Talking About “Room” With Author Emma Donoghue
Emma, Room is one of my favorite books ever. I found it so powerful and moving, and such a gorgeous testament to motherhood without being sappy or sentimental. I know the idea for the book was based on an actual event. Can you talk a little about that and how it inspired you to write Room?
It was hearing about the discovery of Elizabeth Fritzl and her children in their Austrian dungeon (in April 2008) that inspired Room — but all I took from that case was the basic notion of growing up in a locked room. I think the real reason I wrote the novel was that my kids were four and one at the time, so my mind was already full of all the grandly existential questions of parenthood: Am I still an individual if I’m totally responsible for another human being now? How much could I bear? How much would I sacrifice for them?
I love the scene in which a reporter says to Ma, “You must feel an almost pathological need – understandably – to stand guard between your son and the world,” to which she replies, “’Yeah, it’s called being a mother.’ Ma nearly snarls it.” There are so many great lines that reveal the unbreakable bond between mother and child, as well as the overwhelming responsibility of being a mother. Another example is Jack saying, “Ma’s not meant to ask me things, she’s meant to know,” or admitting, “In Room I was safe and Outside is the scary.” Your book beautifully depicts the fact that a child’s world literally – and happily – revolves around his or her mother. As a mom yourself, how does that make you feel? What message would you like readers to take away from the book?
I don’t have a message; a novel would be a very long and unreliable way to deliver a message to the world, because, for one thing, everyone reads a story differently. But what I did do was emphasize the universal within Ma and Jack’s weird story. On almost every page, their interaction is based on stuff that has come up between me and my kids. Room is really inspired by the paradox that no matter how close a mother and child are, they are very different, and what the child adores (for instance, having their mother on hand every minute of every day) could be a nightmare for the mother. The joy and the claustrophobia are impossible to unpick from each other.
Ma deserves the “Mother of the Year” Award for the creative ways she entertains and educates Jack! Most of us can barely figure out how to keep our kids busy for an hour or two, and she has to do that 24/7 for many years. How did you come up with ideas for her, and have you used any of them with your own children?
Ah, she’s my inner perfect-mother, my best self, and I don’t manage to be like her for more than five minutes at a go. Doing art with my kids, in particular, puts me in a total rage; after three minutes they walk off, leaving me with a total mess! No, writing Ma left me very rueful, because it proved that I do know how to parent marvelously – I have all the necessary ideas and principles – I just can’t manage it in practice. The main difference is that she dedicates herself to motherhood totally, because it saves her from thinking of herself as a sex slave, whereas I want to be mother and lover, friend and writer, loller-about-watching-HBO and many other roles…
Jack is such a perfect narrator. You completed nailed five-year-old speech! How did you manage to get it so realistic?
I studied my son (who was five by the time I was drafting the novel) like an anthropological linguist — then made Jack’s language rather more advanced as he’s been so intensively home-schooled, and added some quirks of his own, such as his personifying objects in Room (Table, Bed, etc). There is no real child who speaks just like Jack: the narration of a novel is never exactly like real speech, even when your characters are adults, but if you get the characters’ mindset right, readers are generally willing to suspend their disbelief when it comes to the details of wording.
I was shocked to hear about all the flack you got from readers for having Ma continue to breastfeed Jack – what else could she do? It seemed like a perfect solution. Were you surprised by the reaction? How did you feel about the fact that it even became an issue?
I was startled at first and then almost amused: it seemed perfect proof of the notion that our society officially approves of motherlove but is actually nervous about its primal, passionate, physical side. Yes, it made sense to me on every level that Ma would hold on to a mutually comforting ritual with Jack (quite apart from nutritional/contraceptive qualities) until they’re out in the world; their relationship at that point has to give up its mother-baby elements.
The second half of the book deals with the outside world, making the story even stronger by showing how a parent and child often have different needs. What was your intention in this? Did you ever consider having the whole book take place in Room?
No, I knew from day one that the book would be in two halves, and each half would reflect an interesting light on the other. To me, stopping at the escape would have made the story much more simplistic and (emotionally) static; the second half is actually more probing in that it shows Ma having to let Jack grow up, as all mothers do.
You talked about having your own son try out the attempted escape plan Ma sets up for Jack. Can you share this story with our readers?
He knew the gist of the story already: Bad Guy locks Woman and Boy in Shed. So he was more than willing to let me roll him up in a rug for research. It was really hard for him to wriggle his way out, so when he finally managed it (and got rewarded, I believe with a pain au chocolat) I had to go back and completely rewrite the scene.
How did you design the actual room in which Room takes place? What were the biggest challenges?
I ‘virtually shopped’ on ikea.com and used a home design website to move all the pieces around. I spent days on obscure sites selling high-tech security mesh and insulation. The biggest challenge was my complete ignorance about construction; I’m still not quite sure what a two-by-four is.
In the acknowledgments, you thank your brother-in-law for his “unnervingly insightful advice on the practicalities of Room.” Can you give us some details on his contributions?
Yes, he not only answered my ignorant question about construction but offered ideas of his own; it was he who suggested that Ma should dig a hole in the floor with a spoon, only to discover that Old Nick has built chain-link fence into all the surfaces of Room. Then he started going beyond his remit to offer other ideas about the kidnapper; for instance, he pointed out that Old Nick would have to make Ma use cloth diapers because the neighbors would be suspicious if a bachelor was putting out sacks of used Pampers. He was my consultant guy’s guy, basically, and he rather enjoyed tapping into his potential psychopath.
How has writing this book changed the way you personally look at motherhood and your own kids?
It’s just made me more aware of my failures, and more urgently aware that you only have a few years to get it right and give your kids all the love and confidence they need to tackle the world.