Author Emma Donoghue: “Raising the Dead”

Having completed reading Edwidge Danticat‘s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, I was wanting to sort my thoughts and write about it when I learned that—as part of the programming for the exhibit “IRELAND Crossroads of Art and Design 1690-1840”—the Art Institute of Chicago had invited author Emma Donoghue to talk and read on the topic “Raising the Dead.” It was just last week when I read Didi’s review of Donoghue’s award-winning book, Room—published in 2010 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize—so my curiosity about this author was ripe.

I like seeing writers in person: getting to hear their speaking voices, and listening to them talk about writing and other things. Its a little bit like meeting a radio disc jockey (are they still called that?)* whose voice you listen to regularly, depending upon them, even, program after program….and from the sound of their voice and aspects of personality that touch you across the airwaves, you concoct a whole world of that person, even assigning physical attributes such as height and weight and eye color. *(On second thought I think they’re now known as “radio personalities.”) Whenever I see a published writer in the flesh I can’t help but be a bit awestruck—or is that dumbstruck? “Hmph. So THIS IS the person who faced any number of blank pages….who wrote and wrote and tossed and re-wrote and stayed the course until their work was complete.” (Okay, and then a bit of envious sighing….)
What follows is a summary of the notes I took during Emma Donoghue‘s presentation.

Emma Donoghue 2013
Inside of an hour’s time Emma Donoghue spoke and read to us excerpts from three of her short stories as well as her novel Frog Music. Her talk, entitled “Raising the Dead” references her work as a writer whose fiction is inspired by obscure, historical details, stories, and people. She said that when she first desired to write fiction and was doing scholarly research, the choice to write historical fiction wasn’t on her radar because, at the time, historical fiction was not the popular genre it is today. (Which served to remind me that the attitudes and technology of the times contributes to the climate and landscape that welcomes or denies a writer’s work into the marketplace).

She read an excerpt from a short story she wrote about the woman who was governess to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who later wrote Frankenstein and is known to us as Mary Shelley)—and talked about wanting “to capture the tension between the powerful and the powerless.”

Donoghue is interested in “the long dead, the long forgotten; the obscure….” and suggested that “fiction can get to the places history cannot reach.”

She expressed her interest in immigrant stories, having immigrated twice herself (Donoghue holds both Irish and Canadian citizenships.) She said that her parents aimed the family of eight children “toward university and then to immigration”). Specifically the questions that interest her the most [regarding migrations] are:
How much baggage can one shed?
How much can a person change?

Donoghue believes she may be drawn to tragic characters because “happy lives are not particularly interesting;” and jokingly said that “It’s hard to get a good plot out of happiness,” and “obstacles are crucial!”

The exhibition made her think of stereotypes and how writers grapple with presenting their characters in real ways that don’t rely on cliche; and noted that “a reverse stereotype is a stereotype of its own.”

After reading from her short story “Looking for Petronella”—inspired by Petronella de Mead who was maid to Alice Kyteler, an Irish woman accused of being a witch in 1324—Donoghue said that this may be the most autobiographical of her short stories.

I liked her comment that “the writer is desperately trying to re-animate,” [people, events, places] and she often feels concern about the “ethical business” of writing fiction based on facts; opting to hope that the people she writes about would be grateful for having received some attention.

I loved hearing Donoghue say that “I have enjoyed everything I have ever written.” It reminded me of having read Leontyne Price say that she always loved the sound of her own voice [in the book I Dream A World.]

To counter those who might ask why she would want to write about dead people and forgotten times and events, Donoghue said she could ask the question “why are you so stuck writing about your own time?”

Emma Donoghue draws upon the work of historians and scholars for her ideas. In return she strives to give detailed notes (sources) on what is fiction and what is fact in her stories.

