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talking about “room” with author emma donoghue

Emma Donoghue

I got to see Room the other night in New York, and say hi to author Emma Donoghue, who was doing a Q&A after the screening. The movie was excellent, thanks to powerful performances by Brie Larson and 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay, and a screenplay written by Donoghue herself.

I will be reviewing the movie next week when it opens in San Diego — and if you live here or have friends in the area, make sure you all subscribe to my newsletter because I’m sending out an invitation to see the movie ahead of time — but, meanwhile, I thought I’d re-post my interview with Donoghue from 2011 to get you in the mood.

If you haven’t read the book yet, GO READ IT NOW!

As an avid reader, I love lots of different books for lots of different reasons but, every once in a while, a book comes along that’s truly a life-changer. It takes me somewhere I’ve never gone before and makes me look at the world — or a small part of it — in a way I never thought of before.

Room by Emma Donoghue is one of those rare books.

When I received an advance reading copy last year, I had no idea what to expect — narrated by five-year-old Jack, it’s the story of Jack and his Ma, who live in a small room which they can’t leave. I was hooked from the beginning, marking up pages with questions and comments. I was blown away by the emotion I felt, and made my mom, sister, daughter, friends read it as well. Everyone had the same reaction.

My daughter and I went to hear Emma speak at Warwick’s a couple of months ago, and got a chance to talk to her — although “gush” is probably the more appropriate word. I was thrilled when she agreed to do an exclusive interview for us. The book is in paperback now, so if you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor  and pick up a copy. You will not want to leave this Room!

Emma, Room is one of my favorite books ever. I found it so powerful and moving, and such a gorgeous testament to motherhood without being sappy or sentimental. I know the idea for the book was based on an actual event. Can you talk a little about that and how it inspired you to write Room?

It was hearing about the discovery of Elizabeth Fritzl and her children in their Austrian dungeon (in April 2008) that inspired Room — but all I took from that case was the basic notion of growing up in a locked room.  I think the real reason I wrote the novel was that my kids were four and one at the time, so my mind was already full of all the grandly existential questions of parenthood: Am I still an individual if I’m totally responsible for another human being now? How much could I bear? How much would I sacrifice for them?

I love the scene in which a reporter says to Ma, “You must feel an almost pathological need – understandably – to stand guard between your son and the world,” to which she replies, “’Yeah, it’s called being a mother.’ Ma nearly snarls it.” There are so many great lines that reveal the unbreakable bond between mother and child, as well as the overwhelming responsibility of being a mother. Another example is Jack saying, “Ma’s not meant to ask me things, she’s meant to know,” or admitting, “In Room I was safe and Outside is the scary.” Your book beautifully depicts the fact that a child’s world literally – and happily – revolves around his or her mother. As a mom yourself, how does that make you feel? What message would you like readers to take away from the book?

I don’t have a message; a novel would be a very long and unreliable way to deliver a message to the world, because, for one thing, everyone reads a story differently. But what I did do was emphasize the universal within Ma and Jack’s weird story. On almost every page, their interaction is based on stuff that has come up between me and my kids.  Room is really inspired by the paradox that no matter how close a mother and child are, they are very different, and what the child adores (for instance, having their mother on hand every minute of every day) could be a nightmare for the mother. The joy and the claustrophobia are impossible to unpick from each other.

Ma deserves the “Mother of the Year” Award for the creative ways she entertains and educates Jack! Most of us can barely figure out how to keep our kids busy for an hour or two, and she has to do that 24/7 for many years. How did you come up with ideas for her, and have you used any of them with your own children?

Ah, she’s my inner perfect-mother, my best self, and I don’t manage to be like her for more than five minutes at a go.  Doing art with my kids, in particular, puts me in a total rage; after three minutes they walk off, leaving me with a total mess! No, writing Ma left me very rueful, because it proved that I do know how to parent marvelously – I have all the necessary ideas and principles – I just can’t manage it in practice.  The main difference is that she dedicates herself to motherhood totally, because it saves her from thinking of herself as a sex slave, whereas I want to be mother and lover, friend and writer, loller-about-watching-HBO and many other roles…

Jack is such a perfect narrator. You completed nailed five-year-old speech! How did you manage to get it so realistic?

I studied my son (who was five by the time I was drafting the novel) like an anthropological linguist — then made Jack’s language rather more advanced as he’s been so intensively home-schooled, and added some quirks of his own, such as his personifying objects in Room (Table, Bed, etc).  There is no real child who speaks just like Jack: the narration of a novel is never exactly like real speech, even when your characters are adults, but if you get the characters’ mindset right, readers are generally willing to suspend their disbelief when it comes to the details of wording.

I was shocked to hear about all the flack you got from readers for having Ma continue to breastfeed Jack – what else could she do? It seemed like a perfect solution. Were you surprised by the reaction? How did you feel about the fact that it even became an issue?

