The Chat With 2016 Giller Finalist Emma Donoghue

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Next up in this year’s Giller Prize special, generously sponsored by Publishing@SFU, is Emma Donoghue, author of the haunting novel The Wonder. Donoghue’s book centres around the story of a young girl in the middle of nineteenth-century Ireland who refuses to eat, believing she is sustained by God’s will alone.

Emma Donoghue was born in Dublin in 1969 and lived in England for many years before moving to Canada. She writes in many genres, including theatre, radio drama, and literary history, but is best known for her fiction, both historical (Slammerkin, The Sealed Letter, Astray, Frog Music) and contemporary (Stir-fry, Hood, Landing, Touchy Subjects). Her seventh novel, Room, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Canada and Caribbean region) and was shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange Prizes. It sold over two million copies. Donoghue scripted the film adaptation by Lenny Abrahamson, starring Brie Larson, which won the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival Grolsch People’s Choice Award.

TheChat-Giller-2016

THE CHAT WITH EMMA DONOGHUE

How was The Wonder born?

The real cases of about fifty so-called Fasting Girls who hit the headlines at intervals between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries (ranging from Europe to North America) for a claimed ability to live without food.

The novel takes place in a remote Irish village in the 1850s, and centres around a young girl who claims to have survived without food for four months. What sort of research was involved in writing the book?

Exhaustive, as usual—but it doesn’t exhaust me. I enjoy nothing more than immersing myself in arcane details of everyday life (did they roast their eggs by sitting them directly in the ashes?) and the mindset of the times (exactly how many prayers would you have to pray on a Friday to get a soul out of Purgatory?). I read a lot about Irish cottage architecture, Indian and Irish traditions of political hunger-strike, the training of nurses in the Crimean, eating disorders...

I enjoy nothing more than immersing myself in arcane details of everyday life (did they roast their eggs by sitting them directly in the ashes?) and the mindset of the times ...

The Wonder takes a hard look at the historical power of the Catholic Church in the lives of its devoted. It’s also a book about the dangers of blind faith—to religion, but also science. Young Anna is caught in an historical culture war between the faithful and the skeptics, and her struggle echoes the deep hunger we witness for unassailable truths in our own time. Can you talk more about what you feel Anna’s time and place might teach us about our contemporary cultural moment? 

I could have set this story in a number of different times and cultural settings; only the other day a girl in India died after a 68-day fast. When creating Anna, I thought a lot about idealistic, fervent teenagers who sign up to all sorts of dubious radical causes. Historical fiction has to have some good reasons to set the story then—in this case, I wanted to put a voluntary fast in the long shadow of the Potato Famine—but it must also have resonance today, or why should readers care about it?

What’s a question no one has asked you about the book, that you wish they would ask? How would you respond?

I have a question, no answer: How much autonomy should we grant children?

49thShelf is built around a large community of readers and fans who love great CanLit. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?

I’m starting fellow-Giller-shortlisted Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People and looking forward to Stephen Price’s By Gaslight.

GILLER JURY CITATION

By rights there should be nothing thrilling about watching a child starve herself in her bed, day after day, for the course of a novel – but great fiction is all about subverting what should and shouldn’t be the case, and The Wonder is great fiction. The thrill is a quiet, dreadful, tender one, as we keep vigil at the child’s bed and will her to eat, will for change or revelation. This is a shapely, elegant and beautifully articulated novel and a piece of lucid theatre; it illuminates what could easily be an oblique and bleak subject. The Wonder does what we as judges yearned for – allowed us to forget we were judges, and just become readers, hooked and wowed.

EXCERPT

The journey was no worse than she expected. A train from London to Liverpool; the steam packet overnight to Dublin; a slow Sunday train west to a town called Athlone.

A driver was waiting. “Mrs. Wright?”

Lib had known many Irishmen, soldiers.  But that was some years ago, so her ear strained now to make out the driver’s words.

He carried her trunk to what he called the jaunting car.  An Irish misnomer; nothing jaunty about this bare cart. Lib settled herself on the single bench down the middle, her boots hanging closer to the right-hand wheel than she liked.  She put up her steel-frame umbrella against the drizzle. This was better than the stuffy train, at least.

On the other side of the bench, slouching so his back almost touched hers, the driver flicked his whip. “Go on, now!”

The shaggy pony stirred.

The few people on the macadamised road out of Athlone seemed wan, which Lib attributed to the infamous diet of potatoes and little else. Perhaps that was responsible for the driver’s missing teeth too.

He made some remark about the dead. “I beg your pardon?”

“The dead centre, ma’am.”

Lib waited, braced against the juddering of the cart.

He pointed down. “We’re in the exact middle of the country here.”

Flat fields striped with dark foliage. Sheets of reddish-brown peat; wasn’t bogland known to harbour disease? The occasional grey remains of a cottage, almost greened over. Nothing that struck Lib as picturesque. Clearly the Irish Midlands were a depression where wet pooled, the little circle in a saucer.
The jaunting car turned off the road onto a narrower gravel way. The pattering on her umbrella’s canvas became a continuous thrum. Windowless cabins; Lib imagined a family with its animals in each, huddling in out of the rain.

At intervals a lane led off towards a jumble of roofs that probably constituted a village. But never the right village, evidently. Lib should have asked the driver how long the journey was likely to take. She didn’t put the question to him now in case the answer was Still a long time yet.

All Matron at the hospital had said was that an experienced nurse was required for two weeks, in a private capacity. The costs of keep and travel to and from Ireland to be furnished, as well as a daily consideration. Lib knew nothing about the O’Donnells except that they had to be a family of means if they were cosmopolitan enough to send all the way to England for a better class of nurse. It occurred to her only now to wonder how they could know that the patient would need her services for no more nor less than a fortnight. Perhaps Lib was a temporary replacement for another nurse.

In any case, she’d be quite well paid for her trouble, and the novelty of the thing held some interest. At the hospital, Lib’s training was resented as much as it was appreciated, and only the more basic of her skills were required: feeding, changing dressings, bed-making.

She resisted the impulse to reach under her cloak and pull out her watch; it wouldn’t make the time go any faster, and the rain might get into the mechanism.
Another roofless cabin now, turned away from the road, its gabled walls accusing the sky. Weeds had had no success at covering up this ruin yet. Lib glimpsed a mess of black through the door-shaped hole; a recent conflagration, then. (But how did any- thing manage to catch fire in this waterlogged country?) Nobody had taken the trouble to clear away the charred rafters, let alone frame and thatch a new roof. Was it true that the Irish were impervious to improvement?
A woman in a filthy frilled cap was stationed on the verge, a knot of children in the hedge behind her. The rattle of the cart brought them forward with hands cupped high as if to catch the rain. Lib looked away, awkward.

“The hungry season,” muttered the driver.

But this was high summer. How could food be scarce now, of all times?

Excerpt from The Wonder by Emma Donoghue ©2016. Published by HarperCollins Canada Ltd. All rights reserved.

Check out our interviews with Giller finalists Madeleine Thien, Catherine Leroux, and Mona Awad, too!

October 25, 2016
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