Emma Donoghue – DWF Preview Event – A Review

Emma DonoghueEmma 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.

frog musicEmma’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)

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Emma Donoghue Wows Audience at The Printworks

ImageOn stage at The Printworks, Emma Donoghue had everyone enthralled with a reading of an extract from her new novel, Frog Music. With a spirited delivery her words transported us from a well lit room in Dublin to the sweltering and smallpox-riddled streets of San Francisco in the late 19th century, as seen through the eyes of protagonist, Blanche Beunon.

After this the writer sat down with Edel Coffey to share many insights and anecdotes about her life and work. Of particular interest was the revelation that she uses a treadmill writing desk to both write and exercise at the same time, the logistics of which I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. The room was then turned over to the audience for a round of Q & A, where many an interesting question was posed and answered.

Talking to people afterwards there was a real sense of engagement and enjoyment which was evident by the long line queuing to meet Emma and have their books signed by her. A number of our bloggers were in attendance so expect more considered thoughts on the event very soon. A huge thanks to the staff of The Printworks, our dedicated volunteers and, of course, to Edel Coffey and Emma Donoghue, for making this a truly entertaining afternoon.

If you wish to find out more about Emma Donoghue and all her books, including Frog Music, then you can visit her website or follow her on Twitter.

Frog Music and collaborative harmony: an interview with Emma Donoghue

ED2013bw“One very Irish theme I explore through this odd story (Frog Music) is the lingering, multi-generation effect of the neglect and abuse of children.”

Emma Donoghue discusses bringing Room to the big screen and how only obsessive dedication to research produces a thick enough texture, as the author becomes a reporter from another time and place.

With Lenny Abrahamson set to direct the movie adaptation of Room, how do you expect his vision of the book will translate to the screen and how have you been involved in that process?

I’m involved up to my eyeballs – as an executive producer with a say in everything from location to casting (which is already underway), but mostly as the scriptwriter. Working with Lenny is teaching me so much about film: a whole other art form. I think he’s got just the right combination of artistic purity and down-to-earth populism to make Room the film just as good as the book.  It’s also proving to be one of the most harmonious and indeed hilarious collaborative relationships of my career.  So far, that is – ultimately he’s the boss, so I may hate him by the time the final cuts are made! But I doubt it.

Having come from an academic background, bringing a great deal of research to your fictional works, how did you prepare to create the setting of San Francisco in 1876 for your latest novel, Frog Music?

I always do too much research, because only too much is enough.  Meaning, that I have to follow my curiosity down every little trail, and become a temporary expert in things that may not even end up being shown in the book.  In my experience, only that kind of obsessive dedication produces a thick enough texture – a sense that the author is a sort of reporter from another time and place.  What was new about Frog Music was that I used so many online sources (genealogical databases, local newspapers, ships’ passenger lists, census returns) that would have been almost impossible for me to access ten or twenty years ago.

Were you inspired or influenced by an actual murder case from that time in writing the book?

Yes, I drew on about sixty newspaper articles about the San Miguel Mystery, which was the term of the day for the unsolved shooting of a young cross-dressing frog catcher called Jenny Bonnet.

You’ve mentioned previously that you assume nothing about the people who will read your books and that “the real value of telling a freakish story is to illuminate the normal and universal”, have you continued with that approach with Frog Music?

Definitely.  Gender-benders like Jenny, for instance, show what it was like for everyone else to follow the laws of masculinity and femininity. One very Irish theme I explore through this odd story is the lingering, multi-generation effect of the neglect and abuse of children.

How would you describe the main characters and the crux of the story? Love gone sour, friendship wreaking havoc, bohemian fun leading to bloodshed and horror.

Do you feel you used your own life for fiction in any aspects of Frog Music? Oh yes: all my bad-mother moments helped me channel the narrator Blanche, a thorough selfish pleasure-seeker unprepared for motherhood. She was a particular relief to write after the heroic young mother in Room.

Are you currently working on any new plays or novels? I’m writing a children’s book – another new genre for me, right after trying the murder mystery in Frog Music.  (It’s very humbling, feeling like a complete beginner every time.)

Interview by Lynne Nolan

Emma Donoghue will be speaking at a special preview event for Dublin Writers Festival at The Printworks (Dublin Castle) on March 29. For further details and to book tickets click here