The story of a nineteen-year old girl kidnapped and held captive for seven years in a small, confined space is horrifying. But told from the point of view of her five-year old son in a novel by Irish-born writer Emma Donoghue, it becomes a hopeful story about the unwavering love between a child and a mother and the possibility of new beginnings. “Room: A Novel” was shortlisted for this year’s Mann Booker Prize and appears on many best of 2010 book lists. Emma Donoghue talks with Diane about parenthood, the resilliance of children and faith.
- Emma Donoghue A writer whose novels include Slammerkin, The Sealed Letter, Landing, Life Mask, Hood, and Stirfry. Her story collections are The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, Kissing The Witch, and Touchy Subjects. She also writes literary history, and plays for stage and radio.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us I'm Diane Rehm. To five-year-old Jack, room is the world. It's where he was born, it's where he and his mother eat, sleep, play and learn, but to Ma, room is the prison where she's been held for seven long years since she was kidnapped at the age of 19. The story of how Jack and Ma survive, both inside and outside an 11-by-11 foot windowless garden shed is told in the seventh novel by Irish-born writer, Emma Donoghue. The title is "Room" and she joins me in the studio. I hope you'll join us as well, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com, feel free to join us on Facebook and Twitter. Emma, good morning to you.
MS. EMMA DONOGHUEGood morning to you, Diane.
REHMThe idea of leaving off the article in the title of this book is so important.
DONOGHUEWell, I knew that Jack would have to have friends. The only human being he gets to interact with is his mother, Ma, but I knew that he would make friends with whatever he found. So every object that there's only one of in his universe, such as rug, table, bed or skylight, he simply addresses it as a person. He gives it a gender and he imagines it to have qualities. I mean, I've seen my own kids. You know, they could make friends with a knife and a fork. Their capacity to play is built-in and endlessly imaginable.
REHMWhere did the idea for this book "Room" come from?
DONOGHUEMy son was four and my daughter was one when I heard about the Fritzel case in Austria. And I've never gone out looking for some horrifying true crime case to write about. I've never been drawn to that kind of thing before. But the notion of the five-year-old, Felix Fritzel emerging now into the busy, over-stimulated, modern world having grown up in a single, locked space it just gripped me. I think because it was the idea of the heroism of trying to mother well under such impossible circumstances, but also the idea of how fresh a perspective on our world a child like that would have, very much like a Martian coming to Earth.
REHMSo indeed, you hadn't been looking for something, but tell us about the real life story first. Many of our listeners may not be familiar with it.
DONOGHUEWell, "Room" is really -- it doesn't stick closely to the details of any one case.
DONOGHUEIt'll probably remind American readers more of the Jaycee Dugard case...
DONOGHUE...which didn't actually come to my attention until. She was not freed or discovered until after I'd written the book. And so she in California was locked up and had two daughters and before that Elizabeth Fritzel in Austria was held prisoner by her own father and had I believe seven children. So there are just a tiny handful of these cases where not only is a young woman held long-term in secrecy, but actually has children.
DONOGHUEThere was a Russian case where every time a baby was born, the captor would take the baby away and leave it outside an orphanage. So there have been very few of these cases, but what drew me to them was that I think they actually capture a much more universal story which is that everyone starts out inside their mother. You know, we all start out in a tiny secret space and then we emerge into the world. And typically, our childhoods are quite confined, too...
DONOGHUEYou know, we all have small spaces to start with. We know few people and then our world gradually widens, so I think a story of somebody growing up in a single-roomed cell and then emerging into the modern world actually captures that startling movement from babyhood to childhood to adulthood.
REHMTell us about five-year-old, Jack -- seven-year-old?
DONOGHUEJack, in a way, is his mother's burden because, you know, she has to look after him under these impossible conditions, but she's also -- he's also her salvation.
DONOGHUEHe's very energetic and imaginative and when I was coming up with Jack as a character, I obviously looked at my own son who was five by the time I was writing the novel. And I tried to work out which things would be the same for them both. What's the kind of essential spirit of a five-year-old? So Jack is very interested in both abstract issues like, you know, heaven and God, but he's also very interested in pragmatic stuff like what happens when we flush?
DONOGHUESo that's what I love about five-year-olds, you know, that they will take on very big ideas, but they'll always return to the absolutely concrete and they're very pragmatic. I think if you told my son and daughter that from now on we would always wear blue by the second or third day, they'd live with that, you know. Children can grow up well in an astonishing variety of circumstances, so I think even in the strangeness of a one-room existence, I think a child would get pleasure and education out of whatever he found.
REHMDescribe this room for us?
DONOGHUEIt is 11-foot square, it's got a, you know, tapered roof and it is entirely covered in cork tiles for soundproofing. It's built from a 12-by-12 foot shed, by their captor, who is known only by the nickname Old Nick, because he's very much a devil figure, he has basically added a lot of soundproofing and insulation and even a layer of chain-link fence inside the walls and the roof and the floor.
REHMAnd what's inside room?
DONOGHUEInside is very basic furniture and Ma, the 26-year-old heroine, she really tries to make it not feel small to Jack, so she's is always, you know, flipping the table upside down on to the bed so that they can run laps and they do sort of pseudo snowboarding on the rocking chair and they use every egg that they've ever been given and they blow on the eggs and they add these shells to a gigantic snake, so under the bed lives this elaborate creation that Jack calls eggsnake.
DONOGHUEThey make a fort out of vitamin bottles because Ma, although she is -- she's not causing her captor any trouble in that she's being very sort of obedient she argues strongly to protect Jack, so she insists they get vitamins, she insists that they get vegetables. She has somehow managing the impossible feat of giving Jack a fairly healthy childhood, even in the single room which only has one skylight overhead as a light source, no windows.
REHMWhen the visitor comes, Jack goes into a closet. What is this closet?
DONOGHUEThat's right and Ma always makes sure that Jack is fast asleep in the wardrobe or at least gone to bed in there, before Old Nick visits every night. So she's also pulled off the impossible trick of keeping Jack innocent of sex. Jack, our narrator, does not know that Ma is effectively a sex slave, so strangely enough, it's a novel all about evil, but told through the point of view of innocence. And I think although many people find the subject matter scary, I think once they're a few pages in, they realize that it -- as it were holding Jack's hand, they can go on a journey through this darkness because his innocence protects them.
DONOGHUEIt's really not a novel all about horror. It's about a boy having a fairly ordinary childhood under extraordinary conditions.
REHMWere you stunned to know that the book was short-listed for the Booker Prize?
DONOGHUEAbsolutely blown away, Diane, because it got long-listed before the book was published even, so I was just on holiday with my family, with my small kids and I wasn't expecting anything to happen yet. And then suddenly, the very, you know, a light brushed from the Booker brush and I was, you know, lifted into the stratosphere of publicity, so it's been all go since July, but the great thing is that people e-mail me all the time to tell me that they've read the book or that they're in the middle of reading it.
DONOGHUESo I have an amazing sense of connection with readers in so many different countries who report to me on what their sensations are and what they feared and what they found halfway through. And through the internet, I find that nowadays you can build up a very close connection with your readers.
REHMDoes Jack actually ever see Old Nick?
DONOGHUEYeah, he peeks out through the louver doors of room, but in a way, I've tried to do in the book what Ma does for Jack. She keeps Old Nick at arm's length. She doesn't let him interact with Jack because even though she's willing to sort of tow the line and be very obedient so that she and Jack don't get hurt, she's not willing to let Old Nick be in any sense a father figure to Jack, so she really keeps him at a distance.
DONOGHUEAnd I, too, keep him at a distance in that I didn't want this novel to be yet another novel about an interesting psychopath who plans how to capture a girl and lock her up. In a way, that's the back story of the book, but I said, no, this is the story about Jack's childhood. And the psychopath will be deliberately off to one side. And I made him a very banal kind of evildoer. You know, I tried to make him like any, you know, domestic abuser, any violent father, any violent husband. He doesn't particularly fetishize pain or anything, it's just that he wants -- he wants his life to be convenient. He doesn't want to actually marry and start a family, you know. He just wants the girl to be available to him, so I was...
REHMHow has he met her in the first place?
DONOGHUEOh, he set up the room and then he simply snatched her at random from a college campus. She was 19 when she was captured. And one reason I made her adult when she's captured, when in fact many of the real cases, they're captured when they're very young, perhaps pubescent, is that I wanted her to be a particularly strong survivor. I didn’t want her to be a story of a victim who in any sense gets attached to or devoted to her captor. I was interested in telling a much stronger story about motherhood under impossible -- almost impossible conditions. So she's an adult and as soon as she gives birth to Jack, she has a way of identifying herself that is not to do with being a victim of rape.
REHMAnd Jack sees the place on the floor where he says he was born.
DONOGHUEThat's right he sees the stain on the rug. And as far as Jack knows, his sort of creation story is a slightly mystical one where, you know, Ma wished and wished on her egg and then it started to grow and then, pop, out came Jack, so he sees many aspects of room as rather marvelous, when we of course know that for Ma, they have been rather horrifying.
