Emma Donoghue's Inspiring Reads

10 April 2014

By Pan Macmillan

Emma Donoghue, author of the Man Booker Prize shortlisted Room, talks through the books that inspire her as an author.

The King James Bible.

This is one of the pillars our culture is built on, and I don't think I've ever written a book without quoting or echoing one of the verses.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.

A wonderful male babysitter - a 'spoiled priest', in fact, meaning a dropout from seminary - read me the complete cycle when I was about five, so for me the Narnia books are the original magic.

Grimm's Fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm.

I was a fairy-tale addict as a child, and the classic narrative motifs come up over and over again in my books. The Grimm collection has a wonderfully dark punch to it, by contrast with the melancholy romanticism of Hans Andersen, for instance.


I recently (over the course of a year) re-read the whole set after being stunned by a Globe production of Antony and Cleopatra. Even his not-so-great plays are chock full of the most stunning sentences.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

We studied this for three years at my secondary school, and we never ran out of discoveries.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Not only did McCarthy's novel make me weep compulsively on a beach in the Dominican Republic, but it helped inspired Room. I found myself wondering what an archetypal mother-child story would be, to set against the father-son journey in The Road.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson.

Kate Atkinson's debut is one of the most memorably vivid novels I know, and the ultimate dysfunctional-yet-hilarious family story. I hope some of the fans of her detective fiction will seek out her earlier works, starting with this one.

Red Shift by Alan Garner.

This eerie young-adult title by Alan Garner was a bit of an obsession for me in my teens; he cuts between three different eras in the same mid-English setting (Roman Britain, Civil War and today) and, without any hokey tricks such as time travel, manages to suggest a subtle web of connections between them.

Sylvia Plath.

I used to find that if I wrote any poetry within a month of reading Plath, the most arresting images I came up with would turn out to be unconsciously borrowed from her. Infectiously lyrical.

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson.

The Napoleonic-era fantasy by Jeanette Winterson was the first lesbian-themed novel I read that was proudly literary. It made it possible for me to think of being a literary writer who happened to be writing about love between women.

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula LeGuin.

Ursula LeGuin's marvelously atmospheric set of stories about an archipelago where wizards control creatures by knowing the creatures' true names.

Emma by Jane Austen.

It's hard to choose my favourite Jane Austen novel, but I was named for this one (since my literary critic father had been working on Austen) and I've always found the heroine's cheerful bossiness irresistible.