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Writers on Wednesday: International Bestselling author EMMA DONOGHUE talks about the “fasting girls,”Nightingale nurses, how her kids are sort of an editorial board, and her THE WONDER

By Leslie Lindsay 

Emma Donoghue will probably always be remembered for the poignant—yet horrific—2010 International bestseller ROOM, a child’s point-of-view of being raised in captivity and then his amazing escape adapted for film in 2015.WP_20160920_11_28_31_Pro_LI (2).jpg

But Donoghue writes other narratives—seventeen published works, to be exact—those which stretch back in time to explore scandal, relationships, the Old Country, famine, class, and equality. All books–and all writers—Donoghue says, are political. Her new book, THE WONDER (Little, Brown September 20, 2016) is based on the real-life “fasting-girls,” a historical and religious phenomenon reported across the world from the 1500s to the 1900s: women and girls (often pre-pubescent) who claim to subsist on, well…nothing.  Whether these girls were mentally imbalanced, spiritually-driven, or something else, they drew crowds (and donations!) from tourists, eavesdroppers, medical and clerical professionals, and more. It’s at once, a wonder.

When Anna O’Donnell claims to live with no food since her eleventh birthday—nearly 4 months ago—Nightingale-trained nurse Lib Wright is commissioned from England to sit vigil, observing the child in hopes of revealing a hoax.160px-sarah_jacob

Donoghue presents the grayed landscape of post-famine Ireland in rich detail, a sort of Gothic horror and rich fascination in which one can sense the peaty landscape, feel the damp breeze, and taste the salty sea air. It’s a book you won’t want to miss, because it will change you.

Hope you have time to join Emma and I for a spot of tea a steamy scone and jam. Because neither one of us is willing to give up luscious baked goods.

Leslie Lindsay: Emma, it is such a delight and honor to have you pop by today. Thank you. Some will say it’s bad manners to ask a writer where she gets her inspiration for a particular work. But I have to know—what inspired you to write THE WONDER? Why now?

Emma Donoghue: I’m not sure why now, because I first came across the Fasting Girls Fasting Girls twenty years ago and have been fascinated by them all this time. I suspect I was just stuck in a habit of always basing my historical novels on one real person – whereas the breakthrough moment for THE WONDER was when I realized that no one of the cases was quite right for my purposes, so I needed to let myself write a completely fictional story. Albeit one that’s haunted by the real Fasting Girls.

L.L.: I’ll be honest, I’ve never heard of “the fasting girls” until THE WONDER was brought to my attention. In some ways, it reminds me a bit of the Salem Witch Trials download-18in the late 15th century America. Can you speak to how it might relate to your story?

Emma Donoghue: Yes, I’m sure Arthur Miller’s play about Salem, THE CRUCIBLE, was one of the texts that influenced me. But so did many other examples of groupthink and mass hysteria, and not all of them historical ones either; only the other day I read about a 13-year-old girl who’s died in India after a 68-day fast.  When I was writing THE WONDER I thought a lot about teenagers (with all their passion and idealism, and gullibility too) who get caught up in bad causes – from cults to ISIS.

L.L.: In my former life, I was a child/adolescent psych R.N. I was certainly no Nightingale…still, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about nursing and medicine through the eyes of “your” nurse, Lib Wright in late 1800s. What research did you do to get the details ‘just so?’

Emma Donoghue: I read a lot about the nurses in the Crimean, who really transformed the
job in a single generation. They may not have had much authority (having to apply to doctors for permission to do anything) or many effective tools (no thermometer, even), but a book like Nightingale’s NOTES ON NURSING shows an amazing insight into the nitty-gritties (psychological as well as physical) of how to nurse well.

L.L.: I find the character of Anna O’Donnell quite fascinating. I also happen to have a little redheaded, blue-eyed 11-year old girl just like Anna, well, minus the fasting. Being a mother, I find parts of THE WONDER a challenge to read, dark and slightly disturbing. I’m not sure how I would respond if my daughter claimed to be fed from manna from heaven. Can you share your thoughts on that, please?

Emma Donoghue: My thoughtful nine-year-old daughter was a big inspiration for THE WONDER; a sort of inverse inspiration, in that her radiant health (mental as well as physical) gave me a vivid appreciation for how grueling it would be like to watch over a child whose41iqqgj5pnl-_sx323_bo1204203200_ entire system is beginning to fail. She also supplied me with the riddles the nurse and girl exchange. To answer your question, something I researched in a lot of detail was the agonizing dilemma of the parents of children with eating disorders, who get such conflicting advice about the extent to which they should back off and allow the young person more autonomy, or step in and try to save the young person’s life. I suspect that in that situation I would blunder badly.

L.L.: Switching gears a bit, do you have any writing rituals or routines? What is your work space like?

Emma Donoghue: Right this minute it’s a chair in a hotel; tomorrow it’ll be a taxi, then an airport lounge, then an airplane, then a cafe; when I’m home it’s a sofa or a treadmill desk. I don’t care where I am. I just open my laptop and plunge down the rabbit hole.

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from THE WONDER?

Emma Donoghue: I never have a one-line message. I hope they have the rich experience of living through this intense two weeks in the lives of my characters.

L.L.: I understand your writing life is quite varied. You have a Middle-Grade (8-12 years) illustrated novel coming out in the Spring. Can you share a bit more?

Emma Donoghue: Sure. THE LOTTERYS PLUS ONE is my first for young readers, and my [own] kids (9 and 12) have been not just its inspiration but a sort of editorial panel for me.  The book aims to handle a very contemporary premise (a gay couple and a lesbian couple have seven kids together) and some painful material (dementia) with a breezy tone.

L.L.: What’s keeping you up these days? What gets you out of bed in morning? It doesn’t have to be literary…

Emma Donoghue: Book tour is what makes me lurch out of my hotel bed before five in the morning! But I have been enjoying lots of reading time on the road, including the sparklingly witty family stories WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? by Maria Semple and FATHERMUCKER by Greg Olear.

L.L: Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Emma Donoghue: Nothing springs to mind.

L.L.: Emma, it was a complete pleasure. Thank you so very much for your lovely interview.

Emma Donoghue:  Thank you!

For more information about Emma Donoghue, THE WONDER, or to connect on social media, please see: 

emma-donoghue-nina-subinAbout the Author:

Born in Dublin, Ireland, in October 1969, Emma Donoghue is the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue (the literary critic). She attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin, apart from one eye-opening year in New York at the age of ten. In 1990 she earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin (unfortunately, without learning to actually speak French). She moved to England, and in 1997 received her PhD (on the concept of friendship between men and women in
eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. From the age of 23, she has earned her living as a writer, and have been lucky enough to never have an ‘honest job’ since she was ‘sacked’ after a single summer month as a chambermaid. After years of commuting between England, Ireland, 41qzk6svewl-_ac_us160_and Canada, in 1998 she settled in London, Ontario, where she lives with Chris Roulston and their son Finn (12) and daughter Una (9).

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through these various media channels:


[Special thanks to K. Myers at Hachette Book Group. Cover image of THE WONDER from L.Lindsay’s personal archives. Image of E. Donoghue retrieved from author’s website. Credit: Nina Subin. Cover image of Notes on Nursing, The Fasting Girl, both retrieved from Amazon on 10.17.16, The Crucible image retrieved from pinterest also on 10.17.16] 


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