REHMEmma Donoghue, a writer of contemporary and historical fiction. Her latest work is called, "Room: A Novel."
REHMWriter Emma Donoghue is with me, her new novel, "Room," has just been awarded the prize of Irish Novel of the Year. She was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It is a novel of both beauty and horror, but this is a novel told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy who lives in an 11-by-11 room with his mother who was kidnapped at age 19. Emma, would you read for us?
DONOGHUE"When Ma spits the second time, it's my go with toothbrush. I scrub each my teeth all the way around. I make a vampire smile. 'Ah.' Ma covers her eyes. 'Your teeth are so clean, Jack, they're dazzling me.' Her ones are pretty rotted because she forgetted to brush them. She's sorry and she doesn't forget anymore, but they're still rotted. I flat the chairs now and I put them beside door against close horse. Close horse always grumbles and says there's no room, but there's plenty if he stands up really straight. I can fold up flat, too, but not quite as flat as close horse because of my muscles from being alive.
DONOGHUEDoor is made of shiny magic metal. He goes, beep, beep after 4 when I'm meant to be switched off in wardrobe. God's yellow face isn't coming in today. Ma says, 'God's having trouble squeezing through the snow.' 'What snow,' I say? 'See,' she says, pointing up. And there's a little bit of light at sky light's top and the rest of her is all dark. TV snow is white, but the real isn't. That's weird. 'Why it doesn't fall on us,' I say? 'Because it's on the outside, Jack.' 'In outer space? Oh, I wish it was inside so I can play with it.' 'Ah, but then it would melt,' says Ma, ''Cause it's nice and warm in here in Room.'
DONOGHUEShe starts humming and I guess right away it's "Let it Snow." I sing the second verse and then I do Winter Wonderland and Ma joins in higher. Me and Ma have thousands of things to do every morning, like give plant a cup of water in sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on dresser. Plant used to live on table, but God's face burned a leaf of her off. She has nine left. They're the wide of my hand with furriness all over like Ma says dogs are, but dogs are only TV.
DONOGHUEI find the tiny leaf coming. That counts as 10. Spider's real. I've seen spider two times. I look for her now, but there's only a web between table's leg and her flat. Table balances good on one leg. That's pretty tricky. When I go on one leg, I can do it for ages, but then I always fall over. I don't tell Ma about spider. Ma brushes webs away. She says they're dirty, but they look like extra thin silver to me. Ma likes the animals that run around eating each other on the wildlife planet, but not real ones.
DONOGHUEWhen I was four, one time I was watching ants walking up stove and Ma ran and splattered them all so they wouldn't eat our food. One minute the ants were alive and the next minute, they were dirt. I cried so my eyes nearly melted off. Also another time, there was a thing in the night in room, (makes noise) biting me and Ma banged him against door wall below shelf. He was a mosquito. The mark is still there on the cork even though Ma scrubbed. It was my blood the mosquito was stealing like a teeny vampire. That's the only time my blood ever came out of me.
DONOGHUEMa takes her pill now from the silver pack that has 28 little spaceships and I take a vitamin from the bottle with the boy doing a handstand and then Ma takes one from the big bottle with a picture of a woman doing tennis. Vitamins are medicine for not getting sick and going back to Heaven yet. I never wanna go. I don't like dying, but Ma says it might be okay when we're 100 and tired of playing. Also Ma takes a killer, sometimes she takes two. Never more than two because some things are good for us, but too much is suddenly bad.
DONOGHUE'Is it bad tooth hurting you,' I ask? He's on the top near the back of her mouth. He's the worst. Ma nods. 'Why you don't take two killers all the bits of every day,' I ask her? Mom makes a face. 'Then I'd be hooked, Jack.' 'What's hooked?' 'Like stuck on a hook,' she says, 'because I would need them all the time. Actually, I might need more and more.' 'But what's wrong with needing?' 'It's hard to explain,' says Ma. Ma knows everything except the things she doesn't remember right or sometimes she says I'm too young for her to explain a thing.
DONOGHUE'My teeth feel a bit better if I stop thinking about them,' she tells me. 'How come?' 'Well, it's called mind over matter, Jack. If we don't mind, it doesn't matter.' 'That's weird 'cause when a bit of me hurts, I always mind.' Ma's rubbing my shoulder, but my shoulder's not hurting. I like it anyway. I still don't tell her about the spider web under table. It's weird to have something that's mine not Ma's. Everything else is both of ours. Well, I guess my body is mine and the ideas that happen in my head, but my cells are made out of Ma's cells, so I'm kind of hers. Also, when I tell her what I'm thinking and she tells me what she's thinking, our each ideas jump into each other's head. It's like coloring blue crayon on top of yellow. That makes green."
