Originally published in KISSED BY VENUS, July 2010.
Accomplished is the word that comes to mind when thinking of Emma Donoghue. At the age of twenty-five, she published her first novel, Stirfry (Hamish Hamilton, 1994), while working on a PhD in English at the University of Cambridge. Today, she has published five novels, three short-story collections, two plays, and two books of literary history, with another novel and a third work of literary history coming out this year. In addition to her prolific writing career, she is the co-parent of a six-year-old boy, and a two-year-old girl.
Emma’s work gallops across genre, history, and continents. She writes about men, women, children, and, in Kissing the Witch (Hamish Hamilton, 1997), fairies. Her fiction is set in England, Ireland, Canada, and the United States. With unselfconscious ease, she captures the vivid physical details of an era as well as its social and cultural framework. In her best-selling novel, Slammerkin (Harcourt, 2000), Emma transports readers to late eighteenth century England, where readers are introduced to a prostitute whose obsession with sumptuous clothes and elegance leads to murder. In the more contemporary Landing (Harcourt, 2007), which won a Golden Crown Award, Emma creates a lesbian love story full of wit, banter, and pithy observations about love and identity in a global world.
Nairne Holtz: Your historical fiction is full of seamless detail. How do you do your research?
Emma Donoghue: I read both broadly (histories of the middle class, histories of England) and narrowly (public building projects in London in the 1860s, histories of cigarettes, underwear, toilets). Every page I write is built on the unaccredited labour of hundreds of scholars to whom I'm eternally grateful. The research is the easy bit; cutting most of it out (so the fiction doesn't read like a lesson or a tour) is the hard part.
NH: Your historical novels, unlike your contemporary fiction, are told from the perspective of people from a wide range of classes. Do you feel freer to create different kinds of characters when writing historical fiction?
ED: That's so true; going way-back-when seems to liberate me from the constraints of identity politics. It's not that I don't worry about authenticity—I do, but I don't worry that somebody will leap up at one of my readings and say 'I've lived that life and you got it wrong'. I feel that when it comes to life a few centuries ago, my educated guess is as good as anyone's.
NH: Another contrast between your contemporary and historical fiction is the tone. Your historical fiction tends to be bleaker, to have less humour. What accounts for the difference in mood?
ED: I'm not sure; I suppose humour is more culturally specific—it's easier to make your friends/peers laugh because you know the tiny details of their days and what they're likely to find funny. My contemporary fiction draws much more on my own life and perspective, and I'm someone who laughs a lot. Also, in my historicals I tend to choose darker plots, perhaps because the meatiness of a plot like Slammerkin’s crosses the centuries well. But I particularly enjoy finding flashes of humour within the darkness.
NH: What do you find so compelling about history?
ED: I'd put it another way: I can't imagine limiting myself to writing about the here and now, any more than to the city (London, Ontario) I happen to live in.
NH: Are you more interested in how different the past is from the present, or in how similar different eras can be?
ED: Excellent question. It's the combination of both—the paradox of writing about characters who feel and struggle like us … and the next minute have some thought or prejudice which will be utterly alien to modern readers.
NH: Your novel Slammerkin propelled you into the mainstream. This novel features a prostitute, a figure with which our culture has an enduring fascination. What made you, a Catholic-born lesbian, want to write about a heterosexual prostitute?
ED: I never thought of her as heterosexual, actually. Mary's a brutalized child who first learns about sexuality for the most basic of motives: money and survival. I only added her faltering romance with a male fellow-servant in the last draft and I present it very much as a dead-end: it's too late for her to try to be normal. I suppose whores and queers have always had a lot in common, especially the feeling dirty (and as a Catholic-born Irish lesbian I knew all about that).
NH: Do you prefer to write books with lesbian characters? How is that process different from writing a book without a lesbian storyline?
ED: It's not that it's always more pleasurable, but it's certainly relaxing: there's an identification that's effortless. But once I've committed myself to a story I always identify passionately with the point-of-view characters (male heterosexual aristocrats included). Put it this way, I like the freedom to write about whatever occurs to me, but that seems to focus on lesbian themes about four times out of five, I'd estimate. Publishers get particularly excited about the commercial possibilities of my non-lesbian books, but none of them have dared to advise me to stop writing about relationships between women.
NH: You now live in Canada, but your work is usually set in England or Ireland. What makes a place capture your imagination?
ED: I'd explain that two ways: the time lag (which means that I usually write about a place I lived in long ago, such as Ireland, rather than now), and my focus on historical sources of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which are particularly rich in England. But sometimes a brief trip somewhere will fascinate me; I have stories in Touchy Subjects about LA, Louisiana, and the North-West coast of the US which all arose from holidays.
NH: What do you like about writing plays?
ED: The bam-bam, tit-for-tat rhythms of dialogue.
NH: In recent years you and your partner have had children. How has motherhood affected your writing?
ED: Until recently I'd say that all it's done is limit my time, so it's made me focus on fiction rather than the multitude of different projects and genres I used to divide my time among. Which may, oddly enough, be a good thing. More recently, I'd say that all my experiences of mothering have finally found an outlet (if a strange one) in Room.
NH: What can you tell us about your forthcoming novel, Room (HarperCollins, 2010)?
ED: It's about a five-year-old boy who lives with his mother in a single locked room, and although it's obviously inspired by some real-life kidnapping cases, it's about as far from a grisly, exploitative true-crime book as you can imagine. I've tried to give it the clean, funny, unsentimental, idiosyncratic tone of a child's mind.
NH: What can you tell us about your forthcoming non-fiction book, Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (Random House, 2010)?
ED: Ah, I'm really thrilled this study is finally seeing the light because I've been writing it on and off over the past decade and a half, and I've put into it everything I have to say about the peculiar tradition of writing about female same-sex goings-on since the 1200s, in England and French and a few other languages in translation as well. It's a short book that wears its scholarship lightly; I've really emphasized the funny, ghastly and titillating aspects of the literature. And it has 19 pictures: choosing them was almost the best bit!