I was startled at first and then almost amused: it seemed perfect proof of the notion that our society officially approves of motherlove but is actually nervous about its primal, passionate, physical side.  Yes, it made sense to me on every level that Ma would hold on to a mutually comforting ritual with Jack (quite apart from nutritional/contraceptive qualities) until they’re out in the world; their relationship at that point has to give up its mother-baby elements.

The second half of the book deals with the outside world, making the story even stronger by showing how a parent and child often have different needs. What was your intention in this? Did you ever consider having the whole book take place in Room?

No, I knew from day one that the book would be in two halves, and each half would reflect an interesting light on the other.  To me, stopping at the escape would have made the story much more simplistic and (emotionally) static; the second half is actually more probing in that it shows Ma having to let Jack grow up, as all mothers do.

You talked about having your own son try out the attempted escape plan Ma sets up for Jack. Can you share this story with our readers?

He knew the gist of the story already: Bad Guy locks Woman and Boy in Shed. So he was more than willing to let me roll him up in a rug for research. It was really hard for him to wriggle his way out, so when he finally managed it (and got rewarded, I believe with a pain au chocolat) I had to go back and completely rewrite the scene.

How did you design the actual room in which Room takes place? What were the biggest challenges?

I ‘virtually shopped’ on ikea.com and used a home design website to move all the pieces around. I spent days on obscure sites selling high-tech security mesh and insulation. The biggest challenge was my complete ignorance about construction; I’m still not quite sure what a two-by-four is.

In the acknowledgments, you thank your brother-in-law for his “unnervingly insightful advice on the practicalities of Room.” Can you give us some details on his contributions?

Yes, he not only answered my ignorant question about construction but offered ideas of his own; it was he who suggested that Ma should dig a hole in the floor with a spoon, only to discover that Old Nick has built chain-link fence into all the surfaces of Room.  Then he started going beyond his remit to offer other ideas about the kidnapper; for instance, he pointed out that Old Nick would have to make Ma use cloth diapers because the neighbors would be suspicious if a bachelor was putting out sacks of used Pampers. He was my consultant guy’s guy, basically, and he rather enjoyed tapping into his potential psychopath.

How has writing this book changed the way you personally look at motherhood and your own kids?

It’s just made me more aware of my failures, and more urgently aware that you only have a few years to get it right and give your kids all the love and confidence they need to tackle the world.


  1. Lovely interview! Room was such a powerful book, crazily harrowing to read but with magnificent attention to detail and the psychology of childhood.

  2. Pamela Lear says:

    This story was very powerful; for me, it was a fascinating look at isolation, mother-child relationships and overcoming horrendous circumstances. I truly did not expect to “enjoy” reading the book, but ultimately I found it to be gripping, a real exercise in looking at the power of humanity. The author did such an excellent job of creating the lives of Ma & Jack, to the extent that my awe for them was overwhelming. In the interview with Emma Donoghue, I especially love the revelations about motherhood. I read the novel last year, and it is also so interesting now to think about it in light of Jaycee Dugard’s story, as her interview with Diane Sawyer aired just last night. Some people are so inspiring!!

  3. The book showed such a loving relationship between a mother and child during extreme conditions and the interview covered all the right questions. Thank you Emma and Lois.

  4. I loved this book, though it was absolutely terrifying in places (more than some pure horror novels even!) A lot of people hated the second half though, so I wrote a defense of sorts of it here:


  5. Love the book! Will there be a sequel so we know how ma & Jack fare? Thanks!

  6. Helene Cohen Bludman says:

    Wow, this is brand new to me. I can’t wait to read it. Should I read the book before I see the movie?

  7. I loved this book! I’m so excited it’s a movie. Can’t wait to see it. Love the interview. I love hearing the author talk about it!

  8. OMG. You, Room, Emma, hooked me. I have to go get this, NOW. I cannot wait for the movie. Books are better anyway.

  9. My book group and I read this when it came out. Because the world has more than its share of crazy, horrible scenarios, I no longer have the stomach to read or see films with those topics. I know it will be a well-regarded film.

  10. How did I miss this one? I will read it before the movie. I am looking forward to reading five-year-old point of view.

  11. I, too, thought Jack made the perfect narrator and she nailed it with him. I look forward to the film (which I think just might be playing the Denver Film Festival, which I’m covering. I hope so!!)

  12. I love your interview with the author. Unfortunately, these types of books and movies give me the heebee Jeebees so I will pass.

  13. First I’m hearing of this book but I will be sure to read it. I’m always horrified when I read real life stories like this on the news. Great interview for sure!

  14. So good. That trailer gave me chills.

    I love the book and I’m so excited you got to meet her and speak with her! Great interview and love the whole post!!!

  15. Robin (Masshole Mommy) says:

    What a great interview! This sounds like a fantastic book!

  16. I haven’t had a chance to read the book but now I want to and then see the movie. Thanks, Lois!

  17. Just reading through your interview has convinced me that I need to read this book and soon. I will be looking for a copy asap as I’ve got to get it read before I see the movie! lol

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