It’s a question that Emma Donoghue has no doubt been asked countless times over the past few months: how does an Oscar nomination change your life? Well, the author says, not much, actually. “I’m reaching more people,” she acknowledges, “but my main job is making things up with words, and that’s much the same as it ever was.”
Donoghue’s 2010 novel Room was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and she wrote the screenplay for the 2015 film adaptation, which landed four nominations at this year’s Academy Awards, including one for the screenplay and one for its star, Brie Larson, who won Best Actress.
Despite being a writer for 20 years, 46-year-old Donoghue does concede that some things are different since the film’s success: “It’s just non-stop these days, but it’s a good complaint to have. I wouldn’t want to go back to the quiet publication days when nobody calls…”
That’s unlikely to happen any time soon. Her latest novel, The Wonder, this week’s Book at Bedtime on Radio 4, is already attracting A-list interest. Lending her voice to the production is fellow Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan – which is a particular coup as Mulligan has kept a low profile since the birth of her first child in September last year.
Since 1998, Dublin-born Donoghue has lived in London, Ontario in Canada, with her partner, Christine Roulston, an academic, and their children, Finn, 12, and Una, nine. The Wonder marks her literary return to Ireland, as her first novel set in her native country for almost a decade – but despite her time away, she still feels very much a part of the national conversation: “There’s a huge amount of debating in Ireland – how much is our cultural heritage precious and wonderful and how much is it a cage? And in the last 20 or 30 years we’ve all collectively been examining Ireland’s relationship with the Catholic Church.”
That relationship is at the heart of The Wonder, which is set in 1850s Ireland, and narrated by Lib, a British nurse recruited to verify the claims of a poor, pious family that their 11-year-old daughter can survive without food. It’s a scathing portrayal of religion, “the absolutist kind,” says Donoghue, “the kind characterised by rules and obsessional counting.”
A kind of religion that, she says, “is by no means limited to the 19th century. And of course it’s not just Christianity, either – we see with every religion, with suicide bombers, for instance, how the idealism and gullibility of young people can be actively harnessed by much more cynical masters.”
It’s a timely reflection, given the recent spate of terrorist incidents in Europe, especially in France, where Donoghue and her family spent the last academic year. They were based in Nice, where 85 people were killed in an attack in July.
Donoghue at the 88th Academy Awards ceremony, February 2016
It’s hard not to notice that The Wonder, like Room, also features a child struggling against malign forces who turns to make-believe to make their limited existence bearable – and both books centre on the bond between the child and their carer in a confined, claustrophobic setting. Donoghue says, “I wasn’t conscious of [the similarities] at the time, but then after wards I thought, ‘Oh, it’s another intense adult-child relationship.’ ”
“Intense” is putting it mildly – both books contain depictions of deeply traumatic childhoods. So it’s perhaps surprising that Donoghue’s next publication is a children’s book, The Lotterys Plus One.
It came out of writing in the voice of a child, she says, and offers an antidote to the anguish of her adult novels; it has the “retro, almost nostalgic, comfortable feel of [children’s] classics, like E Nesbit or Noel Streatfeild”. For Donoghue, it’s her most intimidating release yet. “It’s scary,” she laughs, “because I’ve seen it with my own kids – if they’re not interested in a book, they will literally drop it and walk away!”
Though Donoghue says that “for me, the fiction comes first”, she’s making the most of being hot property in Hollywood, and is currently adapting the work of two other writers for the screen.
“No one ever asked me before, and I still feel very underqualified, but now I get all these offers and I couldn’t resist.” They aren’t the only projects that could see Donoghue back on the red carpet: she’s also written a screenplay of her 2014 novel Frog Music, and agrees that The Wonder “could probably make a good film”.
Donoghue’s two worlds, film and fiction, will collide early next year – The Lotterys Plus One is due for publication in April, a couple of months after the Oscars in February. And though it’s yet to be seen if Donoghue wins the approval of young readers, she’s certainly won over the Academy – she was made a member in June.
So while she may be back on the sofa for next year’s ceremony, the view will be a little different this time: “It’ll be strange – I’m used to watching and complaining about how they vote, but now I’m one of them!”
The Wonder is being read by Carey Mulligan on Book at Bedtime: The Wonder, Monday–Friday 10.45pm, Radio 4