The NS Books Interview: Emma Donoghue

How do you feel about your novel Room being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize?

A journalist asked me the other day: "Do you in some sense wish not to win it? Are you scared of success?" I'm sorry, but I'd love to win. Maybe it's because I'm a novice to the world of big prizes, and therefore have a schoolgirlish attitude to being on the list.

You're not new to writing fiction, though. Your first book was published in 1994.

Which makes me all the more grateful to suddenly be on the shortlist for a big prize.

Room was inspired by the incarceration of Elisabeth Fritzl by her father. But it's not straightforwardly about that case, is it?

No, and I am disappointed by how large the Fritzl case has loomed in discussions of the book. Perhaps naively, I thought I should be upfront about the fact that it happened to be the Fritzl case, rather than any other, that put the idea in my mind. It would be entirely disingenuous to claim that the idea came to me entirely independently.

Unfortunately, the magnetic attraction of a case as lurid as Fritzl's makes it easier to talk about than literature. What's funny is that I have often written very closely about real people in the past, but nobody cares about that. In this case, I've written a novel that has the most indirect relationship to real people. Yet people are asking me things like if I have interviewed Elisabeth Fritzl. It's been a bit disheartening.

Were you worried that your novel was published at the same time as Natascha Kampusch's incarceration memoir?

These coincidences happen. But I see Room as offering a very different kind of literary experience. A memoir is always the most authentic telling of a situation, but a novel gets to different places. The only publicity I've resented is a couple of articles that have claimed it's a morally shabby thing to do, to write a novel that in any way touches upon such a real case. I would fiercely defend myself against that accusation.

Often people who make it feel uneasy that fiction does come from the real world, but that it is fictional - it is hard to separate those components. But the idea that certain subjects are so wicked that we should never touch them with fiction is just nonsense. Would you want to erase the full range of poetry and fiction about the Holocaust? If we did, kids would never hear about it and it would be forgotten. I have every right to write a novel about a situation like this, and it's certainly not closely based on anyone's life, so I don't have any of the moral obligations of a biographer.

Room is narrated by a five-year-old boy. Were you thinking of previous child narrators when you were writing the novel?

Absolutely. I was very aware of two books in particular: L P Hartley's The Go-Between and Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. They stand out for me for the painful moments when the reader deduces something going on between the adults that the child doesn't understand, though the child is aware that something is missing. They don't understand the adults' agenda and it gets them into trouble.

Sex is fundamentally a mystery to children, and many adult decisions are motivated by questions of sex. Child narrators who are confused about adult sexuality are particularly useful.

How much of a challenge was it to subsume your style in the voice of a child?

You know the way there are two kinds of actors - the De Niro kind who's always De Niro, and then somebody like Daniel Day-Lewis, who transforms himself eerily? Well, I aim to be the Daniel Day-Lewis kind of writer. I don't have a house style. If you read one line of a story by Cormac McCarthy, you know straight away it's Cormac McCarthy, and that's a great strength. But I want to be the other kind of writer. I want people to read Room and forget that it happened to be Emma Donoghue who wrote it.

But isn't thinking yourself into the mind of a child peculiarly difficult?

It does require a great deal of concentration, because the paradox is that we don't really remember being children. We remember bits and pieces, but we can't access the mindset. Even if we have childhood memories, we tend to phrase them in adult terms. But children are a different tribe. l

Emma Donoghue's "Room" is published by Picador (£12.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut