Back in 2010, Emma Donoghue became the toast of the literary world with her gripping, horrifying and wildly original novel Room. More recently the Irish-Canadian author wrote the screenplay for the movie version, which has been earning major acclaim and awards season buzz ever since it debuted at TIFF in 2015. On Jan. 10, Donoghue is up for a Golden Globe Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Here, she shares some of the secrets to her success, including why monogamy (in the work world) is overrated.
The best plan is a plan
You could easily divide authors into the planners and the wingers. I'm a huge planner. We sound less cool. Those who wing it sound like they're in a Dionysian fervour dancing on the beach. I'm sure it can work for some, but it doesn't work for me. I have to plan. For me it's like architecture – the house will fall down if I have not measured everything correctly. The planning gives a strong skeletal structure and then a strong musculature before you start adding the flesh and the skin.
Go ahead and cheat
One bit of advice I would give to aspiring authors is to be promiscuous. I work on several projects at once and I've never had writer's block because if I feel sluggish in relation to the novel, I'll just sneak off and write a short story. It's very reviving. It feels downright adulterous. If you make yourself be wedded to this one piece of work, you can end up in sort of a battle with it and then you experience a blockage. I suspect writers' block is like marital boredom. I'm very monogamous in real life, but as a writer, I feel the need to cheat.
Don't get attached to the accolades
I never felt like [the success of] Room meant I had to start churning out best sellers, and besides, I couldn't. Room was such an odd little story – I couldn't possibly expect that type of writing to become a brand. Instead I feel even freer. I generally assume that Room is the one huge bestseller that I will ever write and that's fine with me. It's like this whirlwind romance. In the book world, you're so starved for attention, you're working to get any publicity, so to suddenly find yourself in a position where you're besieged by attention, it's really a novelty. But you should never fall into the trap of thinking this is how it is now. A bestseller is such a fluke.
Character is in the details
I do a huge amount of research to get into the heads of my characters. I need to be immersed in the tiny. One of my novels is about an 18th-century teenage girl who works on the streets. I needed to know what she ate for breakfast, what underwear she was wearing, what the air smelt like. If you know all of these details about what their world is like, then writing for that person becomes easy. The same thing for the child in Room, although I cheated on this occasion, because my son was four and a half when I was getting ready to write this novel, so I really stole from him. I would write down his language mistakes and I copied off entire conversations that he would have with his toys. It was so important to really understand how this child would be feeling. After you've done as much research as you can, it's a mental labour of empathy.
Exercise on the sly
I've got a treadmill desk and I think this is the way of the future. I hate exercise, and this allows me to trick myself into several hours of walking. It's just amazing. You finish a day and you go, wow, I walked 14 kilometres – how did that happen? I bought a very expensive one so that I would be forced to use it. So far that has worked.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.