Book club webchat with Room author Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue was our book club guest author in February 2011 to discuss her novel Room. It shot to international bestsellerdom as soon as it was published in August 2010, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and won the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year.
It is narrated by Jack, a five year old, who lives in a locked room with his Ma and who has never been Outside. But Room is not a horror or victim-survivor story, it's a breathtakingly daring novel about language, motherhood and love.
sephrenia: I finished reading this the same day I received it and I can honestly say that no book has ever had me crying as much as this one did. I fell in love with Jack and his view of the world and was awed by his mother's strength. Even now I'm still thinking about it. I've already passed this on to my mother who is just as taken with the story as I am and has already had requests to borrow it when she's done. Emma Donoghue is an absolutely brilliant writer in my eyes. I wonder where the inspiration for this story came from?
EmmaDonoghue: It was hearing about Felix Fritzl back in April 2008 that put the story into my mind. But I really wrote it because my kids were four and one, and my mind was brimming over with thoughts about parenting.
Filmbuffmum: As the mother of a very chatty four year old, I felt that Jack's voice was amazingly realised - it must be really hard to 'do' convincing child narrators. Although the subject matter is sad, it was so beautifully handled. It made me think a lot about how much life changes as a mother, and how one of our biggest responsibilities becomes to maintain a degree of normality for our children, even in difficult circumstances.
I wondered whether the author had drawn from any real-life experiences (obviously not being kidnapped and locked up) in that respect. It reminded me of times when children are ill or family members die etc, and we have to think about how to present scary information in a way which the child can understand and cope with. Fantastic book.
EmmaDonoghue: Good point, we all have moments of having to explain terrible things (death, illness, violence, Nazis) to our kids - or deciding to fudge it. Some of the conversations in Room, for instance when Ma finds herself regretting that she's told Jack about that science experiment with the baby monkeys, are based on moments between myself and my son when I'm trying to get myself out of some complicated story about, say, slavery... So no, Room isn't based on any particular experiences of mine except the everyday extraordinary experience of having kids. I tried to make it as universal as I could - to make Jack's odd story touch on everybody's story at points.
TillyBookClub: Emma, a number of people have asked about your research - did you read a lot about captive situations? Or discuss it with psychologists? I thought the doctor was very well drawn and wondered if he might be based on a real person (suddenly realised that the answer you gave to my initial question - 'write to the limits of your imagination' - might mean you didn't do any of the above)?
EmmaDonoghue: No, no, I always do a lot of research, I just meant that you don't have to stick to what you know from personal experience beforehand, you can expand what you know by various methods! In the case of Room I did a great deal of research online. I rarely interview individuals (except I did ask my brother-in-law about the construction of Room, and he volunteered some great details such as the fence built into the walls.)
Mostly I speed-read lot of different texts - in the case of Room, that included news sites, message boards, research papers by psychologists, studies of children in prison, solitary confinement, the websites of psychiatric clinics, case histories on www.feralchildren.com, discussion groups of people conceived through rape... all sorts of things, including many horrors.
deepdarkwood: What research did you do into captive behaviours, and into the treatment of people coming out of these sorts of experiences. The hospital seemed unforgivably naive to me, but maybe that's the reality when people deal with these situations so infrequently.
EmmaDonoghue: Re: the hospital, I don't think any institution can have much experience of such cases because they're so extraordinarily rare. And each one is different. For instance, the Fritzls were clearly in really poor health on release, whereas Ma and Jack present as healthy and sane... but have some hidden issues.
Haribojoe: How do you see the character of Jack's Grandmother? I ask because I found that I really didn't like her because of the way she was with Jack when he came to live with her.
EmmaDonoghue: Grandma is deeply flawed because... I wanted her to represent the human race, since she's the first person Jack starts to really get to know. It would have been easy to have her be some marvellously accepting, sensitive grandmother.
I wanted to show that even a very well-meaning and warm person is going to have enormous trouble both coming with the return of her daughter (in this almost unrecognisable form) and knowing how best to welcome Jack into a world that's foreign to him. I think she does a pretty OK job but some readers do find her blunders hard to forgive...
