the theme.)

I wouldn’t say I see a massive mainstream interest in lesbian fiction as such­–I don’t get the sense of lots of straight readers seeking it out­­­­­­­­­–it’s more that readers (and publishers, and librarians, and all the other ‘gatekeepers’) are becoming rather more relaxed about queer themes showing up in literature. But there’s still a great pressure for the stories to be ‘universal’ enough in their appeal. I find this more of a problem in contemporary than in historical storylines, oddly enough; Landing was very hard to sell, because it’s as if my contemporary lesbian characters are marked with a sort of minority-interest asterisk in a way that my historical characters (I’m thinking of Anne Damer in Life Mask, say, or Emily Faithfull in The Sealed Letter) aren’t. As if those big skirts cover a multitude of sins! My next challenge will be to see how receptive the gatekeepers of children’s literature are, because my first book for 8-to-12-year-olds, The Lotterys Plus One (which came out in March 2017), features the family of a gay and a lesbian couple.

AP: OOHH!!! I am looking forward to The Lotterys Plus One!!! I’d love to chat more about The Lotterys… What drew you to write a YA novel (I seem to recall that Kissing the Witch was marketed as YA in the US, right?)? After Room, it seems a logical progression; was it the experience of creating Jack? (As a side note—I could NOT bring myself to read Room until my own daughter turned five. I had numerous colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic raving about it—and I had to put it off! I taught it the semester she turned five, and assigned it for just after her birthday.)

ED: Kissing the Witch was published as a YA title in the US but I wrote it for adults. Since then I’ve contributed stories to YA anthologies (really just designating any of my fictions with a teenage narrator as YA) and become more appreciative of the usefulness of that category. The Lotterys Plus One is different in that it’s specifically middle-grade so I have to bear the child reader in mind at all times. It probably was using Jack’s five-year-old voice in Room that gave me the confidence to try it, but The Lotterys Plus One is told in third person by a nine-year-old girl, to help me avoid it sounding like Room. I think it’s having kids that have reached the middle-grade age that’s prompted me to write it; children’s longform fiction can be such a great form and yet so often is so bland and conventional. (Those hundreds of Rainbow Fairies books!)

AP: and that’s so frustrating [that Landing was a tough sell]—I found it very universal (and this word is not meant pejoratively): the stagnant relationship between Sile and Katherine; Jude’s conflicting ties to Dublin and desire to leave; the tension of the age gap between Sile and Jude; the need to establish a new, third home; negotiating friends’ demands… so much of it is reflective of love after the first blush of teendom. This is where I see the subversive potential of literature: the more novels there are out there that matter-of-factly feature a lesbian couple, the more mainstream it becomes.

ED: Ah yes, I meant it as a very universal story, but the nervousness of some readers (and, before that, publishers) does get in the way.

AP: You’ve mentioned that Slammerkin won a lesbian prize because of your identity (not because of the characters), but reading it, I was struck by how much it could be mapped onto Adrienne Rich’s lesbian continuum (as could Frog Music and The Sealed Letter): the relationships between the various women are the heart of each novel, and you explore them in great complexity and richness. Do you find Rich’s articulation useful for thinking about how you create characters and manage their interactions?

ED: Yes, I love to explore the full range of relations between women, and I particularly enjoy doing that in a historical context where these labels had not yet been firmly stuck on. I probably wouldn’t use the phrase “lesbian continuum” because that sounds rather like we dykes are trying to rule the whole swimming pool (!) but Rich’s is a useful concept still. In Frog Music and The Sealed Letter, I could have simply decided that the two female protagonists would have what we’d recognize as “an affair,” but I found myself interested in creating something more tantalizingly ambiguous. I search my conscience to check whether I’m just being closety (because of course that choice does make these books a bit more marketable to the straight reader) but I’m pretty sure my motives are good ones: to make the story more deeply interesting.

AP: In Landing, you have brief moments that suggest Dublin, the cosmopolitan city, is more homophobic and heteronormative than the tiny village of Ireland, Ontario. Can you draw comparisons between gender relations in Ireland and in Canada?

