Emma Donoghue

Posted by Sue Leonard on Friday 28th October 2022

When Emma Donoghue was holidaying on the Beara Peninsular, a friend booked a boat trip around the famous Skelligs. Transfixed by the spikiest landscape she had ever seen, Donoghue wondered how monks had managed to land and live there back in the seventh century. And, why, in such a rural country, they would seek out such extreme solitude. By the time the boat had returned to mainland Kerry, Emma had worked out the entire plot of a novel in her head.

                “I looked up at those steps and thought, ok, who landed here first? There were most likely a dozen or so monks, but I thought I’d make it three like the Trinity. And I did a kind of job search. I needed a leader, and someone younger who can climb up and down the cliffs easily, and someone with enough knowledge to grow vegetables.”

She’s talking to me through zoom from her home in Ontario, Canada, and we’re discussing Haven, her recently released 16th novel. Haven opens when a scholar, Artt, has a dream telling him to leave the sinful world behind and to found a monastery. He’s visiting Cluain Mhic Nóis at the time, and he chooses his companions with care. There’s Cormac, an elderly convert, once married, who lost his family to plague, and the young dreamer, Trian.

The men set off down the Shannon to the Atlantic, letting the wind take them where it pleases. They land, and all is harmony, at first, but the Friar’s increasing insistence on apparently senseless deprivation eventually causes rifts.

Although rooted in medieval times, the novel resonates with our concerns today.

                “I tried to make it like any cult,” says Donoghue. “There’s always a boss who seems to be so charming and sure of himself and who makes you feel special for having been chosen. You’re seduced into it.

                “It’s like those Facebook groups – people fall down rabbit holes all the time. And the more they are told, ‘this is secret knowledge, the rest of the world don’t understand,’ the more fervently they follow.”

Haven turned out to be the most perfect project for lockdown. The idea of escaping the desperate tedium of Covid, getting away from that world, and solving problems for those early settlers was utterly appealing to Donoghue – although sometimes the problems seemed oddly similar.

                “I remember saying to a friend, ‘I’m going to have to get the monks firewood or they’ll freeze,’ but the Friar, Artt, is saying ‘there’s to be no trading with the mainland’, which was perverse when the island is just off the coast of Kerry. Saying ‘We won’t trade with the corrupt world,’ was like the apparently arbitrary Covid rules, ‘You may see five neighbours but not six.’”

The novel required prodigious research, and although Donoghue always completes the bulk of it before she embarks on writing, new queries inevitably arise.

                “I always do my own research,” she says, “and I always go in as deeply as possible because you never know where the diamond will be found in the wall of the mine.

                “Sometimes I only get half a sentence in, and I spend the rest of the day on research. I’ll say, ‘he rubs his head,’ and I think, hang on, what shape was the tonsure. Sometimes I think, Will I ever get to the end of the paragraph?”

Laughing, she tells me of the days she spent on YouTube, watching people with specialist hobbies explain how to make things with neolithic tools.

                “There are forums debating whether its cheating to use threads to bind your leather together.”

Reading of Artt’s fixation on purity is horribly resonant of the way women have been treated in recent times, being sent to atone their sin in Magdalene Laundries, their babies sold to America.

                “I was very aware of trying to pin down that strand of Christianity that hates the body, and hates females in particular,” she says. “The Friar basically says, ‘ick, women, periods, sex, let’s just get men and go away to an island.‘

                “I would say anything I write that’s historical is drawing all my thoughts from today,” she says, then points out the environmental parallels. “How much damage could those three humans do to an island in one summer? Not from making anything, because no supplies come from anywhere else, but by stripping it down. And they can start on that awful course towards erosion and the destruction of the eco system.”

Skellig Michael is a character in itself. The three men’s differing reactions to it are used to develop the action.

                “The Friar is choosing it because it’s a land with no people. He wants a blank space to colonise. But there is so much beauty there and so many creatures already. Cormac and Trian are able to see the beauty but the Friar just doesn’t notice.

                “When I have an idea, I’m a bit like him,” she says, ruefully.  “I start a novel, and it’s the most important thing in the world and then, oh God, the kids have a dental appointment and I have to get back into the real world.

                “I don’t want to become the monster who says, ‘I’m not making dinner – I’m only writing my book,’ but you have to find time to write the book. It’s getting that balance right between the ambition and drive for something and the more relaxed merciful qualities.”

Donoghue’s greatest concern lies in examining the relationship dynamics between the three men, and how they relate to each other as a family.

                “A modern reader probably thinks, why don’t Cormac and Trian rebel, but the idea that we have rights came with the rise of democracy and human rights, whereas the monks think of themselves as belonging to their boss.”

I remark that Donoghue’s novels generally happen in confined spaces; none more so that in Room, the novel which was turned into an Oscar winning movie, with Donoghue’s screenplay. Agreeing, she says,

                “I’m like a serial kidnapper, aren’t I? Other writers can write a novel that covers all of Europe over 50 years and I’m locking my characters in a shed! I enjoy these confined situations because dialogue is my strength, and I like how each thing they say to each other would have a ripple effect because they’re really stuck with each other.”

Donoghue escaped her own lockdown confinement last August, when she attended the filming of her novel, The Wonder, on the Guinness Estate in County Wicklow.

                “It was magic,” she says. “And I appreciated seeing how they managed under Covid conditions. We had a Covid testing van, and we were all tested every two days. We had a few nice meals in Monkstown, and it all went really well.”

Present projects include two novels, one awaiting publication, the other in progress;  a musical, and the screenplay for her 2020 novel, the Pull of the Stars.

Meanwhile, she is busy packing. She’s off to live in Paris for a year with her wife, Christine Roulston, and their teenager children, Finn and Una. They’ve lived in the South of France before, but never the North.

                “We won’t get those sparking blue skies, but I’m drawn to the history, the museums and the architecture of Paris. I couldn’t pass up this chance. It’s exciting.”

Living in Europe, close to her family and friends in Ireland will be a treat. But will she, finally, make the trip to Skellig Michael – which was closed to tourists during Covid?

                “We have a trip booked,” she says, “and can go any time in the next five years. So some day I will land on the island. I hope I don’t say, ‘Oh! I got it all wrong.”

Haven. Picador: €20.15. Kindle: €9.86.

Published in the Irish Examiner on 10th September.

© Sue J Leonard. 2022.

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