HattiFattner: Steppa has the most natural, instinctive reaction to Jack (I especially loved his getting into Lego) despite his not being 'blood'. What Emma has just said about parenting being a bond between any adult and child, not just a biological process for direct relatives, is such an interesting point.
EmmaDonoghue: Steppa is one of my own favourites, actually. I always wanted an ideal man for Jack to encounter in the second half, and I thought it would be nicely unpredictable for that man to come not in the form of the Wise Doctor or Long-Awaited Grandpa but as a bald, dope-smoking newcomer to the family, who really has no history with Ma or much of a stake in the story, or even parenting experience, he just happens to be one of these people who are relaxed around kids.
Blatherskite: I expected the shopping mall to be really scary for Jack, for all the noises and people to send him screaming for his Ma or curled up in a ball unable to cope with the huge amount of (can't think of a better word) input. Especially after we learn that he doesn't like lots of people talking over one another in the hospital. I was a bit shocked when the worst that happened was a bit of shoplifting...
EmmaDonoghue: Yes, Jack is a very resilient character; I suppose I'm suggesting that a few days in the Outside have taught him a lot fast. Also, that the stressful aspects of a visit to the mall might be at least temporarily outweighed by all the things he would find exciting. I think the fact that he is visually familiar with the world from watching TV allows him to try out new spaces that you might expect would make him curl up in a ball... Still, an ill-advised expedition, but haven't we all ended up in ghastly scenes in public when we kidded ourselves we could 'pop in' for one quick thing?
MayorNaze: I was really interested in the sense of routine that the girl managed to establish and how she incorporated manners, education and exercise into their lifestyle, despite there only ever being the two of them - a way of maintaining sanity or a way of hanging onto the hope that they would some day live outside of Room? She (whether through necessity or her natural character) seemed to respond to her situation in a very 'sensible' manner, if that makes sense?
EmmaDonoghue: Both. Most of the habits Ma teaches Jack, just like the breastfeeding, are good for them in several ways. So the running races, for instance, keeps him fit, keeps her fit, is fun, relieves tension, and also prepares him for the day he'll need to escape. I wanted to suggest though Ma that mothering is pretty instinctive, if you pay attention; that without having read any manuals, she'll figure out what Jack needs. A lot of the research I read about families suggested that ritual and routine are crucial.
Twowillbefine: I thought that the way in which we understand Ma's desperation to get out although Jack does not was amazing. And I wondered how you weighed up the optimum age for Jack? Not understanding of the situation but beginning to question and getting a bit big (presumably) for Wardrobe and for Ma to minimise his existence to Old Nick.
EmmaDonoghue: Good question, and I didn't pick five just because Felix Fritzl was five or because my son was hitting five. I think five is the perfect balance point because they can communicate in complicated language but they're still pretty alien; there's so much about the world that they (even if they live in Outside!) don't understand. And also, yes, I thought that at five Jack would start acting more independently and so jeopardising the status quo, as for instance when he gets out of Wardrobe and wakes Old Nick...
Also I didn't Jack to be getting old enough that his baby-like physical closeness with Ma (sharing a bed, breastfeeding) would start even verging on the incestuous.
cakeywakey: I agree with other posters that some of the family Outsiders seemed too blase about his ordeal - surely they would have been more considerate of his situation? Or is their behaviour something you've picked up from your research? I'm one of the people who finds it hard to forgive Grandma by the way.
In your acknowledgements you mention that your brother-in-law was scarily practical about the set-up of Room. In what way?
EmmaDonoghue: I don't think the Outsiders are blase, exactly, I think they're stunned - deeply uncomfortable with the whole situation, and slightly repelled by Jack (which is why the uncle and aunt don't bring their daughter along on day one). So I was trying to suggest that when they say facile or awkward or inconsiderate things, it's their attempt to keep things feeling even halfway normal while in the back of their minds they keep up a running chorus of omigodthispoorkid!!!
