Story of 'Room' May Sound Unusual, but It Has Something Universal in It: Emma Donoghue

In conversation with the acclaimed author about her book 'Room', the process of writing and more.

Emma Donoghue has a delightful, childlike excitement about her – just like the little boy Jack from her award-winning novel and movie Room. Hugely popular at the MAMI festival in Mumbai last year, the film was nominated for four Academy Awards in 2016. Donoghue herself was nominated in the ‘best writing, adapted screenplay’ category. The film won an Oscar for ‘best actress’ (Brie Larson). The same novel is a bestseller and won several awards, besides being shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange prizes. During our talk at a recent literary festival, a fan came in to have her book autographed. She happily obliged and described such experiences as “always heartwarming” and laughed, saying that she’s “not being famous enough to be bored of signing”.

Excerpts from the interview (spoilers ahead):

How did the concept come to you?

I heard about a real case in Austria. It was much worse than my story. I just wanted to take the element of being imprisoned, having a child and being a mother under those circumstances. It’s a story of motherhood. I had two small children at the time and I immediately thought how difficult it would be to be a good mother in a locked room. Then I thought the child might enjoy having his mother always there.

Emma Donoghue <em>Room</em> Picador, 2011

Emma Donoghue
Picador, 2011

Was it a conscious decision not to show the mother’s actual suffering at all in the seven years of being locked up?

Yes, I didn’t want any flashbacks. The world they built up there is shown through things like drawings on the wall, their daily rituals, Jack’s routine of bath after bed and the stories they tell like ‘Oh that’s what I did as baby Jack’. Particularly in the film, I didn’t want to go into any obvious film devices like showing the kidnapping scene or showing from the captor’s point of view. The film stayed like the book, simply focused on Jack and his mother.

Perhaps that’s the reason it appeared so simple yet compelling.

Yes, I thought a lot about other things like what age would the mother be and should Jack be a girl. I thought it might be better if he is a boy and therefore he balances the negative male presence of the captor. So Jack is this wonderful future man in contrast to the captor. If it was girl, it would seem like a parable of men against women.

Your books are quite diverse in their themes. One book – The Lotterys Plus One – has been described by the New York Times as “warm and funny”, while Room is so intense. Does your style always vary? 

Yes, sometimes people read three or four books before they realise they are all written by me. I try not to have the same style. I go by what the story needs. So some books have sex scenes and some have none and some are funny and some are dark. I try to put my ego aside and ask what the story needs. 

How would you define yourself as a writer? Procrastinator or neurotic?

I am quite promiscuous. I get restless in between so I work on another project and then come back to the first. So I let myself sneak off and have a little weekend affair with a short story. You have to know your brain and get to know the tricks which work. Some people use deadlines, some people like routine.

Did you expect such a huge response, awards and acclaim [from the book]?

No. When I sold the novel, my publishers were excited about it. But I couldn’t have known that it would translate into so many languages. I am still amazed with that.

What do you think connected with the readers across the world?

I think I was very lucky to hit on a story, which, even though the story may sound freakishly unusual, it has something very universal in it. We are all afraid for a child who is in danger. Also, this is a story of a mother who is having to take a risk to ensure her child’s future. She otherwise has a situation which is quite stable. She risks messing up all that, in order to get themselves free. It’s about those ethical dilemmas of parenthood. When Jack is growing up, his mother has to let him play outside for the first time. It’s about every parent letting go of their child slowly. Men see themselves in Jack and a lot of grandfathers have written to me as well. I maybe tapped into something about growing up.

Along with the mother finding that immense courage to bundle up the child in the rug, how did you find the courage as a writer?

Yes, the audience is probably thinking, ‘Don’t be crazy, he will end up buried in the garden…’. I was also the cruel captor. I was the one who didn’t give the family enough, maybe a chair. I was the cruel one (laughs). The mother is hiding her pain from Jack so it’s eventually a relief to allow the mother to release it.

What was your experience like, pitching your first novel?

I wrote the whole book and sent it to an agent who put me through a lot of rewrites, before we sent it out to publishers.

Who are your favourite writers?

Rohinton Mistry, Alice Munro, Roddy Doyle.

What are you currently watching?

I am looking forward to the second season of The Crown. I am watching Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake. I am also adapting other people’s work for film and TV. It’s a new area for me and exciting to explore that.

Which book by another writer would you like to see as a movie?

God of Small Things.

Do you find that Indian readers or writers are any different?

I don’t know. I have had very little time here. But one thing I love when my books are reviewed in India, the particular nature of language…Indian English, fascinates me. You guys are keeping words alive that had died a century ago in Canada. Nobody here speaks in a casual or sloppy way.

Gayatri Gauri is a freelance film columnist, critic and journalist.

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