On Wednesday evening, I attended Emma Donoghue’s reading at Lakeside Hope House in downtown Guelph. This Cafe Philosophique event, organized by the Bookshelf Cafe, was well attended by fans of the prolific author of several novels, short stories, and plays, among them the international bestseller Room (her screen adaptation was nominated for four Oscars). Her recent release, The Wonder, was shortlisted for this year’s Scotia Giller Prize.
After a short introduction, Emma proceeded to give a dramatic reading from The Wonder, a fictionalized tale based on real life cases of fasting girls during the Victorian era. I would have loved listening to a much longer reading.
An armchair conversation with author and creative writing professor Michael Winter followed.
Throughout the conversation, Emma referred to her children (Finn and Una) and commented on how useful they have been to her writing career. She uses anecdotes from her children’s lives and enlists their help with research. Her daughter selected the riddles used in The Wonder.
Having read the book recently, I was fascinated to learn more about the back story and Emma’s writing process.
Emma applied a dark twist to Hillary Clinton’s famous saying—“It takes a village to raise a child”—and came up with “It takes a village to kill a child.” Throughout the novel, there are many instances of well-meaning professionals (priest, doctor, nun, town elders) behaving passively and not stepping up to save the eleven-year-old child who is slowly starving herself to death. In short, The Wonder can be described as a crime story where a crime has not taken place yet.
When asked about her weaknesses, Emma commented, “I suck at plot. My first books were shapeless.” To correct this problem, she learned to plan the plot in advance and outline what happens in each chapter before beginning to write. But she made it clear that she does not follow a linear path and write “x” words per day or produce one novel each year. Instead, she muddles along and researches in a generous spirit, following her curiosity and taking as long as it takes to write the novel.
With no set schedule in place, she often steals time to write during her children’s activities. She also writes in cars, trains, planes…anywhere she can bring her laptop.
My children have infected my writing.
I’m surprised at how strange and heroic parenting can be.
I like putting my readers through the ringer.
I’ve made money from writing about people suffering.
I’ve emigrated twice (Ireland to England to Canada) and it was the best thing I ever did. It is splendid training for writers. We can become too smug and comfortable if we say in one place.
Where to find Emma Donoghue…