A Brief Interview With Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue On What Makes A Good Story

Brief Interviews is a series in which writers discuss language, literature, and a handful of Proustian personality questions.

Emma Donoghue is the author of eight novels and four short story collections, in addition to a number of dramatic productions. Her 2010 novel Room was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Her latest book, Frog Music [Little, Brown, $27.00], publishes on April 2.

Where do you like to read?
I couldn’t care less. I leave my body behind and live only in the words, whether that’s reclining on a pillow with Jane Austen or huddled over my phone in the back of a dark taxi. How I like to read is uninterruptedly. (I’m about to head off for weeks of touring, and the airport security queues may be tedious but I know at least I’ll get hour after hour after hour of glorious reading time.) But I take what I can get, even if that’s a snatched paragraph at a time at the kitchen table, in between answering my kids’ questions about the logistical arrangements of the Tooth Fairy.

What did you want to be when you grew up (besides an author)?
I longed to be a ballerina, because of the Veronica at the Wells series of children’s books, and because of my serious, exquisite, inspiring ballet teacher, who died suddenly when I’d only been studying for two years. (One of my big sisters cruelly broke it to me that I would have been too tall, anyway.) Writing was very much Plan B. Which is funny, because I really had no particular talent for dance; I was just seduced by the feminine and tragic mystique of it all.

What's the best thing about being a writer?
Getting to indulge yourself in your own obsessions. You can sit around for hours on end, daydreaming about whatever floats into your head, and googling it, and then claim ‘I worked hard today’! Writing is self-expression at its most satisfying: expression not only of what you’ve ever lived or thought but what you can imagine. (For instance, I put a bitch character in every book: one man or woman who gets to voice all the nasty things I’d never let myself say in real life.) It offers the tiny, reliable pleasures of any craft – forming the grand design, fitting the pieces together, polishing and polishing again. As well as being, let’s face it, an ego-trip of the highest order. My most thrilling moments are when readers write to me about my characters as if they are real people. Then I feel like a Dr Frankenstein who’s managed to make new life out of scraps.

What are the most important elements of a good story?
The reader has to care. The books that fail, for me, are the ones in which all sorts of cleverness are displayed, along with great eloquence about many things, but I just don’t give a damn what happens to any of the people. The stakes must be high, which doesn’t mean it has to be Pompeii the day before the eruption, just that your characters have to have a great deal invested in what happens – be it ever so subtle or microcosmic - if you expect your readers to do the same.

What books might your readers be surprised that you enjoy?
Genres that I could never attempt myself, I suppose. Whimsical fantasy – I own everything by Discworld-spinning Terry Pratchett – or tough-guy stuff at its best, such as the impeccable Jack Reacher thrillers of Lee Child. (No, I didn’t see the movie; I was offended at the very idea of sprightly little Tom Cruise pretending to be Jack.)

What bothers you most about the English language today?
The fact that so many people use and generate text in English all day online… but end up with no time to actually read a book. I couldn’t care less whether books are on paper or audio or screen; the important thing is that they’re written by people who know what they’re doing with words, and so can offer you sustained pleasures and excitements that no website can.

What's your favorite word? Why?
Today, it’s limpid. So onomatopoeic: it makes the tiny, moist sound of an insect landing on water, then springing away.

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