Emma Donoghue takes you from Anne Lister to the letter Z in this wonderful guide.


A is for Anne Lister, the Regency Yorkshirewoman whose decoded diaries (published by Helena Whitbread as I Know My Own Heart and recently dramatised on BBC as The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister) were the impetus for several strands of my career.  I came across them in 1989, adapted them into my first play, then wrote my first literary studyPassions Between Women (1993) in an effort to understand what Anne Lister might have read that let her form such a confident lesbian identity two centuries ago.

B is for babies. I've had two. They've broken me and remade me.

C is for Chris, my partner in crime, the kids' Maman, aka Dr Christine Roulston of University of Western Ontario's French and Women's Studies departments.  Sixteen years so far of unwedded bliss.

D is for Donoghue, which means brown dog and signifies that my paternal ancestors come from the bleak Black Valley in Kerry.  I am quite fond of the name because it links me to my father Denis, still Henry James Professor at New York University, whose output of books on English, Irish and American literature makes me feel like a slacker.

E is for Emma, a horribly popular name in all generations but at least I can say, in all truth, I was given it as a nod to Jane Austen's wonderfully biting novel.

F is for Frances Rutledge Donoghue.  I'm her eighth child (the runt of the litter, she used to say fondly) and it's her boundless, playful and unsentimental kind of mother-love that I tried to pour into Room.

G is for Gaeilge, aka Irish, one of several tongues that I studied for years but don't speak.  My love of expressing myself eloquently in English actually gets in the way of my using any other language.

H is for home, a confusing concept to me since I first emigrated (to Cambridge, back in 1990).  It can mean London Ontario (where I've lived since 1998), or Dublin, or wherever my nearest happen to be at the time.

I is for Ireland, the place that made me, though it's so altered by its newfound post-modernity that I sometimes barely recognise it.  Certain changes (racial diversity) delight me, others (crass nouveau-richesse) don't.

J is for Jack, the fairytale-named hero of Room. For me the key question to answer before writing any novel is, who's telling the story? I have found that any character I commit to as a narrator (even a cockfighting, horse-owning aristocrat like Lord Derby in Life Mask) brings out my sympathy and identification, so I'd better not ever write anything from the point of view of Stalin. In the case of Room, I decided from day one to trust that a five-year-old boy could tell his story better than anyone else.

K is for Kissing The Witch, a book of reworked fairytales that I wrote for my usual (adult) audience, but which ended up being published (despite my qualms) for the Young Adult market in the US in 1997. It won me lots of teenage readers who soon grew into adult readers, and got me over my wariness of the YA genre.

L is for the L-word, as in 'Don't you hate being ghettoized by being called a lesbian writer?' Well, actually, no, I think it would be bad manners to object. I'm a lesbian writer as much as an Irish one; both words say where I'm from and neither limits where I'm going.

M is for Ma, the otherwise unnamed heroine of Room.  She's everything I know how to be as a parent (energetic, warm, thoughtful, tireless, playful, self-sacrificial, brave) and don't manage to be for more than three minutes at a stretch.

N is for Narnia, the first 'proper book' I remember reading (or rather, having read to me - every book in the cycle - by a beloved male 'spoiled priest' babysitter). Although His Dark Materials, by Lewis's castigator Philip Pullman, is better in many ways, I hold onto a great fondness for the Narnia books and that power they had to make me believe in unseen worlds.

O is for Open Sesame. Until I was about twelve, I read fairytales obsessively.  I'd go to Enid Blyton, then Jane Austen, then plunge again into the mysteriously interconnected body of international folklore. I wasn't raised in the Irish oral tradition of tales around the fire, I'm afraid: I found them in printed form in my local library.  Fairytales come up in almost everything I write.

P is for popularity, a will-o'-the-wisp that writers should never bother chasing.  It's impossible to guess which book publishers or readers will like, so you're better off writing the story that passionately preoccupies you and leaving the rest to chance.

Q is for quarrels.  I hate to have them, and love to write them: nothing more satisfying than a morning at the laptop, choreographing a good old bitter barney between two characters I know well, with my sympathies balanced between them!

R is for research.  A day in the dustiest stacks in the back of a university library is my idea of bliss (and much easier than writing). Nowadays I do much of it on the internet (squinting through blurred nineteenth-century newspapers, for instance) but the pleasure of immersion is the same. I don't know why I insist on writing about real people in history - it would be far easier to make them up - but I like the thrill of the chase.

S is for Slammerkin, the whydunnit I thought no publisher would ever buy (mid-eighteenth-century Wales, full of death, no happy ending) but which surprised me in 2000 by becoming a 'crossover' hit.  The average reader has a greater power to empathise with a sullen teenage prostitute than I realised.

T is for theatre, another great love of mine.  One of my few regrets is that I haven't settled in a big city and formed an ongoing relationship with one theatre company; my experiences of putting on plays have been fantastic but tantalisingly brief.

U is for universities.  I've never had a teaching job in one (only a few brief visits as a writer-in-residence), but as the PhD-holding daughter of one academic and partner of another, I have to admit that they are my natural habitat.

V is for volubility.  I never shut up, and most of my characters have the same problem. I'd rather go to prison than on a silent retreat.

W is for The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, my 2002 collection of factions based on fragmentary sources from British and Irish history of the fourteenth century to the nineteenth.  People often ask where I find these cases, as if I have access to some fabulous private archive.  I think the only trick is that I keep my ears open (especially for tales of eccentrics, whether among the rich and famous or the downtrodden) and never let a story get away. 

X is for my ex-lovers, who make up the majority of my best friends.  They remind me who I am, so all this being-interviewed-like-a-famous-person doesn't go to my head.

Y is for young, which at forty I'm really not anymore.  But that's OK, I'd choose wisdom and wrinkles over the alternative any day.

Z is for Z which Canadians pronounce zed, like the Irish, not zee, like Americans.  Having been settled in Canada for twelve years now, I speak an odd English with Irish, English and Canadian expressions all thrown in: 'C'mere, you big eejit, put your nappy in the garbage.'

by Emma Donoghue


Emma spoke to The Anti-Room blog to discuss the Fame soundtrack, her nicknames and the south of France.