Author interview: Emma Donoghue on writing, motherhood, and her worst-case scenario for a Room movie

While writing the first draft of her best-selling novel Room, Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue says she followed her then-four-year-old son around “like an anthropological linguist.” Her latest book tells the story of resilient young Jack and his devoted Ma, who have been held captive in an 11’x11’ room since before Jack was born — he has never seen a real tree, or met another person other than Ma and “Old Nick,” their captor. Room is written from Jack’s point of view, using his own language, letting the reader see the world from his innocent, sheltered, uniquely fresh perspective.

Although the author was inspired by the horrendous real-life case of Felix Fritzl, a young boy who was similarly confined for years with his mother and siblings in Austria, Room was never intended to be a psychological thriller or a crime novel. Instead, Donoghue says she wanted to use the premise as a way to explore issues of motherhood, freedom, and the idea of home.

Donoghue spoke to Bookclub-in-a-Box yesterday from her home in London, Ontario, where she lives with her partner and two children, before heading to a discussion about her book at Toronto’s Deer Park Library. There, the author was met with a packed room of about 70 people, while those on the waiting list had to be turned away. She’s happily riding a wave of success after winning the Commonwealth Prize for Fiction, among other awards — she’s also up for the overall Commonwealth Prize, which will be announced on May 21, and the U.K.’s Orange Prize for Fiction (worth £30,000), announced on June 8.

Bookclub-in-a-Box: Did you find it difficult to write Jack’s voice, and did you worry about whether this narrative style could work for an entire novel?

Emma Donoghue: I never questioned this as my choice for the novel, but I did mull over particular little details, like grammar points. When I followed my son around, I did think, ‘Oh God, I can’t use all these mistakes or the adult reader will just be enraged by them.’ I just chose a handful of classic five-year-old mistakes to use and then I gave Jack a lot of his own quirks — it’s hard to find that line between being realistic about how a child would be and really irritating the reader. […]

People write in to say, ‘my child speaks such-and-such a way, and therefore your book is wrong!’ Or some people will write in to say it’s inconsistent, he’ll make some childish grammar mistake and then he’ll use a long word. My kids do that all the time! I love that about kids’ language — they’ll use a very specific turn of phrase and then they’ll completely forget how to use the verb ‘to be.’

How influential was your own son on you while writing this book, and how has writing this book change your own relationship with your children?

I didn’t choose to write a book about a five-year-old boy just because I had one in the house, but it was handy. Really, Felix Fritzl was the five-year-old boy who put the idea into my head. I thought about whether I should make the child a girl, but then I thought, ‘no, because a woman and a little girl locked up by a man is starting to sound like really heavy-handed feminism, and I’m a feminist, but I like to do it in a not-heavy-handed way.’ So I thought it would be better if Ma and Jack were two different genders, and I stuck with him being a male child. [...]

It’s funny, people sometimes ask me if I had some agenda for what I wanted to satirize about modern society, and I say no, I really just described our society the way I thought Jack would see it. But the kind of person he’s often complaining about in the second half is the Starbucks mother — it’s me! The one who’s like, ‘oh, have a lollipop honey, let me talk to my friend and check my email.’ You know, the multi-tasker. So much of what Jack is criticizing about society is the way I live, because I want to have it all, I want to be a mother, and a lover, and a friend, and travel, and work, and write — I want to have it all. That’s why it was a very extraordinary exercise to write about someone entering so entirely into the state of motherhood, and being nothing else.

Part of a simulated floorplan from the Room website.

Submitted by reader Joanne Carlisle: During your research and writing, how did you keep the stories you read in perspective so that you didn’t suffer the horrors of these women’s plights?

The research was horrible! The way I was doing it was particularly visceral because when I was writing historical fiction [for past books] it was all about books in libraries, drawings, and occasionally photographs, but when all these reports are coming one day after the next, a few more horrible details leaking out to scare you, it makes you feel horribly caught up in the drama. I was also looking up not just kidnapping cases, but also cases of children raised in weird and confined ways. I was trying to really find out what kids can survive and what they can’t, and that meant reading about some of the most appalling cases I’d ever heard of. I did find it grueling.