REHMEmma Donoghue, she read from her brand-new novel "Room," which has just been named Irish Novel of the Year. You know, a couple of things come to mind. There is a television set in that room.
DONOGHUEYes. And I thought long and hard about whether I would allow them to have television. Strangely enough, you know, because I was deciding what resources to allow them, I was often in the position of their evil captor, Old Nick, you know. I was thinking, will I give them books, will I give them clothes? Like, they have no shoes, for instance. He's never provided shoes because they don't need them.
DONOGHUEAnd -- but they do have TV because I thought if they had TV and watched it all the time, the book would be very boring. But if they had no TV I thought they would be living a weirdly kind of 19th century life, like in some deserted cabin. So I thought they'll have TV, but that she will absolutely limit how much TV the boy gets to watch. So she tells him that if he watches too much, his brains will rot. And he needs to switch off and let those brain cells re-grow in the night.
DONOGHUESo she's really the ideal energetic young mother, far, far better than I could ever actually be in reality. I put into all my ideas about how to parent well and then the result is that all the time I was writing the book and even since, I've been thinking, oh, once again, I failed to parent the way I know I could.
REHMNow, the idea of God comes in rather frequently. How much faith infuses Jack's life?
DONOGHUEA lot because if you look at those Chilean miners, for instance, and they all started joining the prayer group. Whatever level of religion you have when you're put in a situation like that, a situation where you don't know how long you're going to be imprisoned for, you don't know what's going to happen to you, I think it brings out religiousness in many, many prisoners. And I think also it's very important to Ma to give Jack a sense that the world is meaningful.
DONOGHUEI did a lot of research into ways we can mess up children. You know, ways that can be really badly damagingly raised and ways in which we can help children have the strength to deal with whatever life is going to throw at them, so I thought that religion would be part of the worldview that Ma passes onto Jack, a way of structuring his days and giving them some order and meaning and a reason to be hopeful and a strong system of values.
DONOGHUESo she passes on all the best of Western culture to Jack, you know. He knows about Mary and baby Jesus, he knows about Leonardo da Vinci, he knows about Lady Gaga, you know. She gives him everything that was in her head, snatches of pop music and storylines, she tells him about Nelson Mandela and Princess Diana. She's really just trying to give him everything she's got.
REHMHere is an e-mail from Natalie who is a PhD candidate here at the George Washington University. She says, "I focus on trauma and the thing that most struck me about Ms. Donoghue's novel is the absolute discipline with which she avoids graphic depictions of sexual violence to which this young woman is subjected, depictions which have unfortunately become the norm in contemporary literature. I wonder how reviewers have reacted to this omission and if the author has been surprised by their reactions."
DONOGHUEIn my experience, reviewers have been deeply grateful because as Natalie says, it's sometimes seems as if the average crime novel is about some horrific activity torture and rape of either a woman or a child. Same with TV movies. A friend of mine used to joke that, oh, it's Tuesday, it'll be rape movie of the week. And this subject has become utterly and repeated and banal in our culture. And it's become the constant nightmare of young women, who are very, very unlikely to be captured and raped by a stranger.
DONOGHUEBut it's become almost a fetish in our media. So the last thing I wanted to write was that kind of novel. And I don't fudge the issue. I mean, by the end of the book, you're pretty clear about what Ma has been through, but she has created an amazing sort of bubble in which Jack does not realize that and therefore, it's not central to his life.
REHMEmma Donoghue, her novel is titled simply "Room." Please join us, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and feel free to join us on Facebook and Twitter. I am concerned about that little spider (laugh). Tell me about the spider.
DONOGHUEWell, there's an even more distressing scene where a mouse gets in and Jack would love to befriend the mouse. And of course, Ma has had to become almost like the prison guard. She's trying to keep Jack healthy in this one-room environment, so she cannot allow mice, spiders, germs. She snaps at Jack whenever she sees him nibbling his fingers. She can't afford to take risks.
REHMHe puts it under his arm.
DONOGHUEHe tucks it under his arm...
