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I have no policy about sex: Emma Donoghue

Author of the Man Booker Prize finalist, Room, Emma Donoghue, has released her latest work, The Sealed Letter. Here she candid about how winning awards can be sometimes irritating, about the tag 'lesbian writer' and more.

books Updated: Dec 13, 2011 09:04 IST
Sonakshi Babbar, Hindustan Times

As a child, Emma Donoghue wanted nothing more than to become a ballerina, but fate had her dancing around with words instead. After awards and recognition, the Author of the Man Booker Prize finalist, Room, the Irish writer couldn't have been happier, "If I watch a dance performance, and realize that these people are totally alive in their bodies whereas I'm mostly in my head. But no, I can't think of any better way than mine to spend a life," she says. Her novel, Slammerkin won the 2002 Ferro-Grumley Award for Lesbian Fiction, and since then she has been hot 'n' cold about accepting the tag of a 'lesbian writer'. Here're excerpts from the interview.

SB: The Sealed letter is very different from your previous work - it is racier, and has a suspense element in it. How did the idea come up?

ED: In the least racy way possible: the courtcase was mentioned in a footnote to a dreary poem by one of Fido's Langham Place feminist group in an anthology of Victorian women's poetry. Which just proves that you never know where you're going to find a good idea! You're right that this novel stands out from my previous ones by its pacing. The Codrington divorce was such a goldmine as a source, so intrinsically dramatic, that I remember promising myself that this novel had to be a suspenseful page-turner or I'd be wasting my material. So for the first time I really worked to shape and speed up the plot scene by scene before I started writing it - a technique I now use for all my work.

SB: The book is based on the famous Codrington divorce. Why did you pick up this particular event? How did you manage to blur the lines between truth and fiction. How did you research for the book?

ED: Out of all the Victorian divorces that hit the headlines, this was peculiarly interesting to me because it was closer to a fair fight, in that the wife not only fought back (as a new law allowed her to do, 'counter-charging' that her husband was at least partly responsible) but fought dirty. However, it was the unlikely involvement of the wife's friend, a starchy businesswoman and reformer, that really drew my attention to this case; it seemed like two totally different social worlds getting tangled together.

SB: You have won two of the most prestigious awards. Has this changed the way critics and readers perceive you?

ED: Very much. Sometimes I feel a little irritated, thinking 'I was just as good a writer before 2010!' But mostly I'm grateful that all the fuss made about Room has not only brought new readers to my previous books but is making people take what I write from now on more seriously.

SB: According to a review (, the character Fido is almost a parody of The Woman in White's Marian. Do you agree with this?

ED: I was very aware not only to the background of Victorian 'sensation fiction' in general, but specifically of Collins's Marian as a uniquely unfeminine, likeable heroine. But I would say Fido has much in common with Marian rather than being a parody of her or anyone; I take my heroine's worries and proprieties seriously even if I have some twenty-first-century fun with them too.

SB: You explore the nature of female friendship, but not in an explicitly sexual way though the readers might have expected it considering your earlier writings. Why is that?

ED: I have no policy about sex; I try to give each book what it calls for, which can range from no sex at all to the most graphic kind. In the case of The Sealed Letter I tried to capture the convoluted way Victorians spoke about sex in general, and the elaborate mind-games and denial around attraction between women in particular. I wasn't trying to lie to the reader, but to get them into Fido's own mindset of self-delusion.

SB: Does being a lesbian writer, automatically change the way you are perceived? Do you mind being classed into a specific category?

ED: It does chafe, sometimes, but I try not to fret about it, because it's not in my control: it's a matter of social attitudes, which have already changed a lot and for the better since I began my career. I'm certainly never going to renounce the lesbian label either personally or in relation to my lesbian-themed writings, but I am relieved that since Room, people don't see me as a one-trick pony.

SB: You have subtly explored feminism in the book. Comment.

ED: Yes, I was fascinated by the notion of different sorts of feminism, from Fido's highly moral, selfconscious, uplifting of the image of women, to Helen's more personal rebellion against her role as wife and mother. And also the paradox that sisterhood has inspired many an act of vicious scapegoating, as in the case of the Langham Place circle's casting-out of Fido Faithfull.

SB: Which other lesbian/gay writings have inspired or influenced your work? Do you feel there's still a huge gap to fill in this category?

ED: Interestingly, I don't classify the works that have influenced me that way. Yes, some of my favourite writers would fall under that heading - Michael Cunningham, Sarah Waters - but to me they're just part of the body of literature in English. If you want me to generalize, I'd say there's no real gap in the writing that's being done on queer themes, the gap is in the marketing: too often, heterosexual readers assume they won't be interested in these books, just as so many white writers fail to read books about non-white characters.

SB: You have offers for movie adaptations for some of the novels. You think a movie will do justice to books? Which movie adaptation of a book is your favorite?

ED: There have been early negotiations only; I've never sold a film option. I'm very cautious, and rightly so, as terrible films are made of great books every year. It's my greatest fantasy, of course, to have one of my books turn into a great film, and I think Room has the best chances. As for adaptations I love, I think Brokeback Mountain is a model for how it should be done.

First Published: Dec 13, 2011 09:04 IST