||Interview with Emma Donoghue: From-Dublin-with-Love Novelist Speaks about Writing and Life in Canada
by Nancy Wigston
Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue. After attending Catholic convent schools in Dublin (and spending a year in NewYork when she was ten), in 1990 Donoghue earned a first-class honours B.A. in English and French from University College Dublin. She completed a Cambridge PhD in 1997, with a thesis on friendship between men and women in 18th century English fiction. A full-time writer since age 23, Donoghue is a playwright, poet, and editor, and is best known for her fiction, which includes two novels set in contemporary Dublin, Stirfry (1994) and Hood (1995); a sequence of reimagined fairy tales, Kissing the Witch (1997); and two historical novels inspired by 18th century events, Slammerkin (2000) and Life Mask (2004). The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, a series of tales based on historical truths, appeared in 2002. Donoghue has received rave reviews for her work and has drawn comparisons with A.S. Byatt and Margaret Atwood. A literary historian as well as a best-selling author, Donoghue' s non-fiction includes Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 (1993), and We Are Michael Field (1998), a biography of two Victorian women writers. The winner of several literary awards, Donoghue lives in London, Ontario, with her partner and their son.
Nancy Wigston: Born and raised in Dublin, you've lived in England and the States, and now call London, Ontario, home. This province has just celebrated its first long weekend of the summer, Victoria Day, named for a British monarch. So (with apologies) the inevitable first question: Do you consider yourself an Irish writer, primarily influenced by Irish writers? If so, here comes the inevitable second: What drew you to live here and what do you like best/least about living in London?
Emma Donoghue: I'm an Irish writer, certainly, because although I left the country at 20, the first 20 years are by far the most formative. But it doesn't follow that I'm primarily influenced by Irish writers. Growing up, my favourites were mostly English or American, and I found the somewhat melancholic dead-Irish-male literary tradition unappealing.
I started spending long periods of time in London, Ontario in 1995, when my lover got her tenure-track position at University Western Ontario, and made the move in 1998 when I had finally finished my PhD at Cambridge and-a much more difficult documentary task!-got a permanent residence visa. The things I like best are mostly attributes of Canada or Ontario rather than London specifically: the dramatic climate, diversity, civil rights and civility. What I like least about London is that it has only a third of a million people (I prefer at least a million) and lacks buzz.
NW: As a follow-up to the Irish identity question, you've said that you still use Irish terms like "banjaxed" and "bockedy." What do they mean, first of all, and have you noticed or adopted any similarly jaunty Canadian idioms?
ED: A table is bockedy when it wobbles; if it falls over as soon as you put something on it, it is completely banjaxed. My favourite Canadian idiom is a Quebecois one to describe a buxom woman: il y a du monde au balcon... I think the only Canadianism I have truly incorporated into my speech is the final "eh?", which seems to fit into an Irish lilt perfectly.
NW: Who were the writers you read, then, apart from melancholic Irish males? In a foreshadowing of fate, did you read Anne of Green Gables?
ED: Writers I liked as a child certainly included L.M. Montgomery (I preferred the Emily of New Moon series because she was a budding writer), but I was even keener on the fantasists-E. Nesbit, C. S. Lewis, Alan Garner, Tolkien. I had a sci-fi phase in my teens (Vonda McIntyre, Isaac Asimov etc). I like reading many genres that I have no gift for writing. I suppose those that influenced me most were the English classics (novels by Austen, the Brontds, Dickens, Hardy). Emily Dickinson has always been my favourite poet. I ploughed through the Russians (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky) but mostly to impress my parents, I think.
NW: Regarding your parents, you clearly could have been a successful academic, and grew up in such a household (as a daughter of Denis Donoghue, the esteemed critic and academic). What drew you to write plays and fiction?
