Emma Donoghue: ‘Room was the easiest book I ever wrote because it had that really strong central premise. People may be repelled by the idea of a child being locked up in a room. But everybody cares’Picture: Billy Higgins
SIGMUND FREUD has so many memorable phrases it’s hard to know which ones to quote at the appropriate moment. But here’s one that’s worth remembering: “Where such men love, they have no desire, and where they desire they cannot love.”
The father of psychoanalysis wrote these words in an attempt to describe what he coined the Mother-whore complex: A psychological condition that is said to develop in men as their partner goes through the process of motherhood.
Before you read on, remember that much of Freud’s analyses are merely symbolic gestures, grounded in mythology, and should not be taken literally.
In Freud’s view, many men in long-term relationships see women as either the embodiment of virginal-puritanical-innocence, or as debased prostitutes that they continually lust after, but to whom they cannot offer their affection.
Sitting on a comfortable couch alongside Emma Donoghue — in a dark room in Soho that resembles a parlour for a member of the London aristocracy from the 17th century — I mention that this psychological conundrum instantly came to my mind, halfway through reading her latest novel.
“I’m not really looking at Madonna versus whore in this book,” the 44-year-old-writer replies. “I would see it more as the crossdresser and the whore, which are two different variations on womanhood.
“In my novel Room I was looking at the mother as a Madonna figure. But in this book I push the reader’s sympathy to the maximum and say: Blanche is really no good as a mother.”
Sorry, I should really explain a few things. Donoghue’s eighth novel is called Frog Music. And 24-year-old Blanche Danseuse is the central character.
The book is set in San Francisco in 1876. At the beginning of the story we are informed that Blanche’s crossdressing friend, Jenny Bonnet, has been shot dead.
Blanche, a voluptuous exotic dancer who works at a whorehouse called the House of Mirrors, suspects that the killers may have gunned down the wrong lady.
Reading on, we learn the following: Blanche arrived to Chinatown in San Francisco, via Paris, with a travelling part-time circus-performing-huckster called Arthur Deneve and his friend Ernest Girard. For the past decade this free-loving-trio have roamed idly from place to place earning a living with whatever scam is making the most money.
But bohemian living — despite its rewards of sexual freedom and a rejection of bourgeois values — is taking its toll on everyone.
Arthur and Blanche now have a small child. But they haven’t the money, or the emotional capacity, to deal with this problem.
When Blanche isn’t out having a good time, she is earning dollars from various other pleasure seekers, who see her body as an asset that is worth paying for.
Donoghue has previously written about prostitution. In her first historical novel, Slammerkin, the main character is a teenage prostitute who is brutalised.
This time around, Donoghue says she enjoyed the idea of creating a character that likes selling her body for money.
“I didn’t want to convert Blanche from a whore into a mother. Nor did I want to punish her and make her repent,” she says.
Sexual politics is a theme that crops up in much of Donoghue’s work. While she doesn’t want her sexual orientation as a lesbian to define her — either as a writer or a human being — it’s certainly shaped some of her books. Hood won the 1997 American Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Book Award for Literature. Debut novel Stir Fry depicts a 17-year-old girl who lives with a lesbian couple.
We begin speaking about the bigotry that exists in Ireland when it comes to accepting members of the gay community with equality. This then leads us onto a discussion about the Pantigate fiasco and Panti herself, the drag queen Rory O’Neill.
“This big kerfuffle over Pantigate, where you have people suing for being accused of being homophobic, seems weirdly like progress to me,” says Donoghue, who initially treats this subject in a playful manner. But the more I press her about gay rights, her anger becomes more visible underneath her constant smile.
“In the good old days the homophobes in Ireland would have been proud homophobes,” Donoghue explains. “But even the fact that people have been rallying to the calls of [Rory O’Neill], a man in women’s clothing, seems like a huge advance. But I still do get disheartened.”
Donoghue tells me that she finds it incredible that sections of mainstream Irish media — particularly in radio interviews she has done recently — still take a moral stance when asking about her personal life. She lives in Ontario, Canada, with Chris Roulston, her long-term partner, and their two children, Finn and Una.
“I still get asked by Irish journalists, ‘How do you raise your children without a father?’” says Donoghue, clearly quite perplexed by this obsession with morality and sexual mores that still exists in 21st century Ireland.
“I don’t get this damning judgement in any other country. It’s as if that my children are going to be somehow deeply damaged! I do get sick of this. Living in Canada, where there has been gay marriage for some time now I don’t have to remember that I’m gay. It’s a fact about me, but not a heavy label.”
Growing up as the youngest of eight children in a comfortable south Dublin suburb, literature was often a central topic around the dinner table, says Donoghue. Her father, the literary critic and Henry James Chair of English at New York University, Dennis Donoghue, instilled an idea to all his children that books, ideas, culture, and writing, were the most important things one could possess in this life.
This solid middle class upbringing is one reason that Donoghue’s fiction doesn’t contain much biographical detail. Readers would be bored to tears reading about her own life in fictional form, she insists. Instead, she prefers to write about people who are on the margins and have everything to lose.
And what about those darker moments when she is writing? For example, 2010 novel Room is about a five-year-old called Jack who is being held captive in a single room with his mother and who has never seen the outside world. The story has many similarities to the case of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian sex offender who locked his own daughter in a room for several years, subjecting her to unspeakable acts of human depravity.
Does Donoghue find it distressing, or even feel guilty writing about such dark subjects, when she is aware they have happened in the real world too? “I know this sounds crass, but it’s an exciting place to be as a writer,” she admits with an admirable honesty.
“Room was the easiest book I ever wrote because it had that really strong central premise. People may be repelled by the idea of a child being locked up in a room. But everybody cares.
“So yes, the research was distressing, but I knew that the book would end well. Similarly with Frog Music, a lot of the material was very grim. But I had a strong confidence in the movement of the story.
“A lot of the time as a writer you are approaching what is often horrific material, not as a sympathetic person. But you are really just greedy for good details for your story.”
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