Re: Jeff my brother-in-law, what scared me was when he started ringing me up and volunteering things about Old Nick's behaviour. 'Your psycho's gotta make her use cloth diapers,' he said on one occasion, and on another, 'He won't let her have an extractor fan in case the neighbours smell spicy food...' I think he quite enjoyed channelling his inner tyrant!
thousandsplendidsuns: One element that broke my absorption in the book was the way Jack gets to escape by pretending to be dead and the captor never checks him out... If he was controlling enough to bury chicken wire under the floor wouldn't he at least have had a tiny peek?
EmmaDonoghue: Good question, nobody's ever asked that before. What I was trying to suggest is that Ma does have a certain power over Old Nick, as the victims often do in this kind of long-term kidnapping situation. And that on that particular night, with the force of her (fake) grief, and her making him swear not to unwrap Jack, she does manage to compel Old Nick - spook him into - doing what she's told him to. There's a moment when he could simply bury Jack in the bushes like the first baby, too, but he doesn't.
therachelpapers: I would love to hear from Emma about which of the two quite different sections of the book she found more challenging to write, Room or Outside, and why?
EmmaDonoghue: Actually they were about the same: in the first half, the challenge was to get the balance between grim and happy right, and in the second, it was more about deciding what bits of the world Jack should encounter... but it always felt as if, if I held tight to his perspective, he'd lead me through.
LordVolAuVent: A couple of questions: Jack comments that people Outside don't seem to play with their kids enough. Is this something you believe yourself? Should we interact more with our children? Would you have made the decision Ma did re. their rescue? Do you think it was right? Obviously Jack was put at great risk and she may never have known what happened to him. would you have been able to go through with it?
EmmaDonoghue: Most of the satirical bits are aimed at myself: I'm one of those mothers in Starbucks fobbing her kids off with giant cookies so she can talk to her friends or check her email. My kids are growing up so fast and I always feel I haven't played with them enough...
Re the rescue, no, I don't think I'd have had the courage to change the status quo. I don't have any of Ma's superhuman qualities. As for the bit that makes me cry, it's when she's telling him about the stillbirth.
RebeccaMumsnet: Following on the 'feeling like a bad mother' theme, this paragraph really shook me and actually made me cry. Was the intention to make the reader re-look at the world through an innocent's eyes? Because if it was then this was the point that it really clicked with me, if not... as you were. (I hope you don't mind me quoting, but I think it is a poignant point in the story.)
"In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time. Even Grandma often says that, but she and Steppa don't have jobs, so I don't know how persons with jobs do the jobs and the living as well. In Room me and Ma had time for everything. I guess the time gets spread very thin like butter over all the world, the roads and houses and playgrounds and stores, so there's only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit. Also everywhere I'm looking at kids, adults mostly don't seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and cute, they make the kids do the things all over again so they can take a photo, but they don't want to actually play with them, they'd rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there's a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn't even hear."
EmmaDonoghue: Ah, I'm really glad you like those passages because some reviewers have quoted them as examples of social critique that the author is clearly inserting in Jack's mouth. Whereas it seems to me that if you interviewed the average five year old, they would say that adults are always busy and don't play enough... I had no particular message to broadcast in Room, I just tried to think hard about how someone like Jack would see our world.
BoffinMum: You used a trip to a shopping mall with the uncle and aunt as some kind of plot device but I am not quite sure what that signified. Could you elaborate for me please? Was this meant to say something sinister about the uncle and aunt and their apparent introspection, or am I reading too much into it?
EmmaDonoghue: I wouldn't call it a plot device, just a fairly representative element of life in North America... Of course Jack should have been brought walking in woods instead, but life's not like that, it includes shopping. And when his Grandma does bring him to the beach, he finds it just as stressful as the mall, and more disappointing!
Re uncle and aunt, not sinister exactly, but yeah, they get it wrong. Isn't it possible you would, too, if a family member returned from the dead with a weird five year old, and you had to figure out how to spend the day with him?
BoffinMum: I think it was the fact he didn't get to the dinosaurs made me very sad as over here in the UK this would be considered a massive mistake by many parents in such a sensitive situation.
EmmaDonoghue: Calm down, I think I do specify in a one-line reference that he does get to see them later on! But he's disappointed they're only bones; he'd been expecting live ones.