When she was asked about making an impact on the lives of others with her work she said that “the initial pleasure of making something up” is purely a “selfish” one but that a secondary thrill is learning about readers’ experiences of her work and having people reach out to her, sharing their questions and observations; and learning the unexpected ways her work speaks to individual readers. She said that books are like food that tastes different to different palettes (and I might add: at different times)

When asked about the idea for Room, Donoghue said that it was “inspired by the shock of motherhood.” Donoghue is a lesbian and she and her partner have two children whom she carried and gave birth to. She said that the reality of being responsible for “a wailing infant who won’t sleep at night” was sobering, “claustrophobic,” and complex with respect to the mother and child relationship and its magical and un-magical realities.

Donoghue shared that she is interested in “freakish events that reveal something universal.”

With regard to Jack, the five-year-old who narrates Room, the author explained how she wanted to make him loved and nourished, well-fed, and attended-to while posing the question “if you have everything that you need, but you don’t have freedom….?”

Someone in the audience asked what poets she likes and Donoghue said that she rarely reads poetry but has recently been impressed by the work of the Scottish poet Don Paterson.
She mostly reads fiction and social history. And while she dislikes narrowing to one or two favorite authors, she cited these few amongst a list of others: Ann Patchett, Anne Tyler, and Dave Eggers.

Emma Donoghue was gracious and funny and unpretentious and made gifts of a few copies of her books at the end of the Q & A, saying that she “likes to travel light.” Snapping my fingers I thought “Damn! I knew I should have sat closer!”

I felt sheepish walking up to her empty-handed when the presentation was over, wanting to thank her and say that I had enjoyed her talk and reading. A gentleman ahead of me appeared to have a copy of all of her books (there were no copies for sale, no book-signing promised at this event) and I couldn’t be mad at him for the time she took to sign each and every one while chatting with him about this and that. I considered telling a few white lies but in the end decided to admit that I had yet to read any of her works but what might she suggest that I begin with? Room, she said.


  1. Thanks for introducing me to a wonderful writer. I hate that sheepish, empty-handed feeling too, but think of this: You were going up to her carrying your admiration and your attention, both (as we know) precious gifts to a writer. Thanks for a lovely post.

    1. You are welcome! And even though I did feel sheepish at the time, there isn’t any law that says one has to read a writer’s work prior to meeting them, is there? You are right: I did bring my admiration and attention and I hope Ms. Donoghue sincerely felt that. Maybe we can do a “buddy read” of one of her books, Margaret.

  2. This is so wonderful, Leslie. I’ve read several of Donoghue’s books, my favorite being The Sealed Letter. What a treat to hear her speak! And now I’m keen to find that short story about Mary Godwin’s governess. I’ve just finished reading a biography of Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft and there were so many amazing characters in her life who could be entire novels in their own right. A fascinating time.

    Thank you! I loved reading this!

    1. Hey Julie —okay I see I’m going to have to return to your blog and goodreads to check out your impressions of Donoghue’s work. Both you and Didi mentioned The Sealed Letter so maybe I will place that on my list after Room! Sorry I didn’t catch the name of the short story. But in my notes I wrote the governess’s name as being “Margaret Caine.” I’m glad you liked this post enough to leave comments. Cheers!

  3. Well my dear you know what you need to do. lol! I absolutely love this post. I really have gotten a sense of who Donoghue is and she sounds pretty cool. I love author meetings and wish there were more here in Paris. I’m glad you got a chance to listen to her. She has some exceptional ideas concerning writing. I particularly liked “a reverse stereotype is a stereotype of its own.” and “freakish events that reveal something universal.” She really knows what she’s doing. I can’t wait to pick up the Sealed Letter to see what that’s all about. Your blog post is urging me to push it up my TBR. Thanks Leslie love mutual encouragement! 🙂

    1. Didi – I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. If not for your recent review of Room, I’m sure I would have missed this opportunity to check out Emma Donoghue in person. Like you, I found her writing ideas to be quite inspiring and now (poor me!)I have to go and put her books on my TBR list, (Screaming lol!) hugs!

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