DONOGHUE...whereas, you know, my children are growing up in an atmosphere of such freedom, you know. I mean, I let them pick food that they've dropped on the floor because, you know, I know that their health is safeguarded and protected. Whereas Ma knows that a single bad flu could kill off her beloved child, who is her only reason to go on living. So she's had to become very, very watchful and zealous. And in a way, the whole novel is about what every parent goes through, which is that dilemma of whether to be a protective parent or a parent who allows them freedom.
DONOGHUEYou know, we all make those calls. We put the baby in the car seat, definitely, but perhaps when a child is older, would you let them go for a ride in a friend's car not in a car seat? Would you let your child cycle down the road without their helmet on? You know, there are those moments when you think, oh, you know what? A little bit of freedom here is what the child really needs.
REHMAnd, you know, I've been struck by that because when my children were born 50 years ago, our pediatrician said to me after each was born, they are not to be in company with strangers for three months. Three months.
REHMSo that they were each kept in the house or out in the garden or wherever. But now, once these tiny infants on airplanes and I find myself worrying about their ears as tiny infants, so times change.
DONOGHUEIt's true. And it seems as if parenting's never a relaxed business, you know. I mean, for instance, it seems in every generation either women are put under pressure not to breastfeed...
DONOGHUE...or to breastfeed.
DONOGHUEYeah, it really swings back and forth. We seem incapable of creating a society in which women can just decide whether to breastfeed or not, you know. There are people wagging their fingers on all sides.
REHMBut there is another element here and I wonder to what extent you had to educate yourself about what children can and cannot survive.
DONOGHUEI did a lot of reading on horrifying cases in which children are really raised in a shut-away kind of way and kept away from adults, locked up in the henhouse, in the basement, in the attic. There are unfortunately many, many cases of this kind of stunted childhood and these children are often called feral children, as if they are inherently half animal. When in fact, it's more that any parent figure who would do this to them is not a full human being.
DONOGHUEBut I looked a lot at -- there are some amazing cases where children have been found in this appalling kind of state of maybe seven, but then, if they are adopted by loving parents, they catch up. It's just remarkable. It's as if the capacity was there in the children all along to blossom into full life. And they just need that minimal level of loving care to do it.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We must say that Jack at age five is still breastfeeding.
DONOGHUEYes. It seemed to me very logical that Ma would hold onto anything comforting, anything easy, anything which is good for the health, anything which helps him feel bonded. And I mean, I only weaned my daughter at age one, but it seemed to me the right moment because she was very much entering the social world. You know, she was toddling around, she was going to daycare, but Jack, at age five, has not entered the social world, so it was a wonderful challenge to me to create this relationship because in some ways, Ma and Jack are like mother and baby, but in other ways, they're like buddies, they're peers. They're plotting their escape together at one point in the book.
DONOGHUESo they are many things to each other and yet I always wanted it to feel like a healthy relationship. It's not incestuous, it's not weird. I mean, it's peculiar because their circumstances are peculiar, but really, the book is a celebration on a kind of a test of mother love.
REHMBut the idea of escape to a five-year-old. How does that come into his mind?
DONOGHUEWell, strangely enough, five-year-olds on the stories they like, they absolutely understand both bad guys and escape storylines. I mean, I call Jack, Jack because of so many folktales and rhymes which feature a hero called Jack. And I...
REHMJack and the Beanstalk.
DONOGHUE...exactly. So I think the idea of, you know, escaping from an evil giant, it's there in all the folklore. Children absolutely understand that there is arbitrary evil in the world and you need to be both tricksy and brave to get away from it, so I think Ma has very much prepared Jack for this by encouraging him to feel like a super hero and to battle evil. So when the time comes for them to escape, I mean, he finds it very scary and he has to be terribly grownup in order to do it, but the basic psychic structure of, you know, we have been held captive by a bad guy and now we need to get away.
DONOGHUEIt's a timeless kind of fairytale. And even though the premise for "Room" seems to be snatched from the headlines, actually, I saw it as having very ancient origins. And there are a lot of legends about an enclosed or walled up virgin giving birth. Rapunzel is a famous one and the myth of Danae giving birth to Perseus and this idea of the sealed up girl who gives birth to the hero child, it's a really ancient one, so I think that's one reason that "Room" has grabbed people so much.
REHMBut you have also put in a detail about Ma's own motherhood, her own childhood, that is that she was adopted when she was six-weeks-old. Why include that detail?
DONOGHUEFor two reasons. First of all, I was afraid that in writing the story of a mother's closeness to her child that I would seem to be implying that birth is the one sacred bond. And really, I don't feel that way. I think I would feel about my children exactly the same powerful way if they'd been handed to me at birth or if I had sort of inherited them even if they were older. And I also wanted -- and in the second half of the book, I wanted Jack to encounter a world which is far more complicated than he realized and diverse in many ways.