ED: Ah, but I suspect I would have been the kind of academic who neglects her students and committees in order to write novels and plays! So perhaps it's just as well that I veered off into the author's life from early grad school days. Much as I enjoy the painstaking process of researching and writing history or literary criticism, the heady mixture of adapting reality and inventing it involved in novels, stories or plays is a greater thrill.
NW: You once called yourself a "myopic" writer who loves to work in extreme close-up, yet your latest work, Life Mask, portrays a turbulent era peopled by a wide range of historical figures-writer/eccentric Horace Walpole, sculptor Anne Damer, politico/sportsman Lord Derby, actor Eliza Farren, to name a few. How did you make that leap? On a practical level, since much of your work unearths neglected histories, do you find facilities here adequate for research purposes or must you travel?
ED: You're quite right, in Life Mask I deliberately took on a much broader canvas than ever before, not just to challenge myself but because the historical characters I was writing about were all passionately engaged with many artistic and political aspects of their time. I really try to suit the book to the story rather than honing an "Emma Donoghue style" from book to book. This is why, for instance, I put almost no sex in some of my fiction, but lots of it in two of my novels (Hood and Slammerkin), because the stories (about bereavement and prostitution respectively) called for it. The same goes for length; some subjects are best handled as short stories, others demand to be novels. But my myopia has not gone away: you'll notice that although there are many characters and events in Life Mask, there are only three points of view-Derby, Anne and Eliza. I admire authors who manage a sweeping, omniscient narrator (I'm thinking of, say, Zadie Smith in White Teeth), but I can't do it myself. I have to see things with the narrow precision of one person's point of view. Life Mask was technically very hard, simply because I had so much material to handle, and different worlds (art, sport, theatre, politics) to bring to life. But it was also a constant pleasure because of the richness of the source material.
I use UWO's excellent Weldon library, supplemented occasionally with Robarts at U of T, and some online sources, but for really obscure British materials I visit the British Library most summers, and for Life Mask I also spent a week at Yale reading [18th century sculptor] Anne Damer's notebooks. Nothing beats the excitement of working from unpublished manuscripts.
NW: The clothes in your books, like the loose gown called a slammerkin, or the oversized muff in the opening scene in Life Mask, assume such importance; they're so sensual, they're almost like characters themselves. The teenaged murderer Mary Saunders in Slammerkin killed for fine clothes. Why was this fixation on clothes and fashion so important in the 18th century?
ED: Because of the economics of the rag trade (sweatshops, for instance), nowadays clothing is remarkably cheap unless you care what the label says. By contrast, in eighteenth-century England, a woman's clothes were like her stocks and shares-a serious investment of money which could earn a high rate of return if her elegance won her, say, a rich husband. There were so few jobs open to women, so few economic opportunities, that image really was everything. Which is why I chose to make the murderer heroine of Slammerkin a prostitute: she stands for her whole sex. My experience of writing for theatre also contributes to the focus on clothes, because on stage a costume-and often a particular fetishized prop like a muff-does so much to tell the audience about a character.
NW: So much of what you write not only dazzles with erudition, but also delivers a visceral shock-like the tales in The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (I'm thinking of the odious 19th century doctor in "Cured") or the whole of Slammerkin, which reels from one shocking scene to the next, all in the space of four short years. Is this part of what attracts you to historical fiction?
ED: Obviously it's possible to write shocking contemporary fiction, even 'real' stories if you choose a topic like high-school shootings. But I'm more comfortable dealing with horrors if they happened a long time ago, and with actual people if they are long dead. So yes, for me history allows for the dark, the freakish, the plot-heavy: perhaps the stakes are simply higher in a society without welfare or other safety nets. Also, given that many people associate the past with everything staid and stuffy, I like to pick storylines that will rip away such illusions! Whereas when I write contemporary stories I am more interested in the subtle problems of the everyday, and often write more autobiographically about things that come up in my life or the lives of my friends. (My next novel, for instance, is about an Irishwoman moving to Canada; immigration is an example of an issue that's deeply interesting but not, in most cases, a matter of life or death.)
