Emma Donoghue contains multitudes.
The Irish novelist writes from the point of view of a five-year-old imprisoned with his mother (Room), a French erotic dancer in 1870s San Francisco (Frog Music), a Victorian spinster enmeshed in a friend’s nasty divorce (The Sealed Letter), and a formerly destitute prostitute and fashion fiend of the eighteenth century (Slammerkin).
On Feb. 6, HoCoPoLitSo’s 37th Annual Irish Evening of Music and Poetry featured Donoghue and her various voices. The Dublin-born novelist read from two books, her blockbuster Room and her latest, Frog Music.
The audience ate it up. Donoghue’s voice flipped from character to character as she read from Frog Music. During the dialogue, Donoghue’s voice changed from the rough Irish of the spreading Irish-American family MacNamara — the youngest boy to the frazzled mother and the slightly drunken father — to the accented lilt of a French-born erotic dancer Blanche, to the husky farmer bartender next door.
And when she read from Room, Donoghue mimicked the open-faced innocence and twisted grammar of a five-year-old. As the screenwriter for the independent film of her novel, due out in the fall of 2015, Donoghue said she thoroughly enjoyed sitting on set, keeping her mouth shut, as the actors brought her novel to life.
In her first introduction for HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening, new Irish Ambassador Anne Anderson explained that a recent gala theme, “Ireland: Legendary and Contemporary,” made her think of Emma Donoghue. “Emma is a natural cosmopolitan. She moves easily in time and space and between historic and contemporary space. … She is a vivid narrator for our time.”
Earlier in the day, that vivid narrator sat down with D.C. novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff to film an edition of The Writing Life, HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-to-writer talk show (www.youtube.com/hocopolitso). The two writers laughed and talked about Donoghue’s work, which includes a dozen books of fiction, literary criticism, numerous short stories, plus several plays and radio dramas.
Donoghue spent her first 20 years in Dublin, “that early marinating leaves a mark,” she laughed, as the youngest of eight children.
“It made us competitive and loquacious,” she said. “It was a big and noisy, bookish house. My dad is a literary critic (Denis Donoghue, the Henry James professor at New York University).”
Her books, Donoghue explained, are “fiction that walks arm in arm with fact.”
Frog Music tells the story of a real unsolved murder from the point of view of Blanche, the “burlesque (to put it generously) dancer,” Donoghue says, a woman who is a new friend to the murder victim, Jenny Bonnet. Bonnet was, Donoghue says, “the ideal murder victim; she was born trouble.” The victim, a cross-dressing frog-catcher for San Francisco’s restaurants in the 1870s, and most of the characters in this novel, are based in a history that Donoghue meticulously researched.
Room is the least fact-based of her novels, Donoghue told the audience, but did take its premise from a real headline — a young Austrian woman kept captive by her father, Josef Fritzl, who sired seven children with her and kept three of those children imprisoned as well. Donoghue says she thinks of Room as part fairy tale, part science fiction and “a bit like a nightmare.” Five-year-old Jack tells the story — imprisoned with his mother, Jack doesn’t know there is more to the world than the room in which they are captive, thanks to the protective, magical world his mother builds with him in their small space.
Donoghue said that she doesn’t like to repeat herself, so she sets up new challenges for herself. Her next project is a book for the middle school market — “I’m far more scared of them as an audience,” she laughed. They might throw spitballs, she laughed.
Friday night’s listeners didn’t throw anything but applause Donoghue’s way. And they clapped (and some danced) through the second half of the evening, the concert of traditional Irish music and step dancing by Narrowbacks and young dancers from the Culkin School.
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Susan Thornton Hobby
Howard County Poetry and Literature Society board