Monday 27 January 2020

'Being six inches from Leonardo DiCaprio makes you feel like a loser'

Two months after she walked the red carpet as an Oscar nominee, Room author Emma Donoghue is working on two unexpected new projects - a play about 1916 and a children's book, as she tells our reporter

Author Emma Donoghue is working on two new projects. Photo: Punch Photographic.
Author Emma Donoghue is working on two new projects. Photo: Punch Photographic.
Family: Emma Donoghue at the IFTA Awards this month with her children Una and Finn.
The write stuff: Irish writers Marina Carr, Rachel Fehily, Hugo Hamilton, Joseph O'Connor and Thomas Kilroy at Kilmainham Gaol to launch signatories.

Chrissie Russell

You would think that being able to reference an award-winning and Oscar-nominated project would be the holy grail of marketing tools, but Emma Donoghue is a little concerned about referencing Room on her latest piece of literary work.

In case you haven't read the book or seen the film (and if you haven't, where have you been locked away? No spoilers intended), Room tells the story of a five-year-old boy and his mother who are held captive - a powerful tale that earned a place on both the illustrious Man Booker and Orange prize shortlists and also garnered a host of cinematic gongs at the Golden Globes, Oscars and, most recently, the IFTAs.

Surely any publisher would leap at the chance to associate a new title with such a well-known and widely successful piece of work by the same author? Perhaps not, as it turns out the Dublin writer has just sold her first children's book.

"I'm not sure booksellers will see it as a very natural shift," laughs Emma. "'This is a children's book by the author of Room!' and yet it was writing Room that got me into writing for children because I found writing in the child's voice such an interesting exercise that then I thought it would be fun to actually do that for children. Still…" She trails off, leaving me to imagine the admittedly incongruous scenario of referencing a tale inspired by Josef Fritzl's dungeon, on the front cover of a book aimed at the eight-to-12s market.

And yet, whilst the genre change marks a major departure from the content and style of her best known work to date, it's also representative of the eclectic scope of the Dublin writer who published her first work at just 23.

"I write such an odd mixture of things, I don't have the marketing power of a brand. It's not like all my books are the same and people know exactly what they're getting - every project is different," Says Emma (46). "I like fiction best because I get to call all the shots but film is sociable and thrilling. Then theatre has the most vivid sense of teamwork and with literary history you're just quietly working away on the books of the past and putting your own ego aside. Each has their own pleasures, they all offer something."

Today she's talking to me to promote UCD project Signatories which, once again, is nothing like either Room or the new children's book. It's a theatrical work, produced as part of the university's Decade of Centenaries programme, which runs at Kilmainham Gaol from April 22-24 and features the work of eight renowned writers reimagining the thoughts and actions of those involved in the Easter Rising. Emma's monologue deals with the character of Elizabeth O'Farrell, one of the three Red Cross nurses that remained in the GPO, who ended up brokering the surrender of the Irish insurgents to the British Forces.

Despite playing such a major role in the event, very few people will have heard of O'Farrell, but if you have, it's possibly the anecdote about how she was airbrushed out of the photograph that shows Padraig Pearse surrendering to the British.

"Actually, she leaned right back. She didn't want to be in it," corrects Emma. "She told a priest that she was mortified to have the surrender moment captured by the British and she didn't want to give them the satisfaction so she leaned back. That's why all you could see of her were her feet.

"At that particular moment of the surrender she was suddenly thrust into the spotlight and had an important role, but she wasn't famous otherwise, so she felt like an interesting and different angle to take," adds Emma.

"We're all so familiar with the idea of the heroic young men who rushed ahead, even though their chances were bad, and then got executed. But it was very interesting to take someone who survived and would have had that lingering guilt of 'I was involved but I didn't die' and how you go on after an event like that." A book accompanying the production will also be released this month by UCD Press.