ED: I had great fun playing with all those binaries—a modernizing-fast city in Ireland (in the Old World) versus an old-fashioned village in Canada (in the New World). I’m urban in my tastes but my friends who live in the countryside often tell me that a small place can be more truly accepting than a big one, because of those tighter community bonds. To generalize wildly: I do find Canada on a whole to be a few decades ahead of Ireland when it comes to women and queer people, because it’s been having that civil-rights conversation for longer, and it is not as invested in Catholicism. Also, it’s got such a vague sense of identity - which allows it to truly include immigrants—whereas Ireland still wrestles with its lingering sense that there are the real Irish (white Catholics) and then everybody else.

AP: Near the end of Landing, when Jude thinks Sile isn’t moving to Canada, Jude has the realization:

What am I doing here, still here at twenty-six? Jude felt a sudden nausea. Those pragmatic settlers would have despised her for clinging to home. They carried their nostalgia like their framed photos and heirlooms, but they never let it get in their way.

A place was nothing on its own; it hit her now; it was only people who carved it into meaning. She’d misunderstood the old myths. It was when Sedna tried to come home that she’s lost her fingers; it was when he touched his native soil again that Oisin felt his flesh withering away. You couldn’t stay in the womb; you had to go voyaging.[4] 

I’m struck by a number of observations in this passage: 1) the use of the semicolon in the 2nd paragraph is brilliant! It truly sets up Jude’s progression of understanding/insight; 2) your use of the Sedna and Oisin myths provides the cultural blending that Jude and Sile will attempt; 3) your concern with home, what makes home, how people enter into it that is present in other novels (HoodRoom to name two) really shines through here. (I realize this isn’t a question, per se, but I’m interested in the link you see between experience of gender identity and home.)

ED: I’m so glad you like my semi-colons, not just because I’ve never had anyone admire a punctuation mark of mine before, but because I suspect I rather overuse semi-colons (I love that not-spelled-out link between the two halves of the sentence!) so I’m delighted that this paragraph works for you! Home, yes; I suspect that’s one of the most stereotypically female themes in my work (little girls drawing single-chimneyed houses)... I suppose that growing up as a straight-A good girl, youngest of a large family, I found that being a lesbian was the one thing that made me doubt my place in that comfortable home; made me feel like the cuckoo in the nest. (I’m deeply grateful for that moment of alienation, which turned me into a writer.) So I’ve remained fascinated by the things that make us feel at home, or out of place, even monstrous. Historically, women have often been keepers of the home fires... but without owning the home, and often obliged to marry out in order to get their own home. (Emigrants by definition.) To talk about home is also to talk about family­­­­­–for instance, Pen’s fascination with the Big House in Hood is also an attachment to the whole Wall family. Room poses the question of what makes a home a heaven or (simultaneously) a hell, and whether it’s possible to make a family out of a tragedy.

AP: Now I feel like a literary fangirl­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­–­­but as a former middle school grammar teacher, I really do appreciate well-used punctuation!

ED: Oh, whenever I get copyedited (especially by meticulous American copyeditors) I feel like I know nothing compared with them.

AP: In Slammerkin, we see several surrogate mother figures in Mary’s life: Doll, then Jane. When her mother throws her out, Mary realizes that “the night only began when decent folks barred their doors,” and then after Doll saves her, she realizes that “the worst was over and she had nothing left in the world to fear.[5] In between, she’s beaten, robbed, and raped. This sets up a contrast between the Rookery (ironically a safe space) and the falsity of decent homes, a contrast between her mother and Doll. The novel continues to exploit these contrasts (in the difference of acceptability of Mrs. Ash selling her body as a wet nurse and Mary as a prostitute, for example) in ways that really highlight how precarious women’s positions were in the 1700s. The Sealed Letter also does this very well.

ED: I always saw Slammerkin as a matricidal story, so I was interested in the different ways women can offer to (or appear to) mother each other. I have been splendidly mothered (not only by my tireless mother but by several of my four big sisters) which gives me an acute sense of how damaging it must be to live without that.

AP: Comparing Helen (The Sealed Letter) and Jane (Slammerkin), they both are put off-kilter by having to be in charge of servants. Helen, for instance, thinks, “But in England, Harry has too much time on his hands, which makes her nervous. He’s beginning to poke his nose in: just think of his suggesting she instruct the girls in the supervision of servants! Here in the home country, Helen’s never felt less safe, less at home.[6] Fido (The Sealed Letter) of course is a fantastic foil for Helen, in that her industriousness grounds her in a way that answers this lack Helen hints at. I hear echoes of John Stuart Mills and Mary Wollstonecraft in all of your historical novels. Do you have a sense that this is intentional or unavoidable (or a third option)?

