When she arrives she is a vision in color. A bright red blouse made of some gloriously rich fabric over a plain, dark skirt. Over her shoulders is a shawl she made herself. It's vibrant and beautiful and all of the colors of the rainbow. She herself is colorful. Pale skin -- the stereotypical Irish complexion -- auburn hair and a bright shade of lipstick. On the day I meet her, Emma Donoghue is a vision of color and vibrancy. It makes me think of a passage early in her most recent book, Slammerkin, that describes a scene from her main character's childhood. "As well as her daily dress, Mary had a Sunday one... but it had long since faded to beige. The bread the family lived on was gritty with the chalk the baker used to whiten it; the cheese was pallid and sweaty from being watered down. If the Digots had meat... it was the faint brown of sawdust." A childhood as devoid of color as the book's author is colorful. The contrast is sharp and -- perhaps -- pointed.
"In a sense," says Donoghue, "the novel is the story of an obsession. She gets so obsessed with clothes that it makes her quite ruthless. In a way it's the story of a girl who has succumbed to one particular overwhelming idea which cuts her off from being fully human."
Set in England and Wales in the middle of the18th century, Slammerkin is the story of a young girl who finds herself pregnant and in the street at 14. Gang raped her first night on her own, she is befriended and protected by a young prostitute who shows her the only way she knows for a woman without rank or education to make a living.
Lest the pretty trappings confuse you, Slammerkin is no historical romance. In fact, there's little enough romance of any kind in Donoghue's book. Mary is a gritty little heroine and the story ends in tragedy, not happiness.
Loosely based -- for, in truth, few real facts about the girl remain -- on the story of one Mary Saunders, a girl in her mid teens who, on the night of September 13, 1763, kills her employer with a cleaver.
Donoghue found the writing of Slammerkin quite challenging in many ways. First, there was all that research: "Years and years and years of research." But also, the challenge of writing a character that many readers might find somewhat detestable was daunting. For a while, Donoghue worried that readers wouldn't like Mary. Then she decided that it was a worry she'd have to put aside, because, "if you try and pander to your readers by writing what they like you'll produce something so inoffensive that nobody will like it."
The character that emerges -- the strong-willed, spirited yet ultimately doomed Mary -- is not your typical anti-hero. And as compelling as Donoghue's story is, the details of her setting are awesome. The result, says Donoghue, of diligent research and a history in history. "But having a sort of historian's background, there's nothing I like better than to go to the library for the day and look things up. It's way easier than writing. So after a couple of years of it, I had to say to myself: Go home and write the damn book!"
Slammerkin is Donoghue's ninth book and her fourth work of fiction. At present, she's at work on the screen version of her first novel, Stir-fry and a contemporary novel about long distance relationships. Born in Dublin in 1969, Donoghue has lived in London, Ontario with her partner Christine -- a Canadian teacher -- for the last two years.
Linda Richards: I've heard Slammerkin referred to as a metaphor for the changing times in the 18th century. Was that your intention?
Emma Donoghue: Well, not so much a metaphor, but I think Mary Saunders' story does represent lots of other stories. It's a very little known, obscure case which no one else has ever bothered digging up but me. But I think it can stand for all the rage of the poor against those who were slightly richer than them, I think you can see it as a kind of little hint in advance of all the revolutions that would happen later in the century, for instance.
Although to actually pick up a cleaver and murder someone was not typical behavior, [Mary's] feelings and longing for a bit of luxury, a bit of freedom, a bit of sensuality and her rage against those who seemed to be keeping her in her place, I'd say they were very typical feelings. She might be a little bit ahead of her time, but she was very much of her time, as well. I think she was just at the cutting edge, class-wise. I think she was one of the ones who wanted more than they'd been given. Therefore it makes it easier for modern readers to relate to her, because she's rather more like us.
Fundamentally, I was drawn to the character and drawn to her story. I don't write novels of ideas. There may be plenty of ideas in the novel, but I'd never tell a story just as a way of communicating some theory. I mean, because I write history as well, if I want to put across a theory I'll put it across in the form of history or in the form of an essay, I wouldn't write a novel to get there.
I'm glad to hear you say that, because the story engaged me and I'd read one of the reviews that talked a lot about metaphor and I was disappointed, because I'd really thought it was a lovely, rich story.
