The play is about Maeve Brennan, the glamorous New York-based Irish writer who was largely forgotten when she died in 1993. The witty Brennan, who wrote astute criticism and short stories for The New Yorker magazine, had her heyday in the 1950s and has been rediscovered, aided by Angela Bourke’s book Homesick at the New Yorker.
Brennan was the daughter of the first Irish ambassador to the US. She left Ireland at the age of 17, working at Harpers Bazaar before becoming one of The New Yorker’s leading writers. Some people say Brennan died homeless, after nervous breakdowns and dementia. She led a dazzling life before succumbing to her innate fragility, exacerbated by a chaotic lifestyle. It’s been said that Brennan inspired Truman Capote’s ditzy character Holly Golightly, in Breakfast at Tiffanys. But Donoghue says Brennan was more serious and substantial than Audrey Hepburn’s character in the film of the book.
Donoghue, best known for her Man Booker short-listed novel, Room, says she had scant knowledge of Brennan when she was “head-hunted” to write a play about her. “This play is entirely the baby of Annabelle Comyn,” says Donoghue. “She read Maeve Brennan’s work and was so blown away by it that she decided she had to do a play about her.”
The Dublin Theatre Festival and Landmark Productions produced, with Comyn as director. “When they asked me to write the play, I had no interest, at first, in writing a play to somebody else’s order. But then, they sent me Maeve’s books and I was stunned by what a good writer she was. Maeve’s short stories almost pulse with pain. There’s a quiet throb of tension behind almost all of them. Some are funny. Her American stories are very satirical, but her typical short story is about an Irish family in trouble, with maybe an uncommunicative marriage. There’s tenderness, too, but it’s often blocked,” she says.
Donoghue says Brennan could make a drama out of the seemingly mundane domestic, but “her own life was far from domestic. The woman barely boiled an egg. There’s a wonderful paradox there; a great gap between the kind of traditional Irish life she was writing about with housebound women, and her own life, which was quite unlike that.”
Brennan never wanted to be a traditional wife and mother, says Donoghue. “When she married in mid-life, there was no question of kids. The marriage only lasted five years, anyway.” The Talk of the Town (named after a column Brennan wrote) concentrates on Brennan’s middle years. “That was when she married a colleague at The New Yorker, the brilliant journalist, St Clair McKelway. It was a doomed marriage. Maeve went for a highly entertaining, brilliant, unstable man. They were drinkers, like all their friends. It’s quite hard to decide which of them were alcoholics. In the way we would grab a coffee, they would grab a martini.”
Donoghue says she has “tried to make the play as funny as I could make it. It’s about Maeve and the men she worked with in The New Yorker.” It was a male environment that included the cartoonist, Charlie Adams, and the famous editor, William Shawn. The play “has bits that are based on Maeve’s stories. So, there’s mother, father and child characters. I think what really anchors the play is Catherine Walker’s performance as Maeve. She gives a great performance. It was great fun to write nasty, bitchy lines for an actress like Catherine. She delivers them charmingly.”
Donoghue says that Maeve and her colleagues were “brilliant wisecrackers. But things fell apart for them, and after all the sparkle you see tears and suffering.”
Donoghue, who lives in Canada with her female partner and two children, attended workshop sessions of the play with the actors and director, in Dublin. This helped to hone her script. She also sat in for the first week of rehearsals.
“It’s just bliss for a writer to have actors going through your lines, word by word, thinking about every comma. But there comes a point when you have to leave the actors at it,” she says.
Donoghue’s latest collection of short stories, Astray, will be published by Picador next month. Based on real people, the theme is emigration. “It’s about people who’ve either moved to America or have taken long journeys within America,” she says.
Writing Astray, Donoghue says she ‘kept her ears open’ for anecdotes and incidents and then researched them. Unlike many novelists, Donoghue hasn’t been discouraging from publishing short stories. “I find it really helps if you shape the whole collection into a theme ... My short story collections always have a theme.”
Donoghue, whose father is the critic and academic, Denis Donohgue, describes herself as “a sort of an academic gone wrong. As well as my father, my partner is an academic. I love researching my books. I absolutely love digging and delving in the archives.”
Room, which sold more than one million copies and earned Donoghue a huge advance, has won her “many more readers who are willing to take a punt on me.” It’s about a young woman and her little boy who are imprisoned in a small room, visited only by their captor. The boy knows no other world and the child’s-eye perspective is beautifully conveyed.
“Even if I never have such a bestseller again, Room has done my career permanent good. I’d love it to be made into a film. I haven’t sold the rights yet,” she says.
Donoghue, who has written historical fiction as well as lesbian literature and several plays, is difficult to categorise as a writer. She is writing a murder mystery based on fact, set in San Francisco in the 1870s. “I know that, as a marketing move, the advice is to brand yourself. But I just can’t do it. I’m not just interested in different subjects. I’m also interested in different styles of writing. Sometimes, I want to write very funny, relaxed, contemporary stuff and the next minute I want to write something really spooky and atmospheric.
“I’d get bored if I stuck to one thing. So I just have to keep confusing my publishers. Sometimes, I’m seen very much as an Irish writer, and others who don’t know my background class me as a Canadian writer.”
As a child, Donoghue used to get herself to sleep by fantasising about winning the Booker Prize. “I don’t do that anymore, because having been shortlisted means it’s not such a fantasy subject.” Donoghue is ‘living the dream’.