Emma Donoghue is a prolific, multi award winning author and playwright, who has been constantly churning out spectacular content for over 25 years. She was also kind enough to take time out on her 50th birthday to talk to OTwo about her most recently released work, her upcoming debuts, and her experience studying in UCD in the late 1980’s.
As well as it being a milestone birthday, Donoghue has also very recently returned home from the press tour for her latest book, Akin. Her first contemporary novel since Room, released in 2010, Akin follows an elderly man and his great nephew on a journey to his childhood home in Nice.”It’s inspired very much by myself and my partner and my kids – we got to spend two seperate years in Nice, and it’s the first book I’ve written that’s really impacted by a particular place I was in.” At this point, at the end of her North American tour, the book has gotten very positive reviews, with great praise for how she addressed the generational and class divide between the two characters throughout the novel. As for the tour itself, “The travel is a bit tiring, but the actually encounters with readers is very rejuvenating.”
“It’s funny how these fairytales continue to take on interesting new meanings in every generation”
As for upcoming works, Donoghue is thrilled that her play, Kissing the Witch, which had its debut in 2000, is coming to Europe for the first time. It is due to open Dublin’s newest theatre, The Bohemian, a new cabaret style theatre in Phibsboro. Doors will open to the public for the first time on the 29th of October with an adaptation by The Corpse Ensemble. The show began as a collection of short stories published in 1997 under the same name, a collection of “revisionist fairy tales (…) all the classic European fairy tales like Cinderella, Thumbelina, and Beauty and the Beast, kind of a new spin on each of these.” The stories are all linked by having each protagonist narrate each others tale, harkening back to their origins in Oral Tradition. As for the play itself, Donoghue seems very excited about what the Ensemble have planned. “I absolutely love what they’re doing with it. It’s funny, I wrote this play ages ago, but I think they’ve really brought out a fresh angle in it. It’s funny how these fairytales continue to take on interesting new meanings in every generation.”
Keeping with her stage work, one of her current projects is adapting the play of her incredibly popular tale, Room, for the North American stage. Since it’s 2017 debut, the stage adaptation has run in both Ireland and the UK to great success, and so she is working to bring it to North America with all the appropriate edits. “I’m doing some rewrites on that, and tinkering with the language to make it suit Canada. Because you know, the book was set in America but then for the play, we began the play in England so I had to rejig the language. In each case I want it to sound like the local speech, because I feel like it’s a really universal story.”
“As you can see, I like to have a lot of different projects on the go. It keeps things lively!” Donoghue jokes as she explained her next project, an upcoming film, again based off one of her novels. The Wonder, published in 2016, is Donoghue’s first historical novel set in Ireland, and surround the medical mystery of an 11 year old who is said to have been able to survive without food for months. Based around the historical phenomenon of the ‘Fasting Girl’, the story itself is also Donoghue’s first historical novel to not be based around a factual event, and is instead a work of total fiction. She is adapting it alongside Element Pictures, an Irish company that she worked with to produce Room.
“I remember walking into UCD on my first day and just feeling this surge of freedom.”
When it comes to scriptwriting, Donoghue can trace her origins back to her BA in UCD. She looks back on her time here fondly, “Because I’d been to an all girls convent school, like so many of us did, I remember walking into UCD on my first day and just feeling this surge of freedom.” Between the lack of uniform, the lack of controlling oversight, and the novel experience of studying alongside men, Donoghue reminisces on those days with a joyful tone. “Just of feeling of having much more individual choice and autonomy than at school was a thrill (…) All the first friends I made were there were men because I was finally not in this all girl bubble.”
Donoghue shared her love for what she had studied, English and French, “My only regret was that I never really spoke French much. You were really meant to go away for a year and speak French, but I was just in a hurry and so did the degree in three years and pushed on with graduate studies in English. That’s the one thing I feel I should have done differently, but it wasn’t their fault.” In fact, the only thing she didn’t like about her time in UCD was the year of Economics classes she sat, much to her mother’s dismay. “My mother was really hoping I would do one useful subject that might get me a job.”
“I liked the shabbiness of UCD, the fact that no one seemed to be watching too closely what you were wearing or doing.”
She then confirmed that while the college in her first novel, Stir Fry, went unnamed, it was definitely UCD. “I think the thing I like about UCD was that it was big and ramshackle. I had friends doing English in Trinity who used to actually worry about what they should wear to tutorials. I liked the shabbiness of UCD, the fact that no one seemed to be watching too closely what you were wearing or doing.” And the highlight of her time in UCD? Her time with Dramsoc. “I really started writing plays cautiously at Dramsoc, first by directing plays, and then adapting things, like we did a sort of modernised version of The Duchess of Malfi. I would say I took those baby steps there, and if I hadn’t had such an exciting theatre setting to be working in, you know, you got to put on plays in UCD so often. Without that kind of setting I’m not sure I ever would have become a playwright.” She accredits this time with her comfort writing plays for stage, screen and radio, “Those Dramsoc days were probably just as useful as the actual courses I took. The parties were always good too, you met lively people there.”
She echoed this sentiment when giving advice to college students who are looking to pursue a career in writing, “You really don’t have to study writing – or rather, you study writing by reading books and by trying to write.” While she enjoyed PhD, and found the research skills she gained while there useful for her historical writing, she very much pushed the practical over theory when it comes to fiction. “I think often nowadays people feel you have to do it in a professionalised way, and they have to go and do a course on creative writing, but plenty of good novels come out of just the lives and thoughts of those who are interested in books.”
“You really don’t have to study writing – or rather, you study writing by reading books and by trying to write.”
Donoghue stressed not feeling pressured into taking course after course on writing, before following up with, “But also don’t chase the market, because unlike, say, YouTubing, you don’t have to be of the moment in fiction. Fiction takes a long time to publish, so there’s no point in trying to be absolutely of the moment, and there’s certainly no point in trying to guess what will be in fashion in several years time. I would just always advise people to write what they’re passionately interested in, and hope that they can communicate that enthusiasm to readers.”
We concluded the interview by discussing her plans for the upcoming Halloween festivities, which Donoghue seemed to have bittersweet feelings about. “Annoyingly this year, I’m usually either out with the kids or at least waiting for them to come back with a sack of chocolate which I’ll fight over, but this year I have to give a reading on Halloween. The kids are now 12 and 15, so we’re leaving them to roam the streets themselves, and I’ll be giving a reading. There are worse ways to spend Halloween.”
Akin is available in all good booksellers now, and Kissing the Witch runs from the 29th of October to the 9th of November in The Bohemian Theatre in Phibsboro. Tickets are €12, or €20 if you book for both shows