Women Who Write Bestsellers Shouldn't Hand Them to the Film Industry: An Interview with Emma Donoghue
As a film journalist, it was a thrill to interview A-list actors and actresses at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. But as a writer, one of my most inspiring sit-downs was with Emma Donoghue.
At first, I was a bit intimidated. I’ve been a fan of the Ireland-born Donoghue since her first novels Stir-Fry and Hood, landmark books for LGBT readers back in the 1990s. Donoghue went on to write books in every genre: nonfiction and biography; the terrific historical novels Slammerkin, Life Mask, The Sealed Letter, Frog Music; short stories; plays; and edited fiction and nonfiction anthologies. She’s currently writing her first novel for middle-grade readers (8-12) The Lotterys Plus One, slated for release in 2017.
That’s already an impressive portfolio, even before you add the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted Room (2010), the acclaimed novel that became a global bestseller. Donoghue herself adapted the book for the screen, and the movie’s glowing early reviews have put it—and Donoghue—into solid Oscar contention.
Donoghue was gracious, generous and full of insight and advice about the writing process. She wrote the screenplay for Room before the book was even published, let alone before it became an international bestseller. I asked how she’d found the confidence to do that.
“I knew there was going to be a lot of fuss once it was published because the publishers already paid a lot and were putting a huge amount into publicity. So, I thought, before anyone starts telling me what to do, I’m just going to have a go. Why not?” she said.
“Film is such a male-dominated industry. Women are powerful in fiction but in film the numbers on women are still appalling so it was quite important to me to see if I can manage this myself. I don’t think women who write bestselling novels should always hand them over to the industry, especially since this story was so important for me to write and not have it become some creepy rape movie. Voyeurism is more risky in film than in a novel. I didn’t want creepy and I didn’t want sentimental. So I wanted to guard this one,” she says.
For those who have not read it, the events of the novel are told through the eyes and distinctive voice of a five-year-old named Jack. We learn that his beloved Ma has, for seven years, been held captive by the man Jack knows as Old Nick. Jack was born in Room, the only world he’s ever known, and he is the only light in Ma’s otherwise harrowing existence. The film version, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, stars Brie Larson as Ma and Jacob Tremblay as Jack.
Donoghue says Room sprang from becoming a mother herself—she has two children with her partner of 22 years, Chris Roulston, a professor of women's studies at the University of Western Ontario. Donoghue had left Ireland for England to pursue her PhD in 18th-century literature at Cambridge University. She “fell for a Canadian” and has since become a citizen of Canada.
“Even though I totally chose to become a parent—in fact, I nagged my partner for seven years—I found parenting a shock to my system. Here I’d been this carefree writer … and motherhood revealed an angry side to me,” says Donoghue. “I’d lose my temper, I’d never seen that side of me before; what a life change motherhood was. Then I heard about the [Josef] Fritzl case in Austria when the kids were 4 and 1.” (Donoghue is referring to a notorious kidnapping/hostage case like the one in Room.)
“It was the fastest book I’ve ever written. I instantly thought of this story of a child growing up in a locked room. That’s so rich because motherhood often feels like a locked room, childhood often feels like a locked room, especially now, we’ve make parenthood this intense thing; we worry so much,” she says. “It can be a tight little bond but we also worry over that relationship far more than our parents did. So the novel clicked for me and came very fast. I knew it would be called ‘Room’; it would start on [Jack’s] birthday; the escape would be in the middle; and it would be entirely from the child’s point of view. All that was clear to me and I never questioned any of it. I wasn’t looking for how to tell the story of a raped or captive girl. That wasn’t the point for me.”
Successful adaptations, as even the novice knows, require a writer to be ruthless in cutting their books to the bone, which is why many novelists can’t be objective with the screenplay. “I don’t assume everything I do will be good. If they’d said, ‘no, it’s no good,’ fair enough, we’ll move on,” says Donoghue. “But I at least wanted to try so they’d know what they’re getting. I didn’t want them to hire me a scriptwriter. I always prefer to write my books first—to sell on synopsis is very scary; [I think], ‘is this what they thought they were buying?’”
Fortunately, her screenplay was judged to be terrific as it distilled the novel into powerful images and key moments. Still, it takes a lot of confidence—and a different set of skills—for a novelist to make the leap. Donoghue credits her years of hard work and her ability to write for different audiences. In other words, she earned every bit of Room’s success.
“I think it helped that I’ve been writing so long and because I started out classified as a minority writer. If you get people saying, ‘I wouldn’t read her books because they’ve got lesbian story lines’ then it leaves you relaxed about whether you’ll ever get an audience. But no way was I going to closet my plots to get a bigger audience,” she says. “It is a fact that my books that don’t have queer storylines sell way better. I can’t do anything about that. I’m not going to whine about it but nor am I going to try to change my books to chase that audience. And you can never tell which books are going to sell anyway. It’s so sad when young writers ask ‘how do I get a bestseller?’ It’s the worst attitude. I don’t think you’ll ever write anything original that way.”
Loren KingSee other articles by Loren King