Emma Donoghue’s new novel sprang from the jagged rocks of the Skelligs. The author was on a boat trip around the islands in 2016 when their curious topography snared her imagination.
It was just the strangest place I’d ever seen,” she says. “I was looking up at this extraordinarily spiky landscape thinking, ‘OK, how did anyone land here? How would that work? What would you even do on your first day?’
“I was riveted. Then I thought, ‘Well, I bet there were a few failed landings here’, so I’m going to imagine one that went wrong, and why. By the end of the boat trip, I had the whole story in my head.”
That story is Haven. This slow-burn novel is set in 7th-century Ireland and follows three monks, Artt, Cormac and Trian, as they leave the Clonmacnoise monastery and attempt to set up a retreat on a remote, unforgiving island. Artt believes that God will provide what they need: food, shelter, safety. Things become tense as they attempt to navigate their wild new surroundings, and each other.
“Almost immediately, I knew I was going to make the book, and the whole shape of it, and how many monks there would be and so on,” Donoghue says, talking eloquently over Zoom from her home in London, Ontario, in great, energetic bursts.
“It’s an overwhelming feeling. It’s not, ‘Oh, this will sell well’, not a bit. It’s more like, ‘I think I need to write a book to explain to myself how this [situation] could have happened. So it’s not a sort of career decision, by any means.”
Donoghue is not intimidated by her past success. Her 2010 novel Room was shortlisted for the Booker and adapted by the author into the Oscar-nominated film directed by Lenny Abrahamson and starring Brie Larson.
For some writers, the pressure to create a similarly seismic follow-up or to repeat the formula might be crushing. Instead, the Dubliner’s output has been brilliantly varied, not to mention uncompromising. Only one contemporary novel, 2019’s Akin, has followed since Room. Instead, she has set works during the 1918 influenza pandemic (The Pull of the Stars), in 19th-century rural Ireland (The Wonder) and 19th-century San Francisco (Frog Music).
“I had no worries about anyone expecting a blockbuster from me. So I’ve always been kind of free of that pressure,” she says.
“Two things really helped to shield me from it. The first is that my publishers are never stupid enough to say to me, ‘Give me something like Room’, because they know it doesn’t work that way. The second thing that comforts me is that you cannot tell in advance which ones are going to be your big-selling books. If someone asks me to describe the plot of Room,” in which a young kidnapped woman and her son are held in captivity, “it just sounds freakish. Like who would ever want to read that? Similarly, with The Pull of the Stars, this felt like a very specific type of novel that didn’t sound like a bestseller, but then it sold like hotcakes.
“And look, if you try to court the market, you’ll inevitably write something that’s a poor copy of the last bestseller you read,” she adds. “I feel as free as I was at the age of 23 to write whatever book I like.”
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What this means is no two of her novels are alike. But there is a commonality of sorts running through them.
“The voice isn’t always the same, not like when you buy, say, a Cormac McCarthy book,” Donoghue agrees. “I think what my method is that it’s usually kind of close-up. They’re often limited situations, with a limited timeframe. It’s not going to be an epic, covering three generations. It’s all going to be pretty close up, and hopefully an intense kind of invocation of a world you probably haven’t been to before, and it’s going to be very vivid and world-building.”
A self-confessed history nut, Donoghue wrote her PhD thesis at Cambridge University on friendship between the sexes in 18th century England. She is entirely in her comfort zone writing about worlds within the last few centuries, but admits building an impression of 7th-century Ireland was harder.
“The basic challenge of trying to get into the mindset of someone who’s not from my time or place is the same, but this was a bit more like, instead of trying to understand, say, an English person, I’m trying to understand a Martian,” she says.
“I think because I was stuck at home during Covid, I wanted to go somewhere completely ‘other’ in my mind, and I got to thinking like, ‘How on earth would you find firewood?’; ‘How do you decide what bird to cook for your dinner’? But also the big existential questions, ‘What’s the point of our lives here?’”
She has not set foot on the Skelligs which, as she writes in her author’s note to Haven, are at risk from overtourism after they were used as the setting for Luke Skywalker’s hideaway in the Star Wars films The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The first records of monks living there date from about 790-830, later than Donoghue’s arrivals.