But I was actually planning on writing a story that was far less horrible than what I was researching — it’s really a best-case scenario in my telling of Room, because he’s got this ideal mother, they’ve got their health and food, so they don’t have all these additional miseries that often end up in these kidnapping situations, like bad ventilation and that kind of thing. I really wanted to focus on the issue of freedom and confinement, so I didn’t pile on any extra horrors like incest or beatings or things like that. It’s bad enough to be locked up.

Submitted by reader Amy Clarke: I’ve read Room and Landing, and I love Emma Donoghue’s writing. In Room, there’s a scene after Jack and Ma escape where Jack is with his grandma at the library, and he meets a boy who has two fathers. Since you are a woman whose own children are being raised with two mothers, was it important to you to include that small detail to show gay parenting as a normalized part of society?

You know, it’s hilarious, somebody emailed me and said ‘About this male couple raising a child, does this mean Jack will be gay?’ No, it doesn’t! That is one of many, many references I’ve sprinkled in to basically undermine the idea of the nuclear family. I mean, it’s definitely very plausible that Ma’s parents have broken up by the time she comes back. Very often in the case of missing girls, the parents split up. So I thought maybe the stepfather would be the one who could connect best with Jack.

And then I thought I would also make Ma adopted, and in several different ways I sprinkled in the notion that family is a complicated thing that comes in many forms. I just didn’t like the idea that Ma giving birth to her rapist’s child is this weird exception and when she comes back into the world, she finds her proper, solid, nuclear family. I wanted to complicate that a bit.

What are you planning to write next?

The key is not to attempt to recapture this audience! But seriously, my aim is to keep writing whatever occurs to me. […] I’m carrying straight on with an obscure historical piece, a novel set in San Francisco in the 1870s. I suppose its only concession to the more commercial side of things is that it happens to be about a murder, so it might be some kind of a murder mystery, but it has almost nothing in common with Room.

Have you sold the movie rights for the book?

I have not sold rights to anyone, but there have been innumerable offers. I would love it to make a great film — what I don’t want is for it to make a bad film, and you can’t always tell in advance. You can sell it to someone who seems very principled, and then they shaft you!

In particular there are two bad films I don’t want it to become. I dread it becoming a Hallmark, soppy, ‘I love you Ma!’ type of film. I deliberately never included the phrase ‘I love you,’ because I thought, if it’s not blindingly obvious that this mother and child love each other, then I have failed. And I also dread it becoming a sleazy, rape-of-the-week TV movie.

It’s like being an 18th century lady courted by suitors — I just have to keep saying no until the perfect conjunction of the stars emerges. But there’s no rush. I honestly would rather it not be filmed than it be a bad film. I know people say just take the money and run, but I’ve seen books I loved destroyed by the films, it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. So I’m just going to sit tight until I find the right people.

Is there any book you love that you wish you had written yourself?

Oh, many of them, yes! I’m even thinking of books I couldn’t have written myself. One of my favourite writers is the American writer Neal Stephenson, and he writes these big, brilliant fantasies full of mathematics and crazy stuff about physics, and they’re wildly entertaining. Yes, if I were Neal Stephenson, I’d be the happiest writer of all.

New! Click the audio player to listen to Emma Donoghue read a passage from Room! Recorded May 17, 2011, in Toronto.

Visit the author’s official website for a full list of appearances by Emma Donoghue.

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2 Responses to Author interview: Emma Donoghue on writing, motherhood, and her worst-case scenario for a Room movie

  1. Zalina says:

    Great Q&A! I’ll have to put this one on my reading list. One thing, though: I can understand how a writer wouldn’t want someone making a terrible movie adaptation of their hard work, but I’ve never felt that a book can be “destroyed” by a poor film. For me, they’re always two separate things – two different visions. A great book will always stand on its own, on its own merits. Besides, if we prevent filmmakers from adapting books, wherever would they get their ideas from? ;p

  2. Sarah says:

    Great interview Laura! What I really liked about Room is that it’s not about the escape, it’s about survival — both for Ma and Jack. Such a powerful, wonderful read. So proud Donoghue is Irish-Canadian!

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