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Sunday 17 December 2017

Room to grow: Emma Donoghue on writing for children in Trump era

Her novel Room catapulted Emma Donoghue into the publishing limelight, and her screenplay earned the Canadian-based writer an Oscar nomination - now a stage version is on its way to the Abbey. Back in Dublin to promote her new children's book, the writer tells our reporter why the novel's third incarnation will definitely be its last

Challenge: Emma Donoghue's children's book The Lotterys Plus One grew out of a dinner-party conversation.
Challenge: Emma Donoghue's children's book The Lotterys Plus One grew out of a dinner-party conversation.

Joanne Hayden

Emma Donoghue has been in Dublin for less than three days. Already she's caught up with six family members, a couple of her oldest friends, had dinner with her publicists, been to the cinema and appeared on TV and radio to talk about her new children's book, The Lotterys Plus One. Two days after we meet, she will fly to London for the première of her play, Room. On the way to the airport she'll stop off for an event at Liberty Hall.

"I haven't had a quiet time in Dublin since I left at 20," she says. "But Dublin is a very festive place. I love the verbal culture in Ireland. I love the fact that everybody's as gabby as I am."

Through the travel and publicity commitments, Donoghue maintains certain routines. This morning she got up at 6am to write. The continuity, she says, makes it easier to adjust when she returns to Canada, where she lives with her partner, Christine Roulston, and their two children, aged 13 and 9.

Her work ethic is also reflected in her output. The Lotterys Plus One is the fourth book she's published since Room became an international bestseller in 2010. The success of the novel - the story of an imprisoned mother and child and their subsequent escape into the world - was matched by the success of the film version, for which Brie Larson won a Best Actress Oscar in 2016. Donoghue, who wrote the screenplay, was nominated for an Oscar.

The book's depiction of the relationship between Ma and five-year-old Jack encapsulates the power and claustrophobia of the mother-child bond. In the wake of Room, Donoghue was asked a lot about mothering.

The Lotterys Plus One is less about mothering than about parenting. For her children's fiction debut, Donoghue has created an extraordinary family, comprised of two moms, two dads and seven kids - three adopted and all named after trees. The Lotterys live in Camelottery, a 32-room mansion in Toronto bought with the parents' lottery winnings.

The children are home-schooled. The mums and dads divide up chores according to their interests and skills. It's a lively, creative environment but life becomes problematic for nine-year-old Sumac when a previously "dormant" grandfather comes to stay. Grumps doesn't like Camelottery; he doesn't like the noise or "weirdy" food or that his son is married to a man.

The book grew out of a dinner-party conversation. Donoghue's host asked her to write a children's book in which having same-sex parents was no big deal.

"We'd all found that there were lots of picture books that featured two mothers," Donoghue says. "Or diverse families. And then at YA [Young Adult] level, queer themes come up a bit, but in middle-grade [fiction for 8-12 year-olds], there didn't seem to be much, and certainly not much that didn't present it as some big trauma, like 'our parents are breaking up because daddy's gay'."

Despite their permissiveness, the Lotterys are a wholesome family. They make their own fun, grow their own food and watch very little TV. The parents are civic-minded and give each child just the right amount of attention. They're also a microcosm of diversity. One mom is Jamaican, one dad Indian. One of the children no longer wants to be a girl, one is hyperactive and one has developmental delays from being shaken in his pre-Lottery life.

"I wanted to introduce gritty elements," Donoghue says, "but I also wanted it to feel a bit like those idyllic books of people like E Nesbit that I grew up on... I liked the idea of an old-fashioned tone and a very modern content."

Full of lovely, character-driven illustrations, the book is essentially about tolerance. Donoghue fulfilled her host's request; other than when it matters to outsiders, the parents' sexuality is irrelevant.

"I didn't want them to be constantly battling homophobia and racism," she says. "I like the idea that, in a way, you're setting the tone for all the child readers, and if you take this stuff in your stride so will they. And frankly, in the age of Trump, I think there's no task more urgent than infiltrating the heads of child readers across the world and showing things like immigration and same-sex parenting in action, and how it doesn't cause society to collapse."

Donoghue is an emigrant twice over. At 20, she left Dublin for Cambridge where she did her PhD. Eight years later she moved to London, Ontario, where Roulston is a university professor.

Funny, open and effortlessly articulate, she is comfortable talking both personally and politically. She and Roulston are not "hippy homeschoolers" like the Lotterys, she says. "The kids complain we love our jobs too much."

She has written about how her children were conceived using donor sperm and jokes about it unprompted.

"I find in my family, because I'm the birth mother, it's my fault if the kids have childhood constipation. The stinky feet is entirely my fault. So basically Chris, not being genetically related to them, she's off the hook."

Since her son Finn was born 13 years ago, childhood and motherhood have been prominent in her work. Jack's child's-eye perspective is the highlight of Room. Donoghue had always thought the story would work on stage - "it's a really theatrical premise" - so when she was approached by Scottish director Cora Bissett, she wrote the first draft of the play.

"In a way, the play is more like the book," she says, "in that it gives us Jack's voice commenting on the world, whereas the film was beautifully naturalistic and what you saw was mostly the boy looking at things."

The play, which opens at Dublin's Abbey at the end of June, is set in Britain rather than America and incorporates music and songs, which Donoghue says work "as a cathartic expression of what characters aren't allowed to say". They are Ma's "steam valve".

There are two Jacks on stage - a child and an adult who represents Jack's confident innerself. Jack and Ma are played by black actors. The casting was the director's idea but Donoghue thinks it enriches the play for a few reasons.

"When a film has won an Oscar for best actress, anything that literally puts a new face on that character helps make it fresher, but also it gives it an extra bit of political resonance... There are so many people of colour in unfree situations."

Room continues to overshadow everything she writes but she's not complaining. "My career was in the doldrums over here for a few years before Room," she says. "I was some publishing equivalent of box-office poison."

The novel's popularity has drawn attention to her other work, which includes a lot of historical fiction, and the film has also opened doors; she's currently adapting her latest two novels, Frog Music and The Wonder, for the screen.

But while she is excited by the play and thrilled it will be in the Abbey, she says she will never touch Room again. This third incarnation of the story is enough. "There's a moment in all your literary contracts when you read some detail like, 'If you're making a doll of my characters, I want the right to vet them'. Just imagine my novel spawning a doll. Please let's not get to that point."

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