Fellow Traveler: Novelist Emma Donoghue

A writer with a globe-trotting sensibility.

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Irish-born author Emma Donoghue became an overnight literary sensation for her 2010 novel about a young mother and her son born into captivity in Room.

Donoghue went on to win an Academy Award nomination for her screenplay adaption of her own novel for Lenny Abrahamson's film Room, a 2015 critics' favorite. Donoghue is now back examining the intersection of human psychology, childhood and a closed society in her latest novel, The Wonder. Set in the 19th-century Irish Midlands, the engrossing book concerns an educated, skeptical English nurse, Lib Wright, trained by Florence Nightingale, who travels to the Irish countryside to investigate the claim that an 11-year-old girl has managed to survive without food for months as an expression of religious faith. The book was inspired by real instances of "fasting girls" from the 16th to the 20th century.

For Donoghue, travel is a way of life (Brazil, China and Australia among her book tour stops), including a fall spent on a grueling multi-city book tour that took her far away from her partner and two children, 12 and 9. Donoghue stays sane on the road by working and connecting with friends and family. "It makes you you feel so much more down-to-earth and grounded," she tells me during a stop in an Atlanta. "It's an escape from your own public self."

Not that travel doesn't have its charms or inspiration for a novelist. Her current project, a children's book, features a Brazilian character who she says was inspired by a walking tour of a Brazilian favela. "I also often get ideas when I’m traveling, so I suyspect that the travel itself puts your mind into a slightly sparky mode," she observes. "You’re noticing things, you’re more awake."

©Little Brown Company

Little Brown Company

You’ve lived in Ireland, Canada, England, America and France. Is there one place among those that feels most like home?

Home is wherever my partner and kids are, so you could say London, Ontario where we live is home. Of course when I go back to Ireland, where I spent my first 20 years, something deep down clicks into place. It’s my homeland.

What makes you Irish?

Garrulousness: the Irish talk a lot, talk very freely, and we always try and be witty. There is a high standard of chat.

Has living in Canada caused you to adopt any Canadian traits?

I expect good service in restaurants! Canadians are famously polite and that can sometimes make them a little bit careful and wary at first. On your first conversation with them, they’re not going to lay it all out. At first they play it safe. They can be impeccably polite, especially about difference. Like for instance in Canada if someone says “What does your husband do?” and I say “actually my partner’s a woman,” they apologize and say, “Oh I shouldn’t have assumed!” In France they assume you’ve got the grammar wrong.

Is it easy for you to write when you’re traveling to a different city every day?

In the early days I saw this as a wonderful opportunity for tourism…I used to rush off to art galleries and museums. But I found that although it was enjoyable to see those sights, on the tour your ego gets so puffed up and then you go back to the room and kind of deflate. The tours can be very destabilizing. So I’ve really learned that working while on the road is the key to sanity. Also, if I am going to be away from my kids, I might as well get some work done.

Any rituals, things you do or objects you bring to feel comfortable in these anonymous hotel rooms?

No, my comfort blanket is my computer. My Macbook Air is lovely and light and I have it with me at all times. And if I have so much as 15 minutes free I whip it out and I am back in the world of my books. It sounds a bit sad!

Several of your books have a travel motif and The Wonder also opens with a trip to a strange place as the British nurse Lib Wright, travels deep into the Irish countryside to investigate the mystery at the heart of the novel.

There’s a lot of immigration in my books. I sometimes wonder what I would have to write about if I hadn’t immigrated, because it’s such an educational experience…It's not just that you get to discover the new society, but you get to be an outsider in it and I think being an outsider for a writer is a very healthy position—I think we should always be the sort of questioning ones on the outside.

You seem interested in exploring other time periods in your books. Is there a time period you would like to travel to?

The 18th century is the first one I first started writing about and I did my PhD on the 18th century. And from watching films, I find those clothes the most seductive. And it probably wouldn’t be quite as foul-smelling as Tudor times.

Favorite place you’ve traveled recently?

We’ve spent a total of two years in Nice and I’m deeply fond of it. When we first went we thought it was going to be a bit tacky: the style of Nice women is famously trashy, not particularly French—Nice used to belong to Italy. But having spent some time there with our kids, we realize it’s full of charm. We love the beauty and the way there is always something on culturally. The government puts a lot of money into free festivals.

How have your children embraced or rebelled against travel?

They generally embrace it. I think what’s really important is for them to know where home is…You have to get that balance between stability and adventure. But travel has never been a question in our family, we’ve just always done it.

It’s just assumed that this is part of how you live, and that difference is exciting.

You would advise people to travel with their children early?

It’s like dogs: if you don’t expose your dog to lots of different people, genders and races, your dog can become hostile and bark at anyone who looks different. It’s the same with children.

Dream destination?

Costa Rica. 

You have to fly a lot but do you have a preferred mode of transportation?

I’m fine with all of them, I’ve even learned to work in the back of a car if I’m being driven around. On airplanes because there are free movies, I tend to just binge and watch films.

Your experience at the 2016 Golden Globes seeing Brad Pitt and all these celebrities seemed like a consummately surreal travel experience...

I had a lot of trips to L.A. last year. At one point I was literally too busy to go and they persuaded me to fly into L.A. for three hours for an event, and I didn’t even eat anything. It was like Persephone visiting the Underworld and not eating anything but pomegranate seeds. Was I really there?  Because the experience was a television interview with Andrew Sorkin, it was surreal: it feels like I visited television for a few hours. People ask me "how do you like L.A.?" but all I knew were hotels and black limos and red carpets.

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