Emma Donoghue is having a good week when I call her up at her home in London, Ontario. The Irish-born author's seventh novel, Room, has just been shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize and received what will be the first of two rave reviews in The New York Times. The book is already a best-seller in the U.K., and I'm speaking to her on the day it gets its much-anticipated release in the U.S.
But Donoghue, who appears at the Cary Barnes & Noble on Sept. 25, takes the hype in stride. "I'm really just looking forward to meeting actual readers of the book," she says. "I love my children, but since they were born, touring is my one legitimate excuse for being away from them."
Motherhood serves as one of the major themes of Room, which is told from the strange, sheltered point of view of a 5-year-old named Jack. Seven years before the book's opening, Jack's mother, known as "Ma," was abducted and kept in a small room where Jack was fathered by her kidnapper. The two create a world in the place Jack calls "Room," but their existence will soon be threatened and changed in ways they—and the reader—might not expect.
Donoghue is delighted to be asked about the influence of Plato's allegory of the cave—which postulates that humans chained in a cave facing a blank wall will begin to ascribe forms to the shadows that pass across the wall. "I'm so glad someone mentioned Plato!" she squeals, tired of being asked about which real-life kidnapping case had the most influence on Room.
"I wrote the book on one level to be a page-turning, realistic novel about a child, but on another, it was a thought exercise along the lines of Plato's cave about the formation of a human consciousness," she says, "what would happen if you didn't have friends or family or wider interaction with the rest of the world." She compares Jack to such classic heroes as Gulliver and Robinson Crusoe: "I see Jack as being very much in that tradition. I tried to make it as universal as I could."
In her research for Room, though, Donoghue says she was intrigued by the way people tend to "personalize" kidnapping cases they read about or see in the news. "I got fascinated by the way these cases get distorted—they either tend to sentimentalize the women involved, or they tend to judge: 'You should have tried to escape, you should have done this, you should have done that,'" Donoghue says. "The media element seemed to grow naturally with Jack's discovery of the nature of reality, how authentic or unauthentic is the life that he's been living."
Donoghue says it was no more difficult to write Jack than any other character she's created.
"When I wrote my novel Life Mask, I had to put myself in the mind of a male 18th-century aristocrat. It was completely alien to me!" Donoghue says.
"Jack was easier in many ways, because I share a lot with him culturally. My child is 5 years old, so it was easy to imagine what Jack's reactions would be. I just had to keep checking them against the limitations of Room: Would he guess that? Would he have those skills? I think it helps that I've written a lot of historical fiction, because there you're trying to conjure up a world that the reader has never been to."
She also drew on her relationship with her children to understand the character of Ma.
"In a way, I saw her developing these massive strengths in Room," Donoghue says. "She could have sunk further and further into insanity, but Jack's birth gave her something to hang on to. Pretty much every interaction between Jack and Ma is based on me and my kids, but the difference between me and Ma is that I'm much meaner."