Emma Donoghue is an award-winning Irish writer who lives in Canada. At 34, she has published six books of fiction, two works of literary history, two anthologies, and two plays.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, on 24 October 1969, Emma is the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue. She attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin, apart from one year in New York at the age of ten. In 1990 she earned a first-class honours B.A. in English and French from University College Dublin, and in 1997 a Ph.D. (on the concept of friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. Since the age of 23, Donoghue has earned her living as a full-time writer. After years of commuting between England, Ireland, and Canada, in 1998 she settled in London, Ontario, where she lives with her lover and their son.
Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.
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Some outtakes from our interview with Donoghue
"The youngest of eight children, I would never have been conceived if a papal bull hadn't guilt-tripped my poor mother into flushing her pills down the
"The nearest I've ever got to 'honest toil' was a chambermaiding job in Wildwood, New Jersey, at the age of 18. I got fired for my 'low bathroom standards.' "
"My lover and I have a one-year-old son called Finn, whose favorite thing is to rip books out of my hands and eat them.
"I am clumsy, a late and nervous driver, and despise all sports except a little gentle dancing or yoga.
"I have never been depressed or thrown a plate, which I attribute to the cathartic effects of writing books about people whose lives are more grueling than mine.
"I am completely unobservant and couldn't tell you how many windows there are in our living room.
"I would be miserable in beige; I mostly wear red, purple, and black.
"The way to my heart is through Belgian milk chocolate.
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In the fall of 2004, Emma Donoghue took some time to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I discovered Jeanette Winterson's strange, surreal novel about Napoleonic Venice, The Passion. I had read some trashy lesbian fiction before, but this was the very first book I found that had lesbian themes and was a work of great art. I realized -- duh! -- that it was possible to be "out" and a literary writer as well, and I started writing my first novel, Stir-Fry, the same year. I haven't liked all Winterson's books since, but I've always admired her uncompromising flair.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Alan Garner's Red Shift is an extraordinary fantasy novel about the same spot in England in Roman, Civil War, and modern times; in my teens this book was a cult for me, and I think it should be rediscovered by all fans of, say, Philip Pullman.
Which leads me to Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials -- Perhaps the most ambitious '"children's books" (whatever that means) around today.
Emily Dickinson's Collected Works -- Because she's like a Martian, she has a strange and original take on every aspect of life on Earth.
Sarah Waters's Affinity -- I read it in one sitting on a long night flight over the Atlantic (perhaps the ideal conditions for any book?) and was completely gripped and spooked out by this ghost/love story set in a Victorian prison.
Carol Anshaw's Aquamarine -- A brilliant examination of three ways someone's life might have gone.
As I can't decide what Dickens to pick, I'll go instead for Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White -- A fantastic, tight Victorian thriller about a stolen identity.
Alan Gurganus's Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All -- An extraordinary
saga about the Civil War South.
Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries -- A deeply satisfying experiment with many different ways of narrating an ordinary life, and it made me weep hysterically on a train, much to my lover's embarrassment.
Jane Austen's Emma -- I can't prove it's her best, but it's the one I'm named after, and I strongly identify with her spoiled, arrogant, likable heroine.
Audrey Niffeneger's The Time Traveler's Wife -- I've only just finished this funny-strange, funny-ha-ha love story, so it's my latest favorite.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to
I've Heard the Mermaids Singing -- For its fresh, wide-eyed protagonist and the way it manages to glamorize Toronto.
Out of Africa -- I know it's colonialist tosh, but I saw it about seven times in my teens for its irresistible love affair between Redford and Streep.
Silkwood -- Another Meryl Streep classic, it pulls off the tricky feat of making a film about political activism that also grips as a human story.
Being John Malkovich -- Perhaps the most original comedy I've ever seen.
Boys Don't Cry -- An utterly romantic tragedy, a Romeo and Juliet for our times.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to
listen to when you're writing?
I like Gregorian chant, Bach, Chopin, Satie, jazz, salsa, Irish traditional, many contemporary singers...but I don't listen to any when I'm writing except on the rare occasions when there's a particular piece that gets me in the mood for a certain story.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I do, it's a long-standing women's group called The Furies, and the last thing we read was Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Novels the recipient has never heard of.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on
your desk when you're writing?
I hate desks, they make me feel like a child doing homework. So I work on a laptop, usually on my lap as I sit on the sofa in my office. But I couldn't care less where I am and have happily written in airports, cafes, hotel rooms.
What are you working on now?
A contemporary novel about long-distance relationships and immigration. Having immigrated twice, to England and then to Canada, I find it fascinating!
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
For about two years, my agent collected rejection letters for my first novel, Stir-Fry, from tiny publishers I'd never heard of, and then she managed to sell it to Penguin and HarperCollins, so she was right all along -- that I shouldn't give up hope!
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Abby Bardi's first novel, The Book of Fred, is a wholly original, hilarious take on a girl's life in and out of a fundamentalist cult, and I think it should be "discovered" in great numbers.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
When I was writing my 2000 novel, Slammerkin, I assumed nobody would ever buy it, because it's such a dark, grim story about 18th-century prostitution and murder. It proved to be a bestseller, which just shows, you shouldn't try to second-guess (or underestimate) readers in the hope of commercial success -- the thing to do is to write the story you feel passionately about, and leave the rest to the gods.
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