REHMEmma Donoghue, the book is titled "Room."
REHMWelcome back. Emma Donoghue is with me, an Irish writer, a beautiful Irish voice. In fact, her new novel, "Room," has just been named Irish novel of the year. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize. We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Let's go to Turnersville, N.C. Good morning, Justin, you're on the air.
JUSTINGood morning, Diane. It's a pleasure to be speaking with you.
JUSTINI just -- ironically, I've just got out of my final for the contemporary novel class at UNCG and the final reading for the class that we chose was Ms. Donoghue's novel and I had a question. Basically, you mentioned earlier the breastfeeding and that subject did generate a lot of controversy in the class, but the part that surprised me was that very little attention was paid to the sounds of Ma's lovemaking and Old Nick and I was wondering what the author's view on that was?
DONOGHUEWell, I knew that Jack couldn't live in the room and be utterly oblivious to Old Nick's visits. And Ma wants him to be asleep by the time Old Nick visits, but children often stay awake late. But I thought I would try and keep only a very minimal trace of those events. So Jack does -- is aware that Old Nick gets into bed with his Ma and then hears the bed creaking. And Jack, to deal with the anxiety of this moment, even though he doesn't quite know what it means, he counts the creaks. So I thought that would be a lovely way to reduce sex to some awful kind of tick, you know, to a very mechanistic thing.
DONOGHUESo Jack just lies there counting and he feels somehow he's keeping Ma safe by counting. But it is strange that people have been so much more traumatized by the breastfeeding in the novel than by any of the references to, you know, seven years of sex slavery. So it is funny that people are, in theory, in favor of motherhood at its most passionate and visceral, but actually, most people have a strong view on when breastfeeding should stop.
REHMExactly. Here's an e-mail from Nancy in Chapel Hill, N.C. who says, "I listened to the audio version of 'Room.' It was perhaps the best dramatic of any book I've ever listened to. Tell us something about the voice of Jack."
DONOGHUEJack is played by a woman called Michael Freedman who I had the pleasure -- the other evening, she read from the book live in front of an audience in New York, but many of them had to shut their eyes in order to allow the illusion of her being Jack to work. I think that quite often women play boys, but she gives Jack a particular kind of exuberance and humor, which I just loved. And it's multi-voiced audio book, so it is exceptionally good. I've been trying to get time to listen to it in the car, but whenever my son is in the car, he makes me turn it off because it's too scary.
DONOGHUEBecause he finds that the drama of the voices -- and it's marvelous on about CD three when the man playing Old Nick, his voice comes in and it's such a contrast with the other female voices, so it becomes an utterly thrilling kind of radio play.
REHMHere's another e-mail from Jody who says, "My writing studio is a 10-foot by 10-foot cabin. I'm wondering how the author navigated this space in her narrative. It sounds as though there are quite a few objects in this small space, a bed, a sink, a toilet, a clothes horse, etc. Did she create an 11-by-11 space in actuality with the props within? How did she make this real?"
DONOGHUEI used a home design website. It was one of many surreal moments in the research for room. There I was, you know, doing virtual shopping and deciding how big the bed would be and how things would fit. I think the trick to room not feeling too small is that Ma moves the furniture around a lot and she and Jack are scrupulously neat. I mean, my office is probably bigger than 11-by-11, but it's a complete mess, papers and cups everywhere.
DONOGHUEBut Jack, in the book has learned to play with each toy and then put it away in its place, so they work very harmoniously within their environment and they reuse everything. You know, there's no garbage. As soon as there's a plastic bag, they turn it -- you know, they tie a knot in it and turn it into a balloon. They're like a miniature intensive home schooling environment and nothing could be farther from my own messy methods and my own habit of buying my children lots of toys from the dollar store.
REHMHere's another e-mail from Jennifer. She says, "How did the author decide which books Old Nick would give Ma?" She says, "I'm particularly interested in his giving her 'The Shack'."
DONOGHUEThat was an agonizing decision. I knew they had to have some books, but I didn't kid myself that this man was likely to go and buy them in great supply. So I figured that one at a time over the years, when Ma begs and begs, he brings her a book. I have not read the five books that he brings to Ma. I've only read "The Da Vinci Code." The other four, I just chose the title from bestsellers that he would be likely to find in say a supermarket. But I did include "The Shack" because I thought it was quite fun to chose a title which is all about a rather sort of famous one-room space and I chose the "Twilight" books. I thought it's quite likely that he'd come across those. And one randomly chosen romance called "Bittersweet Love."