I think some people can't understand why you would write a novel set in the past at all. Many people just assume that novels would be about your own era. And therefore they assume that you've got some major points to make. To me all of history is a kind of warehouse of stories for me to burgle. I don't feel I should be restricted to my own era. I feel there are amazing stories all over the place and many of them happened a long time ago. It makes it all the more attractive to me because it makes it more exotic. It's a different kind of world.
I find it easier to write contemporary fiction. I'm writing a contemporary novel now set half in Ireland and half in Canada and that's just flowing along. [Laughs] It's much easier. If I want to describe people having lunch nowadays, I know just what they'd be eating. Whereas if it's in the 18th century I have to think: OK, now. What would they have paid? What would they have eaten? How hot would the food be? That kind of thing. So it's more work to write historical fiction, but I think often readers do want to be transported to another world. I don't think people just want to read echoes of themselves all the time. I think there's a real hunger nowadays for books that -- in the very limited time you have to read, last thing at night maybe. Or sitting on a subway or a bus -- books that will transport you somewhere. Either geographically or in time or both.
18th century food sounds rather hideous, in general, I have to say. Most things would have turned up cold and probably be disease-ridden. And they may have had good clothes, but I think most of the food would have been hideous. No wonder they had to drink gin all the time just to wash it down. Apparently one reason the population rose a lot in western Europe is that they were drinking tea and tea kind of helps to sterilize the gut. It's way healthier for you than water and it has a certain kind of antiseptic effect.
The conditions of filth were astonishing. But you have to be careful in a historical novel. You don't want to act like a Martian, going: Oh wow! Look! A rat in that gutter! You have to remember that your character lived there all the time and therefore wouldn't be marveling at every little thing or objecting to every little smell. You have to sort of strike a balance.
In Slammerkin, at one point Mary remarks when she doesn't hear the sounds of rats.
Yes. She remarks at silence or cleanliness or air that doesn't taste of anything.
It's like writing a science fiction novel, in a way. Because we aren't surprised at the things around us, but someone from the future might think: how could they have done that back then?
Yes, that's right. I mean, it's a real help if your character can be a bit of an outsider. Like when Mary first gets into the whole prostitution scene in London, she's new to it. And again when she goes to Wales, she's new to it. Whereas if someone is living in an environment that they find familiar you can't have them remarking on everything all the time. You've got to have a certain kind of blasé manner while quietly giving your readers the information they need. It is a tricky balance.
And she's fascinated by color. And you're very colorful today. Is there a significance in color for you?
Well, I do love bright colors and velvets and satins and silks myself. You know, that doesn't affect my life. It's a fairly trivial thing. It's just a lifestyle thing. But in Mary Saunders' era, to be of the class that wore dirty old beige things and to want white velvet, that was a massive leap from one class to another. She was wanting what she wasn't allowed to have. After all, a couple of centuries before her they actually had all these things encoded in the law were you weren't allowed to wear red velvet because that was the cloth that belonged to a class above you. So the fact that they needed at times to legislate what people wore I think shows how significant it is. These things are all muddied nowadays because a lot of designer clothes come already ripped and the rich wear denim and unless you know your labels it's hard to read how wealthy people are by their clothes. Our clothes have all gotten much more similar. Lots of us sit around in jeans and T-shirts. Whereas in the 18th century, things like high heels, big hoops under your skirts and elaborate wigs and hairpieces, all of these were ways of saying: I'm worth something and you people are scum. [Laughs]
Mary understands that very quickly.
She does. And I think I wanted to give clothes a lot of importance in the novel. Yet, every now and then, I wanted to have her remember, you know, these are just clothes after all. In a sense, the novel is the story of an obsession. She gets so obsessed with clothes that it makes her quite ruthless. In a way it's the story of a girl who has succumbed to one particular overwhelming idea which cuts her off from being fully human. That's another example of where you want to be in your character's head and then every now and then step back a little bit and remember just how weird they are. [Laughs] It's not quite normal to be that obsessed with clothes.
Was she a hard character to write?
Every now and then I worried that nobody would like her. But you can't let that stop you. Because if you try and pander to your readers by writing what they like you'll produce something so inoffensive that nobody will like it. So I think at all points in the writing where you start to worry about your readers, you know, that's cowardice and you just have to ignore them again until it's finished.
