Why Emma Donoghue wanted to write about family, generation gaps and the legacy of WW II
This interview originally aired on Nov. 23, 2019.
Emma Donoghue is an Irish-Canadian writer. Her 2010 novel Room was an international bestseller and was adapted into a critically acclaimed film starring Brie Larson. Her books include the middle-grade novels The Lotterys Plus One and The Lotterys More or Less and the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist The Wonder.
Her latest novel, Akin, begins as Noah, an elderly man, prepares for a trip to Nice. A social worker calls Noah out of the blue to ask him to temporarily take in his 11-year-old great nephew, whom he's never met. He agrees to take Michael to France and the two clash — but together the odd couple uncover old family secrets hiding in the French Riviera.
Donoghue spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Akin.
From the mouths of teen boys
"I rely on my children a lot to capture the voice of children in my books. This novel was very much inspired by the two years our family spent in Nice. A lot of the misdeeds, the quarrels and the joking around that my son Finn did at that time found their way into this book. He's 15 now, but he's proud of having spawned this latest child's avatar.
I rely on my children a lot to capture that voice of children in my books.
"Michael in the book is very different. This is a kid who's from a poor background and is extremely vulnerable. He's withdrawn because he has no parents looking after him. But he still has that childlike energy bubbling up every now and then. I find children at that age such an interesting mixture of the world-weary — where they've heard about everything due to Instagram and social media — and yet they haven't a clue about the world. I found him to be an irresistible mystery to write about."
"I wanted to tell a story about the impact the Second World War still has on us today. In Nice in particular, the past is always tapping you on the shoulder. As a tourist, you can have the most relaxed, idyllic moment in Nice — with the sun, sea and the stones — and then you'll be reminded, by some little plaque, that it was on that very spot that an atrocity happened.
As a tourist, you can have the most relaxed, idyllic moment in Nice — with the sun, sea and the stones — and then you'll be reminded, by some little plaque, that it was on that very spot that an atrocity happened.
"I needed somebody who was old enough to have some personal stake in that. Noah was a child in France during the war, until his mother sent him away to New York. But I did like the idea of exploring a big age gap. I find the differences between people of different ages interesting, but also people of different generations because each generation is living through such a different experience."
Fun with words
"The most vivid way to show culture clash is to have people be aware of differences in wording. That's true between generations, as much as between America and France. Noah is trying to remember his French and he's puzzling over what word you use to ask for a child's bed in a hotel. He uses the wrong word and gets a baby cot, which leaves the 11-year-old unimpressed.
The most vivid way to show culture clash is to have people be aware of differences in wording.- Emma Donoghue
"But equally between generations you know if you if you say a word like 'tablet,' an 80-year-old and an 11-year-old are going to hear different things from the word. There are many moments when they mystify each other."
Emma Donoghue's comments have been edited for length and clarity.