The bestselling-author-turned-Oscar-winner for the film adaptation of her book Room is out with another thriller, The Wonder. The book has already made the shortlist for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Irish-born, Canadian-based writer goes back “home” in this historical psycho thriller that’s set in 1850s Ireland. Lib, an English nurse is sent to Ireland to care for 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell who hasn’t eaten a morsel in four months. She doesn’t eat, and doesn’t’ die. The nurse needs to find the truth—is it faith or is she a fraud?
The phenomenon of the fasting girls is an interesting jumping-off point. Why did you find inspiration in these real-life tales?
Emma Donoghue: I think the stories of the fasting girls really interested me because on the one hand you can see them as part of the early history of anorexia, but you can also see them as mystics and also as part of the history of freaks. I’ve always been interested in people who put on shows at fairs, those who were culturally marginalized. The fasting girls are hard to explain and define but that’s what makes them so interesting.
How much time do you spend researching your books? Do you like that part just as much as the writing?
ED: I don’t normally keep a count. It wasn’t particularly research-heavy because it’s about a particular time and place. These Irish characters are very much in their small green fields. I needed to research their culture and landscape intensely. But the research gets naughty when you get into theology.
This book is set in Ireland in the 1850s. Did you want to go “home” for this book?
ED: Yes, only because it was so ripe as a background for this story because the Irish really define themselves as having survived the great famine. The idea of a starving Irish peasant goes deep into our psyche. There’s this idea that we were nobody, yet wonderful. And, to rise above that suffering and purvey through all that could be done to you as a nation. It seems to make a complex story between voluntary versus involuntary starvation.
What can readers expect for this book? Would you call it a psychodrama?
ED: It’s a gothic thriller. It has a Victorian atmosphere and is suspenseful. It’s oddly like Room with a different time and place, and different child and women. But there’s an intense relationship between a woman and child, and how a child depends on an adult rising to the occasion.
The star of your last few books is a child. Do you have a connection to childhood? Why the focus on children?
ED: I find children very interesting characters because they’re so vulnerable and sweet. They’re in our possession and adults get to make the decisions, and on the other hand they’re always growing up away from us and won’t be in our hold forever. They have so many strengths as well as weaknesses. I think the adults around children often project their own ideas and interpretations on to them. I like that this novel focused on a child who refused to explain herself.
As a mother, I find it very comforting that they come out into ?? world as they’ll be later. And sure we can mess them up or give them a good environment, but the flavour of their personality is not something we’ve created. In this novel, I wanted to make the girl, who many will think is deluded and sick, realistic and strong. I wanted to show the two sides of her in this bizarre position. She’s a very likeable little girl.
Your novels are often set in confined spaces. Is this technique used to intensify the drama?
ED: It does intensify the drama. In Room, it was an actual locked door. In The Wonder, there’s nothing keeping your child confined, except for being a prisoner of her own mind. There are self-imposed constraints, and how your culture and your community can take away your freedom just as much as any locked door.
You write in so many styles, genres, and eras. Do you like switching it up from book to book?
ED: It means I never get writer’s block. It livens things up. Plus, it’s a challenge. With each genre you have different requirements either technically or with the audiences. I find it fun to find the unwritten rules of each genre and yet express myself freely.
You’ve called London, Ontario home with your partner and two kids. How would you describe life here in Canada?
ED: I’ve been here for 18 years. I usually emphasize what a diverse society Canada is because so many of us are immigrants or the children of immigrants. It makes it quite an easy society for me to feel part of. Compared to Ireland, [where] you have a real feeling of who the Irish are versus who the immigrants are.
What influence has your dad, Irish literary critic Denis Donoghue, had on your writing?
ED: I think growing up with him he contributed to me being a big reader. He was good at suggesting what was going on in books and led me to literary criticism and reading in an analytical way, which has helped me now as an author. But my mom was the one who read to us all the time.
Your next project is a book series for 8-12 year olds. Do your kids give you notes? What’s the book about?
ED: My kids have become real editors. They’re giving me notes all the time. They know it’s going to be a series so they keep telling me what they want to happen.
The book is about a very big family in Toronto with two fathers, two mothers, seven children, five pets and then their grandfather moves in. It’s a big, crazy family story.
What are you reading right now?
ED: I’m mostly catching up on my backlog of magazines, which includes ten New Yorkers and Harper’s.
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