ED: I’ve read bits and bobs of Mill and Wollstonecraft, but haven’t studied them intensely. I suppose I’ve read a lot of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction and those ideas trickle down through it.

AP: Irish literature has been increasingly open about discussing gender issues over the past few decades. What are some of the works most responsible for this (in addition to your own, of course!)?

ED: Roddy Doyle (taking domestic violence seriously in The Woman Who Walked into Doors, and putting women rebels into 1916 in A Star Called Henry) has been crucial, and I also find Joe O’Connor consistently intelligent on gender matters.

AP: Thinking about narrative structure, I particularly appreciated the structure of The Sealed Letter; the legal terms and definitions enhanced the chapters and heightened the drama. What is your drafting process like? Do you typically decide on a structure like this (or, say, the music that runs through Frog Music) at the beginning and use it as a guide, do you come up with it in the middle, or do you mold it on at the end?

ED: I’m slightly embarrassed to admit what a cool-blooded Apollonian planner I am, but I do talk about this a lot because I think it helps new writers who might be crippled by a sense that they should be writing in a state of irrational Dionysian improvisation. I do my dreaming and free-associating, of course, but early on: then I shape it into a quite detailed structure, deciding not only what will happen but when it will happen and when things will be revealed to the reader, and what extras (such as epigraphs or chapter titles or songs) will help the scaffolding stand up. With The Sealed Letter in particular I started planning my novels tightly, because I didn’t want to waste this gripping court case material by writing a baggy book, so I charted the chapters and the point of view shifts in enough detail that I could see what I could carve away to make the story move with more momentum. I’m really not a natural plotter the way I am a natural conversation-spinner, so these techniques are crucial for me, whereas other writers are able to shape gripping stories without a conscious plan.

AP: Congratulations on the nominations and awards for Room! It’s rare (or my sense is that it’s rare) for the novelist to write the screenplay. How did that come about in this instance? And what was the experience like for you writing a screenplay?

ED: I wanted to write this film so I began drafting the screenplay once the novel was written but before it was published. I only agreed to sell the rights on condition that I would be the screenwriter. Basically, a novelist who’s written a bestseller is in a strong position, so shouldn’t let anyone pry it out of her hands if she wants to be the screenwriter! But really, the best decision I made was to wait for a director (Lenny Abrahamson) who I had reason to believe would do a beautiful job.

AP: I was intrigued to see that although you kept the breastfeeding in Room, you cut the part where Ma is criticized once she’s rescued (even by her own mother). Can you talk about this decision?

ED: You should never assume that it was the screenwriter who made a cut; the editing of a film is in the hands of the editor and director. So in this case, moments where others criticize Ma for breastfeeding ended up trimmed from the movie, as did many other things (including a long shopping-mall scene): editing is all about the rhythm and flow, rather than the content.

AP: In your afterword to Astray, you note of travellers, “Many of them stray in several senses, when in the course of their journeys across geographical and political boundaries they find themselves stepping over other ones: law, sex, or race.”[7] I had been struck when I read the stories in Astray­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­—as I was also struck in reading Frog Music­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­—by the ways that your explorations of people’s rootedness (or lack thereof) are shaped by their sense of themselves as gendered people. So I was not surprised to read your comment; as a reader, I would say that the experience of gender is the principal point of entry for you in your historical writings. Is this a fair assessment? Could you discuss your interest in historical persons’ experiences of gender in more detail?

ED: Yes, it all began with gender, for me. Although I think my focus has widened over the past few decades, what got me started on dramas and fictions set in the past was wondering how women fitted into history—or rather, how history as a story changed once a woman was telling it. I’ve always been particularly interested in those outliers whose resistance to gender norms shakes the walls of gender, as it were: crossdressers, stomping women such as Anne Lister, fey men such as Horace Walpole, spinsters and lesbians, promiscuous women or sex workers whose pragmatism strips the veil of romance off heterosexuality... Questions of gender led directly to questions about other power gaps: for instance, in my first historical novel, Slammerkin, I wanted another character who would be in an even more abject position than my heroine, so I chose a female slave, and I find that gender and race are always fascinating to consider side-by-side because of the ways they’re similar but not the same. 

