Emma Donoghue, from Dublin to Whistler 

The Irish-Canadian novelist comes to the Whistler Writers Festival with her Giller Prize-shortlisted novel The Wonder

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - The Wonder Novelist Emma Donoghue is part of this year's Whistler Writers Festival on Sunday, Oct. 16.
  • PHOTO submitted
  • The Wonder Novelist Emma Donoghue is part of this year's Whistler Writers Festival on Sunday, Oct. 16.

As Emma Donoghue left a reading in Fort Erie, Ont., a young fan gave her a rose.

It thrilled the Irish-Canadian novelist.

"It was the first time ever! It's so lovely! A 15 year old gave me a rose, I was so touched," she says during our interview minutes later.

"She gave me a long, eloquent letter about how much (Donoghue's novel) Room had touched her."

Room, which came out in 2010, told the story of five-year-old Jack, who was confined to a room with his kidnapped mother and had never been outside. It was a love story of a mother and child, rather than a horror story about a woman who was being confined against her will.

Room was Donoghue's international breakthrough. The book sold over 2 million copies and won the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for best Canadian novel, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and was shortlisted for many more, including the Man Booker Prize.

Donoghue also wrote the screenplay for the 2015 film, for which actor Brie Larson won an Oscar for Best Actress.

Donoghue is currently on tour to promote her latest novel The Wonder.

"It has been a whirlwind. I always enjoy meeting people, even if it's five people. If it's 500, as it was in Toronto, so much the better. It really raises energy in the room for it to be packed out," Donoghue says.

"I once gave a reading where there were two people at it, so anytime I give one I'm still a little nervous whether anyone will come. Once I see there are three people there I start to relax because I know it will not be my worst reading ever!"

Set in the Irish Midlands in 1859, just after the Great Famine, The Wonder tells the story of an English nurse, Lib Wright, sent to Ireland to watch over a child, Anna, whose parents say she is fasting and surviving. There, Lib comes into conflict with church and family.

"I didn't want to pick any part of Ireland that was conspicuously beautiful. I didn't want the Cliffs of Moher, or the Giant's Causeway or any beautiful mountains," Donoghue says.

"I wanted the nurse to be really irritated by the place. I wanted it to have no apparent features. There is beauty in the Midlands, I wanted it to be the sort of beauty she would not notice at first.

"Also, I didn't want it to be a place absolutely destroyed by the famine. There are places in Sligo where no one was left. Damage was done, many were lost, but 10 years later it was recovering. I looked at maps of where the famine hit hard.

"It's also the middle, the epitome of Ireland. There's the bog land, it's very mysterious. I love the idea of memory being preserved in the bogs.

"So I wanted its charms to be subtle ones, put it that way."

The Wonder has been shortlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize. The winner will be announced on Nov. 7.

Historical fiction has been a longtime passion for Donoghue.

"One thing I find really interesting is taking modern notions and tracing them back to their cultural roots. I think we can understand contemporary life if we go way back," she says.

Having also recently gave a reading of The Wonder at Trinity College in Dublin, Donoghue, who has lived in London, Ont., with her partner Chris Roulston since 1998, finds Ireland still claims her.

"They think of me exclusively as an Irish writer. The fact that I live abroad is irrelevant to them. I would say I was feeling the Dublin love," she laughs.

"I always have some family in the audience, so it feels like it's where I began as a writer."

Donoghue is in conversation with Bill Richardson at the Whistler Writers Festival, along with Madeline Thien, Gary Geddes, Affinity Konar, Cea Sunrise Person and Anosh Irani, at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler on Sunday, Oct. 16 at 11 a.m.

Thien, like Donoghue, is shortlisted for the Giller Prize for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing, as well as the 2016 Man Booker Prize.

Tickets are $38 and include brunch. They can be purchased at www.whisterwritersfest.com.

Pique's feature on the WWF's 15th anniversary is on page 36.



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