“The very alien mindset of a really committed monk in the year 600, who honestly thinks of himself as a slave for God… that’s obviously as far from my own mindset as I would possibly go,” she says. “I loved that, making such a mental leap.”
Short stories, plays and screenplays have been a constant in her creative life, but in another mental leap, she branched out into writing for children (The Lotterys Plus One came out in 2017 and The Lotteries More or Less a year later).
“They went through a whole other editorial and drafting process, because children’s publishers are so worried about what will be a bad influence on them,” Donoghue says.
“It’s funny, kids are probably accessing porn without their parents noticing, but everyone’s worried they will learn a rude word from a novel.
“There’s also the worry about how many difficult words you can include for the age group. But I loved writing for young readers, and visiting schools and so on turned out to be a brilliant experience. Kids are so unfiltered and open, so in a way it’s even harder [than usual].”
The next few months present yet more imaginative leaps. Her next novel, which she cannot talk about, is already in progress. Among her many other projects is a musical.
“Our daughter, who is 15, is particularly into musical theatre,” she says, referring to Una, the younger of her two children with wife Christine Roulston, whom she met at Cambridge University (their son Finn is 19). “Basically, we’ve been watching everything in musical theatre lately, and it just struck me as a brilliant genre in which you can tell a story in such a compact way.
“I do have my limits though,” she adds. “For instance, one of my old plays [Trespasses] was turned into an opera in Ireland last year. They asked me whether I would like to adapt it, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I could try writing a libretto!’. That was definitely my limit.”
After the resounding success of Room, it might be safe to assume that any stage of screen project with Donoghue’s name attached would be guaranteed the green light. Not so, she says.
“The name gets initial interest I guess, but it doesn’t guarantee you get enough money to make it,” she says. “[In general], most things never get through the development process, or they do and then it doesn’t quite get the production funding. Put it this way, I have lots of film and TV projects and films that have not been made.”
One project that did make it from page to screen, and is set for a big show in Donoghue’s home province at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), is the 2016 novel The Wonder. A psychological thriller based in 19th-century rural Ireland, The Wonder centres on the remarkable tale of 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who has survived for months without food.
Florence Pugh plays Lib, an English nurse sent to investigate the miracle. Elaine Cassidy plays Anna’s mother, while Cassidy’s own daughter, Kíla Lord Cassidy, plays Anna with what Donoghue describes as “a great intensity, and intimacy”.
The film reunited Donoghue with Room’s Dublin-based production company Element Pictures, where she collaborated as co-screenwriter with director Sebastián Lelio (Disobedience, A Fantastic Woman) and Alice Birch (Succession, Normal People).
“I mean, most novelists are so cynical about the film-making process and are all like, ‘Hollywood bought my book and they’re monsters’. But I’ve had brilliant luck both times,” she says. “I don’t sell over the rights until we’re actually filming the thing, which kind of means I can stop the project from being made badly, say, if there are red flags. I like to stay fully involved.”
Donoghue certainly didn’t have to worry about red flags.
“We were a kind of fun Venn diagram of skills,” she adds. “I’ve done theatre and some film and fiction, and Sebastian has written his films and Alice wrote Lady Macbeth for Florence before. Ed [Guiney, of Element Pictures] has such a good eye for thinking about people who will work together, so he’s really brilliant at forming these working relationships between people. We all brought different things to the mix. It’s not a typical sort of period drama film. It’s really thoughtful and spooky. It’s managed to avoid all those clichés of 19th century Ireland. It’s almost like a Western.”
Donoghue is eagerly anticipating the premiere of The Wonder, for many reasons. “We had such a good time at TIFF when we won the Audience Choice Award,” she recalls. “The book club I’m in, which has always championed me and my novels, rented a van and took it up the highway from London, Ontario. They were all in the queue as I went by in the limo, waving hello. Definitely one of the most magical moments of my life.”
‘Haven’ by Emma Donoghue is published on August 18 by Picador. ‘The Wonder’ will be released later this year on Netflix