DONOGHUEBut then for Jack, I wanted him to have at least one or two books that are actually good books, so I thought it's credible enough that he would have "Alice in Wonderland," because that book is available for, you know, 50 cents anywhere, really. And then I thought he might have "The Runaway Bunny" by Margaret Wise Brown because that one is often on sale in supermarkets around the time Easter eggs are on sale, but then the other three are fairly random.
DONOGHUEBut the reason I chose "The Runaway Bunny" out of all those beloved childhood classics is that it's actually all about mother love as stifling, you know. The baby bunny is constantly trying to get away and his mother is very loving, but also slightly sinister in the way she constantly tracks him down, so, you know, I never wanted to imply that mother love is simply this absolute good, you know. Just as for mothers and for fathers, it can often feel a little bit like you've been locked in a room with your child for years on end. I'm sure they, too, feel like, why am I stuck with these particular parents?
REHM(laugh) Let's go to Sarah. She's in Arlington, Va. Good morning to you.
SARAHGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.
SARAHI've listened to "Diane Rehm" every day and I just wanted to share with the author that I have never been more moved than I was just now listening to the passage that you read. I just think it sounds like an absolutely remarkable book. I haven't read it, but I certainly will now.
DONOGHUEOh, thank you, Sarah.
SARAHAnd I wanted to compliment you.
REHMThat's so kind of you. Thank you for calling. I do agree, you will enjoy it. Let's go now to Provincetown, Mass. Jane, you're on the air.
JANEHi. This is Jane Donoghue, I'm actually Emma's cousin.
DONOGHUEHi, Jane, I remember you (laugh).
JANE(laugh) Right. And my sisters and my aunts and I have all read the book and we love it. The original narrative from the boy's point of view, Jack's point of view, is just fascinating and we're very proud that we share the Donoghue name with you and congratulations on the Irish book award.
DONOGHUEThank you so much.
REHMAnd thanks for calling. To Tom in Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning to you.
TOMGood morning, Diane, and thank you for taking my call.
TOMI just want to echo the last caller's words she just said. I was never so moved. I listen to you every day and I've never been as moved by a writer as the passage I walked back into my living room and heard. And I also experienced a lot of that. Although I'm a 49-year-old white male, I grew up near the city of Toledo, Ohio, and I was a male prostitute by the time I was 15. At the same time, I was fourth in the world in gymnastics and I was taken for two weeks one time and kept in a very similar room and just brought that right back, smells. And thank you. I'm gonna buy this as a gift for my son and my siblings.
REHMThanks for calling, Tom. I hope that the rest of your life is spent in security with your own son. Thanks for calling. And to Fort Bragg, N.C. Good morning, Chris.
CHRISHey, Diane, I'll be quick. I was wondering if the author ever thought of reworking the piece to a piece of drama. It just seems like the juxtaposition of Jack's kind of, you know, childish look at the world and the sinister Mr. Nick and the craftiness of the mother might play really well on stage.
DONOGHUEActually, I would be -- I'd be very interested. I have a playwriting background. It's been awhile since I did a play, but I can really imagine "Room" working on stage because in a sense, that's what actors do every time they step on a stage.
DONOGHUEThey take a bare black box and they turn it into a world of wonder. So I would love that, though I'm more focused in the short-term on a film of "Room." I've been writing a screenplay because I can really see this one of all my works being a good film.
REHMInteresting. Thanks for calling, Chris. Let's talk about Ma's escape plan and the extent to which she has to really imagine every detail of this.
DONOGHUEWell, in a way, it's not that "Room" is -- as a space, is magically, say, at a visual level, it's more that it's full of stories, so Ma has raised Jack through stories. And he's always asking her for a new story and she racks her brains to think of a new story. And even when she starts to tell him the truth about the fact that they are prisoners there, it's very much in this form of, let me tell you the story of my childhood. And it -- by planning an escape, really what she's doing is she's using stories to try to give them a sense of how it might be possible to step out into a world that he's only recently learned even exists. He used to think it was just outer-space outside that skylight.
DONOGHUESo in a way, the book is about the power of story to actually help you change your life because Ma moves rather seamlessly from the fairytales and folktales that she's raised him on through to the idea that, you know, by bravely attempting this escape, he could not only free his own life, but he could save her, too. So in a way, Jack moves from being the passive child to the hero there. And of course, there are many moments when the reader thinks, will he be able to do this, he's only five?
