Room author Emma Donoghue talks about family and being Oscar-nominated for her film adaptation.

By Helen Barlow.

’Room’ author Emma Donoghue’s unflinching eye

Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue
Credit: Punch Photograpic

Emma Donoghue, the Irish-born novelist, writes on a treadmill. It’s fitting: that unending march forward, her stories racing across all genres, from historical drama to murder mystery to children’s literature.

Donoghue wrote a bestseller on that treadmill, her wildly ambitious 2010 novel, Room, which was also a finalist in the Man Booker Prize and which she has now adapted into her first screenplay, for which she has been nominated for a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and an Oscar.

“It was highly enjoyable because I really, really like cinema,” she says. “I don’t think writers should meddle with cinema unless they actually respect it as a form just as much as fiction. You can’t be remotely snooty about it. If you don’t like cinema then sell the film rights and walk away. But I love cinema and I thought I could have a bash.”

Donoghue has lived in Canada since 1998. When you meet the vivacious 46-year-old, who is raising two children, Finn, 11, and Una, 8, with her partner of 22 years, Christine Roulston, she talks at breakneck speed.

“I’ve been writing since about seven and I just find it thrilling to put the words together and make up something new,” says Donoghue, who was named in homage to Jane Austen’s Emma.

“My dad’s a literary professor who taught for a long time at NYU and my mum’s an English teacher and I’ve seven older siblings, yet none of them became writers so you can’t explain it entirely through environment. Gertrude Stein once said that one should always be born the youngest. So I was allowed endless reading and writing and poetry time while the others were doing the washing up.”

Room, she freely admits, is widely open for interpretation. “Some people take it absolutely straight as a kidnap story, others read it more allegorically, some see it more like a fable and academics write about it in psychoanalytic terms. It gets a lot of teenage readers as it’s taught in schools.”

The story focuses on a woman, simply called Ma, who is locked in a converted garden shed where she has conceived a son, Jack, whom we meet at age five. While the story was inspired by the harrowing case of Elisabeth Fritzl, the situation here is remarkably calm: Jack knows only his current existence and is happy, thanks to the tireless efforts of his mother.

“Jack identifies strongly with his mother; he’s not really in a two-gender world,” explains Donoghue. “He thinks they’re the only real people in the world. He’s totally unselfconscious around her.”

In her research, Donoghue not only looked into other kidnappings but at similar situations such as in Swedish prisons where women are allowed to raise their children, albeit in isolation. Yet the real could only be a starting point.

“I was always looking for the universal rather than focus on the oddity of the story,” she says. “To me this story was always about the basics of when you have a child – and how parenthood is a prison, and childhood too. You’re in a little tiny space and then gradually your world widens. But in Room it happens overnight.”

Donoghue likens the second half of the story, when the characters are thrust into the outside world, to the over-protectiveness that parents of her generation feel for their kids. Her son Finn became a huge inspiration for Jack.

“My son was four-and-a-half when I was drafting Room and I put wadges of his dialogue straight into the book. He’s not like Jack because he’s been raised in a world of plenty and freedom: he’s very relaxed with other people and he breaks toys, while Jack is carefully recycling everything. But he does have Jack’s playful attitude, ‘Oh what does that mean?’ ‘Let’s try this!’ And I tried, in a way, to isolate the qualities that all five-year-olds have even in their speech, such as, ‘I breakded the glass’, rather than ‘I broke the glass’. I love that about them.”

Given the book’s delicate subject matter, its unusual two-part structure and how events unfurl from Jack’s perspective, Donoghue had waited for the right filmmaker to turn her story into a movie. Though she’d never heard of him, when she received a 10-page letter from “her fellow Dubliner” Lenny Abrahamson he said the right things. The director of Frank and Garage, Abrahamson, also Oscar-nominated for Room, would guide her in widening her story to offer several points of view. It also helped that he, too, had a son about Jack’s age.

“Lenny was bringing this immense personal warmth to the project,” Donoghue says, “and he fully understood the story. He’s a real intellectual in his background, and studied philosophy.”

The film became a Canadian-Irish co-production with an Irish crew. “I thought, ‘Oh this is odd, all Irish people making a film in America.’ And then I told them they could film it in Canada because Toronto stands in very well for American cities. I think I would never have gone looking for an Irish company and I have to say it really worked out. I find them very easy to talk to because we have this shared language, this mockery, which is very different from the gush of Hollywood. I was nervous of the film business, so working with a small Irish company who protected the project and kept the circle small around it really helped. It meant I was able to participate in the process in a way that the writer is rarely allowed to do.”


Donoghue had completed a Bachelor of Arts at University College Dublin, majoring in English literature and French before moving on to Cambridge, obtaining a PhD in 18th-century literature. She completed her first novel, Stir-fry, about a young Irish woman’s lesbian awakening at the age of 23.