Emma wasn't able to be in Ireland for any of the Easter Centenary celebrations, so feels the project offered a nice opportunity to "feel connected" with the occasion. As she's talking to me over the phone, she's looking out on bright sunshine and the shimmering coast of Nice in France where she, her partner Chris (Christine) Rolston and their two children are based this year while Chris, a professor, is on sabbatical. It's a long time since Emma called Dublin home. She left Ireland in 1990 to study at Cambridge, living there for eight years, working on her doctorate. It was there she met Chris, a Canadian, and the pair left together for Canada in 1998, now living in London, Ontario.

It's a lengthy absence that has left Emma battling what she eloquently dubs "migrant forms of nostalgia". "As soon as I left the country I started wanting Tayto crisps," she laughs. "And traditional music! When I was growing up, that meant nothing to me, but then I emigrated and suddenly the sound of uileann pipes would have me in tears."

The cultural significance of the events of Easter 1916 mean very little to her Canadian friends and neighbours, although Chris has been subjected to a few history lessons. "She complains that every time I bring her to a play in Dublin it's set sometime between 1910 and 1930," says Emma. "We are rather obsessed with that period."

In documenting O'Farrell's laborious task in the 1916 Rising (the nurse had to make repeated treks around Dublin to persuade the rebel leaders in different locations that the fight was over), Emma was pleased to help bring recognition to the huge, yet frequently overlooked, role played by women in the revolution.

"It's really the first time for so much light to be shed on them, both how much they were involved and also the ways they were barred from involvement in some aspects, like the way De Valera didn't want any women fighting with him," she says.

But it also offers a time for reflection on progress. The Proclamation extolled the need for equal rights and opportunities for all its citizens, male and female.

"And yet when you think of the 1930s Constitution, the way that it describes women is not a bit the way the revolutionaries' aspirations were," muses Emma. "I think we've moved on, but I have to say some aspects of Ireland just seem so resistant to change. When I'm talking to friends outside of Ireland I just cannot explain to them why Ireland does not have reproductive choice. That's just inexplicable to them. I say 'Oh yes, we're a really modern country and we even have same sex marriage but, no, if you get pregnant then you have to stay pregnant'. For me, Ireland is never going to feel very modern until we have reproductive choice."

She has friends who have been active in the #repealtheeighth campaign, but isn't overtly involved herself. "I'm at a bit of a distance," she explains. "I sign petitions and so on but I don't take a very active role." It's an interesting confession and since she often finds herself labelled a feminist or gay writer, one might have assumed her time was consumed with championing causes close to those groups. But that isn't the case.

"Over the years, I've had no objection to contributing my time, energy or name to gay or women's causes, but I'm not a full-time activist or anything," she says frankly. "It's about time and I have to say I'm quite mean with my time in that I just want to be writing all the spare time that I have. I spend a lot of time in my imagination, trying to bring these worlds to life and I guess I just begrudge anything that pulls me too much into the present day."

She breaks into laughter at a recent memory. "When I was going to the Oscars I remember someone said to me 'What cause are you going to talk about?' and I thought 'I'm brand new at this! I don't think my very first speech is going to be [she adopts a mock impassioned shouty voice] 'let me talk to you about South Korea!'"

Ah yes, the Oscars. Surely there can be no greater feeling of 'I've made it' than gliding along a celeb-strewn red carpet like Emma did this year when she was nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for Room at the Academy Awards. "The irony is that, when you're on the red carpet, you feel like a loser because everyone else on the red carpet is more famous and more glamorous," says Emma chuckling. "Among your friends you feel like a big shot, but being six inches from Leonardo DiCaprio makes you feel like a nothing."

Proving that she's still just as star-struck as the rest of us, she confesses that having Cate Blanchett rub her arm at another glitzy do was "a personal high" and gaining entry to the fabulous world of the Hollywood gifting suite was an added bonus. "It's bizarre, they're like free shops," says Emma, still clearly perplexed by the set-up whereby award nominees get offered armfuls of free clobber.

