Irish Writer Finds Room at the Top

Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue / Photo by Nina Subin

By Kara Rota, Contributor
February / March 2011

Emma Donoghue is one of the younger Irish writers who found success in 2010 when her novel Room was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize

After years of moving between England, Ireland, and Canada, in 1998 Emma Donoghue settled in London, Ontario, where she lives with Chris Roulston and their son Finn (7) and daughter Una (3). Born in Dublin, Ireland, in October 1969, Donoghue is the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue (the literary critic, Henry James Professor at New York University).  Prior to Room (2010), she was mainly known for her historical fiction and her collection of short stories Touchy Subjects (2006).  Kara Rota met her at a reading at the Irish Arts Center in New York.

I began reading Emma Donoghue’s critically lauded novel Room in the auditorium of the Irish Arts Center, while waiting for the her reading to begin. I’d just been handed a press copy, and upon turning to the beginning of the story, I found that I couldn’t stop. Room, shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, is narrated by 5-year-old Jack, who lives with his Ma in an 11’x11’ room and has never experienced the world outside of it. His Ma, however, retains vivid memories of the last time she set foot in the world: seven years earlier as a 19-year-old student, before she was kidnapped and imprisoned by “Old Nick,” who is also Jack’s biological father. Like any 5-year-old, Jack’s days are filled with lessons and play, savored candy and rationed TV time, where the evening news holds no more relevance to his experience of the world than Dora the Explorer. When Ma’s fear for their lives and Jack’s multiplying questions about the abstract reality of the world outside Room force them to risk everything to escape, the novel cracks open wide into a universe that brings both Jack and Ma inexplicable joy and wonder and overwhelming challenges. I later had a chance to talk with Donoghue about her novel.

To me, Room is an allegory for all parent-child relationships. For a small child, his mother can often feel like his entire world, while her child’s love both traps her and gives her very existence meaning. The inevitable opening up of the rest of the world is differently wondrous and traumatic for both of them. Which came first – the idea of writing a book about the closed-circuit intimacy of the mother-child connection, or the setting of a tiny room to emphasize the claustrophobia and incredible creativity and love therein?

The setting came first. I had no plans to write a book about parenthood, because I assumed that although my head was full of thoughts about babies and how they change your life, anything I could write on the subject would be banal, since nearly everybody goes through it. But when I heard about the Fritzl case* and imagined writing a book from the point of view of a child who comes out of a one-room prison into our world, I soon realized that this would be a way to talk about parenthood in a way that restores the primal drama to it, the intensity that every parent encounters.

Why do you think people relate so deeply to the story, which is about such a specific experience that most of us have never experienced anything akin to?

I know the novel becomes different with each reader; in a sense, a book is what happens when an individual reader encounters a text (in any form – paper, audio, screen), it happens in the gap between them. So yes, to some Jack is their own aching troubled childhood self, and to others their witty grandson, and to some Ma is a cheerful saint, and to others she’s a messed-up rape victim. And that’s all fine; what matters to me is that people care about this story. I think Room is working because it’s about such universal subjects – love, freedom, closeness, individuality. And also because, although it may seem “ripped from the headlines,” it’s actually an ancient story with echoes of old legends such as Rapunzel.

How did your relationship with your children inform the writing of Room, and vice versa?

My son Finn, who was five while I was drafting the novel, is not Jack, mostly because his rearing has been the complete opposite; he’s sociable, expansive, laid-back, messy. But they do share a certain scientifically curious and playfully imaginative spirit. Much of Ma’s conversation with Jack is based on mine with Finn, and certain exchanges (for instance, when he asks her to promise that if he’s born from her body again in the next life she’ll call him by the same name) are word-for-word from conversations I had with Finn when he was five.

I was struck by how my image of Ma shifted once we were brought outside of Room and into “the real world.” In the early chapters, she is the goddess that holds the entire world together. On the outside, she is so young, and as unversed in being an adult in the world as Jack is in being a child in it. Did you have a conception of Ma that was separate from how Jack saw her throughout the book?

Yes, I didn’t have an elaborate back story for her pre-Room, but I did for the years when she was locked up. Actually, the real technical challenge of Room wasn’t making a voice for Jack, but managing to create Ma as a three-dimensional character who is only represented through Jack’s eyes and recorded dialogue –“in a glass darkly,” to quote Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. In the second half, I’m revealing her resentment and uncertainty that was there all along. To some readers this is a disappointment or even a betrayal, but I wanted to invent a real human being, not a goddess.

I found the critical focus on Ma’s breastfeeding of Jack as a disturbing factor to be perplexing. Not only invaluable as a source of comfort, it seems obvious that the continued nutritional factor supplementing a poor diet composed of packaged and processed foods is probably all that has allowed Jack to develop, physically and mentally, as normally as he has. Did you find this to be a specifically American reaction to that aspect of the story? Did you intend for it to raise complex questions about sexuality, attachment and growth, as Aimee Bender’s review in the New York Times suggested?

I did realize it was going to cause a stir, because an assistant of my agent’s reacted with horror to the breastfeeding in the first draft. “Aha,” I thought, “I must keep that in, as clearly it stirs up all sorts of discomfort about the more visceral side of motherhood!” But I’m still staggered by how much of a mental block some readers, specifically in the U.S., have about it. I’m not a zealot about breastfeeding; it worked for me with my daughter but not my son. To me, weaning is tied to the child’s entry into the social world and that doesn’t happen for Jack till five, so why would she wean him until then?

During your reading at the Irish Arts Center, you mentioned that Room came to you as if in a rush, that you wrote it very quickly and without much drafting. Its critical reception has also been huge and overwhelmingly positive. What has that experience been like?

An absolute joy. Like most writers, I have often felt as if I’m throwing stones into a lake, causing barely a ripple. I’m used to getting good reviews but I’ve never caused such a big ripple as with Room; not only is it reaching so many more readers, worldwide, but it’s getting people talking and arguing, it’s moving them as I never have before.  I just can’t believe my luck, that I came upon such a great premise for a novel with no particular effort. It’s not how the writing process usually goes!

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