Interview with Emma DonoghueApril, 2014
Breathless, Irish-born author Emma Donoghue apologizes for sounding winded as she switches off her beloved treadmill desk. Best known for her gripping international bestseller Room (2010), narrated by a five-year-old boy held captive in a shed with his mother, Donoghue recently put the finishing touches on her screenplay adaptation of the thriller but won't discuss casting choices for the upcoming feature film version. She is, however, eager to discuss her new book, Frog Music, a literary mystery based on the unsolved 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet in San Francisco 30 years after the Gold Rush. Donoghue's historical novel embraces some peculiar period details such as baby farms, a smallpox epidemic, and the illegal cross-dressing habits of her doomed heroine, who dares to wear trousers while catching frogs to sell.
With a Ph.D. in 18th-century literature, Donoghue is a prolific and wildly versatile writer of short stories (Astray), fairy tales (Kissing the Witch), and literary criticism (Unspeakable). Now living in London, Ontario, with her partner and their two children, Donoghue chats with fellow author and interviewer Joy Horowitz about why she views writing as a calling, being a good girl and a bad mother, and how filing papers is good for both the creative process and her children's safety.
Goodreads: So a cross-dressing frog catcher—really?
Emma Donoghue: What can I say? Oddity rings my bell.
GR: Did you write this book on your treadmill desk?
ED: I started using the treadmill when I was redrafting, so I can't claim it's all a treadmill desk book. But the treadmill certainly helped to keep my energy up in the final stages of it, yes. I don't find the treadmill changes anything. It'll just keep me alive longer to write more books. That's how it's contributing to literature.
GR: At what speed?
ED: I go along at 2.8 miles an hour.
GR: In Frog Music a San Francisco burlesque dancer and prostitute named Blanche Beunon wants justice for the death of her friend, Jenny Bonnet. Why was writing a murder mystery important to you?
ED: I think the reason this particular murder drew me was, first of all, I could solve it myself. But also I wanted it to be morally ambiguous. I wanted Blanche to find out who pulled the trigger but not be able to make the judgment call any more than she would like to be judged for how she treated her child. So I really wanted to make the morality of the book complicated—a kind of pretentious word, but a mise en abyme of guilt. You know, whenever you try to pin it down, you find there's some further guilt on somebody else's part.
ED: Oh, yes! I've never been able to escape from my Room. Not only has it been continuous publicity since Room came out, but I've been working on the screenplay as well. So working on Blanche and her many moments of low, nasty hostility to her baby was, indeed, a great contrast.
GR: Getting back to the question of motherhood, what do you think it is in you that made you want to look at the difficulties Blanche had with her own baby?
ED: There's a bad mother in me. I carefully planned to become a mother, became a mother—and yet there are so many moments I find myself sullen and churlish, thinking, "Oh, but I want to go to that film. I have to get out of here." These are emotions you don't get to have because it seems so unacceptable to complain about these fabulous children you've got. So I find it a huge relief to write about those feelings.
GR: You have 15 pages of song notes, which is amazing.
ED: I was surprised by my need to include the songs at all. Because the characters have theater and circus backgrounds, it seemed to make sense to have a few songs in there. Also, I was really trying to portray 19th-century San Francisco with such diversity in a lax sort of way. I hate reading historical fiction that grinds to a halt. I wanted a very breezy approach to showing a multicultural city, and music seemed the easiest way to make that happen. Songs themselves are so impure. They'll start out in one tradition, and they'll cross over or be parodied or mixed together. And I always like to leave avenues for my readers to move onto other books.
GR: I had no idea that Stephen Foster, the songwriter of "Oh! Susanna," "Camptown Races," and many more classics, died at 37 with 38 cents in his pocket.
ED: I know! Can you believe it? There's no justice.
GR: The language in this novel is fascinating, both the use of French idioms and the care with which you attend to words of that period. For example, I had never heard the word "doctress."
ED: It's a creepy word, because it's associated with a notorious abortionist. So the fact that she calls herself doctress gives it a lovely, kind of surreal, respectful feel. But it also highlights the fact that you couldn't say "woman doctor." That would be an impossibility. That's a great example of a word that the reader can probably figure out what it means, and it also has that smell of the past.
GR: You mention in the author notes how you worked closely with a whole slew of librarians and academics. Could you explain how you approached your research?
ED: I usually get the idea for my books many years before I get the chance to write them. Really, I got the idea of writing a novel about Jenny Bonnet 15 years ago. And then I might be in San Francisco for a day and write to the California Historical Society and say, "I'm coming through on a book tour; if I came at noon, could you have the pages ready for me to see?" So often I have to ask the librarians to have the pages ready for me, which is so helpful. Also, if you write to someone about something they've published, they usually go out of their way to give you extra detail.
GR: How long did it actually take you to write Frog Music?
ED: If you put together all the work on this book, it's probably about three years. The great thing about working on a future book is, it doesn't feel like work. It feels illicit. You're meant to be working on Book A, so to dash off to the archives researching Book C...you trick your brain into working very hard.
GR: What was the biggest challenge with this book—writing about San Francisco rather than England?
ED: That was a sheer treat. I love San Francisco. It was such a contrast to my own upbringing in Dublin in the 1970s. It was so homogenous. We all looked the same. We all went to Catholic mass. San Francisco in the 1870s was terribly modern by comparison. The challenge for me was making it a murder mystery.
