Born in Dublin in 1969, and now living in Canada, Emma Donoghue is a screenwriter, novelist, playwright and literary historian. Most recently she was nominated for an Oscar, Golden Globe and Bafta for her screen adaptation of her novel ROOM. She writes: “From the age of 23, I have earned my living as a writer, and have been lucky enough to never have an ‘honest job’ since I was sacked after a single summer month as a chambermaid. After years of commuting between England, Ireland, and Canada, in 1998 I settled in London, Ontario, where I live with Chris Roulston and our son Finn (11) and daughter Una (8).” Find out more about her work at www.emmadonoghue.com and @EDonoghueWriter.
You’ve been part of the literary/publishing world since 1993, across academic writing and popular fiction; you’ve also written for theatre — and now for film. What are the differences in opportunity, support and/or difficulty between the three arts worlds that you’ve noticed, as a parent?
In all these media, it’s fine for you to have children – and to be inspired by them, and to talk about them in interviews – so long as you make all the necessary arrangements to get away from them so you can do the work!
Parent-novelist is so much easier because you work on your own time, in your own way, and the only time pressure is when you’re negotiating a book tour. A parent-screenwriter has to fit into other people’s schedules, at least for the meetings, shoots, screenings, panels and interviews.
How do you manage your time so you can write and be a parent?
The writing part I’ve always found time for, apart from six weeks off when I gave birth to each of our two kids (12 and 8 now); the key here was the six months of parental leave offered by my partner’s Canadian university, so we could share the baby-minding, and then I wrote during daycare or school hours. Luckily I work happily pretty much anywhere, including on planes or trains.
What’s harder are the work-related travel demands, whether workshops, rehearsals, meetings or shoots in creating the work, or publicity when the time comes to try to find it an audience. Here the biggest difference I experience isn’t among the different arts, it’s between being less and more commercially successful: basically, since publishing ROOM six years ago, I’ve been beset with demands for me to travel. (Very pressing demands, in the case of the ROOM film, where I felt I was not only reducing my own chances of winning awards if I said no to trips, but damaging others’ chances too – letting down the whole team.) Which is great as a sign of my having a bigger audience these days, but difficult domestically, as a mother and most of all as a partner.
In all media, it’s fine for you to have children… so long as you make all the necessary arrangements to get away from them so you can do the work!
From what you’ve seen of the film industry, does it seem welcoming to working parents? Did you discuss it with Lenny Abrahamson? Were you (or he) ever offered childcare support for meetings or trips?
Sound of hollow laughter…
I think I felt the irony particularly strongly because ROOM is all about parenting, and many of us who made it are passionate parents. It was a fairly child-friendly set because it had to be centred on our 7-year-old lead Jacob Tremblay, so the hours couldn’t be too bizarre, and our kids visited sometimes… but still, it was a time-demanding production like any other. Luckily as a writer I didn’t have to be there all the time – I wasn’t actually needed on set for long hours.
I think it must be incredibly hard for directors if they have primary responsibility for their kids. And I’m not sure what the solution is, either. Childcare on set might work for smalls but later on when they’re in routines of school and classes and friends, what’s needed is someone at home.
Did you realise, when you were writing ROOM, that it could turn into a film? And did you plan to write the screenplay?
I knew, the moment I’d finished the book, so I went ahead and drafted the screenplay before anyone could advise me not to. I’m rather proud of this decision now I’ve come to realise what a peculiar way of proceeding that was, and how often women novelists get squeezed out of the process of filming their books.
Then, when I was approached by Lenny Abrahamson and Ed Guiney of Element, we all worked out a very unorthodox deal that kept me full included in the decision-making as well as being the sole screenwriter. Scripting the film was a challenge, of course, but since I’ve never done it before it seemed no scarier than writing any other kind of film. And my background in theatre and radio drama really helped because those forms – like film – demand that you dramatise (rather than narrating) everything and always remember how long the audience have been sitting down paying attention.
ROOM was a fairly child-friendly set because it had to be centred on our 7-year-old lead Jacob Tremblay, so the hours couldn’t be too bizarre
What were the reactions to the story – particularly it being led by a woman and a child – from from film funders/distributors?
ROOM was generally welcomed but perhaps there was a preconception that it might appeal mostly to women or not be seen as a ‘big’ film. Which is why getting that Oscar Best Picture nomination was a game-changer: that’s the slot that women-led films so often don’t manage to get into.
And what prompted your shift to writing about parenthood in your fiction?
Kids. They broke me and remade me – rocked my world. Since our first was born 12 years ago I’ve been writing about parenting non-stop, in ROOM, FROG MUSIC, my next adult novel THE WONDER, and a series for 8 to 12-year-olds that’ll be be coming out from 2017, THE LOTTERYS.
Are there additional challenges for same-sex couples raising children?
I’m sure there are in some places/contexts, but in Canada we have full civil rights as a family, so no, I’ve never felt it to be a special challenge. The kids have to put up with some homophobic ignorance from the occasional other kid, that’s all. And certainly within publishing, theatre and film I’ve never encountered any hostility about this.
How is the relationship between your writing and your family life changing as your children are growing up?
Definitely easier now, because they understand more (whereas repeatedly telling our three-year-old daughter that I was ‘going to the airport again’ to promote ROOM the novel was a heartbreaker). Also, they take a conscious pleasure in being my inspiration; they suggest details for things I’m writing, and I even occasionally distract them from a tantrum by suggesting that I could include that particular fighting point in one of my books…
On the other hand, they still need their two mothers, and during busy term-time when the homework mounts up, I feel as bad as ever about leaving my partner to cope solo. Sometimes I tell myself to ‘think like a dad’ – if my dad friends will forgive the stereotype – but it doesn’t work too well.
Have they read or seen ROOM, and what do they understand about your work?
The elder has read ROOM and they’ve both seen a child-friendly version of the film (we fast-forwarded over any bits they thought sounded distressing, such as grown-ups having arguments).
They could tell you in detail about several of my current projects, from the storyline, to details of characterisation, to my discussions with editors about titles or book jackets, or with directors about cuts.
Sometimes I tell myself to ‘think like a dad’ – if my dad friends will forgive the stereotype – but it doesn’t work too well.
Would you like to do more work in film?
I’m currently committed to several new projects, for tv as well as film, and only one of them is based on my own work (a film of FROG MUSIC): it’s a fascinating new sideline for me, and I love the sense of teamwork. But I’d expect fiction to remain my main focus. Not primarily because it allows me a better work-life balance, but because it offers the deepest satisfaction: I get to create my own little worlds.