Given Emma Donoghue’s recent and so well-deserved Golden Globe nomination – and now Oscar nomination – it seems like a good time to post my April 2014 interview with her (a true thrill for me) which coincided with the release of her novel, Frog Music. The interview, which took place at A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ontario, was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2014/15 issue of The Humber Literary Review.
Emma Donoghue: The Novel As Tyrant
On a cool spring evening in April, I had the privilege of interviewing Emma Donoghue, author of numerous novels (including the international bestseller Room), at A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ontario. Gathered on the first floor of the beautifully renovated brick heritage home that has housed the bookstore since 1977, a large group of readers eagerly anticipated Donoghue’s appearance. Many came from some distance to be there and stayed late to speak with the author and have their books signed. Donoghue, dressed in a bright green jacket that contrasted with her fiery red hair, was relaxed and candid, full of good humour, and modest about her success. The evening began with her reading a short passage from her latest novel, Frog Music. She then settled in to discuss her writing, research, and her next book.
Dana Hansen: I understand Frog Music was some years in the making. How did you find out about Jenny Bonnet, and what compelled you to tell the story of her murder?
Emma Donoghue: I came across the idea about 15 years ago, actually. My novels often take a long time to hatch—not because I’m reluctant to write them, but usually because I’m already committed to other books, and then the new ideas come at me. Writers in films are always walking around drinking tequila and trying to find a new idea, but in my case, it’s more like, “oh stop, stop coming at me!” I literally didn’t have a chance to get to this book until recently.
I think what drew my interest was the particular character of Jenny Bonnet; she was a frog catcher of all jobs. Before that, she had been a shepherd, and before that she had been in a sort of borstal, and before that she had been a child actress gone bad. At the point where she was shot through a window by persons unknown, she was working as a frog catcher for San Francisco’s restaurants. To do this, she wore trousers because when you’re wading in a swamp, you don’t want a long crinoline, but then in the evening she wouldn’t put on women’s clothes, and so she got arrested about once a month under San Francisco’s anti-cross-dressing laws. She would have been a social norm there nowadays, but in the 1870s she was way ahead of her time, not just because she cross-dressed. Many women did, particularly during the Civil War, in order to pass as male soldiers, but Jenny Bonnet didn’t pass as anything. She was known to be a woman, she never had a man’s name, and yet she’d swagger around town with her Colt pistol, which it turned out after her death was just on hire purchase from a pawnbroker. Everything was borrowed. She was this irresistible character to me.
What surprised me in the writing process was how Jenny’s friend, Blanche Beunon, who was in the room when Jenny was shot (and in fact it was never clear which of them was the target), turned out to grip me even more. She’s less unusual, but I found her situation so interesting. Not only was she this high-earning woman working in the sex trade, but she had a baby. I was intrigued by the idea of this good-time girl, a pleasure-seeker, who had this kind of shadow side, which was motherhood. I really tried not to make it an easy, cute set-up with an obviously maternal mother and an obviously cute baby. I thought, not only will I give Blanche every possible reason not to want to be a mother, but I’m going to make the baby really hard to like as well. He’s quite emotionally closed and physically stunted. I wanted it to be a redemptive novel about motherhood, but not an easy one.
DH: Frog Music is a story of an unlikely friendship between two seemingly very different women. What brings these two women together?
ED: They’re both rebels against the rules of gender. On the streets of San Francisco, Blanche and Jenny have a lot in common: they are both determined to set their own terms. Neither of them is settling down to be a wife and mother. Also, I thought their shared French background would be a bond. The French brought very particular elements to the culture of San Francisco: not only the emphasis on pleasure (the French dominated the restaurants, bars, theatres, brothels — all the arts of pleasure), but also on the ideas of Bohemianism, ideas we might associate with the 1960s, which were quite current among the French in the late 19th century. Culturally speaking, Jenny and Blanche would have had quite a lot in common.
DH: San Francisco circa 1876 is a character in and of itself in this novel. Can you tell us about the city during the time Frog Music is set?
ED: San Francisco was a thrillingly modern city, not just because it was very multicultural and diverse, but also because it was founded by bachelors. It was an all-male city to start with, a city of men with no families. There was very little domestic service because few people who’d gone all the way to San Francisco were willing to be maids. Everyone wanted a bit of independence. Not only did I find that interesting demographically, but I liked the way it was known as a city of liberty, and yet in the 1870s, the city government was trying to clean up San Francisco. They had laws against not only cross-dressing, but they also banned things like kite flying and pigtail wearing (they were trying to squeeze the Chinese off the streets; they had brought in all these Chinese men to build the railroads and now they were oppressing them). There were also laws against looking disfigured in public. You could be disfigured, just don’t look it.