NW: Care to share any of your immigration woes?
ED: When I entered in 1998, a same-sex relationship didn't count as family as it does now. There was just a discretionary power for the embassy officials to make a "humanitarian and compassionate exemption to the rules" on the basis of a "de facto spousal same-sex relationship", but for that I had to put together a file of extraordinary complexity proving my ever-so-spousal relationship (photos, phone bills, letters of testimony from friends), while applying as a self-employed person as well, to be on the safe side. It was better than trying to get into a country like the US that doesn't recognise same-sex relationships at the federal level at all, I suppose. But the bureaucratic delays do get irritating when you know your straight friends don't have to go through any of that. The same goes for Chris having to 'adopt' our son after his birth. Yes, I suppose it's good that Ontario does allow the non-birth mother to establish a legal parental relationship by these indirect and expensive means, but if we were lucky enough to live in British Columbia we could just have put both our names on the Statement of Birth. Canadians often assume that all the laws have been reformed to make relationships equal, but that's not the case; they're being reformed in rather a piecemeal muddle.
NW: We started out speaking about labels; one literary website calls you "Ireland's most famous lesbian". Though Passions Between Women was the title of your 1994 book (on British lesbian culture between 1668 and 1801), your fictions portray male-female friendships and affairs with profound truth and clarity. What do you think about labels?
ED: I'm afraid my reign as Ireland's most famous lesbian only lasted from about 1993 to 1995, as I was quickly replaced by an Irish lesbian ex-nun who starred in Britain's wildly popular reality show Big Brother. No, seriously, I'm pretty mellow about such labels. I can't stand closety behaviour (now there's a queer idiom for you!), such as writers whose partners are of their own sex loudly resenting being called 'lesbian' while they have no objection to being called, say, 'British' or 'young'. As you point out, I often write about relationships between men and women. The general rule is, the minority knows the majority (black writers can write convincingly about white folks) but the reverse is not always true. I'm happy to be called Irish, Canadian, lesbian, whatever, so long as no one expects my writing to stay within these bounds.
NW: What Canadian writers do you recommend to friends?
ED: For non-Canadian friends, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields and Alice Munro need no recommending; I often alert them to Timothy Findley, Helen Humphreys, Wayne Johnston, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Rohinton Mistry.
NW: What are you currently working on?
ED: My next book, out in Spring 2006, is a collection of contemporary short stories about taboos and embarrassments called Touchy Subjects; that'll be followed by the immigration novel, Time Zone Tango. Right now I'm plunging into my next historical novel, a courtroom drama about a famously sordid Victorian divorce called The Sealed Letter. I see it as the completion of a set of three about the English past, with Slammerkin exploring the lower orders, Life Mask doing the same for high life, and The Sealed Letter for the more stiflingly respectable ranks of the middle class. I am heartened by the number of writers these days who move between contemporary and historical worlds, refusing to limit their career to either-I'm thinking of Beryl Bainbridge, Roddy Doyle, Julian Barnes, Barry Unsworth, Phillipa Gregory, Allan Gurganus, and many Canadians such as Findley, MacDonald, Humphreys, Atwood.
NW: Three books on the go! Where do you get the energy?
ED: Remember I've never had a real job to take away a share of my time. Now someone like Joyce Carol Oates, who teaches and publishes prolifically as well, that's what I call energy! But certainly I thrive on having a number of projects on my various back and front burners. That way if a particular project is getting the upper hand and threatening to oppress me I can switch to another.
NW: How do you see the changing nature of historical fiction?
ED: A big question-and I have to fetch our son from daycare in ten minutes-but I will just say that it used to have the status of a lowly fiction 'genre', such as westerns or romance, but, to my delight, in the last fifteen or so years it has been taken much more seriously, and more and more writers set their plots in the past when they feel like it, rather than having to make a career of being a 'historical novelist'.
NW: Thanks so much for your time.
ED: Thank you.