A Moment of Jen
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Friday, September 24, 2010
posted by Jen at 9/24/2010 11:27:00 AM

When I first heard the premise of Emma Donoghue's ROOM, I think my reaction was probably something along the lines of, "Oh, hell no."

A novel about an abducted woman, living in a lead-lined garden shed with her rapist's child? Thanks, but no thanks. Life's hard enough, and I've got little kids. Bad enough to pick up the newspaper or People magazine and read about the real-life cases of women snatched and stolen, turned into sex slaves by random monsters or their own fathers, living in lightless dungeons, being raped and tortured and isolated from the world. I'll pass.

But the reviews were so good, and there were so many of them (which shows, better than anything, the power that book reviews still have), that I bought a copy, and found myself not only completely engrossed but charmed and, ultimately, completely blown away by Donoghue's accomplishment.

ROOM tells one of those familiar, terrible stories, but turns it on its head by telling it from five-year-old Jack's point of view. Jack, who speaks in a patois familiar to anyone who's had a little kid in the house, thinks Room is pretty much a paradise. Ma, creative and resourceful, is never out of sight, and she fills his days with games and exercise, with singing and reading and activities he doesn't always understand -- there's a Daily Scream, where the two of them lie underneath the skylight and make as much noise as they can. She feeds him, nurses him, and tells him that the only things that are real are the things he can see...that everything on television is made up, and that there's nothing at all beyond Room's walls. When Jack asks for a telephone -- "Bob the Builder has one," Ma replies, "Jack. He'd never give us a phone, or a window." Ma takes my thumbs and squeezes them. "We're like people in a book, and he won't let anybody else read it."

Eventually, in spite of Jack's reluctance, Ma conceives a plan to set them free. "Let's just stay," Jack protests, but Ma tells him, "It's getting too small."

There's a nail-biting section where Jack gets his first taste of the outside...and then Ma and Jack's world cracks open. The rest of the story deals with the way the two of them cope with their new circumstances -- as tragic as they are triumphant -- and are, in a sense, born again.

ROOM also comes with an amazing website. You can read an excerpt here, explore ROOM here, and read about the author here.

Emma Donoghue was kind enough to answer my questions. Our Q and A is below...and don't forget, if you order the book before tomorrow morning and send your receipt to jen@jenniferweiner.com, I'll do a drawing and send ten winners a signed copy of whichever one of my books they choose.

Where did this story come from? Have you always been interested in
the topic of abducted women and imprisoned children, or was there a specific case in the news that piqued your interest?

Although I've often written about real incidents from history, I've never looked to today's headlines for material: my contemporary work tends to be inspired more by my own experiences. And I'd never taken any particular interest in kidnapping-and-confinement cases before, in fact I'm not sure I'd ever more than glanced at such headlines before hearing about the Fritzl case in Austria in April 2008. I think because my children were four and one at the time, I was primed: a couple of days after first hearing about it, I was seized all at once with the idea of a novel narrated by a five-year-old who's never been outside.

I know you did a lot of research on the Internet to understand Jack and Ma's circumstances. Did you also read novels? Were you interested in exploring the abductor's point of view (I'm thinking about John Knowles' THE COLLECTOR), or was it a deliberate choice to stay away?

Absolutely, I had separate research files for factual and fictional works. But with the fictional ones, with the exception of Fowles's masterful THE COLLECTOR and V C Andrews' unforgettable FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC (both of which I read as a teenager), it wasn't books about imprisonment I was studying hard, so much as books in which a narrator (often but not always a child) conjures up their own little world, all the way from Daniel Defoe's ROBINSON CRUSOE to Mark Haddon's THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME. I also watched films such as Truffaut's WILD CHILD (for that shock of encountering 'civilisation') and Cameron's TERMINATOR 2 (there's no fiercer momma on celluloid!) As for representing the abductor's point of view, I did deliberately keep Old Nick at arm's length in ROOM: just as Ma does, I was refusing to let him set the terms of the novel, refusing to make it a kidnap story rather than Jack's story of childhood. Also, so much gripping detective fiction has explored the psyche of the 'collector' type, I was more interested in focusing on the vibrant normality of his victims.

Many reviewers have marveled at Jack's language, which struck me as both incredibly specific and universal to the way kids see the world (I've got a seven-year-old and an almost-three-year-old, and I was so impressed with how well you captured kid-speak). Did you draw on your own children for influence? Did you read the book out loud as you were writing, to hear Jack's dialogue? Who are some of your favorite fictional children?

I always read, or at least mutter, my lines aloud as I'm editing them; this is why if ever I write in a public space such as a cafe I seem like a crazy person. As for inventing Jack's language, I drew above all on my son, who (serendipitously) was five as I was drafting the novel: I wrote down remarks he made, and charted his linguistic oddities, trying to pick out a few of the most flavorful five-year-old-isms (such as the logical past tense, 'I winned', 'I eated') rather than subject the adult reader to all of them! My son knew the gist of 'the story of Jack and the bad guy' and let me, at one point, press-gang him into getting rolled up in a dusty old rug to see if he could wriggle his way out.
My favorite fictional children are a large crowd, but I'm going to pick... Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the boy in THE GO-BETWEEN (I don't even remember his name but I'll never forget his feelings of confusion and embarrassment), and the hero of Roddy Doyle's PADDY CLARKE HA HA HA. And there's a wonderful novel out next spring by Stephen Kelman called PIGEON ENGLISH with a Ghanaian-Londoner child narrator you'll never forget.

