Transcript of Emma Donoghue Interview Video Content
NICOLA BARRANGER: Emma Donoghue, a lot has
been written about your book 'Room', which was short-listed for
this year's Man Booker Prize, about how the inspiration came from
the story of Josef Fritzl in Austria, who was discovered to have
kept his daughter locked in a cellar for 24 years. Can you
just talk us through how that story breaking led to the inspiration
for your book 'Room'?
Sure. I volunteered the information that the Fritzl case was
the spark. It had been a few days since I had seen some
headlines on the Internet about the Fritzl case and I was driving
along a highway and I was just suddenly walloped by the idea that a
book from the point of view of a child emerging from a situation of
confinement like that might be something entirely new. You
know, it wouldn't be true crime, it wouldn't be about rape, it
would be about a childhood, and a very very strange childhood, but
one that just might manage to say something quite universal about
childhoods, which is that we all move from a tiny space gradually
through to the wider social world. So the Fritzl case
absolutely triggered the book, but it's not at all based on the
NICOLA BARRANGER: And the voice of Jack that
is the key to the success of the book really, the way he uses
language, not using grammar correctly, talking about rug, plant,
metledy spoon. How difficult was it to develop that
Well I'm glad you say develop because many people think I just
wrote down what my 5 year old son said, and of course, there was
more craftsmanship to it than that. If you, if you literally
wrote down the way a 5 year old spoke, any adult reader would be
maddened. And also I knew that Jack and my story would have
had a very intensive kind of education -- his mother has been
conversing with him full time for his entire 5 years of life.
So in a way what I ended up with was a voice which has the flavour
of a 5 year old -- and I did copy quite a few of my son's
grammatical mistakes -- but he's got the, the cogency and coherency
of an older person. He's got a wide vocabulary but he still
has those endearing, clumsy ways of patching words together that 5
year olds do.
NICOLA BARRANGER: Nonetheless though, writing
this story about a young mother who's incarcerated in an 11 foot
square room must have been grim? The research must have been
The research was horrible, yeah, it really was. I spent
several months researching it, mostly online, which, it may sound
convenient but it's, it's actually terribly visceral, you know, the
images come at you with, with, you know, no-one introducing them or
shielding you from them. So you feel really pounded by
it. And I read up not just kidnapping cases, a variety of
them, but also on everything else I needed to know. I read
about autistic children who find the outside world a sensory
overload; I read about solitary confinement in jails; I looked at
websites where children born through rape talk about how they feel;
I looked up anecdotes of all sorts of so-called feral children
who've been raised strangely, away from society. So yeah,
there's really no dark corner of the world that I didn't have to go
to to research this book. But then writing 'Room' turned out
to be a very pleasurable business, because in a way I, I'd seen the
worst, I'd read up on the absolute horrors that can happen to
children, so Jack's story didn't seem too bad at all to me because
I, I knew he would always his mother's fierce love beside him.
NICOLA BARRANGER: You said yes, it was grim
for you, perhaps grim for you so as not to make it too grim for us
as the reader. And one of the joys of reading the book I
think was to look at the world through Jack's eyes and try and
guess what it was he was seeing, because he had such an odd view of
the world, just very ordinary, everyday things.
Yeah, the reader actually has to work quite hard. Even though
this book is in some ways written in a deceptively easy style, the
reader actually has to do a lot of emotional work, because they
have to figure out what Jack means and they have to look
past Jack and figure out what life is like for his Ma who is
deliberately, lovingly shielding him from the truth of her
NICOLA BARRANGER: I don't think it's too much
of a spoiler to say that much of the book does actually take place
outside of 'Room'.
Oh, I'm so glad you have some qualms, you know, because many
reviews start by giving every single detail of the storyline.
NICOLA BARRANGER: Well, it's difficult because
you don't want to give too much away, because you don't want to
spoil the enjoyment of anybody who's listening to this and who
wants to go out and get the book. On the other hand, to
conduct the interview properly, I really want to hear what you've
got to say about Jack's interpretation. I mean much of the
book is about the interpretation from a naïve pair of eyes of the
modern world. What are you trying to say about the modern
Oh well you see, it's not like I approached it with my own agenda
that I wanted to critique or satirise certain as … certain aspects
of the modern world. It's more that I was committed to Jack as a
narrator, and by the time I, as it were, followed him out into the
outside world, I saw a lot of things through his eyes. So
the, the critique of the modern world just seemed to arise very
naturally out of Jack. And in particular the media come
across very badly - not that I've had a bad time with the media in
general - but just I think anyone who's become famous for what
they've suffered, like a kidnapped victim, experiences the media in
a very bruising way.
NICOLA BARRANGER: And as a member of the
media's profession, I did have to smile quite a lot during those
passages. And I should say that a lot of … there are elements
of the book, it's not all grim, there's elements where you do smile
as you understand Jack's predicament with the modern world.
But you were on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize here in the
UK for …
Oh yes, that was a life changing event.
NICOLA BARRANGER: … 2010. How has being
on the Man Booker Prize shortlist changed things for you?
Well, you know, to start with the negative, it's very inconvenient
because … Seriously … Ever since the end of July I've been doing
interviews in one form or another, almost every day …
NICOLA BARRANGER: Well bless you for doing
Well that's fine, but to look at the positive, it has meant that
I've now sold translations of the book in over 30 countries.
People have heard of me all over the world. People are drawn
to this book as, as a literary novel because otherwise they might
just have thought: Oh, it's some sordid, trashy thriller. But
getting that Booker endorsement means people knows it has literary
NICOLA BARRANGER: Nonetheless, even though it
seems that 'Room' is getting as much publicity as the winner,
Howard Jacobson's 'The Finkler Question', you must have … there
must have been a tinge of disappointment in not winning?
Of course. I mean with these events you do get very, you
know, psyched up and your publisher is of course was saying to you:
"Oh you might win, you're the best, you're the best." So of
course you get excited. But you … I've now been through this
a few times. I was up for two Canadian literary awards - I won one
of them, I didn't win the other - so you have to learn to take
these things very calmly, otherwise you would spend your entire
year in some kind of bipolar condition. Which is nonsense,
because who wins the prize, it's really just a matter of the
opinions of a few judges. It's not the absolute truth, it's
just, it's just their opinion. So either way you shouldn't
get too caught up in it.
NICOLA BARRANGER: Well now that you've had
that shortlisting nomination, what next, Emma Donoghue?
My next book is about a murder that happened in San Francisco in
the 1870s and it's never been solved, because it was all about low
lifes, you know, the scum of society. And I'm absolutely
fascinated by this particular murder and want to find out for
myself what happened.
NICOLA BARRANGER: Well the best of luck with
your next book. And many, many thanks for talking to the
Interview Online, Emma Donoghue.
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