DONOGHUEBut he is a remarkable five-year-old because his upbringing has made him very advanced in some ways. Ma has always trained him to sort of think through problems logically and figure out ways around them, how to work with limited resources, so I think it is just about plausible that a five-year-old like Jack would be able to master what is quite a complicated plan.
REHMAnd be courageous enough to move forward.
DONOGHUEAbsolutely. And not only is he afraid of Old Nick and what might happen, but he's afraid of the unknown world, too.
DONOGHUEAnd there are scenes in the book in which Ma is rather sternly saying, "No, come on, we're going to do this. We're going to escape. Don't you want to escape?" And sometimes Jack says, "Well, maybe when I'm six or maybe in some other time." Because, of course, like any children, he wants to go two steps forward one step back, you know. I mean, they get all excited at the idea of going to pony camp, but then the night before they go, they panic.
REHMThe book is titled "Room," Emma Donoghue is the author. And in our own English pronunciation, it is spelled Donoghue and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go here to Jackie in Lansing, Mich. Good morning, you're on the air.
JACKIEGood morning. What a wonderful show. I just wanted to say that not only did I read the book and think it's amazing, but I had the pleasure of being at a book signing with Emma Donoghue at Schuler's Books and she is just a completely charming person. If anyone has the opportunity to hear her speak, by all means, go.
REHMAnd indeed, millions have now heard you speak and I'm delighted about that. Thank you, Jackie, for calling. What about your own childhood, Emma?
DONOGHUEIt was the opposite of Jack's in that I grew up in a house in Dublin with my seven older siblings and my parents, so there was constant chatter, constant music, constant visitors. It was all wonderfully busy and noisy and very safe and secure, you know. I really didn't have the unhappy childhood that is traditionally thought to be necessary for a writer, so I'm very drawn to dark story lines whether in the 18th century or today. But I didn't live any of them myself. It was really a very happy childhood. And my mother, in particular, she's really the source of the idea of motherhood that I'm trying to get across in "Room."
DONOGHUEBecause even though my mother had eight of us she had, you know, enough love, enough energy, enough attention for each of us and, you know, sometimes we had to do a bit of jumping up and down saying, pay attention to me, me, I've an important question. But then she would look at you and she would give you 100 percent and yet she was never sort of sentimental about motherhood. You know, I don't remember her saying, I love you because there was no need to say it.
DONOGHUEIt was quite clear.
DONOGHUESo I was determined to write "Room" in such a way that Ma and Jack never say, I love you to each other because it's visible on every page.
REHMSo you didn't think the words themselves were that necessary.
DONOGHUEWell, this is a bit of a cultural difference. I think Americans -- it's become part of American culture to say, love you on the phone, for instance, whereas in Ireland...
DONOGHUEIn Ireland, we tend to show it in other ways. But no, I didn't think Ma and Jack needed the words because, you know, everything they say to each other reeks of love. So in a way, the whole book is a love story about a mother and a child whose relationship is always shifting. That's something I find so interesting about parenthood. It's never the same for five minutes. You know, I've had wonderful times of, you know, cozy playing with or reading to my children and then the next minute, you're having some bitter argument. So it's very -- it's very bipolar parenthood.
REHMAnd what about your father? What did he do?
DONOGHUEOh, my father's a very well-known literary critic, Dennis Donoghue, and who's still writing and teaching at 82. So he was such a warm, safe, solid father and he, in particular, stimulated me to think not only of writing, but of getting published because I grew up in a house full of books that he had written, so, you know, I got used to seeing our surname on the spine of a book. So to me, it seemed very natural that, you know, if you had some ideas, you put them between covers and they became a book. So I didn't suffer from that lack of confidence that so many young writers have.
REHMHow early did you begin writing?
DONOGHUESome poetry at about seven about fairies and the Holy Spirit and I seem to remember some short story from the point of view of a mouse on Calvary at the Crucifixion. Lots of Catholic stuff there, but I've been writing every since, really, and I've been lucky enough never to hold down an honest job. I went straight from being a graduate student to being a writer, so I just can't believe my luck some days.
REHMWell, your luck is more than luck, it's professionalism and really praise well deserved. "Room" has been selected as the Irish novel of the year. The book was short-listed for the Booker Award. Emma Donoghue is the author. Whether you read it on the page or whether you listen to it, I promise you you're in for quite an experience. Thank you, Emma.
DONOGHUEThank you so much.
REHMAnd congratulations. Thanks to all of you for listening this morning. I'm Diane Rehm.
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