Emma Donoghue: History is my playground

P Anima | Updated on December 02, 2020

One for the stage: Donoghue is currently working on her first musical — a gesture of faith, she says, spurred by the belief that theatres will be open again   -  IMAGE CREDIT: MARK RAYNES ROBERTS/WWW.EMMADONOGHUE.COM

The author of The Pull of the Stars, a novel based on the Spanish flu, on the perpetual lure of history and writing through a pandemic

* What drew me to the subject of the 1918 flu was the timeless drama of a pandemic which would make everyday life grind to a halt

* It was absolutely eerie — especially when I heard the politicians of 2020 come out with many of the same wrong messages

* I always do massive research, even for my contemporary-set fiction


Two years ago, Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue came across a magazine story on the Spanish flu, a pandemic that came hard on the heels of World War I and snuffed out an estimated 50 million lives across the globe. Historical fiction forms a large chunk of Donoghue’s oeuvre, and, soon enough, she was working on a novel set in the maternity ward of a Dublin hospital during the Spanish flu. The fragile world she spun within the confines of a ward where heavily pregnant women particularly susceptible to the flu are nursed with a fraction of the medical facilities now available was far removed from the certainties ordained by modern life. No one had yet heard of SARS-CoV2, or imagined how a microbe would hurl the world into disarray in another couple of years. Unlike the books the pandemic spawned, Donoghue's The Pull of the Stars appears prescient; she finished it in March this year when Covid-19 had just begun to disrupt life as we know it.

The Pull of the Stars / Emma Donoghue / Picador / Fiction / ₹650


Three women hold the fort in Donoghue’s novel. Julia Power, the narrator and nurse, works at the understaffed hospital, and the reader immediately relates to the burden at work as overworked healthcare workers have been one of the first casualties of Covid-19. Bridie Sweeney, the orphan volunteer at the ward, comes from poverty, but proves to be a quick learner, and then there is the young doctor, Kathleen Lynn, whom Donoghue bases on a real-life character. The Pull of the Stars spans just three days in the maternity ward where death visits more often in the midst of the flu.

Taking part in an online discussion at the recently-concluded Tata Lit Fest, Donoghue drew attention to Room (2010), her earlier and acclaimed novel, where the protagonists were confined to a small room with the exits firmly shut. “I like to keep my characters quite confined, create a pressure cooker and turn up that heat between them,” she said. It works in The Pull of the Stars too where the three women from different social backgrounds are thrown in together in a ward for a short span of time, but band together to keep the risk of death at bay.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange Prizes, Room is among Donoghue’s best-known works. It was adapted to an acclaimed feature film and fetched Brie Larson an Academy Award for Best Actress. Donoghue adapted the novel not only to the screen but also to the stage — a medium she frequently returns to.

In this email interview with BLink, she talks about the perpetual lure of history, and writing through a pandemic. Edited excerpts:

Reading The Pull of the Stars in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic is strangely reassuring; to know what we are living through is not without precedent, that the world has seen similar or worse public health crises in the past, and under more difficult circumstances. This dystopian year helps forge an immediate connect with the novel. But if you take this year out — and all that it has come to represent —what drew you to the subject in 2018? Was there any point in your research when you felt this is far too unlikely a situation for me to imagine, especially in the context of the present scenario?

History is my playground: For the past 20 years I have regularly been drawn to past centuries, and often real historical events, for my novels. In 2018, I think what drew me to the subject of the 1918 flu (which I came across in an article on its centenary) was the timeless drama of a pandemic which would make everyday life grind to a halt and enlist an army of healthcare workers and volunteers to try to save lives, even as they feared dying themselves.

The novel deals with most of the safety protocols we currently follow — sanitisation, quarantine, face masks. Was there a sense of déjà vu when you finished the novel, but found your everyday life thoroughly altered by the pandemic?

Yes, it was absolutely eerie — especially when I heard the politicians of 2020 come out with many of the same wrong messages, from false reassurance (for the sake of boosting the economy) to blaming Covid-19 victims for the ‘pre-existing conditions’ of poverty and overcrowding.

What kind of research did a novel set during the 1918 Spanish flu entail? Dr Kathleen Lynn, for instance, is a real-life historical character.

I always do massive research, even for my contemporary-set fictions. But with The Pull of the Stars I felt under particular pressure to get the medical details of the flu, hospital protocols and childbirth absolutely right, so I used modern sources to try to understand medical issues as accurately as possible, then peeled away the layers of whatever has been discovered/invented since 1918, to get back to what they would have known and what they could have done back then. Which in many cases was ‘not understood, so simply watch and wait’.

Despite the recurring nature of contagions, certain aspects have remained unchanged, such as the toll it takes on the less privileged. In the novel, Bridie Sweeney represents that vulnerability. What historical material did you draw upon while etching her character?

Bridie is the only character I have ever based on a government report! The Irish government’s Ryan Report into a commission to investigate abuses in residential institutions such as orphanages. I read so much distressing witness testimony, but I tried to choose only the subtler examples of mistreatment of children to include in Bridie’s back story.

Has the pandemic altered or affected your writing routine? What are you working on now?

Real-world issues have certainly distracted me this year, and reduced my sleep... but no, I’m writing normally enough. I’m currently working on my first musical (in collaboration with a composer). It’s a gesture of faith in theatre — I have to believe that someday soon the theatres will be open again.

Quite a few of your works are historical fiction; what draws you to the genre, and which is the period that really interests you? Does your academic training — the rigour and discipline involved in finishing a PhD [on friendship between men and women in 18th-century English fiction from the University of Cambridge] — come handy when you’re researching the era in which a novel is set?

The academic training comes in handy, certainly, but I’m sure novelists who didn’t do PhDs have equal discipline when it comes to the hard work of research. Really what the PhD did was give me great confidence in my ability to find out about things I was ignorant of; it felt like a door opening onto the past. What draws me to historical fiction as a genre is I suppose the varied flavour of different settings in time (and space). Also the interesting ways in which human beings have thought and lived differently in the past. I don’t have one favourite era; I’ve equally enjoyed writing stories set in medieval times and ones set in the 20th century.

You have earned your living as a writer since the age of 23; you have been lucky enough, you mention, “to never have an ‘honest job’ since I was sacked after a single summer month as a chambermaid”. But it also speaks of a certain discipline a writer’s life demands — over the past 25 years, you’ve come out with a dozen novels, not to mention the screenplay for Room; then the plays and books on literary history. How necessary is it for a full-time writer to work to a routine? Do you begin work on a new novel soon after you finish one, or do you tend to work on multiple subjects at the same time?

It’s only necessary to know your own brain and the best way to persuade it into a state of flow — it’s not necessary to follow anyone else’s rules. My own habit is to have a number of ongoing projects at any one moment, though I will probably only work on one of them for a few weeks at a stretch. (And each day of course has so many ‘career duties’ to fit in, such as publicity or organising events, as well as ‘life duties’ such as shopping or helping our kids with homework!)

P Anima

Published on December 02, 2020

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor