Writer’s Edit recently read Emma Donoghue’s novel Room. Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2010, Room reached critical acclaim early on.
Told from the perspective of five-year old Jack, the reader is slowly made aware of the nightmarish world in which Jack and his Ma live. Ma, snatched from the street at just nineteen years old, has been held captive in Room, for seven years.
The first half of the novel revolves around how Jack has been brought up to believe that Room is the entire world. The pieces of furniture, utensils and the structure of Room itself, become characters to Jack, a well-spoken and observant child. But in between the lines of child-dialogue and vivid imagination are some of a parent’s darkest fears realised. See the book trailer for Room below.
This October, Writer’s Edit was lucky enough to interview the author of Room, Emma Donoghue.
The transition between Room and the outside world is understandably very difficult for Ma and Jack. What kind of research did you undertake regarding their reactions and how they coped with this change?
As for every part of Room, I researched widely - meaning, not just situations that are a close parallel (such as books by or about those who've escaped from long term kidnappings) but those that offered analogous experiences.
For Jack, I read about autism (because even though he's not autistic, he is overwhelmed by our multisensory world), children from orphanages adjusting after international adoption, refugees... and for Ma, I read a lot about the prisoners kept in solitary confinement and how it's often afterwards that they crack up.
What challenges did you face while writing from the perspective of a five year old about such a horrific situation? For example, Ma’s depression, when she’s ‘Gone’, may have been easier to describe from an adult’s perspective… How did you overcome these challenges? And which part of the book did you find most difficult to write from this point of view?
You've spotted it: writing Jack was quite easy, it was writing Ma from Jack's extremely limited point of view (not only because he's five but because Ma misleads him about the extent of her suffering) that was a challenge.
I didn't want to make him one of these preternaturally sensitive children who picks up every signal, either; from my research I got the sense that children in abusive homes can become adult in that way, and I wanted Ma to have successfully shielded Jack so that he has much of the cheerful self-absorption of a normal five-year-old.
So all I could do is drops hints, things she can't quite hide (such as the toothache), things the adult reader will be able to fill in (one rape stands for seven years of rape)... The most difficult moment was Ma's overdose, after they get out, because Jack doesn't notice she's been falling apart, and many readers - focused more on Jack's new life than on hers - are taken unawares and appalled by it. (Some of them even react with a sense of outrage and betrayal that suggests to me that Ma's a mother figure to them too...)
I'm not sure I succeeded a hundred percent, because some readers can't believe - or can't bring themselves to believe - that Ma would stumble in that way. But still, I think limited point of view is the novel's strength, so I never considered writing it any other way.
The film (which I'm now working on) will have one real advantage over the book, I think, in that the audience will have much more direct access to Ma.
What was the drafting process like? Who did you trust with your earliest draft of Room and why?
Room came faster and easier than any other book I've written; it's simply the strongest idea I've ever had, and I was so ready (having two children of 4 and 1) to write it.
For about six months I planned the story and researched every aspect of it, from what experiences confined children can survive and which ones they can't (the most distressing part of writing this book), to exactly which five-year-old grammar mistakes I should use to make Jack's stream-of-consciousness believable but still readable, to every object that would be in the room.
Then I drafted the novel in six months. I would recommend a tiny-world setting and a single point-of-view to any novelist; they are apparent limitations that actually set you free, like the traditional 'unities of time, space and action' in seventeenth-century drama.
After that I redrafted once for my agent (always my first reader, for the past twenty years) and once for my three (US, Canadian and UK) editors, but nothing changed very much; I just worked on making certain elements more realistic (the escape, the protocols in the police station) and getting that balance between sweet and sorrowful right on ever page.
You mentioned in the past that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was a ‘trigger’ for Room. What elements of McCarthy’s novel captivated and inspired you, and where can we see this translated in Room?
The Road made me cry for days, on a sunny beach holiday in Dominican Republic, a year before I wrote Room. All I borrowed from it was the notion that a parent-child story could take on the force of myth. I said to myself, if a father-son story can be shaped like a journey, perhaps a mother-son story should be about enclosure and escape: room as womb.
In the acknowledgments of the book, you thank friends and family for helping you recognise the practicalities and essentials of the shed, where Ma and Jack are held captive. What were some details pointed out to you?
My brother-in-law rang me up excitedly one day to suggest that Old Nick should have built a layer of chain-link fence right into every surface of the shed, so that when Ma finally manages to dig a hole through the floor she should be foiled by the fence... He really channeled his inner psychopath! And it was he who suggested that Old Nick would have an old pick-up truck rather than a car, which then allowed me to imagine the escape.
You’ve been earning a living as a writer since you were 23, what were some of the common obstacles you faced as new writer on the scene, and how did you overcome these?
It's really not a tale of overcoming obstacles but of enormous, pretty consistent, dazzling luck. My career has had a few potholes in the middle - several years when I wasn't published in the UK - but overall it's been pure pleasure.
What advice would you give aspiring novelists?
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Writer’s Edit would like to thank Emma Donoghue for taking the time to speak with us. If you'd like to find out more about Emma Donoghue and her writing, you can visit her website, here. If you're interested in reading another interview on her novel Room, click here. You can also follow Emma on Twitter: @EDonoghueWriter
Check out the book trailer for Room below:
Praise for Room:
‘Astounding, terrifying… It’s a testament to Donoghue’s imagination that she is able to fashion radiance from such horror.’ – The New Yorker
‘Riveting and original… a page-turner… With a good deal of cleverness and skill, Donoghue manages to build a level of suspense which makes the book impossible to set aside.’ – London Free Press