Donoghue Discusses Writing Novels, Short Stories

The Boston College Irish Studies department invited Emma Donoghue, author of the acclaimed novel Room (2010), to speak with Burns Visiting Scholar Ciaran O’Neill about her writing on Saturday.

A self-identified historical fiction novelist, Donoghue said she enjoys both the factual and the creative aspects of writing. With a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, Donoghue said that she has a profound intellectual curiosity for research, but also relishes the moments when she can reinvent a historical occurrence. She explained that writing about well-documented groups of people, such as the wealthy, is more difficult because it allows her less room to invent her own ideas.

“It is so freeing in fiction when you can fiddle with the ingredients in the recipe,” she said, describing how she feels when she encounters ambiguities or missing information while researching a topic.

Donoghue said that when she conducts research, she is naturally drawn to writing about things she is passionate about.

“I get hooked—I come across these things and get compulsively interested in them, and only writing a novel will satisfy my curiosity,” she said.

In addition to her novels, Donoghue has published many collections of short stories. Though these stories fall into the same category as her novels—historical fiction—she has a different process for writing them. She said that she determines which ideas will be in short stories and which will be in longer novels based on how large of a “canvas” the story needs. Sometimes, she explained, she will write a novel because it is too difficult to get readers to sympathize with a character in five short pages.

Other times, whether an idea will be in a short story or a novel depends on whether Donoghue feels comfortable with the story’s subject matter and characters. She explained that with certain characters, she does not want to spend the lengthy amount of time on them that a novel requires, so she will instead write a short story about them. She also said that she sometimes feels uncomfortable writing an entire novel when the world she is writing about is culturally unfamiliar to her.

“The glorious thing about short stories is they allow and demand for an experiment,” she said.

Donoghue attributed her success to her academic pursuits during her youth. The daughter of famous Irish literary critic Denis Donoghue, she was raised to have the mentality of an intellectual who could undertake any subject she wanted. Had she not received a degree in English and having completed a Ph.D. on the topic of friendship between men and women in 18th-century English fiction, Donoghue would not have ventured into writing historical fiction novels, she said. She noted that completing her Ph.D., in particular, gave her great comfort and ease with history.

“That time when I look back on how many years I spent in the library plunging into sources just out of sheer intellectual curiosity is very precious to me,” she said. “It gives you massive confidence not just about your own period, but about the ability to discover others in writing.”

Donoghue noted that writing the script for Room, the first of her works to be adapted into a film, allowed her to appreciate the various positive aspects of both novels and films.

“In novels, everything is what is going through your character’s head—in film, it is the character’s face,” she said.

Donoghue said she sometimes found she shouldn’t include crucial details from the book in the movie adaptation because they would disturb the momentum of the film. Donoghue recognized that, because of the smaller studio environment in which the film Room was produced, the experience she had making her book into a movie was different from that of other authors.

“Making Room [the movie] was an intimate and small circle,” she said. “Beautiful films come out of this more European tradition because the story doesn’t get diluted by 20 executives.”

Since the movie’s production, Donoghue has not written novels with cinematic intentions, but the process of making a movie made her more inclined to develop plots that grip her readers rather than have a subtle effect on them. One tactic she uses—as she does in her novel Fasting Girl—is to have the world of the novel described by an outsider to the world rather than a native, who would be less likely to explain things they find to be normal.

Donoghue said she did extensive research on eating disorders while writing her novel The Wonder, which involves a different case of a fasting girl. With The Wonder, she had to balance bringing a contemporary understanding of the issue to her work with the fact that the people in the time period of the novel would not have known the modern terminology surrounding the subject. Situations requiring this type of balance are something she frequently encounters in her researching and writing processes, she said.

Donoghue explained that because her characters often exist in a far different time period from her readers, she has to be wary of the dangers of anachronism and the risks of antiquated grammatical structure causing her story to feel too far from her audience.

“If you’re writing about the 1150s, it is going to appear like a foreign language, and you will have to come up with something so the readers can understand,” she said. “It is a compromise—you have to bargain with the reader.”

Featured Image by Jess Rivilis / For The Heights