I think having a character that readers can strongly identify with is the important thing. They don't have to approve all the time; not at all. But they have to believe that [the character] would do what they are doing. And you can never tell what readers will like. The very same character who one reviewer finds really credible and likable the next will hate. It's an utterly subjective business.
I always remind myself of that when the reviews come in. Some people like them, some don't. I mean, you might be able to get a slightly more objective review of something that's non-fiction that has a certain element of accuracy to it, but fiction is totally subjective. That's the fun of it.
How many books have you written?
Slammerkin is my ninth book. My fourth book of fiction, but I've done plays and history and anthologies as well. You know, I have to earn a living [Laughs], you know yourself.
Your last book was Stir-fry?
That was my first novel. And then Hood. They're both contemporary. Then my third book of fiction was called Kissing the Witch. That's a book of fairy tales, rethought traditional fairy tales for adults. That was fun because it helped me get away from contemporary naturalism and try out a different style. That definitely made it easier to write Slammerkin. It was kind of a bridge into a different era.
You're working on a screenplay for Stir-fry right now?
That's right. That's been fascinating because it's got the same characters and the same storyline, but every scene is different from the book because film has such different needs. You have to think much more visually. Also, in film, there's an expectation that your main character will really drive the story along. The producer is always saying: the main character has to be proactive. Has to push the story along. Whereas a novel doesn't have to be that way. Things can kind of happen to people a bit more. A main character can kind of drift: always observing things, but not necessarily forcing the action. Whereas film, in a way, is more conventional with a story of a hero who drives things on.
Actions have to speak a lot.
And again, a film has a very conventional structure. They use a three act structure and certain things have to happen and there has to be a climax in a certain place. It's much simpler in a way. Whereas novels have very few rules. No editor will ever say your novel has to have three main parts. There's no rules at all, which is what I like.
I wouldn't have thought of the screenplay as being more traditional, but put that way I guess it is.
Well yeah, it may be 20th century, but it's developed very firm rules very quickly. The novel, you can say, is an 18th century form that has lasted, but it's evolved constantly and there are no rules at all. And there are things coming out these days and no one is even sure they're novels. Stories linked into a sequence or Dave Eggers' book. Some people are calling that a memoir and some people are calling it a novel. So there's a lot of really interesting and sort of genre-bending books around. I think there's a real growth in novels made up of fragments or short fictions. I think we've a real interest in multiplicity and diversity and life in fragments rather than one big story that'll stand for everything.
One thing that was really important to me in Slammerkin was to make it Mary Saunders' story, but I was also really interested in everybody else in the household. I definitely wanted the story to be told from many people's points of view because I felt they would all have a different angle on the tragedy and I wanted to give a whole sense of how a household worked. The household was the biological family, but also servants. In microcosm, I wanted it to work as a study of the whole society. How everyone had their different roles and different status and how, in a way, they're all selling something of themselves. A wet nurse sells her milk and a footman sells his work and a prostitute sells her body too. My previous novels have had one single point of view. With this I was trying for something much more layered. It was really fun.
You live all over the place.
I live in Canada, but I go back to Ireland and England a lot. I'd say I'm away about five months of the year, but I live in London, Ontario: that's my own actual home. But my mother and half my family are back in Ireland, so I go there a lot. And I go to England a lot for libraries and to see my agent and publishers and friends.
Oh, I came to Canada for love. [Laughs] It's very handy being able to live anywhere, as a writer. The technology has made that increasingly easy. You really don't have to live in some big city. I'd been sort of commuting for a few years: doing the long distance relationship thing. And then finally moved two years ago.
Tell me about the next book.
It's a contemporary one, that's about long distance relationships. [Laughs] And I'm not just being autobiographical. Well, clearly I am being autobiographical, but so many people I know are in long distance relationships. And I don't just mean with lovers or with spouses but with their friends, with their families. The technology has allowed us to get into these faintly absurd situations where you're living thousands of miles from most of the people you love. And every now and then I think: what are we doing? We should all just live in villages!
