A From Left to Write Interview with Emma Donoghue, author of ROOM

Emma Donogue, author of ROOM

Emma Donoghue, author of ROOM, joins us for a Q&A today, following our book club last week at From Left to Write. Read the inspired posts about ROOM from the From Left to Write bloggers.

Q: How did you come to write this book?

A: At the point when I heard about the Fritzl case in Austria, I had two small kids (4 and 1) and the notion of a child emerging into the world for the first time at five simply seized me.

Q: Where is your favorite place to write?

A: I couldn’t care less.  At my desk, in a cafe, on a train, just give me a laptop and I forget everything outside its screen.

Q: What was your favorite book as a child? As an adult?

A: The Narnia cycle, from about age 4.  Nowadays? I couldn’t choose.  I’ll pick one I’ve loved enough to reread: Graham Swift’s WATERLAND.

Q: Are you in a book club? Tell us about it.

A: It’s called the Furies and it’s past its quarter-century.  We do potluck and gossip all evening until somebody says ‘But what about the book?’

Q: Do you a tip for writers? (e.g., how to overcome writer’s block, find your voice, routines, etc.)

A: In all seriousness: don’t give up the day job (yet).  Quitting your job to sit at home Being a Writer is an enormous pressure, not just financially but psychologically. Better to keep writing as your secret lover, at least till you’ve sold the first book.

Q:  What’s your favorite thing to do on the weekend?

A: Currently, Zumba.

Q:  Maxine from The French Mommy asks:  Emma, were you familiar with the Jaycee Lee Dugard case that was solved in August 2009?  Did you take bits and pieces of this case to add to the detail of ROOM?  The ROOM hidden among the hedges in the back of the house so reminds me of “….the backyard compound behind the Antioch home” of the Jaycee Lee Dugard case.  Here is a quick synopsys of the Dugard case as published in the Vos Iz Neias Blog: “Antioch, CA – A little girl snatched on her way to school was kept hidden from the world behind a series of fences, sheds and tents for nearly two decades, even giving birth to her suspected abductor’s children in the suburban backyard compound less than 200 miles from the home where she was taken. Jaycee Lee Dugard, who was 11 when she was abducted from a South Lake Tahoe street in 1991, was taken directly to the house and sheltered from the world in a secret, leafy backyard, investigators said Thursday.” Bottom line no one would ever want a case similar to ROOM to happen, but it appears it has already….  Thanks for your comments.

A: Strangely, I’d written ROOM and sent it to my agent before Dugard was discovered. I deliberately set it in America, and in a shed rather than underground, to make it different from the Fritzl case in Austria. Life imitating art, indeed.

Q: Cindy from We All Fall Down asks: At one point in Room, Jack says, “Then I switch over to the fitness planet where persons in underwear with all machines have to keep doing things over and over, I think they’re locked in.” I read much of Jack’s observations as wickedly funny commentary on some of the more ridiculous parts of American culture, such as predatory talk-show hosts and the chaos of the mall. As an Irish woman living in Canada, did you deliberately pull from your own experiences of observing America from outside to create Jack, the innocent outsider who is caught off-guard by modern America?

Yes, Cindy, I didn’t start ROOM with an agenda of mocking certain aspects of US life, but those passages seemed to arise naturally out of Jack’s perspective.  Much of the satire isn’t of the US specifically, of course; Canada is where I personally encountered and was horrified by the gyms full of stern-faced prisoners (or so it seemed).  Same with malls, where I’ve often had things go pear-shaped on ‘quick trips’ with my small kids. And my experiences with journalists, although mostly great, have included the odd bruising encounter, so I particularly enjoyed giving Ma a bitter take on the media.

Q: Cindy from We All Fall Down also asks: I’m fascinated by the structure of Room. Without giving too much away, I’ll say the change from the first part of the book to the second half is a development that messed with my expectations of what a thriller is, and how they usually end. What has been quietly horrible and then nearly unbearably tense (I admit I read Jack’s journey in Rug standing up and weeping with fear) becomes something very different, yet no less interesting. Could you talk about your design for the reader’s experience, specifically in the second half of the book? Were you thinking about how sweet the comic relief, (such as when Jack asks the baby, “Do you like the left best?”) would feel after such tension? By contrasting Room’s horror with the absurdity of a stranger in a strange land were you making a point about the resilience and adaptability of children?

A: I always knew it would be a book in two halves, and of course some readers (and reviewers) much prefer one half over another, or find one half more persuasive.  The main reason ROOM follows Ma and Jack beyond the door is that if I’d only told the first half of the story, it would have seemed a generic thriller, and it would have left the reader with the comforting sense that modern America is the happy ending any prisoner longs for.  Whereas by making it a book about two worlds, Room and Outside, I thought I could produce a much more interesting reflexion on the pros and cons of both.  I know the tension of the first half is the most obvious, but in the second half despite all his comic observations Jack fears he’s losing Ma, which is in many ways worse… So I’m hoping that the different tensions and relaxations in different parts of the book add up, for readers, to a satisfying experience, if not a traditionally shaped one.

Q: Cindy from We All Fall Down also asks: Like you, and like many of the contributors to From Left to Write, I’m a parent, and the various depictions of care-giving in your book struck many chords. (I loved “‘Good sharing, Walter.’ That’s a man on the armchair looking at a thing like Uncle Paul’s BlackBerry.”) Please describe how you balance being an observer of modern parenting with being an actual participant in it.

A: Oh, anytime I mock an adult for bad behaviour, it’s my own wrist I’m slapping: the not-really-listening answers, the quick email-checking, the banal exhortations to be nice, the passive-aggressive complaints about mess, the barely-muffled spite at moments when you lose your temper over something tiny… Writing Ma has left me with a vivid sense of what kids need from their parents and a terrible weight of guilt that I’m so sporadic about providing it.  I think I’m a wonderful mother in five-minute chunks, but if I’d been in Ma’s position I’d have turned my face to the wall and let the TV raise my child.

Q: Marianne from Writer Mommy asks: The paradigm of “normal” and how we create that for ourselves everyday and how Ma creates it for Jack despite being in circumstances that are dire.  I noticed right away the moment when she uttered the word “normal” and Jack asked, “What’s that?” and she quickly changed the subject.  What are your thoughts about how we as parents all seek to create normalcy for our children even/especially amidst tragedy and uncertainty?

A: Well, as a mother in a two-mother family, I’m always aware of the dubiousness of the ‘normal’.  My kids don’t seem to feel remotely unusual, but I’m sure the day will come when someone tries to make them feel like freaks for being fatherless.  Like Ma, I suppose I’m trying to give them a sense of strength rooted in themselves and in our family’s love rather than dependent on the opinions of the world…

Q: Marianne from Writer Mommy also asks: In so many ways, Jack was Ma’s savior.  She could have easily hated/blamed the child for the sins of the father (as we see her father doing when he meets Jack) but she doesn’t.  The strength of Ma’s love for Jack and how it gives her the will/cunning to survive and ultimately saves them both was a redeeming message.  I just want to say thank you for that and ask you your thoughts.

A: Absolutely, Marianne; reviewers tend to focus on Ma’s sacrificial devotion to Jack, but he’s saved her life but making her feel needed and by giving her the company she craves.  I find the parent-child relationship infinitely interesting; it changes every week, it’s never stable or symmetrical, it can swing between tyranny and zen-like acceptance, passion and banality every couple of minutes.

Visit Emma Donoghue’s website.

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