Emma Donoghue: The How I Write Interview

The author of the terrifyingly brilliant Room has a new collection of verbally beautiful and inventive short stories out, Astray. She talks to Noah Charney about how she maps out the architecture of her books, and what time she eats dinner.

Can you describe your morning routine?A day like today started around 4 in the morning, because often my kids wake me by yowling in their sleep. Then I’m bolt upright, wide awake, so I figure I might as well use that time in the middle of the night, so I hop up and do a bit of work. More typically I would get the kids off to school around 8:30, then I rush to my computer. I wish that what followed was actual writing. That would be bliss. But I admit that I first make my way through a fast-growing undergrowth of business.

So you like to sort out your business work, emails etc, first, before you write?Now I’m describing it to you, Noah, it sounds like really bad time management. I know you’re supposed to do the writing first and leave the administrative stuff for later in the day, but I can’t see my way clear to do the writing until I’ve answered those wretched new emails. When I think back to when I had infinite time to write, before we had kids, I don’t think I did my best writing first thing in the morning. I need to warm up. Maybe in fact, by devoting the first hour of the day to silly business, I’m saving the better creative time for later. But sometimes the business takes all day, I look up and it’s already 4, and I have to rush off to the bus stop to pick up the children.

How many words would you like to have written, to feel that you’ve had a productive day?Do you know? I’ve no idea. I’ve never counted.

That’s probably a good thing. Unusually un-neurotic of you.I only count if I’m writing a piece of journalism, which I do very rarely. For fiction I might keep a running total just to reassure myself that the chapter really is coming along, that the whole thing is beginning to resemble a novel. And if you’re not sure if your words are very good, you can always fall back on the fact that there are a lot of them—hope that they will get magically transfigured into something good later on! Having 40,000 words, say, makes you feel like you’ve got something to work with.

Let’s go to the beginning, then. When conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins, do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?I’m a huge planner, more and more so as the years go by. With my first novel, I drafted it, went through six revisions, and completely changed the ending for the last one. I was stumbling in those days. Some writers can produce marvelous plots without planning it out, but I can’t. In particular I need to know the structure of a novel: what’s going to happen in each chapter and each scene. What’s good about that is you can see the whole thing mapped out, and realize that, maybe, chapter five doesn’t have to be there, because nothing in particular happens. It’s a way to force each scene to have a reason for being there, and it’s easier to write them if you know what the scene has to achieve. I see it as rather like architecture or gardening: a long term vision, how one thing will eventually grow to take its place in the whole picture. I could maybe write something short without planning, but certainly not a novel. I would get lost in the middle if I didn’t block it out. Of course you’re not wedded to your plans—you can always decide that chapter three should switch places with chapter seven. But I do need to know where I’m going.

Do you have any rituals associated with the writing process?I’m not very superstitious. I don’t need a special mug or anything. I need a computer, but it could be anyone’s computer. I happen to use a laptop with a particular writing program that I’m very fond of, made by Apple, called Scrivener. Compared with Microsoft Word, say, Scrivener is marvelous because you can have each scene or chapter as a separate file and you can move them around effortlessly—you can suddenly decide to try your whole book in non-chronological order, with flashbacks, which would be unbearably unwieldy to do in Word. You could tell the program to show you all scenes with a dog in them, and cut them all out.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace?I don’t mind where I am, really. I’ll happily work on trains, on planes, in cafés. I tend to be so lost in the work that I don’t notice the weather. My partner will come home and say, “Beautiful day, wasn’t it?” and I’ll say “Was it?” as I won’t have noticed the real world at all.Do you have a favorite snack while you’re working?Oh yes, Noah, I do! Especially as a kind of reward if I’ve written a good scene. There’s a particular Chocolate Smothered Toffee made by Thornton’s in the U.K. It’s just loaded with fat of all kinds, but I occasionally slip off to the cupboard to have some. The decadence of it at 10 in the morning, it just feels like the perfect reward! You can tell that mine is not a healthy lifestyle in any way.Doesn’t sound so bad to me. For readers who have not yet read one of your books, where would you suggest they start?I would probably say Room, not because it’s the best, necessarily, but because it’s reached the most readers, so it clearly has something people tend to engage with, probably because the narrator is a 5-year-old boy in peril, and everyone cares about that.

