Learning

Friday 1 August 2014

Getting started as a writer

Emma Donoghue

Published 25/03/2014|02:30

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Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue now lives in Canada. Her books include ‘Room’ (Bord Gais Irish Novel of the Year), ‘The Sealed Letter’, ‘Slammerkin’, ‘Hood’ and ‘Stir-fry’. ‘Frog Music’, based on a real murder in 1870s San Francisco, comes out from Picador on March

I'm often asked how I got started as a writer. First you have to understand that although it is a job – and I like to avoid all that mumbo-jumbo about writing being a matter of inspiration, obsession, madness, fate – it's not quite a job like any other. For instance, what (if anything!) an author earns doesn't follow any neat graph showing growth over time.

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If you have a vague impression of writing as profitable, that's because it hits the papers when an 18-year-old gets a six-figure advance – not when a middle-aged 'midlist author' (what we're euphemistically called when we're not selling well) gets a four-figure sum instead, or is quietly culled from her publishing house. Nor do earnings correlate with qualifications acquired, hours worked or any other quantifiable variables. (Most of us have put years of our lives into books that have never seen the light of day.)

So, is everyone clear that this is not, and has never been, a sensible line of work to go into? That the world of literature is a whirling cauldron of talent, yes, but also hype and sheer fluke? Fine. Now I'll also admit that writing is the best job in the world.

Actually, I find it like taking a different job every year or two, because each book means a whole new world to research and/or invent, and a new set of technical challenges to overcome.

I suppose I got started in the sense of becoming a published author at 22, when Penguin bought my first two novels, 'Stir-fry' and 'Hood'. I remember whooping aloud as I galloped around the low-rent housing co-op where I was living while doing my PhD in Cambridge.

But really that was the end of a process: two years of my agent's tenaciously shopping my novels around dozens of publishers. So you could say I actually got started when I found my agent. Someone I could trust to be my first – private – critic, my sounding board, someone who would make my writing better and do her utmost to sell it so I could pay the rent, keep writing and (luxury of luxuries) not have to look for a 'real' job.

But really I first committed myself seriously to writing when – a month or two before my second-year exams in UCD – I got my first idea for a novel. My mother asked a little anxiously why I couldn't study for my exams now and turn to fiction in the summer, but I told her that it couldn't wait. Call it the cockiness of being 19, or a sense of urgent vocation, but I knew that my job was to sit down and write 'Stir-fry'.

No, that wasn't the starting point either. Because the reason I was so sure, at 19, was that I'd been writing several poems a week since I was seven. Although I haven't been back to poetry since I converted to fiction and drama, I would still say it was the best possible training ground. Writing poems forces you to look closely at words – their meaning but also associations, tone, sound, even shape – before you speed on to larger matters of plot or structure.

Which means the whole thing goes back further than that. The hundreds or thousands of words I come up with every day don't just emerge from what I've lived or seen, they spring up from the seeds scattered by everything else I've ever read.

Reading – not just voracious but analytical – is the key skill. That's why some novelists don't actually write anything until they're in their seventies; they're been preparing all their lives.

So if I try to identify a time when I gradually became a writer, I see myself in my ghastly green Muckross Park uniform, hunched over my desk, studying. Hurrying to get through all my other subjects so that I could spend longer on English. (I don't think I've ever worked harder than in those days; the sheer stamina of teenagers is underrated.) Poring over characterisation in 'Great Expectations' for three years for my Inter Cert. Underlining metaphors in 'Macbeth' for two years for my Leaving Cert. (Definition of a classic: something you can dig into for that long and not come to the bottom.) Those short stories and poems from Gus Martin's anthologies are lodged in the back of my mind like gold rings in a drain. I'm not saying they were perfect – his famous 'Soundings' (1969) contained only one living poet and one female one – but they were full of demanding and memorable lines, and they were just what I needed.

More importantly, what I learned in those days was critical thinking: to take a text apart and put it back together, the way a mechanic does a car engine. I remember a teacher pushing us, over a 40-minute lesson, to find more in some eight-line lyric: 'What else could the owl stand for? Okay. And what else?'

It wasn't just at school that I picked up this relentless curiosity. My mother – a former English teacher – would quote Emily Dickinson poems with relish. My father, the critic Denis Donoghue, always speaks as if it's self-evident that there's no task more pleasurable than wrestling to understand a text. On the evening before one exam, I made the mistake of asking him what a single word might mean in Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard', and with a gleam in his eye – satisfaction that the eighth of his children had finally asked? – he brought me down a stack of essays and chapters on that poem alone ...

Everything's more vivid when you're under 20. So the books I read then have coloured everything I've written since. Allusions to certain bodies of work (Shakespeare, the Bible, fairy tales) recur in almost all my books, not just because they're crucially good – though they are – but because they, not the epic of Gilgamesh, or haiku, were what I soaked in at Stillorgan Public Library or studied at school. That stuff shaped me as much as the rain or the craic or the Catholic Church.

All I regret is that I didn't challenge myself more. I studied French from 12 to 20 but never immersed myself in a French-speaking environment, with the result that I still um and er and fret about the subjunctive when buying a baguette in Paris. Our kids are growing up with the two languages, hardly even noticing whether they're reading Asterix in French or English, and I envy them that: the freedom to glide across two cultures and truly understand two literatures.

Turning into a writer really began when I was a toddler, I suppose, and my mother somehow found time in that house of 10 people to read me stories for what felt like hours on end. One in particular, Andrew Lang's fairy tale 'Pinkel and the Witch', I asked for so often that it made her groan, but she never said "no". (That inspired several scenes in my novel 'Room', in which the captive Ma has only a puny total of five books to read her Jack over and over.) I don't remember my first book because there was nothing before books: they lined the walls of my childhood.

 NB literally but also metaphorically true, as I would later write in margins of my Leaving Cert books.

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