Based on the Joseph Fritzl case, many critics slammed Room before they even
read it. Author Emma Donoghue tells Laura Chubb about proving them wrong
Before it was even brought to life by the printing press, Emma Donoghue’s Room had been treated to a kicking from the critics. Inspired by the Joseph Fritzl case in Austria – Fritzl imprisoned his daughter Elisabeth for 24 years in a basement-cum-dungeon and fathered six living children with her – the novel had the literary press bandying about words such as ‘voyeurism’ and ‘exploitation’ without so much as a courtesy call to the author. Now the book, which sparked a bidding war before anyone had read it, is garnering gushing reviews from those so quick to condemn it. As an especially sweet bonus, Room has been longlisted for the Booker.
And it’s not hard to see why. Room is an intensely captivating read, told in the voice of five-year-old Jack, imprisoned with his ‘Ma’ in a room measuring 11ft x 11ft. The second half of the book is set post-escape, and the exploration of Jack’s foray into a world he thought was only ‘TV’ is funny, moving and completely convincing. We caught up with Donoghue to find out how she’s dealing with being 2010’s big news.
Congratulations are in order – you’re on the Booker longlist. I know! I couldn’t believe it! I’m so glad, because it’s an endorsement that gets people past their fears that the book’s going to be trash.
How did you feel about Room being deplored before anyone read it? It was even mentioned in an article on torture porn. Torture porn! And of course all you can say is, trust me, read it, it’s not torture porn. It was uncomfortable to have publicity merely about the sale of the book [to a publisher], yes, but I pretty much knew that when people started reading it, they would realise this book is sensitive and, in fact, uplifting. There’s nothing crass about it. And I think fiction should always be a bit of an emotional stretch and an adventure. It should always take you places you haven’t been.
Is it intended as a realistic account of such an ordeal? I think so. I researched it very thoroughly. I talked to therapists and I did a lot of research into the long-term effects of solitary confinement on prisoners. I’ve tried to be extremely realistic with things like the fact that, on the outside, Jack is shaken by the breeze, bright sunlight, noise. So I combined the more fairytale-like, parable elements of the book with nitty-gritty stuff, because I wanted every point to feel believable.
It is almost a fairytale, like the princess locked up in a castle. It struck me as almost science fiction as well. Jack is visiting from another planet and he’s a very adaptable, fearless spaceman. I think if you sat my children down in a space station on Venus, they’d cope. I probably wouldn’t, because adults are so stiff and fossilised, but kids are startlingly adaptable.
Where did you write the book? I wrote it in a small town in France. I’ve never minded where I write. At home I have an office, but I wrote this sitting in a wicker chair with a particularly grotty rug in front of me, and of course that became the rug in the novel [Jack escapes rolled up in a rug]. I actually rolled up my son in that rug. He found it quite a scary experience. I would say, ‘Just try a bit harder, wriggle out,’ then I thoroughly rewrote the scene because I realised it’s actually extremely difficult to get out of a rug!
Room is such a broad book. There are a mother’s needs, the confinement of the world to human consciousness, child development. What did you want readers to take from it? I put my most deeply held views into Room, but it’s never a message. A novel would be a very indirect way to preach. What I would say is that it’s not simply celebrating mother-child love. It’s asking what its limits are. Room is published by Picador