Booker Prize nominee Emma Donoghue speaks Wednesday night at the Vancouver Writers Festival

Emma Donoghue

I catch Irish-Canadian author and Booker Prize nominee Emma Donoghue for a phone interview shortly after she gets to her hotel on Granville Island. We have about 30 minutes, she tells me, before she has to “slap on some lipstick” and go downstairs for the Writers Festival’s opening reception.

“I don’t have a very complicated make-up routine,” she explains.

I’ve spent the morning reading her most recent novel, Room, whose narrator is  five-year-old Jack, who is being held hostage with his mother, Ma, by a shadowy character named Old Nick.

My reading experience is so extraordinary that I can’t imagine what it was like to write the book.

So I ask her.

“It was the easiest book,” Donoghue tells me. “As much a matter of luck as merit. The idea came so fully formed and ready. Very quickly I had the shape. I knew what the last scenes would be. It was a matter of filling out the details, how much TV they’d watch. At first I had Ma biting off things with her teeth, she wasn’t allowed scissors or knives, but if Old Nick falls asleep next to her, he has to trust her with scissors and knives.”

The situation is extraordinary. Even more astonishing is the narrative voice.

“I wanted Jack to feel five,” she says. “Even though I based him on my son, linguistically, I found ways he would be ahead and have oddities like personalizing objects and the fact that he would not have referred to Ma as ‘she’—certain forms of mental blocks—and I ended up with a language not exactly like an adult, and not exactly like a child. Jack is in some sense normal and average, but with extraordinary powers and strength in proportion to his extraordinary circumstances.

“Dialogue is always a simulacrum. People think they want the actual speech, but they don’t. They want a simplification, a literary equivalent. I tried to find a language that gives the impression of a child.” 

Donoghue manages to do this so masterfully, that I have complete faith in Jack’s view of the world. As limited as that view is, it points to vastness. To Jack, everything outside the room is Outer Space, both literally and figuratively.

“If your readers are on your side,” she says, “they’ll go with you wherever you want to go. The escape scene, for example. Could he do that? It’s plausible enough. And it’s a death and resurrection. It also has to feel right at the symbolic level.”

Like a spider and a mouse and the physical objects inside the room, God is a character in the novel. The room has no windows, just a skylight. Jack tells us, “God’s yellow face isn’t coming in today, Ma says he’s having trouble squeezing through the snow.”

“God is a character,” Donoghue says, “but at a distance. The Devil [Old Nick] is immediate and Mary [Ma] is immediate. Motherhood is the great principle.”

But it’s got to work realistically in the material world, she explains.

“Ma and Jack are an average pair of white Americans. Ma is a materialist, and yet she has to have a myth to structure their despair and give them hope. It’s part of what Ma would give Jack to make sense of the world.”

At the level of myth, we have a holy mother and a hero son.

“The emotional inheritance of Catholicism I suppose,” says Donoghue.

Not only her son’s language but also his preoccupations informed the character of Jack. Dora the Explorer, for instance, and remote control toys.

“Disaster!” says Donoghue, laughing.

Prompted by guilt for being away so long on a book tour, she once bought her son a remote control helicopter in Amsterdam. When she got it home, she gave it to him and said ‘go ahead and fly it,’ which he did. Moments later it was jammed in a tree.

“And the wretched thing has been there ever since,” she says.

Many of the moments in Room are based on interactions she’s had with her own children.

“Like when they go on the escalator without you, or touch another kid inappropriately, or want to carry something from one part of a mall to another, and you have to explain to them that that’s stealing. Kids are like visitors from another planet. As a mother, I have to give one-sentence explanations for the inexplicable.”

Emma Donoghue will join three other novelists on Wednesday evening at the VIWF to discuss parent/child relationships in their fiction: Event # 20 Suffer the Little Children.

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