Emma Donoghue has been on my must-read list since her début novel Stir-fry (which interestingly she tried to have pulled just before publication) in 1994. She is a fantastic writer, full of surprises in terms of subject matter and setting and that is what makes her such an enduring author. Who wants to read the same novel written ten different ways? I know I don’t.
Emma’s eighth novel, and twelfth book of fiction, Frog Music, has just been published and it is a delicious prospect: in the sweltering summer of 1876 in San Francisco, a young woman called Jenny Bonnet is shot dead. The survivor, her friend Blanche Beunon, is a French burlesque dancer. Blanche determines to bring Jenny’s murderer to justice provided the killer doesn’t track her down first. The blurb says: ‘The story Blanche struggles to piece together is one of free-love bohemians, desperate paupers and arrogant millionaires; of jealous men, icy women and damaged children. It’s the secret life of Jenny herself, a notorious character who breaks the law every morning by getting dressed: a charmer as slippery as the frogs she hunts.’ This is classic Donoghue territory; as The Guardian said, her historical novels ‘kindle imaginative worlds from the embers of forgotten lives’.
On Saturday in Dublin Castle’s Printworks, in a preview event for the Dublin Writers’ Festival, journalist Edel Coffey interviewed Emma Donoghue about Frog Music and about the writing life. Donoghue is a wonderful interviewee: pleasant, intelligent, articulate and interesting; she has plenty to say and has no difficulty in saying it. She has an open honesty about her that makes her compelling to listen to.
The author read first, a passage from Frog Music, featuring Blanche’s less than motherly relationship with her baby son. After her hugely successful novel Room, Donoghue said she wanted to write a truly awful mother and she has done that with Blanche. She says the novel asks the question: ‘Can mother-love bloom under difficult circumstances?’. She also described Frog Music as ‘a murder mystery’ – a genre new to her and, she said, ‘in some ways the most appealing genre’.
She spoke with enthusiasm about the research process: ‘It’s your job to take the research and turn it into living material. The process is fascinating – facts are suggestive and stimulating.’ She said in her research she is always looking for ‘oddity’ and that the move back and forth between being researcher and historical fiction writer is ‘very fiddly’. But she also said she gets a ‘forensic excitement from using fact’.
Donoghue described Blanche as a terrible mother – ‘She is irresponsible, slutty’ – but that she wanted the reader to empathise with her nonetheless. She posited that Blanche ‘proves the power of perspective’ in that the reader is ‘forced to empathise once other characters start shooting at the main character’. Donoghue said she was inspired to write unlovable characters by Baltimore-set TV series The Wire. ‘It’s about lowlifes but we care about them.’
Donoghue said she began her career wanting to ‘put women back into fiction’ but now she is more inclined to take ‘long forgotten nobodies and give them a name again’ and it just happens that many of them are women. She said her publishers ‘never quite know what I am going to throw at them’ but she is in a happy position because they are ‘very tolerant of that’. She went on to say that the idea for Room ‘fell into my lap’ and that it was ‘the easiest book I ever wrote because it was high concept’. Edel Coffey pointed out that it has sold 2,000,000 copies to date.
Donoghue is currently working as executive producer and co-screenwriter with Element Pictures on the film version of Room, telling us that director Lenny Abrahamson flies out to her home in London, Ontario in Cananda, and they ‘sit around swapping ideas’ about the film adaptation of her novel. She said that Abrahamson is ‘very brilliant and tasteful and his films always have heart in them’.
Film of course is very different to novel writing and Donoghue said she is deliberately working with a small Irish company because she wants the collaboration that Hollywood might not offer. Of the process she said: ‘You draw on the director’s knowledge and you try to think visually.’ She also said: ‘I love the discipline of seeing which lines from the novel can stay and which don’t need to.’
She told us a little of her life in Canada – a country that ‘suits her very well’, she said – because it is ‘diverse and civilised’. When asked by Edel Coffey about her writing process, she revealed she has, for the last 18 months or so, been writing while walking on a treadmill because she realised she sits too much. It’s working for her but she said she sits at her desk if a scene requires a slow pace. She is also writing a children’s book which she is nervous about but is enjoying. ‘I have to be fascinated by a topic in order to write it.’ She also said she allows herself, to quote Ann Lamott, to write ‘shitty first drafts’, a relief to many writers there that day, no doubt.
When asked in the Q&A to give advice to writers Donoghue said: ‘Take it up at 70 or 12. You only need yourself. Go ahead and do it. Don’t let any paralysing self-consciousness get in your way. Plunge in and have a go.’ Down to earth advice from a very down to earth Irish writer. If she is appearing anywhere near you, go and listen. Emma Donoghue is a wonder.
For more on the new novel, please go to www.frogmusic.ca
(Nuala Ní Chonchúir)