GR: Goodreads member Marcia Mandel asks, "Why do you write—to learn about yourself or to entertain? Did you learn anything about yourself writing this book?"
ED: I feel called to tell these stories. It feels like an urgent and serious task to be commissioned with. Like, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write about this frog catcher from a century and a half ago because no one else will. But it's also a lot of fun. I was a bit surprised at how much I liked getting into the mind-set of not just a prostitute but a very masochistic drunken prostitute who makes a lot of bad decisions, because I am such a good girl you wouldn't believe. I've never had an alcoholic drink or cigarette in my life. I had a will when I was 20. I lead a terribly bourgeois life. Gustave Flaubert said something like, you should live like a bourgeois so you can write wildly. That's so me. I have a regular life on my treadmill; I never make bad decisions. So to get into the head of Blanche and make one bad decision after another is with enormous vicarious excitement.
GR: Goodreads Author Karin Slaughter, a bestseller herself, writes, "Your stories are oftentimes propelled by the idea of escape—will Mary Saunders transcend her lowly circumstances? Will Jack ever get out of the room? Answering these questions lends your novels a driving narrative suspense, but you've never really written a true murder mystery. What made you tackle the subject head on in Frog Music?"
ED: Good question, Karin! I'm honored. With Frog Music, I got so interested in Jenny Bonnet as a murder victim. I thought she was just the perfect murder victim. In real life, teenagers get shot in random drive-by shootings. Jenny is the right kind of person to get shot through a window. It seems typical of her. This case, I wanted it to be a head-on tackling of this killing. I was a little bit nervous because I wasn't sure I had the skills. It also wouldn't be a waste to do a literary meditation on the story.
GR: Goodreads member Rebecca Ginsburg writes, "I'm wondering about Ms. Donoghue's reaction to last year's news story about the women held captive for years in Ohio. That came out soon after I finished Room, and the coincidence was too creepy. Art imitating life and all."
ED: It's funny. Somebody even blogged about it, saying Emma Donoghue must feel really bad that she inspired this. It's one thing to see it as an unnerving coincidence. It's another to actually blame the writer. I'm very aware there have been quite a few of these cases. The one in Cleveland was just one more. I was interested in the case, but I see a work of fiction and these cases as very separate.
GR: Goodreads member Ilze said, "I absolutely loved Room. I have read it at least five times. It made me remember why I loved reading so much, so thank you! My question is: Would you ever go back to Jack's world and write a sequel about how he is doing now, living in the real world?"
ED: I'm constantly asked would I write a sequel. If Mom did her job well, Jack would recover and be normal. So there won't be anything to say. That's how I picture him, anonymous and normal. Writing the screenplay is a way of retelling the story. You get to really see Ma in a way you don't in the book. But no, I can't imagine I would ever write a sequel.
ED: It was hideous. My partner would come home and find me in tears, because I'm very thorough. I wanted to know all cases of children who are locked away—attics, rooms, prisons. I read everything I could find about damaged children. With Frog Music, there were moments when I thought, I'm never going to get out of this smallpox epidemic. There are so many icky things, between baby farms [the terrifying baby mills, where for a price infants are tied to beds and left to perish] and smallpox. It's a little bit like I needed a cold shower. I really, really enjoy writing. Clearly you don't have to enjoy writing books to write a good one. But, in fact, I do.
GR: What are you reading now?
A: I've been literally crying over the Dickens's novel Dombey and Son. I'm rereading all of Dickens. He's just a master. I'm also excited about a novel coming out, The Bees, set in a beehive. It's by Laline Paull and is coming out this year.
GR: Can you tell us about your writing process?
ED: Sure. I do a lot of planning. Some people think this is cold-blooded, but to me it sets your imagination free because we all know the blank page can be intimidating. So the more planning I do—brainstorming and running up ideas in advance—that means by the time I get to the beginning of the book, the screen is not blank. You have springboards and starting points. It also helps me to plan a plot, because that is not my strength. I'm a big talker and make my characters talk. That's easy. But pacing a plot, I really have to teach myself that.
GR: Does that mean you have an office with cards on the wall?
ED: I use a great program called Scrivner, which allows me to have files for the ideas for each chapter and each scene. I can have files for the actual draft of the scene, and I can move them all around.
GR: Do you procrastinate or do you jump in and go, Yippee?
ED: I'm pretty yippee. It's exciting to start a book, and I often write the ending early on. But I'll procrastinate in the middle. Halfway through I'll start to buy books online or whatever. Occasionally, if I get really stuck, I'll do my filing. Because my writing has been going well, at the moment I have this groaning pile of papers, which might actually fall down on my children.
GR: What books and authors have most influenced you?
ED: I adore Barbara Kingsolver. I have all her books. I'm not sure she's influenced me. I couldn't point you to a particular book, but it's all part of the mix. Occasionally I'll think of a book and how it tackled a particular problem. At the moment I'm working on a book, and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is quite a useful precedent for me. The way she sets up Elizabeth and Darcy as each having a certain level of stiffness in them and having to overcome it and meet halfway. I'm finding that very helpful structurally even though it probably won't show. So mostly you're not aware of what's influenced your literary decisions. All I know is that I couldn't write books without reading them.
Interview by Joy Horowitz for Goodreads. Horowitz, a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, is a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a senior lecturer at Yale. She is also the author of Tessie and Pearlie: A Granddaughter's Story and Parts per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School.
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