Irish novelist Emma Donoghue became an international sensation with the 2010 publication of Room, the New York Times bestseller that became the 2015 Oscar-winning feature film. Her latest historical fiction, The Wonder, was released last month. The novel, set in 1850s Ireland, tells the story of Lib Wright, an English nurse hired to watch 11-year-old Anna, who has supposedly survived without eating anything for four months. As Anna’s health deteriorates, Lib must determine if the situation is a miracle, as many in town believe, or a hoax. On Wednesday night, Donoghue will read from the book in Athens at Avid Bookshop. Thursday, she’ll join Atlanta author Joshilyn Jackson for a conversation at SCADshow. She spoke to us about the inspiration for The Wonder, adapting Room, and her next projects.
How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
There are books about this whole tradition of fasting girls, and at least 20 years ago, I came across one of these cases. I am used to taking a single historical case and turning it into my own, but [for this topic], there wasn’t one perfect case, so I wrote my own and set it in my home country of Ireland. My sources were 50 different cases.
Why set the book in the 1850s, a decade after the Great Famine?
The famine in the 1840s was one of the most famous examples of starvation. So it created a really poignant contrast between starving because there’s no food and starving because you say “no” to food. The physiological symptoms of not eating are the same in any era; what is specific to each era is its mindset. Anorexia wasn’t diagnosed until the 1870s. I did not give Anna a mindset of a modern girl with eating issues. Victorian fasters didn’t go on about being thin. It was more ideas of purity, spirituality, rising above the ordinary needs of flesh.
Your protagonist is an English nurse who has a very negative view of Ireland. What was it like writing such a critical portrait of Irish culture?
It was highly enjoyable. Everybody has criticisms of their own cultural traditions. Being an immigrant from Ireland does give me a bit of distance, but the Irish are highly critical of their own country. I feel part of the group of Irish writers who are critical: Joe O’Connor, Ann Enright, and Roddy Doyle. It was enormously fun to set up these contrasts between modern and ancient, English and Irish, educated and superstitious peasants. Over the course of the book, those contrasts are undermined, and the nurse is forced to recognize her own prejudice.
Why write this book now?
Some authors have problems finding ideas. I’m besieged by them. So they join the queue. But now I have a friend who had daughter with anorexia. I have a nine-year-old daughter myself. I put a lot of the dynamic between the nurse and Anna as the dynamic between my daughter and me. I wanted to make Anna likable, so put a bit of my daughter in her.
A lot of your novels center on terrible things happening to children. Is that difficult to write as a mother?
Because I have a kids of my own, my mind is full of the ethical dliemmas of parenthood: How much do I protect them? How much do I let them make their own mistakes? How much do I impose my own agenda on them? I’m fascinated by the business of having kids. The Wonder is like Room turned inside out. Jack is imprisoned in Room, but has an expansive mind. Anna’s mind is imprisoning her in that room in The Wonder.
What was it like watching Room be adapted into a film?
It’s been great. I worked very closely with director and producers to make in into film. I was happy to make changes in order to preserve the spirit of the book. Yes, the book has Jack’s voice, but the film has has his body. It was a very happy experience for me.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on several film projects. I’m working on screenplay for [my novel] Frog Music and other authors’ adaptations for screen as well. I’m also finishing up a children’s book that will be published next spring. And I’m working on a contemporary novel set in France, where I was living last year.