An Irish Candian author, Emma Donoghue, is a woman of many skills. She’s best known as an author, but has also turned her hand to play-writing and writing for the big screen.
You’ll probably know her for her best-selling novel, Room. Published in 2010 book, it was later made into the wildly successful film, starring Brie Larson and Joan Allen, telling the story of a mother and her son held captive in a small room for the first few years of his life.
The book itself gleamed perhaps the biggest literary honour of them all, winning the Man Booker Prize, while the film adaption also made a huge splash in Hollywood and around the world, winning BAFTA and SAG awards, and Oscar nominations.
But after the furore of Room, Emma has turned her hand to a genre markedly different. For the very first time, she’s penned a children’s book – The Lotterys Plus One (now available on audible.co.uk) – and for a child’s book, it covers some remarkably important and topical issues.
It tells the tale of a big family living under one roof, with same-sex parents and a grandparent in the throes of dementia. And Emma’s admitted that it was partly inspired by her family with her partner and too children, too. “I put bits of my own life into my novels all the time!”, she said. “My kids are really proud that a lot of the book is from them.”
We caught up with Emma to find out about the new book, to get the inside track on Room, and find out her tips for writing success…
Why did you decide to write a children’s book?
Its because of having kids. I was immersed in that world. And I’ve always enjoyed kids books. So I think it’s fairly natural that I’d get an idea for a kids book.
I’d been working on this one for the last 6 years. So I’ve had to plan the whole series, and also learn how to develop the right kind of voice for children’s fiction. So it’s taken a while!
I really wanted to make it a rich story with multi-dimensional characters – you don’t want to dumb it down or simplify it or anything. But the vocab has to be a bit simpler and the story has to move more slowly. I tried it out on my kids and their friends – there’s nothing like actual kids try it and say ‘What’s that about, or, I don’t know that word!’ It was well received – but I was paying them!
What inspired you?
I wanted to write about family. I grew up on nineteenth and twentieth century fiction about big families having adventures – like E.Nesbitt’s books. I grew up in a big family myself, I’m the youngest of eight, so I think I wanted to write a modern family story, with some of the cosiness and warmth of those old books, but with very contemporary topics.
And because my mum had just been diagnosed with dementia 6 years ago, I immediately thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be a challenge to a big family?’ They suddenly have to bring in a grandfather who is a total stranger to them, and of course, really very different.
I wanted to handle it in a funny way, where they’re not fond of this man at all. And in a way where they have to learn to like him even when he’s at his most vulnerable and cranky. But of course though the novel doesn’t focus on the parents, I wanted to be true to their experience too, because you see them literally pulled different ways. One reason this book took a huge amount of planning – it’s taken me six years to write it – is that I was trying to handle them with a light touch but also get them right as well.
Do you ever put bits of your own life into your books?
I put bits of my own life into the novel all the time! Things like having snail races outside. The kids doing cats cradle. There’s something of my family in every page. Occassionally, when one of my kids is having a tantrum, I’ll say, ‘ooh, can I put this in the book?’. That stops their bad behaviour!
But they’re really proud of the books and the fact that a lot of it came from them. They’ve really taken ownership – they even argue with me about what should happen in future books!
Did you know that Room would be such a world-wide success?
I had a feeling Room was going to sell better than my other books, but I had no idea that it was going to become such a world phenomenon, no. I think I was lucky to hit on an idea that, although is freaky, it works as a fairytale based on anyone’s life. We all start life in one particular place, in a smaller world, and then we all grow up and get away from the circumstances of our particular family.
And I think Jack’s story is just a really complicated version of that. He grows up overnight. So I think that taps into really universal feelings about nostalgia for that smaller world, even if it is harder.
Brilliantly, the book is also being put on as a play in the Theatre Royal Stratford East too – and it’ll then move around the uk.
Were you involved in the film?
I was actively involved in making the film happen from the beginning. I started approaching directors. When I found the one, I did an unusual deal where, instead of just signing the rights away, I made sure I was fully involved. So none of us were just passively hearing the news, because I just had a feeling it could work beautifully on screen. And I’m really so happy with the result.
The actors add so much to the film. It was so wonderful to see the child actor get an actual body. It’s wonderful to bring those moments to life. And there’s such an intimacy between Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. It was gorgeous to see.
Emma with the cast of Room
I was consulted on everything but I didn’t attempt to throw my weight around. I think the main role I had was nagging them to film it in Canada where I live – which they did! So that felt really good, because England and Canada are the places I’ve spent my life. It felt like all the parts of my life were coming together.
What was it like going to the glitzy Hollywood award ceremonies?
When the book was up for awards it felt incredibly glamorous – things like the Man Booker prize. But the film world is so glamorous it makes everything in the book world shrink in comparison! The Booker prize is a glitzy occasion, and your publisher might just have a little party afterwards. But in the film world, when you’re at the Oscars, there are parties after parties after parties!
I’ll admit, that was really exciting. Most films pass through cinemas really quickly and then they’re gone. But because Room got so many awards lots of people got a chance to see it. So I was so happy the film got a much longer life than it might otherwise have.
Lots of people gave me positive feedback. Cate Blanchett even came up, congratulated me and stroked my arm! I nearly had a heart attack!
However some people at these Hollywood parties did come up to me and so, ‘Oh, the film was amazing, but it would have never worked as a book’. So I had to say to them, ‘Actually, it was a book!’. They must feel like two different worlds for actors.
Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?
Try and write what you are passionately interested in. Don’t try and work out where the market is going to go because books take so long to write and then publish. If I was trying to write what was fashionable six years ago, it would have passed by now! So there’s really point in trying to guess what will sell. You just have to write what you love, and you might be lucky enough to sell it well. And just get on with writing, rather than talking about writing!
Brie and Jacob in Room
What’s one thing you’ve learnt over the course of your career?
Honestly, I don’t have any regrets. I don’t have any books that are unfinished or didn’t get published. Writing each of my books or plays has been such a satisfying experience for me. Sometimes you’ll get caught up in stressful negotiations or something, and at the time it all seems like a really big deal. But in a years time you can’t even remember the details. So I think I would probably tell myself, don’t sweat the details – don’t sweat the small stuff.
Do you have a specific writing routine – things you always need to do before writing?
I’ve taught myself to not be at all precious about the routine and details, because my life has so much travel and disruption in it, that if I couldn’t work with background noise or needed a certain pen then I wouldn’t get any writing done! I’ve written on planes, trains, park benches! But when I go home I spend a couple of hours a day at my treadmill desk, walking, which is good for me.
I don’t have writing hours because I tend to find it frustrating that so many of my working hours are made up of things such as publicity and travel and negotiations. There’s an awful lot of extra correspondence to be done to get a book out there! But I’m generally at my desk between about half 9 and 4.
What do you do when you get writers block?
I’ve really never had writers block because if I’m feeling frustrated, I’ll just open one of my other projects. If you’re not feeling very original you can always do research, or edit what you’ve already done. You can always do one of those two things.
How do you like to wind down after a busy day?
Coming home to my family is always great – I would hate to live alone. I read a lot and I watch a lot of drama and comedy. I’m also a Netflix subscriber – I loved The Crown. It’s turned the Queen’s life into a really lovely, representative life, as a women of her particular generation.
What are your top three books?
It’s so hard to choose! Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond has to be one. It manages to explain history and politics. I love Sarah Waters novels too – I’d recommend the FingersSmith. And my third has to be Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.
Buy Guns, Germs and Steel here.
Buy Fingersmith here.
Buy Bleak House here.
The Lottery’s Plus One, is out now, on Audible.