AP: I’ve been binge-reading your fiction all summer, and reading your work this way, it really does become immediately obvious how many of your protagonists are marginalized women—and absolutely, how history changes when the teller and the focus changes. This has a palpable effect on the reading experience, I’ve found: I just finished reading Slammerkin for the first time, and the whole time, I felt like I was being inexorably pulled toward disaster. Beautifully written disaster, and I was, in an oddly voyeuristic manner, eager to find out what form the disaster would take—but definitely disaster. What is it like for you, writing these women’s stories?

ED: Slammerkin was a hard one because of its undeviating march towards doom; it was always going to be the story of how a girl ended up hanged at 16, so there was no wriggle room. But to me what feels good is to give these characters subjectivity, agency, a chance to rule the page even if I can’t always grant them happy endings. Occasionally readers complain that I’ve been hard on a character by assigning him/her an ending that feels like a punishment, and I always respond “How many pages did I give him/her, though?” That’s the second life you’re granting a long-dead person in fiction: a chance to show what they’re made of, strut their stuff, have their say.

AP: Thinking about the power gap you set up between Mary and Abi in Slammerkin, I find myself wanting to know what happens to Abi in London. By the time we meet Abi, we’re already bonded to Mary, so maybe that skews the connection, but I found myself thinking of Abi as freer than Mary. Is that just a trick of the circumstances each is in at the end of the novel?

ED: No, I think Mary is more truly messed-up than Abi, in that (as a pretty white girl with needle skills who manages to hide her sex-trade past and present herself as a virtuous servant) she really does have more chances, and she throws them all away. Abi has suffered in many ways but has a pragmatic ability to grab her freedom when she glimpses it; I’ve always imagined her doing well once she reaches London, where the black community in the eighteenth century was big enough to hide in, and notably loyal (visiting each other in jail, for instance). 

AP: As an academic reader, I’m drawn to the kind of “hybrid faction” you craft, and am thrilled to see a wide audience interested in it. Do you see a link between your interest in “Histories of Nothing” and your interest in gender?[8]

ED: Gender is a string you pull and everything unravels. Looking through history for the women also led me to the Other: the slave, the witch, the whore, the freak, the poor, the criminal, the victim, the disenfranchised, the child, the migrant... Feminism not only gave me subjects but required new methods for writing about them; I had to turn to this hybrid form of fact-based fiction because on the one hand these lives demanded documenting, but on the other, because the evidence is so patchy, I needed invention to fill in the gaps. My feminism helps me write about rich white men differently, too (such as Lord Derby in Life Mask), because I can sympathize with the way in which they are boxed in by the norms of their role.

AP: This is crucial to my feminist teaching, I’ve found! When I teach gender studies, it’s the whole spectrum of how our experiences are biologically shaped and cultural/socially constructed, and what it’s like to experience the world in this way—for men and women (cis* and trans*). I definitely see this sympathy in your portrayal of Harry (Sealed Letter), for example—Helen really does box him into a corner that only has one way out, and I can’t imagine that way brought him peace.

ED: Yep, feminism makes it a better world for everyone.


[1] Emma Donoghue, Hood (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 309.

[2] Fintan O’Toole, “Ireland has left ‘tolerance’ far behind,” The Irish Times, accessed May 23, 2015, http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/fintan-o-toole-ireland-has-left-tolerance-far-behind-1.2223838.

[3]Stacia Bensyl, “Swings and Roundabouts: An Interview with Emma Donoghue,” Irish Studies Review 8, no. 1 (2000): 77.

[4] Emma Donoghue, Landing (Orlando: Harcourt, 2007), 318.

[5] Emma Donoghue, Slammerkin (New York: Harcourt, 2001), 28, 31.

[6] Emma Donoghue, The Sealed Letter (Orlando: Harcourt, 2008), 68.

[7] Emma Donoghue, Astray (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012), 263.

[8] See the personal note on Donoghue’s website regarding the The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, which she had called Histories of Nothing in the writing process: http://www.emmadonoghue.com/books/short-story-collections/the-woman-who-gave-birth-to-rabbits.html.