Please recommend three books to your readers.Sure. There’s a 1970s fantasy novel by the British fantasist Alan Garner, called Red Shift. It’s set in the same spot in England in different time periods—the end of Roman Britain, the 17th century, and the 20th century. There’s no actual time travel, but the periods have wonderfully spooky echoes. It gave me a sense that history is all around us.

A book I really wish I’d written, I could just die happy now if I had, is Neal Stephenson’s Baroque cycle—nine books, sometimes published as three. One of the few works of fiction I’ve read several times.

And finally, I’d say that I read a lot of social history, for instance Bill Bryson’s last marvelous one, At Home.

Where do you live now and why?London, Ontario, for the simple reason that my partner has a tenured university position here. It’s not a particularly thrilling place, but it is very pleasant, very friendly. I would love to live in a big, exciting city, but first of all I wouldn’t be living the high life, because we’ve got small kids, and second of all, big city people get hard to pin down, whereas if you live in a smaller place, you call your friends for dinner, and they say “Yes!” right away.

Describe your evening routine.It starts at 4:30, when the kids get home from school. It’s very pedestrian. We’ve been known to have dinner before 5 o’clock!

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The early bird special.We blush at that, I know, but it’s sometimes the practical solution to cranky children. Then there’s baths and reading to the kids for hours on end. Sometimes having friends over, the odd dinner, or a lot of good quality television, only on DVD: all of The Wire or Mad Men. Then more reading.

What phrase do you overuse?Oh yes, yes. I’m constantly saying “I read a fascinating article in The New Yorker…” I say it so often that sometimes I think I have nothing interesting to say myself, I merely regurgitate The New Yorker.

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.Perhaps those who’ve met me on book tours think I’m a very nice person, pleasant, but in fact I do have a verbally malicious side, which finds its outlet in my books. I love writing arguments in which people say cruel, cruel things to each other. I try not to use this quality in everyday life, but I definitely possess it.

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?My first novel, Stir Fry—I was a student in my second year of my undergraduate degree. I saw a little ad on an accommodation notice board in the student union, and it had the number 2 followed by the symbol for female, then “seek flatmate.” I remember thinking that this is probably a female couple, but whoever reads the ad won’t necessarily get that, and how funny it would be if a naïve country girl became their flatmate, not realizing that they were a couple. So my first novel was based on that.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.Ah yes. Now, Noah, I’m not going to do the cliché of complaining when only two people come to a reading, as we’ve all had that. But the last time I gave a tour, an elderly aunt of mine whom I hadn’t seen in decades—she stood up in the middle of my reading, mounted the platform, and greeted me. She launched straight into the conversation of catching up on old times right there. I had to somehow get her off the platform without making me look mean to my old aunt.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?I think I would tell them not to worry about trying to second-guess the marketplace. You can’t know what’s going to be fashionable. Publishers don’t know; they’re frequently wrong. Just write what you’re passionately interested in.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?Oh dear, although I’m quite a planner I haven’t quite gotten that far. I think just name and date, because if you’ve done any good in the world, people will probably hear about it anyway—they won’t suddenly discover you based on what’s written on your tombstone.

What is your next project?The one I’m working on now is my first thriller, about a murder that happened in San Francisco in 1876. A woman was working as a frog-catcher and she was shot dead through a window. I have the next four lined up—the folders are on the right side of my computer screen, and every day they stand there, with their arms crossed, giving me dirty looks, and asking “When, when are you going to deal with us?” Like bullies around the schoolyard.