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Saturday 20 September 2014

'Oh my God! I don't want my mammy thinking I write torture porn'

Published 31/07/2010 | 05:00

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Emma Donoghue's new novel Room first crossed my path a few months ago. Its pre-publication cover gave nothing away and I started reading it in earnest. It turned out to be one of the most gripping stories I have read in a long time and it got me thinking about how rare -- and enjoyable -- it is to read a book knowing absolutely nothing about it in advance.

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When I met up with Donoghue in Dublin last week she said, "The paradox of publicity is it always ends up telling readers more than they should know. Authors would prefer if readers were just mugged on the street, handed a book and told, 'sit down and read that now'."

By now, anyone who has read a review of the book will know that it echoes the disturbing kidnap and sex abuse cases like Elisabeth Fritzl and Jaycee Dugard.

The story is set in the room of the title and tells the story of Jack and Ma, who are trapped in the room (Jack was born there and has never seen outside the four walls). They receive regular visits from 'Old Nick', who brings food and supplies, amongst other things.

Donoghue says she wasn't concerned about exploiting the very real-life horror of such recent news stories.

"It's all about how you handle the topic. I knew there was no danger of me writing a trashy book but it has made me wince just a little bit. I think the book was mentioned in an article on the 'torture porn industry' and I thought 'Oh my God! I don't want my mammy thinking I write torture porn.'"

Donoghue is now experiencing what she calls "a bit of a Cinderella moment". Having spent the last 17 years writing books that flew under the radar (her last bestseller was 2000's historical novel Slammerkin) the Dubliner found herself the subject of a bidding war on the eve of her 40th birthday. The result was a €1m advance. "It's a great way to turn 40," she said.

Picador paid £200,000 to publish the book in Ireland, the UK and Australia and New Zealand (an editor called the book 'very special', comparing Donoghue to Cormac McCarthy).

Meanwhile, Little Brown in America made up the other €800,000. So far, the book is being published in 16 countries and counting. While Donoghue admits the money will give her the kind of security most authors can only dream of, she is every inch the no-nonsense Irish woman when she says she won't be turning into a "high-roller".

"I'm not such an eejit that I'm going to blow it all. It will buy me the freedom to write the books I want for the next however many years and not have to live off Chris."

Chris is Dr Christine Roulston, her partner in "16 years of unwedded bliss" and "maman" to Finn and Una as she speaks French.

She is a professor at University of Western Ontario's French and Women's Studies departments. The pair first met when they were both studying at Cambridge.

Donoghue grew up in Mount Merrion, Dublin, the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue, but has lived in Canada since 1998 with Chris and their two children, Finn (7) and Una (3) to whom Room is dedicated.

Her son is excited about "the book about the boy", especially as he helped with the research.

Donoghue used Finn's grammar to create the voice of Jack and also got him to test out some of the book's escape plans: "I rolled him up in the carpet, so he's been very helpful" she says her eyes crinkling with maternal warmth.

The book explores maternal instinct and bonding and Donoghue is adamant you don't have to be a mother to feel that bond.

"I've been right through the pregnancy and birth experience and it hasn't left me with the feeling that only if you've given birth to a child, not a bit. Chris, my partner, she didn't give birth to either [of our children] and she fell in love with each of them on sight."

She is working on her next book already, for fear that the post-publication whirlwind of Room will have an impact.

Did she have an inkling that this book would do as well as it has done?

"I knew this one would be easy to sell. I did not know that I would sell it under such happy circumstances. With all your books, like all your children, you love them all the same . . . but some children are more popular in the world than others."

Room is published by Picador, €13.99.

Irish Independent

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