Aspen Winter Words: Donoghue makes room to enjoy writing |

Aspen Winter Words: Donoghue makes room to enjoy writing

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Courtesy photoEmma Donoghue appears in an Aspen Writers' Foundation Winter Words event at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Paepcke Auditorium.

ASPEN – Reading “Room,” the recent novel by Emma Donoghue, is unsettling to the point of getting under your skin. The first half of the story is claustrophobic and terrifying, as Donoghue reveals the situation of Ma and 5-year-old Jack – imprisoned for years in an 11-by-11-foot space by a repulsive man referred to as Old Nick. The story’s second act takes place out in the bigger world, but it is an only slightly more hospitable environment, inhabited by germs, media gawkers, shopping malls and raw human nerves.

But writing the tale of rape, isolation and readjustment was far different from reading it. For Donoghue, a Dublin native who lives in Ontario, the process of creating “Room,” her seventh novel, was pleasurable.

“Oddly enough, very much so,” she said Monday afternoon at CP Burger, following lunch with her partner and their two young children. “As a general rule, writers – we’re not depressed by writing about depressing things. We’re depressed when the writing fails. ‘Room’ went very easy. It didn’t change much from the plan I had right at the start. I had a very clear sense of the shape right away.”

Not only did the process go smoothly, the result is impressive. “Room” earned the 2010 Irish Book for best novel, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It is also an international bestseller, and it is easy to see why it pleases both critics and a broad audience. “Room” moves along like a thriller – part suspense drama, part horror story. But Donoghue also probes weighty issues, especially about parenting and childhood, from an unusual perspective. “Room” ponders whether Jack’s upbringing – removed from the world, but protected by a parent who gives him everything she has – was, in fact, a happy and healthy one.

“I wanted it to have several dimensions. I never wanted it to be a story about some freakish crime,” said Donoghue, who appears in an Aspen Writers’ Foundation Winter Words event at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Paepcke Auditorium. “I always wanted it to be universal. Emerging from the coziness of the family out into the bigger world – everyone goes through that. There are exciting things and things that make you cry for home.”

Besides the relatively bump-free process, perhaps another reason the 41-year-old Donoghue was able to enjoy writing “Room” was her personal detachment from the issues raised in the book. This is surprising in itself; “Room” rings with an anger and criticism of society that can sound very much like the author’s own voice. But after spending a short while with Donoghue, it is evident she is not filled with rage at the world. The anger on the pages, she explained, comes not from the writer but her characters.

“I don’t have a lot to be angry about,” Donoghue said. “But Jack and Ma do. Especially Ma. She’s been damaged. If it has that angry bite, it’s because of Ma, not me.”

Donoghue said “Room” was triggered by the case, uncovered three years ago, of an Austrian man who held his daughter captive in a basement for 24 years and fathered seven children with her. But Donoghue notes that that incident only helped her find a starting point – “I didn’t have any statement to make,” she said – and she followed her own characters from there. With her primary focus on Jack and Ma, Donoghue has far less invested in certain issues than a reader might expect.

“It’s not a propaganda statement: ‘Keep your kids at home all the time,'” Donoghue said of “Room.”

“I’m not the home-schooling sort of mother at all. I’ve always worked, never been the 100-percent parent. I’m the parent in Starbucks giving their child a huge cookie to shut them up. Having this character, Jack – sometimes it’s a bit like I created a monster. Because a child like that would be very critical of a parent like me.”

“Room” also allowed Donoghue to exercise some unusual muscles for a writer. One of the book’s accomplishments was making Jack’s universe believable and internally consistent. Donoghue kept a long list of things that Jack knew as “real real,” and those that were “just TV.” She actually measured Ikea furniture to get a feel for exactly what the room felt like to be in. “I didn’t want it to be a parable or a mental game,” she said. “I wanted it to feel like a real room. Otherwise you’re just manipulating feelings.”

The roughest part was researching the half dozen cases of children who had been raised in isolation – “research into miserable things,” Donoghue said. “How it shapes children to be kept in a small place. And that’s very grim – they’re often really damaged.”

For all the horrific aspects of Ma and Jack’s situation, Donoghue believes that Jack didn’t have things so bad. His circumstances, extreme as they are, were not as awful as some of the real-life cases she looked into.

“In ‘Room,’ he has no freedom, but has a perfect parent,” she said. “It’s a best-case scenario, far more cheerful than the situations I was researching. The mom, managing to keep Jack healthy, keep him educated, is a far more ideal situation than any real kidnapping case.”

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