The Dublin-born writer's screenplay of Room was nominated for an Oscar in 2015 (and Brie Larson won Best Actress for her role in the film). The movie was based on Donoghue's novel about a five-year-old boy, Jack, and his mother, Ma, imprisoned by a man they know only as Old Nick and plotting their escape. Donoghue managed to turn a best-seller that takes place mostly in a single room into a compelling and disturbing cinematic triumph.
I met with Donoghue in New York City before a reading from her new novel, The Wonder, at the Irish Arts Center. She delighted the audience with her warmth, her humor, and her singsongy accent — undimmed after eighteen years in Canada. She lives in Toronto with her partner and two children, Finn and Una.
Like many of Donoghue's novels, the latest book is inspired by historical events — in this case, the mysterious, centuries-old phenomenon of "fasting girls," who achieved notoriety by starving themselves. Some of the girls died while others lived on for decades, but the question of what makes a girl "good" and obedient still resonates.
During an hour-long interview, we talked about how she retained control of her Room screenplay in a male-dominated industry, her instinct to defend novels written about children, and how her label as a "lesbian writer" has affected her career.
Rachael Revesz: How did you manage to keep such a tight grip on your screenplay for Room?
Emma Donoghue: There had been attempts to film some of my previous books, and they had never quite worked.
Doing Room was an ideal experience in that it was a very unusual deal. I'd written the novel but thought, This could work on film. I didn't want anyone else to do it for me, tell me how to do it, or talk me out of it, so I just went ahead and drafted the script. Producers approached me, but I was wary. I didn't want to disappoint my fans and just create a money-maker. It was a bit like being an eighteenth-century lady, saying, "No, no, no!" all the time, as once you sell the film rights, you have no control. After several years, my partner said to me, "Are you ever going to say yes?"
And then director Lenny Abrahamson sent me a ten-page handwritten letter. He was eloquent, spelt everything correctly, and was patently intelligent. Nobody else had tried that tactic. Usually people say, "Oh, maybe my agent could have lunch with your agent."
He flew to Canada and sat with me around my kitchen table for a week. I was really involved as an executive producer, which means you're kept in the loop on everything. I saw Brie Larson's audition tape. The thing I asked for most often was to film it in Toronto so I could still look after my kids and get to the set. Luckily they agreed.
RR: Did writing Room have any effect on your mind-set, being so engrossed in a dark subject?
ED: I think parents of small children know all the fears anyway. It felt like Room was a vehicle for all the thoughts I'd had about the vulnerability of my children.
The research was grueling. I read a lot about abused and weirdly neglected children or children that had been shut away from the world: a lot of that stuff gave me the woolies. But writing the book didn't depress me.
RR: You've said before that it was one case of a fasting girl in nineteenth-century Wales that caught your attention. Did you follow the real story through?