Why Giller Prize-longlisted author Emma Donoghue has a knack for writing novels that suit the times we live in
'I was fascinated by the atmosphere of a very urban, modern kind of plague. It seemed so post-apocalyptic'
Emma Donoghue is an Irish-Canadian writer known for her bestselling work which includes the novels Landing, Room, Frog Music and The Wonder and the children's middle-grade books The Lotterys Plus One and The Lotterys More or Less. The Wonder was a finalist for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
The London, Ont.-based author's best known work is arguably Room, the 2010 novel was an international bestseller and was adapted into a critically acclaimed film starring Brie Larson.
Donoghue's latest is the bestselling 2020 novel The Pull of the Stars, set in a war and disease-ravaged Ireland during the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak. The timely tale is about three women — a nurse, a doctor and a volunteer helper — working on the front lines of the pandemic in an understaffed maternity ward of a hospital.
Donoghue spoke with CBC Books about writing during a pandemic and how her LGBTQ identity informs her fiction.
Does it feel serendipitous that this book is set during a pandemic given we are currently living through one?
"It is very serendipitous! I started writing The Pull of the Stars in October 2018. I finished the whole thing and then I looked up and blinked to realize there was a pandemic going on. It caught me completely by surprise.
"I didn't add a single line about what's going on today — it's just all pandemic stories have certain things in common.
I didn't add a single line about what's going on today — it's just all pandemic stories have certain things in common.
"So there are lines from the book that sound like it could have been written right now. But it's all about 1918."
What was the seed that flourished into becoming The Pull of the Stars?
"I don't even know who wrote it, because The Economist doesn't give article bylines, but some journalist wrote evocatively about the 1918 flu, something I never knew existed.
"I knew it happened and it killed two per cent of the world, but I never got into knowing the details.
"I was fascinated by the atmosphere of a very urban, very modern kind of plague. It seemed so post-apocalyptic.
"I thought it would be interesting to write a novel which, instead of coming across as a typical sort of historical novel, it would have a dystopian atmosphere of an urban civilization fraying at the edges.
I thought it would be interesting to write a novel which, instead of coming across as a typical sort of historical novel, it would have a dystopian atmosphere of an urban civilization fraying at the edges.
"There's a moment in the first chapter where somebody opens a newspaper and the pages inside are blank. That was due to a lack of gas supply at the printing works.
"It's a bizarre and eerie detail but you notice they still publish the newspaper. There's an element of life that goes on — but with strange missing bits."
You seem to be drawn to writing about epidemics. What draws you to writing about this type of scenario?
"Well it sounds cold-blooded if I say that pandemics are a writer's dream! They're not just about illness but about suspense. The way they spread, they cast a shadow of danger over every human interaction. They raised the stakes of just ordinary social life.
They're not just about illness but about suspense. The way they spread, they cast a shadow of danger over every human interaction. They raised the stakes of just ordinary social life.
"They introduce this unknowable element and they make you constantly worry about how much you want people, versus how much you want safety.
"They do all this in a relatively short time period and in a way that makes you very focused on where you are in the world as well. It's more dangerous in some places than others. Some people are more at risk than others. People are taking risks for others.
"All these months, I've been at home ordering my groceries on Instacart. Some have to go outside and go to the actual grocery store. So it highlights the ethical dilemmas of everyday life."
Shifting gears a bit, let's talk about the hit success that was Room. How did that success change you as a writer?
"Very little. Luckily, it came to me late — Room was my seventh novel. I was a veteran already so I knew it would be foolish to try and kind of chase up one-off success again. I think I'm just really lucky — I hit a very powerful story. Above all, I've been very lucky that I've been able to follow that story into film and into theatre. Both experiences have been such wonderful collaborations.
I think I'm just really lucky —I hit a very powerful story.
"It's been almost like a test case for me of what I like about those three genres. In making Room into a film, I discovered what's so special about film — and the same with making it into a play.
"Obviously my COVID lockdown story started with the tragedy of the Room theatre production being cancelled on its opening night. But I've benefited hugely from being able to work on that story in three forms.
"I remember, at the very start, saying to myself that I don't like this success wrecking my career in the sense of my happiness with my own job. I wanted to keep my joy in my writing. I try to never write the same book twice."
"It's really hard. You can't get your book directly to them. Maybe if they were 16 you could, but if they're eight you can't. You have to go through a series of gates, much like in a young adult novel or like in a video game.
"You have to get past that feeling that you are going to do harm to children. Publishers, librarians, school teachers and parents are all nervous that you might include any curse words or bad habits in the adult characters. I had an adult character who was having a glass of wine once and my publisher was like, "Oh no, she can't.'
This is a real sense of anxiety about being a good influence, which does not occur when you're writing for adults.
"This is a real sense of anxiety about being a good influence, which does not occur when you're writing for adults.