BoffinMum: My mind is at rest now I know he saw them!
cakeforbrains: I was wondering about the moments in the room when Ma goes into herself and sleeps and Jack watches TV all day - are they moments of mental breakdown or is Ma experimenting with painkillers to see how many she needs for the later suicide attempt? Ma seems so motivated by Jack's wellbeing that I was surprised she'd be (mentally) absent from him.
EmmaDonoghue: Ah, no, I don't think she's experimenting with painkillers or coldbloodedly practising for suicide, just withdrawing into herself. It seemed to me that all mothers make bargains, and hers might be 'I don't have to get up today, but tomorrow I'll be 100% again...'
Elly68: Why did you decide that Ma should try to take her own life in hospital? She always fought to protect Jack and then when they finally reached the 'outside' she was constantly trying to make him see how wonderful everything could be...
EmmaDonoghue: It's not just a cheap plot device (though of course it is handy for making Jack start growing up faster, a forced separation). It was based on my research into solitary confinement in US jails: very often there's a delayed, catastrophic breakdown, years later. I didn't want to underestimate Ma's pain but suggesting that she's just fine now; it made sense to me that she would let herself fall apart at the point when there are other people around to take care of Jack. It is hard for readers to forgive her, but I wanted to suggest that no mother is perfect after all...
madwomanintheattic: As a parent I was quite interested in the situation from the 'woman to mother' side - it could have been really interesting dealing with this in isolation, unaffected by society/cultural expectations of motherhood. I thought the narrative as it stood was fine though - if a bit 'Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time', so it was interesting to think of it from an Aspergers/social integration point of view as well. The juxtaposition of the two voices would have made it for me it, I think.
EmmaDonoghue: Yes, some readers would like to hear from Ma directly but I think her perspective would have been too weighed down by sadness, so I decided to set myself the challenge (the book's most difficult task, in fact) of making her a vivid character only through what Jack tells us about her...
zany: How did you come to a decision about the level of spoken grammar for the five year old boy's speech?
EmmaDonoghue: Well, I didn't have to stick to what most five-year-olds speak like, because I knew that Jack's upbringing has been a very hothouse one; whatever he lacks in terms of swings and slides, he's got linguistic stimulus.
So I went for a language that is quite sophisticated, in that inconsistent way kids have of using some long words correctly but still messing up some basic turns of phrase. Kids don't progress evenly through vocabulary levels, they just grabs at language and have fun with it! Interestingly, one blogger ran the novel through some kind of search engine that tells you the age-related language level of any text, and she came up with an age of seven.
Elly68: Goodness, what a tall order to write it based on most of the viewpoint coming from a five year old. How did you overcome not losing Jack's perspective on how he saw the world or the 'room'?
EmmaDonoghue: I spent months before writing the book figuring out exactly what Jack would be like, what he'd know in theory (from TV or from Ma) and what he'd know in practice from his senses. Then I launched into writing it, always in Jack's head, not letting myself put anything down that Jack wouldn't think to comment on. But I still made mistakes I had to correct, like at one point I had him compare the fuzzy feel of Plant's leaves to a dog, then I remembered he doesn't know what dogs feel like...
moodymama: Nearly finished the book. The fact that it is written in the language of a five year old makes it really hard to read. I like the premise and found it interesting to begin with but it's losing its draw. Enjoyable enough but with weak areas.
EmmaDonoghue: I agree, Jack's language demands some effort from the readers. (Though not compared with some books in really strange invented dialects, such as Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.) I suppose my hope was that it pays off, because readers get more attached to him because they've had to work to figure out his world...
pommedeterre: I'd like to know why we don't ever hear Ma's real name used? Jack can process other names but not his Ma's. Is it to show that he really cannot picture her except as a mother? I loved Jack's attachment to Room in his memory as well. Did Emma ever consider including a map of Room with the book?
EmmaDonoghue: There's a map/diagram on the US publishers website, www.roomthebook.com. And as for why Ma never gets a name... I did really try to pick one for her, but none of them sounded right, and I finally realised that it's because Jack didn't want to say what it was, because to him she'll always be Ma.
