Emma Donoghue: Like Snow White, She May Be Drifting
Emma Donoghue is back with another sexy scandal from the days when divorce was a little more shocking than it is now. It's only the latest in what is likely to be a continuing string of historical fiction from the woman who has found a way to write about lesbians without being 'just' a lesbian writer.
Donoghue began publishing fiction featuring lesbian protagonists in 1994 with her novel Stir-Fry. But her career of late has been rooted in the past rather than the present. The Sealed Letter is the third in what could be called Donoghue's personal literary time machine.
The first in this trend was 2001's Slammerkin, which followed the career of Mary Saunders, a young woman who lived in London in the late 18th century. Slammerkin is a historical re-imagining of what might have led Saunders to commit the nasty crime that led to her imprisonment.
Life Mask, which came out in 2004, explored a love triangle that may or may not have occurred among an actress, an Earl, and sculptress in 18th-century England.
Most recently The Sealed Letter, which came out in September, draws from much more historical material than the previous two, although Donoghue still invents a great deal in the details.
It tells the story of triangle -- of sorts -- between a feminist activist, an admiral in the British Navy, and the admiral's wife. When the admiral divorces his wife, all kinds of secrets that have been carefully protected come out -- right up until the end.
The historian and novelist says that she's not done with the past as a source of future fiction but she may be drifting into a new period. We at SheWired harassed her by e-mail until she answered our questions from her home in London (in Ontario, Canada, that is).
SheWired:You've done three novels now based on actual cases. Are you going to do another one? If not, why not?
Emma Donoghue: I currently have four novels I want to write, all based -- some more closely than others -- on actual cases ranging from the 1820s to today. I don't know why I'm so sadly dependent on that little spark of the real to get my imagination ranging...
SW: Do you work on several projects at once or do you have to focus on only one at a time?
ED: Generally several, unless I'm having an intense period of writing on one thing for a few weeks. I'd feel claustrophobic if I spent more than, say, a few months with just one project.
SW: Your novels take a lot of research, both in the known details and the period in which they take place. What do you like better, researching or writing?
ED: The researching is easier, but the writing is far more exciting.
SW: Does what's happening in your own present ever affect what you write, whether about contemporary situations or historical ones?
ED: Oh, yes, plenty of stuff I either experience or read about or hear about finds its way in... from a story about the horrors of sleep deprivation when you have a baby ('Through the Night' in Touchy Subjects) to a crisis in Ireland's national airline (in Landing).
SW: How has having children affected your work -- other than the obvious time constraints?
ED: I'm not sure it has, except that I put children into what I'm writing slightly more often these days. And my next novel -- a contemporary one -- is in the voice of a five-year-old.
SW: What are you working on now?
ED: The beginnings of that novel -- the child's eye one, a rather strange and dark storyline -- and the final rewrite of a book I'm going to publish with Knopf called Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature. It's the kind of non-specialist broad survey that academics aren't allowed to write anymore and it's been my most enjoyable hobby project for at least the last ten years. Oh, and I'm finishing up a story collection.
SW: What are some projects you'd like to take on someday?
ED: Ah, it would jinx it to discuss a book long before writing it -- and of course somebody might steal the idea! -- but I will comment that it's strange that three of the true stories I want to write about are from the nineteenth century. I always thought of myself as an eighteenth-century girl, but I seem to have strayed.
For more on Emma Donoghue, visit www.emmadonoghue.com.