Although this was my first time meeting Emma Donoghue, this is her 3rd time presenting at the Grimsby Author Series. She is an accomplished author, best know for her novel and subsequent screenwriting for the movie Room which was nominated for 4 academy awards. She has written 9 novels, 3 short stories, 2 histories, 2 anthologies, 2 plays and is working on a children’s book. I have enjoyed Slammerkin and now have signed copies of The Sealed Letter and Landing within my extensive to be read list.
Her newest release, The Wonder, has been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize short-list. It is set in 1850s Ireland and tells the story of a nurse sitting vigil with an 11 year old who stopped eating. The nurse is charged to make sure that she is not faking her abstinence and sneaking food. Interestingly this nurse had been trained by Florence Nightingale in the Crimean war in a time where nurses were one of the “lowest forms of domestic servitude” . As a nurse, I am very interested to learn more about the nursing skills and training of this historic period as I delve further into the story.
The idea of fasting girls had been percolating with Donoghue for 20 years since she came across the 1867 case of Sarah Jacobs who had succumbed to fasting in Wales. In The Wonder, Donoghue pondered whether the tension of the media and the nurse’s vigil made it worse by paying attention and becoming complicit in the experience of fasting. The author found 50 cases, typically teenage girls who felt that they were above their appetite, experiencing purity and not needing food and noted the similarities to the eating disorders of today. This was the longest genesis for any of her novels which she has built fiction around a historical case.
Donoghue chuckled when describing the food in Ireland as “hideous” when she was growing up which helped her to write about the nurse’s disdain for Irish food, tasting of peat. As she wrote about the girl, everything about food became fascinating and she researched hunger strikes, hunger experiments and eating disorders. After a few days of research her own appetite declined.
When describing her writing, Donoghue said that she escapes writers block by juggling projects. She loves a challenge and talked about her requirement that she be responsible to write the screen play for Room as a requirement for it becoming a movie. This experience enabled her to “reimagine the whole thing with the tools of the cinema” and her success has opened doors into working in movies and film which she finds quite male dominated.
Donoghue characterized herself as a “civil servant of literature” or a “one person factory line” who finishes one project in the morning and starts the next after lunch. I love hearing about author’s writing processes and found it interesting that she writes on a treadmill desk. She promised her daughter that she would live to be 100 years old and decided that she was not going to give up work time to go to the gym and purchased the equipment without even a trial. Luckily despite some initial dizziness she reported no accidents.
Generally, I finish reading the books before meeting the author but am only a third of the way through The Wonder and after learning more about Donoghue, her research and her writing process, I looking forward to completing the novel and wish her the best in the competition for this year’s Giller Prize!