A Day of Emma Donoghue at Story Week


Emma Donoghue’s zippy Irish brogue is stuck in my head. I sat for a total of three hours in the Harold Washington Library’s Pritzker auditorium, heard the woman discuss two of her books, and feel thoroughly enlightened and entertained. Donoghue is the rare writer who does not need to be drawn out with questions. I imagine her much like a wind-up toy that spins out witticism and insight in that oh-so eager accent.

You may be familiar with Donoghue because of her recent best-selling novel, Room. Focusing on a young boy, Jack, growing up in a 10-by-10 foot space with his mother, Room sounds unrelentingly dark to most readers, myself and Columbia College English professor Garnett Kilberg Cohen formerly among them. However, after listening to Donoghue read and discuss the novel, I no longer feel that its premise is an unnatural conceit, or a dark one. Furthermore, I want to read it.  As Donoghue said, Room is not a novel about the darkness of the soul, but a novel about the triumph of adversity and motherhood.

The considerations Donoghue undertook in crafting Room seem singular but ultimately make sense. She spoke of having to measure furniture to see if it would fit into the designated space, of deciding whether the characters would be allowed ice cream or television (the latter yes, the former, no.) She wickedly likened herself to the pair’s captor, Old Nick, and his control over their environment, and then wryly pointed out that every author does this to her characters anyway. She spoke of hearing about an Austrian case where a daughter was kept in a hole in her father’s backyard and made to bear his children, one of whom, a five-year-old boy, when interviewed said the new world he’d been brought into was, “nice”. As Donoghue said, her bullshit detector went off, and she tried to find a way to tell the boy’s story different. Her own son was about to turn five, and he extended up being his mother’s extensive research subject as he assembled a working if slightly askew grammar, parts of which end up in Jack’s voice as he narrates Room. And she spoke of not wanting the book to end up as just another celebration of our national obsession, the missing white teenage girl. She wanted Room to have more depth than that, and succeeded to the point where disappointed readers write her to ask if she couldn’t just do a sequel in the mother’s voice, to which she said, “they really don’t get it.”

You could talk about Room for hours, and the audience and Donoghue very well could have. Even at her second event, focused on her short story collection, Astray, the subject of Room was raised by a still-fascinated crowd. Yet Donoghue has written a shocking amount of books–I lost count as afternoon moderator Karen Osborne detailed their variety–and has even been involved in making films. The daughter of literary critic Dennis Donoghue and named after Jane Austen’s most famed title character, it seems fitting that Donoghue draws parallels between herself and Austen in their choices of point of view and style of narration. Though, she admitted, “I’m not sure she’d recognize that.”

At each event Donoghue’s reading style blew me away. Like the world’s coolest mom reading a bedtime story to her kids, she exaggerated her voices between male and female characters, and even screwed up her face when the characters did. In both the selection from Room and the short story from Astray, she let the natural speed of her voice heighten the tension, something I wish more readers did instead of going for an unnatural slowness or emphasis on the words. Both pieces had a remarkable amount of humor and sadness in a short period of time, and in particular the sheer outrage of the narrator in the short story, who discovers upon his death that her politically connected good ‘ol boy father was, um…actually a woman, was delightful in Donoghue’s voice.

Both Osborne and Kilberg-Cohen handled their interviews with an unusual relaxation, seeming to approach Donoghue as fans of her work rather than dissectors. While they at times focused on minutiae, they were quick to follow up with questions and in fact often made statements about her work which spurred the keen, loquacious Donoghue into discussion. I was impressed by the quality of the English Department professors’ inquiries, and look forward to Story Week including more events with them in the future.

And Donoghue herself was not just insightful, but brutally funny. While she expressed admiration for the researchers who create the hyperfocused Wikipedia articles so essential to her historical fiction, she cracked that she wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with them. In response to an audience question about cultural differences, she admitted in horror than in Canada, where she emigrated, she goes for months forgetting that she’s a lesbian, a fact that no one lets ever forget in her Catholic homeland of Ireland. About parenting, she was out-and-out hysterical, saying that everyone assumes that since her character in Room is such a good mother, Donoghue is as well. Um, not so much, apparently. Not that Donoghue’s a bad mother, but as she said, the mother in Room has nothing else to do, while Emma herself writes novels at a rapid clip. Even the act of becoming a mother shocked Donoghue. She’d wanted to do it for 7 years, and then, it became clear there was a flaw in the plan: “THE BABY NEVER GOES AWAY!” Roars of knowing and sympathetic laughter filled the auditorium.

Audience questions were met with the same wit and attention as those of the professors, and by the time her reign on the library stage came to a close, one thing was clear: being locked in a room with Emma Donoghue would be no torture, but a delight.

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