Emma Donoghue, best known for the novel and film Room, explores different territory in her new novel The Wonder. In a small village Ireland in 1859, we follow Lib, a nurse trained under Florence Nightingale, as she investigates the case of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell. Anna claims to have survived for four months with no food, and no drink except for a few sips of water each day. Her case is based on the real-life “fasting girls,” a largely (but not entirely) Catholic phenomenon where girls and young women claimed to have survived for an impossibly long period of time without food.
Donoghue found time to write The Wonder in bits and pieces during the production of Room, for which she was the (Oscar-nominated!) screenwriter. The film was shot in Canada, where Donoghue lives with her partner and two children, and filmed by an Irish director, Lenny Abrahamson; Donoghue is also Irish.
BUST sat down with Donoghue to talk about The Wonder, Room, and her upcoming children’s book.
To start off with, can you tell me where the idea for the Wonder came from?
Around 20 years ago when I was still living in England, I came across one of these cases. She starved to death while the nurses were watching, and only after her death did they really go, “Oh, I guess somebody may be at fault.” For me, it fell under the category of fascinating historical incidents that are just so unrelentingly tragic that I could never write about them. And then just a couple of years ago, I thought, “I’m still fascinated by this, maybe I’ll just make a case up.”
And these fasting girls, had you done research on them at this point?
Yeah, there are a couple of fascinating books about the long tradition of fasting in women. What’s interesting is that obviously, they bear some relation to eating disorders today, but they’re not quite the same profile, either. They’re often very religious, or if not, they emphasize a purity or refinement rather than a thinness. But then, it’s the same with anorexia now, it’s more about control than about thinness in itself.
What was it about it these cases that appealed to you?
It wasn’t that it clicked in terms of eating, because I’ve never skipped a meal in my life! It was more that half of these young women didn’t give interviews to the newspapers. They would be just living quietly in their little village, and other people would write to the papers saying, “Have you heard about this girl, she’s not eating,” and other people would write and say, “It’s truly nonsense, the girl must be a cheat.” There were these pages on which all these male authority figures had their views, and often we never know anything about the girl herself, sometimes not even her name. It seemed like a great example of the mysteriousness of girlhood and how often these girls would be totally powerless.
Like the girl in my book, Anna O’Donnell, she’s a total nobody. She’s young, she’s Irish, she’s a peasant, she’s a girl, but by doing something as weirdly negative as saying no to food, she effectively puts herself on this pedestal and gets taken really seriously. I was interested in the paradox of that.
The Nightingale nurses are also fascinating.
In a couple of these cases, they had put together some kind of watch group. I knew my point of view character would be the nurse, because I wanted my character to care very much what’s going on, but not to know what’s going on. Ignorance is a very good start for fiction. A nurse who would have the smarts to try to outwit the fasters would have to be well-trained, and really, the Nightingales were really the only professional nurses of their day.
It seems like the nurses, or at least Lib, had a strong purpose during the war, and then after the war, there wasn’t really a career path for them.
Women often suffer from a post-war flop, don’t they? A lot of the Nightingales found themselves doing unsatisfying work after the war, and nurses had no authority to prescribe medicine or anything. I wanted to show a woman who was supremely confident but she has to answer to a doddering old doctor.
Do you feel like your readers who are Irish, or Catholic, or Irish Catholic, will receive this in a welcoming way?
I’ve just been there and they were very interested. The Irish respond very well to anything about religion, they don’t see it as a freaky subject, they see it as part of everyday life. A couple of Irish reviews may have been a little bit like, “Ouch, she criticizes Ireland a lot,” but then a lot of Irish writers criticize Ireland. We’re going through a very intense period of self-examination and embracing a lot of change in the past 20 years. In Ireland, one echo they would all notice is that we still don’t have abortion rights, so when you have a committee of men debating the body of this little girl, they would feel those resonances.
I know you said you had the first inspiration quite a while ago, but how long ago would you say it was from the first word you wrote to the end — and how did you find the time?
I probably wrote this on the train to go see Room in production, for instance. I just don’t waste a minute. If my kids are coming home in ten minutes, I open the computer and I work for ten minutes. I work in parked cars and bus stops and trains. I work when the kids are in lessons or are reading. I just snatch the time.
I’d say it took about two or three years, but I wouldn’t be full time working on it because I would write a draft of it or a big chunk of it, and then I would work on something else for a month or two. I refresh myself by going off to other projects. I can’t be monogamous in my writing. It’s so intense, you’re like, “Oh, I’m in the bogs with the priests and I’ve been there for months,” so I was writing this interspersed with my next book, which is for kids and it’s contemporary. And it was such a relief to bounce into 2016 and then back to 1859.
Tell me about your children’s book?
It’s for ages 8-12, it’s my first illustrated one, and I hope it will be a series. It’s called the Lotterys Plus One and it’s a gay couple and a lesbian couple who have had seven children and their grandfather has to suddenly move in with them. I suppose I’m trying to create a slightly Utopian family situation which will cover unpleasant topics like dementia but without getting all heavy handed.
You’ve had such a long career, have you seen a big change in your readership?
I would say that in the ‘90s, historical fiction was still seen as a bit too close to the bodice-ripper, a bit trashy, and now we have people like Hilary Mantel. And also, so many writers are just setting one book in the past, so any of us can feel free to set a book in the past if we want to. And queer scenes are a bit easier to sell than they used to be. They’re still not easy, but they’re certainly easier.
I feel like my audience was primarily lesbian, and then with Slammerkin, for the first time I got a lot of non-lesbian readers — more American than elsewhere, because this is just such a huge market. And now I have a lot of Canadian readers, because Canadians are very loyal to Canadian authors. And with Room, I got a lot of readers who had never read anything of mine before, and then the movie got different readers.
It’s funny — as a screenwriter, because I’m now straddling the world of film as well as books, I’m more aware of prejudices in the film world. A film project that’s focused on women is seen as, “Oh, that might be box office poison, I don’t know about that,” where nobody would say that to me about a novel — partly because most fiction readers are women, while in the film world they’re still very focused on this young, male audience.
Could you tell me more about what that Room reception was like?
What was great was that rather than hunting commercial success, I had made the arty decision of, “No, I’m not going to sell to a big studio, I’m too afraid of what they’d do to it, so I’m going for this tiny Irish company and this very arty Irish director.” We never brought on a big studio, and yet we ended up getting the kind of world notice that you would think you would have to make very commercial decisions in order to get.
A lot of authors who have their books made into movies make the decision to step entirely away from it.
They do, but then sometimes they still bitch about it. I’m inclined to say that because film is still such a male-dominated world, if you want it to be different, then write your own script. It’s a world where women are still represented in such horribly low levels, in both screenwriting and directing, so whenever I talk to another woman who’s had a bestseller, I’m like “Write your own script!”
More from BUST