People take jobs anywhere in the world and say: Oh well, there's e-mail. And yes there is e-mail and there are other technologies too, but it's still not like actually sitting on a sofa with your friends. So I'm very interested in what these technologies can give people. Like, you know, the freedom to go to Australia and yet stay in touch with their friends. But also the built-in disappointment, too.
Tell me how to properly pronounce your name.
And it's actually Dr. Donoghue, isn't it?
That's right, my young woman! [She gruffens her voice appropriately] It is Doctor Donoghue! [Laughs] I only use Doctor Donoghue at the dentist because I went in once feeling particularly disempowered, as you do, you know? And they said: Is it Miss or Mrs.? And I was so irritated by the question that I said: Doctor! So now they always call me in as Dr. Donoghue. Which doesn't make the experience at the dentist any nicer, really.
What's your Ph.D. in?
It's in English. [I did my thesis] on 18th century fiction. It's on the concept of friendship between men and women. It was kind of a new concept then. There was a lot of debate over whether men and women could be friends. Actually, you still hear those debates sometimes. Especially in women's magazines. You'll have someone writing in and saying: Is it possible to be friends? Like the point hasn't been proved in 200 years.
[Getting my Ph.D. was] very good training. It bought me time, basically. It bought me three years before I started my career where instead of having to get a real job I was able to be a grad student and write novels and plays. So it was crucial for buying me that head space. And it means I've never had a real job, which is great. Because by the time my grant ran out I had a contract for my novels, so I've managed to avoid that whole spending your 20s in a real job and wishing you had time to write.
You never had to be a waitress or anything?
Never. I was a chambermaid once as a student and I was so bad at it I got sacked. Apparently my bathroom skills needed remedial training. Very humiliating.
How old are you?
30. I was born in Dublin in 1969 and I lived there until I was 21. Then I spent eight years in England and have been in Canada since. So this has been my second emigration. Which is very unfashionable because most Irish people are going back to Ireland at the moment. Everyone is flooding back. And I chose that time to move to Canada. [Laughs] Against the tide.
What authors did you find influential?
Well, I grew up on the sort of classic ones. You know: Jane Austin, Dickens, the Bröntes. But I used to read a real mix of authors in the English language: lots of English, lots of American, some Canadian, but I wouldn't have even thought of them as Canadian. I just thought of Margaret Atwood as one of those authors in the English language. Lots of Irish stuff too but I don't see the literatures of these countries as all that completely distinct. It just seemed like they were all on bookshelves.
I clearly am an Irish writer and that's my, kind of, language and the particular flavor of English that I write and I wouldn't see my books always as within that tradition. I think these geographical labels aren't as relevant nowadays. Especially as people move around so much. So I'm happy to be Irish Canadian or whatever mixture.
I certainly think with a book like Slammerkin you wouldn't necessarily know it was written by someone Irish. And that's what's really fun: is to write something that's not clearly me at all.
Was there a lot of research for Slammerkin?
There was years and years and years of research. But having a sort of historian's background, there's nothing I like better than to go to the library for the day and look things up. It's way easier than writing. So after a couple of years of it, I had to say to myself: Go home and write the damn book! Because you could always postpone and say: Oh, but I need to find out more about how corsets were made. Oh, but I need to investigate exactly what villages that road would have passed through. You can really get obsessive. So, yeah, there was a lot of research. But that's the only way to find the tiny little fresh details that make a study of a particular era really convincing. A lot of people have a sort of vague impression of: Oh, the streets of 18th century London would have been dirty. But you have to know exactly what would have been in the gutters, what particular bits of dirt. What time of night did they throw the shit out of the windows? So it was really satisfying work.
So you research a 100 per cent, and then you decide to show maybe two per cent, but the two per cent you've chosen rather than just the two per cent that you could find by going to more third sources. Going to original sources or even just browsing through things that you don't think are going to be absolutely relevant. I browsed through so many books about 18th century London. Even if they weren't particularly about the place Mary would be living or weren't about prostitutes, but you'd still come across the most wonderful, quirky little details. Like I have one of Mary's johns tell her that he's just been to a party where there's a man on roller-skates. And I don't know in what book I came across the invention of roller-skates, but I thought: Wow! She could have met someone who'd seen the roller-skates. So everything connects. It really is a bit like having a kind of obsession. You come across things in museums or just in everyday conversations and you say: That could go in the novel! | November 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.