What was the reaction when you told people this was what you were working on? Did you discuss ROOM while it was a work in progress? Did you get any interesting responses from friends and loved ones?

My partner said 'But how could a five-year-old... produce enough meaning?' I took that as a challenge. My UK and US agents, more cannily, said 'yes, yes, yes!' Even now, I always feel slightly awkward when summarising the set-up of ROOM for anyone for the first time; I start waving my hands and saying 'honestly, it's not sick or depressing...'

One of the things that's always struck me about true cases of women like Ma, who are kidnapped, raped, and bear their captors' babies, is how often there's a woman involved, whether she's aiding and abetting a man she's in love with or married to, or she's the clueless mother of the victim, buying her husband's stories about what happened to their daughter. Did you consider giving Old Nick a female accomplice?

You're absolutely right. I read up on all the sexual-kidnapping cases I could find, and they typically have additional complications such as a complicit woman, religious mania, sadistic torture, incest, child abuse, brainwashing, Stockholm syndrome, health-damage from bad ventilation, additional captives... While these are all very interesting, I really wanted to focus on the issue of freedom versus confinement, so I created the simplest and most bearable setup I could for Ma and Jack. I didn't want my readers to be flinching and shuddering on every page, I wanted them to enter into the magic kingdom Jack and Ma manage to create in the middle of the underworld.

Ma gets testy with her "puffy-hair" interviewer when she's asked about still breast-feeding Jack. I've been surprised to see how the nursing's become an issue for some of the critics, who seem just as discomfited as your fictional reporter. Did this surprise you?

I encountered that reaction at the first-draft stage when someone working for my UK agent told me she was bewildered and repelled by the breast-feeding. Aha, I thought, I must keep that in! Not only does it seem to me to make sense that Ma wouldn't wean Jack off something so primally comforting as long as they're locked in, but I like the way it makes readers remember, every now and then, that Ma and Jack are not quite like everybody else: they're from a different place.

Many reviewers, and readers, have been grappling lately with the question of what makes a book "big," and what kinds of stories qualify as "great American novels." ROOM can be read as a domestic novel, a story of a mother and son that takes place in a tiny and circumscribed world, but it's got a lot to say about some major issues -- about a mother's obligations, about the nature of fame and notoriety, about what parents owe their children, and what they owe themselves. Do you think ROOM is a big book? What do you look for in a great novel (American or otherwise?) Tell us about a few of your favorites, and what makes them great.

I do see ROOM as a big book, in that it's got high ambitions, and it's about the most universal human issues. I tried to write on on several levels, so that one reader could enjoy it as a page-turner about an imprisoned boy, and another could recognise it as a thought-experiment along the lines of Plato's cave. But that does mean that at least some reviews have stuck to considering it as a description of kidnapping, or perhaps seen it as a simple celebration of motherhood... when I'd prefer them to make that leap and understand Jack's story as not just Everychild's story but Everyperson's too. After all, each of us is locked inside one skull. But this is an age-old argument. A woman writer, a domestic setting, and a small number of characters, often cause a novel to get mis-filed as small, ever since Jane Austen.

As for the novels I consider great... oh dear, it's so hard to choose, and to explain their greatness! Let me stick to mentioning American ones on this occasion: Audrey Niffenegger's THE TIME-TRAVELLER'S WIFE, Dave Eggers' A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS, Michael Chabon's THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY, Jane Smiley's A THOUSAND ACRES, Neal Stephenson's CRYPTONOMICON.

My readers always want to know about my process, and trying to find time to write with young children at home. How do you do it? When, and where, do you work?

Like many writers, my books absolutely depend on the hard work of paid carers. ROOM, for instance, got drafted in six months of four long mornings a week, when our toddler daughter was being looked after by a woman in the little French town we were staying in. I've never managed to write while my kids are in the house, but I do get through my email somehow, often with my daughter writhing in my lap, and my son saying 'Can I see sharks on You Tube when you're done? Are you nearly done? Are you done?' I work in our front room, which we've turned into an office, and the minute the kids are off to daycare and school I run to my desk as if to a lover. I shouldn't boast about this, but my ability to absolutely ignore mess and dirty dishes really helps.

Another question I get a lot is about how old my kids will be before I let them read my books. Is this something you've thought about yet?

As the child of a writer (the literary critic Denis Donoghue), my experience is that kids often have no interest in picking up Mom or Dad's books! In the case of ROOM, I suppose it's possible that the child-narrator will make this one appealing to my son and daughter at some stage. I would let an eight-year-old read it, actually. It's got only the most brief and indirect references to rape in it; they'll hear far worse at school.

Finally, what are you reading now? What are you writing now? When can we look forward to seeing something new?

I'm reading Kate Atkinson's STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG (she and Elizabeth George being my favorite intelligent-detective-fictioneers) and Peter Carey's PARROT AND OLIVIER (because I want to have read the whole Booker shortlist by the time I go to the party). I've finished the research for my next novel - 1870s San Francisco lowlifes - and am mulling over those vital questions of point-of-view and tense. I don't know when it'll be finished, though, because I'm finding that success takes up a lot more of my time than I expected: an alarming proportion of my days is currently spent on phone interviews and having my picture taken, and in between I find I don't have much in my head!
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