ShoonaBee: Several members of my (all female, purely by coincidence, not by design) book club read this last year just after it came out and they took a few months to persuade the rest of us to read it, as most of us are mums and couldn't face what appeared to be such a traumatic read. I finally read it a few weeks ago and absolutely loved it. The type of book I had to keep picking up while making the tea etc, so the kids kept asking me what I was reading (hard to describe it loosely to the seven and 10 year olds without scaring them though).
Exceptionally imaginative and involving, superb use of language, very hopeful story and actually made me feel like a poor parent, in terms of the amazing parenting the mother in the book manages in such severe circumstances. My book club is discussing it in a couple of weeks so very interested to see what the author has to say and what other Mumsnetters think.
EmmaDonoghue: Believe me, writing it made me feel like a bad parent too! I'm so not 'Ma', I'm older (41) and more irritable and distracted by some of the many other things I want to do, including (but not limited to) writing books.
carve133: Can I ask about your decision to have Ma as an adopted child? It says 'Not the End' at the end (or something similar - MIL has my copy now!). Does this mean, as others have asked, that there may be a sequel? Congratulations on writing such an enjoyable, clever and thought-provoking novel.
EmmaDonoghue: I'm afraid 'Not the End' was a slogan added by I think one of the TV book clubs to the paperback edition, not a comment of mine at all... Many people have asked for a sequel but I have no intention of writing one, I prefer Jack and Ma to head into a future that the reader has to imagine for them. In my mind Ma and Jack get to become increasingly ordinary: that's the best thing I could wish for them.
Re: Ma being adopted, I was afraid that people would take the first half of the book as a statement that the bond between birth mother and child is the most sacred one... whereas I think parenting is a form of magic that can happen between any child and any adult who commits to them. So I thought it would complicate it a little bit if in the second half of the book, Jack encounters various things (adoption, stepfathers) that complicate the picture-perfect image of the nuclear family. My own family (two mums, two kids) is an unusual one so that's part of what I was bringing to Jack's story.
ilovesushi: I loved the breastfeeding aspect of the book. It was so tender and real. My two year old recently stopped breastfeeding and like Jack he kissed goodbye to my breasts when he stopped. It was lovely to read something so insightful and 'on the money' about not just breastfeeding but all the minutiae of motherhood.
I thought ma was an amazing mother and her way of dealing with the horror of their situation by shutting down for a day or so was probably the kindest way (to Jack) of retaining her sanity. I wondered what you took from your own experience of motherhood. Is ma the mother you try to be? I found her inspirational.
EmmaDonoghue: Actually I'm way less atttachment parenting than Ma, but I have one friend who breastfeeds her kids till five, and I thought it made absolute sense in the context of Room. (That friend's two-year-old currently calls her mother's breasts 'my babies'!) I nursed my daughter till 16 months and still sometimes miss the magic. I think many styles of mothering can work if you give them ample love and attention.
deepdarkwood: From the cover (if I hadn't heard about it), I would have assumed this was going to be another of the miserable 'Crap Childhood' books - the Child Called It-style.
EmmaDonoghue: Re: the cover, I wasn't thrilled about the blurred-looking-little-boy myself, but many of the chains that sell paperbacks in large numbers pretty much insist on having some kind of emotive photograph...
ohmydear: What age is Room aimed at?
Adults or adults and older children?
EmmaDonoghue: Adults, officially, but I always had in mind that anyone from about 10 up should be able to read it. Certainly, I know a lot of teens who have done, and it's won an American Library Association award for being an adult title that crosses over to a teen audience.
PaisleyLeaf: With two children, how/when do you write?
Do you set yourself office hours?
EmmaDonoghue: My career absolutely depends on daycare. 9am to 3pm, Monday to Friday, and I treasure every minute of it!
TillyBookClub: Which childhood book most inspired you?
What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?
EmmaDonoghue: Childhood book... I'd have to say the complete Narnia cycle, which is a wonderful allegory of how books work - they literally yank you into another world, as is always happening to those kids at the start of each adventure. And advice? Forget 'write what you know'. Write to the utmost limits of what you can imagine.
EmmaDonoghue: This has been enormously satisfying, thanks everyone! Going to have dinner with two friends and their new baby now... All the best and thanks so much for putting so much energy into reading and discussing my book.