Emma Donaghue instills wonder at Contemporary Writers series

By Nathan Ress

Features Editor

This past Tuesday, 4 October marked the first installment of the 2016/2017 Canisius College Contemporary Writers Series. The series is a twice yearly reading sponsored by various grants and donors and held in the Montante Cultural Center. It allows the Canisius community to welcome prominent living writers and provide them a space to read their work as well as interact with various members of the community through questions and a reception.

The series was kicked off with a reading by Emma Donoghue a very successful contemporary Irish author. Her body of work is incredible with published novels, as well as works for the stage, screen, and even radio. Donoghue was born in Dublin, Ireland where she attended college before moving to England to study at Girton College, University of Cambridge. After leaving Dublin for school at the age of twenty, Donoghue traveled between Dublin, England, and Canada. Finally she settled in London, Ontario with her partner and two children.

Donoghue has been a lifelong writer since the age of 23. She said during her presentation in Montante that the ideas for her first novel came during her college years and she hasn’t looked back since. She has been blessed enough to make her living exclusively as a writer and has only held one ‘honest job’ as a chambermaid, from which she was fired.

Donoghue’s recent successful publications include such books as Room, and Frog Music. Frog Music, published in 2014 is a historical fiction work inspired by the murder of a cross dressing frog catcher in 1876 San Francisco.

More successfully Room was published in 2010 and is a large contributor to Donoghue’s success. The novel is told from the perspective of five year old boy Jack. Jack lives with his mother in a one room home and has never been outside. Despite this frightening premise, the novel is by no means a horror story, but instead what Donoghue describes as a “celebration of resilience and the love between a parent and child. The film adaptation of Room was premiered in September of 2015 and was a huge success, having since been nominated for and received a handful of various awards.

Most recently, Donoghue has published The Wonder as of 20 September 2016. This latest work follows the story of Lib Wright, an English nurse in 1859 Ireland. Lib has been sent to a small Irish village to oversee the case of Anna O’Donnell, an eleven year old girl who is said not to have eaten for four months. Anna has drawn tourists, visitors, and journalists from across Ireland, and now Lib has been tasked with getting to the bottom of the mystery.

Describing The Wonder as a psychological thriller about two strangers who transform one another, Donoghue read selections from the novel Tuesday. Specifically, she read from the first chapter of the novel in which Lib and Anna meet. We find lib as an obedient and precautionary young nurse come to do her duty and observe. She is convinced that little Anna is a fraud and is determined to figure her out. Anna, meanwhile is a perfectly ordinary young girl. She is polite, honest, and genuinely interested in Lib’s company. Donoghue read the initial physical exam Lib performs on Anna, showing the characters’ first interaction as they begin to get to know one another. The story is told from the third person focusing on the thoughts of Lib, and does not hesitate to voice her inner thoughts and suspicions.

Like many of Donoghue’s works, The Wonder features incredibly deep characters, whose personalities are the primary drivers for the storyline. The reader is able to immerse his or her self into the action and thoughts of the characters and find them consistently relatable and human. The honesty of the characters and the inventiveness of Donoghue both shined forth in Donoghue’s reading, her voice adding emphasis and even switching voices occasionally.

The reading drew a pleasantly large audience, filling the Montante seating and creating an intimate setting. As Donoghue read she was able to sit close enough to the audience to see the faces in the crowd and to interact with the attendants, and she went so far as to specifically compliment the Montante center during her talk. The audience largely consisted of outside spectators, though there was also a good showing of Canisius Students, as well as a great many English Department professors.

Following her reading, Donoghue sat down with English Department chair Mick Cochrane for an interview in front of the audience. Cochrane asked how Donoghue is able to so completely embody the personalities of her characters. He inquired about various inspirations and Donoghue revealed that to prepare for her novel Room she studied her son as he was growing up in her care. Following this personal interview, the floor was opened up to audience members who were very willing to pepper Donoghue with questions.

These questions Donoghue handled with charm, often going in depth in her answers and not shying from getting personal on stage. After a particular question about the future, Donoghue even went so far as to boast that she has no less than seven new works incubating in her head. She also talked about her experience working with the screenplay and film production of Room, and finally revealed something about her writing process, saying that she thoroughly plans her novels and writes them chronologically.

Following this there was a reception in Montante where attendees were able to grab a cup of coffee and some cake and discuss the author and her work. Many individuals also took advantage of the Talking Leaves table at the event, purchasing the various offered works by Donoghue. Attendees were then able to interact one on one with Donoghue as she generously signed books for forty minutes after the reading.

As for Donoghue herself, she commented that she enjoys attending small readings like the Canisius Writers Series, and being able to read intimately as well as interact with her audience. She further commented that she appreciated being part of a series, particularly one that frequently features Irish writers. Donoghue likened the series to “a conversation over time,” and was very grateful and excited to be able to contribute her share to the dialogue. Previous Irish writers whose voices mingle with Donoghue’s include Theo Dorgan, Anne Enright, Paula Meehan, and Seamus Heaney.

Donoghue relates heavily to this Irish tradition, and 1800’s Ireland is a very common setting in her work. Despite this, she admits she feels most like an Irish writer in America. She feels she is able to stand out more in America, and can really settle into the niche of Irish literature. This is furthered by the prominence of  studying Irish literature throughout the states in colleges such as Canisius.

Having lived in three different countries on two continents Donoghue has become very used to travelling and living in new and strange places. “It has encouraged me to roam,” she said, “to be an outsider.” She sees this as one of the aspects of her career that has shaped her and allows her to put herself so easily in the shoes and minds of others. She warns writers, “don’t get too comfortable” in any given place, arguing that stagnancy is bad for creation. Donoghue has fostered her sense of adventure and wonder through travel, a sense she holds very dear and shows through in her work.

Donoghue also opened up about what she has learned about herself through her own writing. She notices that her characters are often very aggressive, “mouthy and “verbally malicious” in her writing. She does not consider herself such a person personally, but recognizes that this side of her comes out in her writing. She cited writing as her release for this reason, and is thankful that she has it to devote herself and her energy to. Again, this pouring out of passion may be a contributing force in her success, diversity of work, and ability to portray such realistic characters.

Donoghue writes from her home in Ontario, Canada. When asked what her desk is like, she chuckled and revealed that it is not a conventional desk at all. Instead she writes from a treadmill desk, constantly walking as she writes. She finds the movement to be very helpful while working, helping her over the walls of writer’s block. She recommended this method highly to all writers, and sees it as a method of the future.

Donoghue’s next writing endeavor is a children’s book geared towards children between the ages of of eight and twelve. The story, titled The Lotterys plus one, will focus on the rambunctious and diverse life of a large multicultural family. The book is scheduled to be published in March 2017.

The next scheduled installment of the Canisius Contemporary Writers Series will feature Diana Goetsch, taking place on 29 March 2017, at 7pm in the Grupp Fireside Lounge.

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