An interview with Emma Donoghue

We spoke to author Emma Donoghue about reading, writing and her current obsessions.

Emma Donoghue is an Irish writer, born in 1969. She spent eight years in England before moving to Canada. Her fiction includes The Pull of the Stars and the international bestseller Room (shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange Prizes). We asked her about writing, reading, and a most unusual (and unpleasant) job she once had. 

What was the last thing you wrote in your notebook?

In a Notes app on my phone: American doors open outward, Irish inward, significant?


Where in the world do you find yourself returning to and why?

Dublin, several times a year, for family, friends, work, and because I need to be on home turf.


Tell us your favourite poem.

Emily Dickinson’s ‘Exultation is the going of an inland soul to sea’


What are you currently obsessed with?

Catholic theology, specifically Purgatory.


What are you going to read next?

I’m going to tackle Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle; I expect to hate it, but I need to understand what all the fuss is.


Which writing do you find yourself returning to and why?

Oh, dear, how unoriginal of me, but my answer is Shakespeare and Dickens, both of whose complete works I’ve reread over the past decade.


Send us a picture of yourself at the time the book was published and tell us what that year was like.

Photo of Emma leaning down and smiling into the camera, wearing a red leather jacket
Emma Donoghue © Una Roulston

This snap was taken by my three-year-old, on the walls of York, just before Room (then not yet published) got on the Booker longlist and everything went a bit mad. Writing a bestseller is disruptive in stressful as well as delightful ways.


What’s your favourite fairytale or children’s book?

The Selkie story (the woman from the sea captured by a fisherman) turns up in several of my books, and I find it endlessly interesting.


Print or ebook?

Who cares. I’d inject my books directly into people’s brains if that technology were available.


What’s your favourite music or music genre?

I have a soft spot for sad traditional Irish ballads, perhaps because I’ve emigrated twice.


What's your strongest childhood memory?



One book you wish you had written.

Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.


Three things you would want on a desert island.

Three books, obviously, but don’t make me choose them – it was agony enough to have to give Jack and Ma in Room just five books each, and it really made me feel like their kidnapper.


What continues to inspire you?

My kids – not that they’re any more inspiring than anyone’s kids, just that I live with them so I get to hear their odd remarks every day.


Tell us something most people don’t know.

I’m tall – five foot eleven – and this often surprises people because apparently the headshots on my books suggest that I’m short.


What was your greatest piece of luck?

Being taken on by my agent (Caroline Davidson) as a raw beginner of 21, and having the benefit of her loyalty and wisdom ever since.


What’s the worst or most unusual job you’ve had?

I hated being a chambermaid because (a) we had to work alone to avoid chitchat, though sheets are really designed to be pulled straight by two people, (b) hairs are very hard to remove from wet porcelain, (c) hoping for a tip, not finding one, and suspecting the other chambermaids of stealing it added a whole other layer of bitterness.