There was also a bad outbreak of smallpox, which the city health officer tried to blame entirely on the Chinese. It turned out it hadn’t originated in Chinatown at all, so there were some very interesting city politics going on. It’s not just background for my story, but it’s really part and parcel of it. The same people who disapproved fiercely of Jenny Bonnet marching around in pants with her sack of frogs are the same ones who disapproved of the Chinese. It was the same kind of impulse toward respectability.
DH: Frog Music is full of song. The characters openly sing in public. What role did you want music and performance to play in the novel?
ED: I knew from my research that Arthur, his friend Ernest, and Blanche had all been in the circus and that Jenny had been a child actress, the daughter of French actors. So they all had a performance background. Quite early I came up with the phrase “frog music” to suggest not only the French, culturally speaking, but also the music that all male frogs make in the mating season. It seemed like a good phrase to describe the kind of libidinal urges that lie behind this book. Then I thought, I have to throw some songs into the book because it is called Frog Music. I ended up with almost thirty songs because I like folk music and thought it was a great way to suggest the cultural variety going on (there were hymns, spirituals, French and Scottish ballads, circus tunes, musical tunes, and minstrel shows). Folk songs are also often about the primal pains of love and death and sorrow and alcohol, but they sometimes gesture at these themes in a very light way. You can toss in a few lines from a song, and it’s a great way to lightly hint at these dark forces.
DH: Motherhood is another significant and complicated theme in Frog Music as it was in Room. Blanche, like Ma, has to figure out how to be a mother in extreme, though obviously different, circumstances.
ED: It’s funny. I didn’t see the two projects that way. As far as I knew, they had nothing in common. Once the publicity for Room had finally calmed down, I thought I’d finally have a chance to write my frog catcher book about the sex trade in 1870 San Francisco, but then the baby theme started looming up. Only after I read one of the reviews of Frog Music did I realize both books are about a young woman of about 25 having a baby and coming under pressure to become a mother. When I’m about 80, I’ll probably look back at my career and think those books were all to do with the shock of having children.
DH: There are also some disturbing scenes in the novel…
ED: Oh, yes. The baby farm. The worst thing I learned about baby farms, these full-time city childcare places, was that they typically had two rooms. One was for the children being paid for by the week, and there was some motivation to keep them alive. The other was for the babies that were all paid up, meaning they had been handed over with a lump sum. It was pretty much slow infanticide. That was one of the most distressing things I researched. I also looked a lot at modern accounts of orphanages in some countries that have become known for terrible orphanages. I looked at the question of how babies can be temporarily stunted, but if they are adopted out of such a bad situation, they can recover amazingly well.
DH: There were some other scenes that were difficult to read, and I imagine difficult to write. I’m thinking of Blanche’s treatment at the hands of Arthur and Ernest, and even the description of Arthur’s smallpox. Do you find it difficult to write such scenes?
ED: I’m going to sound really cold-blooded if I answer this honestly. No, I love it. Doing the research is often distressing, but by the time I’m taking whatever insight I’ve gained and shaping my scene and writing it, at that point, I’m wanting you to feel. If I write a line about smallpox being like marbles rising up under the skin of your fingers, and I’m thinking that you’re squirming, I’m going, “yes!” It’s the novel as tyrant, I have to admit. I relish writing scenes like that. I just want to make you feel.
DH: What are some challenges for you with your writing?
ED: What’s quite difficult is writing characters who are quiet. I find I don’t know what to do with the introverts. Also, I’m not naturally good at plot, and my first few books had very little plot. I’ve had to work at building up this skill. Since writing The Sealed Letter (2008), I’ve done a lot more plotting in advance. You might think that would take some of the fun out of it, but for me it doesn’t. It just helps create a more muscular storyline.
DH: What are you working on now?
ED: I’m trying to write a children’s book. I have an idea for a kid’s book, hopefully a series, for the 8-12 market. My own kids are 6 and 10 at the moment. I don’t actually think my son will like it because it doesn’t have super-powered farts or fantasy creatures, but I’m thinking other children his age might. I’m quite intimidated by it, though. Writing children’s fiction is a whole other thing: the thought of all these bored 10-year-olds just putting the book down and walking away haunts me. I love doing events with adults, but the thought of an elementary school visit brings on a sweat. Other writers keep saying to me, you need a lot of visuals! But I think it’s very important for a writer to keep challenging herself. Repetition is the great danger, so setting myself new tasks – not only in terms of the when and the where I write about but also the genre – is very good for me.
Emma Donoghue is the author of eight novels, four short story collections, and five plays. Her 2010 novel Room was shortlisted for the Man Booker, the Orange Prize, and the Governor General’s Award. In addition, she holds a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge and has published three books of literary history.