“I always assumed I’d be an academic,” she says, “but that didn’t happen.” She’s been living off her writing ever since.

Her 1995 novel Hood, set in a Dublin convent school not unlike the one she attended herself, won the Stonewall Book Award, while 2000’s Slammerkin, inspired by a murder that took place around the Welsh Borders in 1763 and focusing on a prostitute obsessed with clothes, won the Ferro-Grumley award for lesbian fiction. This obsession with the past, with research and telling lost stories, Donoghue puts down to her mother, Frances Rutledge. “My mother has a great interest in social history and she would do a lot of taking us to stately homes and to old graveyards and poking around. ‘Ooh, I wonder what happened here? That child only lived to be two.’ So I think that stuff fed my writing just as much as my father’s analysis of high literature. I do a lot of coming across real cases from the past and deciding how I can flesh those out with fiction. When you’re writing about nobodies like women and servants and slaves, you’re never going to be able to get all the facts.”

While she admits her attraction to shocking, high-stakes subject matter acts as a distraction from her own harmonious existence, it also draws attention to women’s issues about which she has long been outspoken. In Room this particularly applies to the fact that Jack comes into the world as a child produced by rape.

“In my research I found that if women came back after some kind of captivity with a child that there was a real range of reactions. Some people were able to welcome the child and others were just repelled at the idea of a child conceived through rape. There are interesting online forums where women talk about loving them double, and other times they say every time they look at the child they just see the rapist. I wanted to be honest and show that range in reactions so it’s not all lovey-dovey. Some people just can’t cope with it.”

There’s no doubting Donoghue’s body of work has introduced a fresh, forceful voice to women’s fiction. Be it 2014’s Frog Music, about an unsolved 1876 San Francisco murder involving two French transients, a female burlesque dancer and prostitute and a female-to-male cross-dresser, or in her nonfiction, such as 1998’s We Are Michael Field, about the Victorian-era lesbian couple Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who wrote poetry and verse drama under a pseudonym.

Poetry had been Donoghue’s initial interest as a teenager, and she compiled a record of her writings in a series of bound books bearing their title in large bold letters: EMMA DONOGHUE: THE WORKS.

Sexuality has been a major theme of Donoghue’s work, and I ask whether she intends to marry her partner – same-sex marriage being an inevitable conversation in the Hollywood she has now entered.

“To be honest I’ve no interest,” she says. “It seems a bit beside the point given that we have two kids and a house. We have common law status and it comes down to the same thing. The laws in Canada are very good. They legalised same-sex marriage back in the early 2000s and we’ve never felt we were second-class citizens. Canada’s a good place to have ended up.

“Ireland has recently legalised same-sex marriage, which is very exciting, but there’s still an awful lot of lingering Catholicism and conservatism. Canada’s diverse, a bit like Australia. It’s a country that’s been made up of layers and waves of immigrants so that it cannot define itself too strictly.”

In Australia, Donoghue has been only to Sydney and Melbourne. “I haven’t been into the middle at all. I know that’s a whole different thing,” she says, suddenly wide-eyed. “But I loved the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It’s the best festival I’ve ever been to. It’s all so outdoorsy and I love the fact that about half of the events are free. They had live radio events and odd combinations with writers from different genres in conversation. And Sydney’s just ravishing.”

Donoghue spent the 2014-15 academic year in Nice, France, where Roulston, a professor of French and women’s studies at the University of Western Ontario, was on sabbatical.

“Our kids are bilingual so every now and then we like to plunge them into French. I’m totally monolingual myself: it’s shocking. I sit there in France stuffing my face with pastries, reading The New Yorker and writing in English. France is wasted on me. You’d think I’d be bilingual by now, but I’m not. As a writer it’s hard to make yourself speak badly, as you need to do when you’re learning a language. I hate turning into an idiot as soon as I open my mouth in French. It was great for Chris to be there because she grew up in France and England.”

The family ventures to Europe every summer and Donoghue likes that their kids are a cultural mix.

“You should always be slightly off balance and between cultures and noticing the oddity of each culture,” she says. “At our kids’ school in Nice, they asked if they had studied much philosophy before. It’s the only country in the world where kids do philosophy in school. ‘No, our kids haven’t done any. Feel free,’ I told them.”

For Donoghue, though, it is back to the treadmill.

“I hate exercise. I’m a natural slug,” she says. “So for a few hours each day I’m walking away at my desk while typing. You’re slightly swaying from side to side as you walk and you’re thinking a bit and you write a line then think a bit. It works really well. You’re tricking yourself: you don’t really notice that you’re moving and then when you get to sit down it’s bliss.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 30, 2016 as "Dark room".

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Helen Barlow is a Paris-based film writer.

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