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Emma Donoghue: 'I always work on such an odd mix of tales'

The novelist and screenwriter Emma Donoghue tells Chrissie Russell how she finally made Room in her hectic schedule to pen a new work for kids

Published 23/04/2016

Emma Donoghue with children Una and Finn
Emma Donoghue with children Una and Finn
Room’s director Lenny Abrahamson, screenwriter Emma Donoghue and producer Ed Guiney
A scene from the movie Room

You would think that being able to reference an award-winning and Oscar-nominated project would be the holy grail of marketing tools, but Emma Donoghue is a little concerned about referencing Room on her latest piece of literary work.

In case you haven't read the book or seen the film (where have you been?), Room tells the story of a five-year-old boy and his mother who are held captive - a powerful tale that earned a place on both the illustrious Man Booker and Orange prize shortlists and also garnered a host of cinematic gongs at the Golden Globes and Oscars.

Surely any publisher would leap at the chance to associate a new title with such a well-known and widely successful piece of work by the same author? Perhaps not, as it turns out the writer has just sold her first children's book.

"I'm not sure booksellers will see it as a very natural shift," laughs Emma. "'This is a children's book by the author of Room!' and yet it was writing Room that got me into writing for children. I found writing in the child's voice such an interesting exercise that then I thought it would be fun to actually do that for children. Still ..."

She trails off, leaving me to imagine the admittedly incongruous scenario of referencing a tale inspired by Josef Fritzl's dungeon, on the front cover of a book aimed at the eight-to-12s market.

And yet, while the genre change marks a major departure from the content and style of her best known work to date, it's also representative of the eclectic scope of Emma, who published her first work at just 23.

"I write such an odd mixture of things, I don't have the marketing power of a brand. It's not like all my books are the same and people know exactly what they're getting - every project is different," says Emma (46).

"I like fiction best because I get to call all the shots, but film is sociable and thrilling. Then theatre has the most vivid sense of teamwork and with literary history you're just quietly working away on the books of the past and putting your own ego aside. Each has their own pleasures, they all offer something."

As Emma talks to me over the phone, she's looking out on the shimmering coast of Nice in France where she, her partner Chris (Christine) Rolston and their two children, Una and Finn, are based this year while Chris, a professor, is on sabbatical.

It's a long time since Emma called Dublin home. She left Ireland in 1990 to study at Cambridge, living there for eight years, working on her doctorate. It was there she met Chris, a Canadian, and the pair left together for Canada in 1998, now living in London, Ontario.

It's a lengthy absence that has left Emma battling what she eloquently dubs "migrant forms of nostalgia".

"As soon as I left the country I started wanting Tayto crisps," she laughs. "And traditional music! When I was growing up, that meant nothing to me, but then I emigrated and suddenly the sound of uilleann pipes would have me in tears."

She breaks into laughter at a recent memory.

"When I was going to the Oscars I remember someone said to me 'what cause are you going to talk about?' and I thought 'I'm brand new at this! I don't think my very first speech is going to be [she adopts a mock impassioned shouty voice] 'let me talk to you about South Korea!'"

Ah yes, the Oscars. Surely there can be no greater feeling of 'I've made it' than gliding along a celeb-strewn red carpet like Emma did this year when she was nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for Room at the Academy Awards.

"The irony is that, when you're on the red carpet you feel like a loser because everyone else is more famous and more glamorous," says Emma chuckling. "Among your friends you feel like a big shot, but being six inches from Leonardo DiCaprio makes you feel like a nothing."

Proving that she's still just as star-struck as the rest of us, she confesses that having Cate Blanchett rub her arm at another glitzy do was "a personal high" and gaining entry to the fabulous world of the Hollywood gifting suite was an added bonus.

"It's bizarre, they're like free shops," says Emma, still clearly perplexed by the set-up whereby award nominees get offered armfuls of free clobber.

"You walk in and there's someone asking you what shoe size you are and 'would you like this bracelet?'. At book festivals you get maybe a sachet of coffee and a really heavy mug that, if you're on a book tour, you have to leave behind in the hotel because you can't go round stockpiling heavy ceramic mugs."

But there is a sincerity to those ceramic mugs that she loves in the book world. Her first foray into feature films has shown her that Hollywood often comes with a sizeable helping of fawning and banal studio speak, which was one of the reasons why she was so delighted to work with an Irish company, Element, on Room.

"The dryness and wit of the Irish was a great contrast with the high level of gushiness and soothing and complimentary speech you can get in the industry," she reveals.

"We just clicked. Myself, [producer] Ed Guiney and [director] Lenny Abrahamson would just mock each other every time we met. It makes for trust. Because if somebody can mock you, but not actually do you any real hurt, then you feel safer with them."

The Irish sense of banter and an appreciation of irony is what she says she most wants to instil in her children Finn (12) and Una (8): "I'd say it's the main thing I teach them."

Another work Emma has due for release later this year is The Wonder, a novel that looks at the case of a young girl who appears to be surviving without eating. The story has its roots in real historical cases and is based in rural Ireland in the 1850s, but it also raises interesting contemporary issues about fundamentalism and body image.

With a daughter not too far off tweendom, I wonder if she worries about raising a girl in a world rife with gender inequality, pressure to look a certain way and the whole sexting minefield of social media.

"Raising a boy is fraught too," she challenges playfully. "We hear so much about the crisis in modern masculinity and if they are not the ones opening the doors and carrying the bags, then what are they? And how much should you encourage them to play to their own obsessive interests, things like Minecraft, and how much should you encourage them in those soft skills that the girls seem better at?

"Parenting is always fraught with issues. At the start it's like learning to walk after a stroke or something. You're thinking 'everyone else manages this, why can't I?' But there are always challenges; now I have to help them with the internet and they're nagging me to upgrade their software, so you have to decide what to allow them."

But she hopes the type of 'intensive parenting' that this generation is involved in will pay dividends in intimacy.

"I don't think our parents fretted over it in quite the same way that we are," she says. "But on the other hand, there's a level of intimacy there that I don't think was as common in the old days. My partner is a professor and she says her students are just so close to their parents, constantly texting and Skyping.

"So I think it's a hugely rewarding business and certainly it's hugely inspiring for me. It seems like everything I've written in the last 10 years has got something to do with parenting."

Unsurprisingly, both children - born to Emma and Chris using an anonymous sperm donor - are "mad readers".

"They literally fight over books," says Emma. "And, if they're going to fight, what better thing to fight over?"

Her own parents, the literary critic Denis Donoghue - who was brought up in Warrenpoint, where his father was in the RUC - and English teacher mother Frances, played a big influence on her career path, but she's not dreaming of her own offspring following in her writer footsteps.

"I wouldn't exactly advise it because the average income of writers is incredibly low and it's not necessarily a business that's going to make anyone happy ... I've felt hugely lucky."

Passing through an airport recently, she was stopped by someone who recognised her face off TV and knew she had "something to do with a prize". But Emma is insistent the recognition and limelight is "all temporary".

"People recognising you in the supermarket, that only happens for a few weeks and quickly fades, which is fine because, really, would you want to live like that?

"It's been great because you tend to assume you've passed your peak in terms of being remotely interesting to the media and then suddenly there's this shot in the arm from interest in the film that has spread a wonderful sprinkle of magic dust on all the other books. If someone will go and see Signatories because they saw me at the Oscars, then great. But I don't expect the spotlight to stay on me."

With her talent and such a down-to-earth and modest attitude to fame, it seems inevitable that it really won't be too long before the spotlight is back on her once again.

Belfast Telegraph

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