"You walk in and there's someone asking you what shoe size you are and 'would you like this bracelet?'. At book festivals you get maybe a sachet of coffee and a really heavy mug that, if you're on a book tour, you have to leave behind in the hotel because you can't go round stockpiling heavy ceramic mugs."

But there is a sincerity to those ceramic mugs that she loves in the book world. Her first foray into feature films has shown her that Hollywood often comes with a sizeable helping of fawning and banal studio speak, which was one of the reasons why she was so delighted to work with an Irish company, Element, on Room.

"The dryness and wit of the Irish was a great contrast with the high level of gushiness and soothing and complimentary speech you can get in the industry," she reveals. "We just clicked. Myself, [producer] Ed Guiney, and [director] Lenny Abrahamson would just mock each other every time we met. It makes for trust. Because if somebody can mock you but not actually do you any real hurt then you feel safer with them."

The Irish sense of banter and an appreciation of irony is what she says she most wants to instil in her children Finn (12) and Una (8): "I'd say it's the main thing I teach them."

Another work Emma has due for release later this year is The Wonder, a novel that looks at the case of a young girl who appears to be surviving without eating. The story has its roots in real historical cases and is based in rural Ireland in the 1850s, but it also raises interesting contemporary issues about fundamentalism and body image.

With a daughter not too far off tweendom, I wonder if she worries about raising a girl in a world rife with gender inequality, pressure to look a certain way and the whole sexting minefield of social media. Naturally, Emma doesn't let me away with such lazy gender stereotyping. "Raising a boy is fraught too," she challenges playfully. "We hear so much about the crisis in modern masculinity and if they are not the ones opening the doors and carrying the bags, then what are they? And how much should you encourage them to play to their own obsessive interests, things like Minecraft, and then how much should you encourage them in those soft skills that the girls seem better at?

"I think parenting is always fraught with issues," she continues. "At the start it's like learning to walk after a stroke or something. You're thinking 'everyone else manages this, why can't I?'. But there are always new challenges, now I have to help them with the internet and remember all the different passwords. They're nagging me to upgrade their software and go out in the real world more, so you have to decide what to allow them."

But she hopes the type of 'intensive parenting' that this generation is involved in will pay dividends in intimacy. "I don't think our parents fretted over it in quite the same way that we are," she says. "But on the other hand, there's a level of intimacy there that I don't think was as common in the old days. My partner is a professor and she says her students are just so close to their parents, constantly texting and Skyping.

"So I think it's a hugely rewarding business and certainly it's hugely inspiring for me. It seems like everything I've written in the last 10 years has got something to do with parenting."

Unsurprisingly, both children - born to Emma and Chris using an anonymous sperm donor - are "mad readers". "They literally fight over books," says Emma. "And, if they're going to fight, what better thing to fight over?" Her own parents, the literary critic Denis Donoghue and English teacher mother, played a big influence on her career path but she's not dreaming of her own offspring following in her writer footsteps. "I wouldn't exactly advise it because the average income of writers is incredibly low and it's not necessarily a business that's going to make anyone happy… I've felt hugely lucky."

Passing through an airport recently, she was stopped by someone who recognised her face off TV and knew she had "something to do with a prize". But Emma is insistent the recognition (such as it is) and limelight is "all temporary". "People recognising you in the supermarket, that only happens for a few weeks and quickly fades, which is fine because, really, would you want to live like that?

"It's been great because you tend to assume you've passed your peak in terms of being remotely interesting to the media and then suddenly there's this shot in the arm from interest in the film that has spread a wonderful sprinkle of magic dust on all the other books too. If someone will go and see Signatories because they saw me at the Oscars, then great. But I don't expect the spotlight to stay on me."

Which is great except that with her talent and such a down-to-earth and modest attitude to fame, it seems inevitable that it really won't be too long before the spotlight's back on her once again.

UCD's Signatories runs in Kilmainham Gaol from April 22-24, then moves to the Pavilion Theatre (April 26 & 27), Civic Theatre (May 3 & 4) and National Concert Hall (May 5). Tickets from

Irish Independent

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