There’s something fantastically refreshing about a hugely successful writer getting their kids to do (some of) the editing of their latest book, but then, this is no ordinary, hugely successful writer. This is Emma Donoghue, author of the global phenomenon, Room. As we chat over Facetime (she has resided in Canada since 1998), I am struck by her melodic and calming accent, which has not dissipated despite moving from her native Ireland nearly three decades ago. I wrongly assume the author didn’t pay her two children (with partner, Chris) Finn (12) and Una (9) for their editorial assistance with The Lotterys Plus One, but am hastily corrected. “Oh no they made me pay them $50! I wanted to respect their work, you know and take it seriously.” Donoghue is displaying what I quickly realise is a trademark dry wit. It’s good to instil a solid ethic in them, I venture, “Well, people in the arts end up working for nothing.” Her tone is playful yet serious. This is going to be one fascinating conversation.
Donoghue’s success is stratospheric. Before the novel was even officially released in 2010, the rumour mill had exploded with accusations Room was based on the notorious Fritzl case, which had happened two years previously. The hype continued, as well as plaudits and the book went on to be shortlisted for The Man Booker and Orange Prizes for literature. Then the film adaptation arrived in 2015 (which Donoghue also wrote the screenplay for), winning an Oscar nomination for Donoghue and a win for the film’s star, Brie Larson. Next month, Room the play will premiere at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. How the heck does this woman get any bleeding sleep? “It’s strange working on the same story for so long but it’s been in very different forms…” Donoghue does not sound in the least bit tired of what has become a mammoth project.
Despite, in some ways having been inspired by the Fritzl case – following the story of Ma, a young woman raising her five-year-old son Jack in appalling circumstances having been kidnapped and kept captive in a small room several years before – Room’s themes are entirely their own. Narrated by five year old Jack, it is in many ways a study of child development, and a story of hope and heroics, not tragedy and victimisation. I wonder how she got into the mindset of a very young child and conquered his voice in such a genuine way. Where do you even start? “Basically I had a kid! My son was five years old when I was writing the novel and I really studied him like an anthropologist.” How does one not become embroiled in the terrible situation Jack is in? “It was only upsetting when researching all horrific ways a child can be brought up badly. But fortunately, despite the way he is brought into the world, his mother is extraordinary and I was never depressed as it is terribly uplifting. Jack’s is a wonderful tale. It’s an escape story of moving towards light.” Like heaven? I ask why Room is heavy with religious references.
“In the book, it seemed this was a very grotty, grim situation and I just felt like the mother here would use any storyline she had to make their lives meaningful and heroic. Like prisoners turning to religion. The obvious was to cling to the one she was brought up in, using fairytales the same way and passing on to Jack. With them escaping, I think the religious background added a lot to it.”
Why the omission of this in the film?
“It was just down to the level of wording. Lenny (Abrahamson – the film’s director) is a total atheist. But the film still follows premise of fake death and resurrection, so the religious bones of story are still there,” Donoghue clarifies. “And there may be some references to heaven in the play but less than in book.”
Room’s intensity – both environmentally and emotionally gives it a claustrophobic feel and yet as its audience, you never feel even remotely stifled. It’s perfect for the stage. The freedom to create brand new personalities within a book is exciting and completely limitless but the difficulty of inventing a very specific voice – like Jack’s, for a writer comes with a new breed of issues if and when it launches off the paper.
“I always wondered how to handle the technical problem of the novel being in the consciousness of a very small child – it literally can’t do that in any other form. In the film we used a slightly older child (Jacob Tremblay) but on stage, it is far more demanding for an actor so, and it might have been Cora Bissett’s (the play’s director) idea, we have an adult playing the confident inner voice and running consciousness of Jack. This allows the actor to be very eloquent and for us to instantly get inside his mind.”
As well as directing, Bissett co-wrote music for the play. “Some of the most powerful moments in the show are the songs. They’re almost pagan and very ancient. They add an entire new level of emotion and fill in blanks of the script,” Donoghue enthuses. The more we discuss the upcoming production the more rounded it already feels. Why the Theatre Royal Stratford East? “(Bissett) actually picked it but I was very excited because it has such a strong history of being cutting edge artistically but also very routed in community.”
Larson’s Best Actress Oscar win and the buzz in the run up to the film’s release took Room from Indie flick to mainstream smash. This puts much pressure both on the story coming to a new medium and the actress playing Ma on stage. I ask Donoghue what it’s been like seeing relative newcomer, Witney White prepare for the role. “Oh, wonderful! She brings out a really warm, human quality and also, with the singing at times becoming a tragic opera, there’s an emotional hold on you. The acting scenes too, are very natural.”
The process of adapting your own work into a screen/ stage play has long been thought of as a risky and unsatisfying one, however Donoghue has shown it can be deeply rewarding, as long as you are invested. “A lot of authors nowadays are choosing to keep hold of that involvement. It’s about transferring a book into whole new medium and needs to be approached with great enthusiasm but if you’re scared of it, let someone else do it.”
High profile names such as Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep have both voiced and penned their profound frustration with the overlying patriarchal nature of Hollywood. As an individual who has faced and conquered Tinsel Town, I took the opportunity to find out what Donoghue thinks. “I was surprised by how male dominated the film industry is with almost every level from directors and producers, down to the carpenters. I didn’t experience any sexism doing the project myself, but the film world is dominated by men’s priorities.”
Please tell me there’s hope on the horizon? “I think that government funding bodies are very aware we have to give opportunities to women producers and directors, otherwise we’ll just continue to make the sort of films men find interesting.” There are many archaic stereotypes still evident in film and women would definitely represent themselves better, I ponder. “Absolutely.” Donoghue agrees.
The writer is currently working on a new book (I interrupted her with our scheduled chat) and this year too, has seen the publication of the first in a series aimed at a younger market – namely children aged eight to twelve. Most significantly, the book – The Lotterys Plus One deals with the subject of same-sex parentage, in a very matter of fact way. This is a break away from the usual audience Donoghue’s work seems to gravitate towards. Does she feel strongly about educating children on this subject?
“Absolutely and I think kids are naturally liberal and can accept any situation if explained to them. I look at my friends’ kids and they’ve never had any bother with the ‘two mothers’ thing. They just need it explained once.”
With her kids already showing promise as publishing powerhouses (maybe), I consider the feeling her son has in essentially being the foundation for Jack’s voice. Donoghue gleefully remembers the first day of the play’s rehearsals in London. “He told everyone he inspired this whole project and announced, ‘Emma wrapped me up in the rug!’”. I laugh out loud at this. What a tyke!
Room has been a whirlwind seven years for the writer. Jack is exceptionally loyal to his hero, Dora the Explorer as Donoghue is with her baby – Room, which is essentially her Dora. Nostalgically and with that dry wit, Donoghue admits, “those wretched tunes are still stuck in my head!”
Room is at Theatre Royal Stratford East until June 3.
Image by Scott Rylander