"But then, of course, you're anxious that the kids will get bored. You're simultaneously trying to please easily distractible eight-year-olds and librarians.
"But it was great fun. It means I feel I have to do at least one extra draft each of those books to somehow guide the story through this maze."
When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?
"I've been writing since I was seven. It was a very bookish household. My dad was a critic, my mom was an English teacher. It happened young for me that writing would be a hobby.
Writers often have a kind of outsider perspective of a society. They can look around and see all the things that are wrong or that are unspoken.
"But I think what made me take it seriously was discovering I was a lesbian. It seems like an indirect motive, but you need something to make you feel like an outsider.
"Writers often have a kind of outsider perspective of a society. They can look around and see all the things that are wrong or that are unspoken.
"That moment of feeling that I am the other is the crucial prompt of writing and puzzle out what society is doing. That certainly helped for me."
There's a tender starkness and a feel for human nature in all of your books. What's your approach on writing realized characters?
"I don't have an answer for that. I guess I'm very interested in people. I have not had a very wide experience bio — I'm not somebody who's coming back from all these different jobs with all the accumulated wisdom. I've just stayed home and read.
"This means that whatever I meet someone at a dinner party — pre-COVID, of course! — I would talk to them and start interrogating them to know all about their job, their life, their recent illness. I do tend to have a sort of vampiric reaction when I meet someone who is interesting.
"I don't know what developed in me. I suspect that just reading a lot of books led me to ask these questions in the first place. For example, I tend to be much more observant and thoughtful when something is happening in a book; in everyday life, I tend to be oblivious.
I do tend to have a sort of vampiric reaction when I meet someone who is interesting.
"I don't see people's hidden motives and I don't notice the details of my physical environment. I lose my car in the parking lot, that sort of thing.
"Somehow my brain works better on the page. I've been writing novels since I was about 19 and I'm 50 now. I'm mulling over things is a bit of a habit."
You've been quoted as saying you have a thing for masculine women, no matter the century. What's your approach to writing LGTBQ characters and queerness in fiction?
"Whatever your identity is, sometimes it comes to the fore in your writing and sometimes it doesn't. I've noticed my lesbian-themed novels tend not to sell at all as well as my non-lesbian ones. That's just the fact.
"And yet it's a fact that I shove away that feeling of, 'Am I going to doom this novel by introducing a same-sex love story?' I don't care!
"The thing about having written bestsellers is I can live off that. I refuse to care about whether the other books sell. Ideally it should kind of set you free. But we can't help but be self-conscious about this stuff.
Whatever your identity is, sometimes it comes to the fore in your writing and sometimes it doesn't. I've noticed my lesbian-themed novels tend not to sell at all as well as my non-lesbian ones.
"I've noticed that a few of my books, for instance, I delay the knowledge of the same-sex love story to a point when the readers should be fond of these characters already.
"Ann-Marie MacDonald did the same thing with Fall on Your Knees, she saves that reveal until the last 10 pages. Similarly I suppose if you're writing an article you hook the reader first before you give them any details that might make them feel the story isn't relevant to them.
"But it's a strength if we can draw on stories that have been less told. And also you get hyper anxious about who you can speak for. Because then there's the [misguided] idea that each of us is just 100 per cent qualified to speak for all different things.
"I also rely on humour. Whenever I think my mass readership might be uncomfortable with the subject, humour is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down and lure them in.
"It relaxes them enough that they can open their minds. It's a bit like doing a medical procedure!"
Is there a prescriptive approach for queer or lesbian writers in terms of telling their stories in today's world? Is there any advice that you'd offer?
"Luckily, we've never been a big enough group that there's a prescriptive script for us!
"I'm thinking of two British examples: Welsh novelist Sarah Waters went the 'lesbian fiction aimed at lesbians first' route — and her stories were just such page-turners that she got a mass audience. Scottish author Ali Smith was much more defined as literary before she was defined as lesbian and she's worked her way up to a huge audience.
"Both of them were reluctantly open from the start so it helps not to be in the closet tied up in knots.
Personally, I've never found the 'lesbian label' a restrictive one. My lesbian fans are appreciative of my openness and of the stories that I do write.
"Personally, I've never found the 'lesbian label' a restrictive one. My lesbian fans are appreciative of my openness and of the stories that I do write.
"There is no one script. Nowadays I think people are very interested in whatever your particular and strange story is — you do not have to conform to a certain type.
"People are more likely to appreciate your work if you could be bringing a very fresh angle."
How are you defining success as a writer these days?
"The first stage of it would be, 'Did I really, really enjoy writing this book?' And then the second would be, 'Do I get published?' It might seem an old-fashioned way of measuring it, but book reviews thrill me.
Even if a book doesn't sell well, if it gets good reviews, I feel heard.
"Even if a book doesn't sell well, if it gets good reviews, I feel heard. I feel like readers got my story."
Emma Donoghue's comments have been edited for length and clarity.