Novelist Emma Donoghue on how to refine your ideas

“I think it’s so important to try new challenges in your career, even if you risk failure. I think being slightly afraid is probably very healthy”

Novelist and screenwriter Emma Donoghue

Novelist and screenwriter Emma Donoghue. (Portrait by Maarten de Boer/Getty)

Emma Donoghue is the author of the novel Room, as well as its Oscar-nominated screenplay. Her latest novel, The Wonder, was released in September. She spoke with Courtney Shea about creativity, collaboration, and why she believes it’s important to multitask.

Your 2010 novel, Room, became a massive hit. How did that affect your attitude toward success?

I’ve always tried to welcome ideas regardless of how commercial they might be, and my literary agent is very supportive of that. Even Room came about by following my own freaky idea that certainly didn’t seem obviously commercial. I feel very dispirited when I meet young writers who say, ‘Oh, I want to write vampire fiction because that’s what’s in.’ That wasn’t what J.K. Rowling was thinking when she decided to write children’s fiction set in a wizard school. You don’t create an extraordinary hit by copying somebody else.

You also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the film version of Room. What was it like to go from total creative control to a collaborative environment?

I wrote the script by myself first so that the director and I could agree on the direction of the movie before we found a producer. It was an unusual way forward, but publishing the book had been such a great experience I was determined not to see a bad or even a mediocre film come out of it. And I was in an unusually good situation, because Lenny [Abrahamson], our director, gave me a lot of input. Still, it was an adjustment. You have to be really open to the unpredictable, but it’s also far more sociable and fun.

Your new novel, The Wonder, is about a girl in 1800s Ireland who may or may not be surviving with no food. Where did that idea come from?

I’ve been interested in these fasting girls cases [young women during the Victorian era who claimed to be able to survive without eating] for a long time. My book is fictional, but it owes a lot to actual events. It was funny because I have done quite a few historical novels based on real cases, so that was something I was used to. I feel a bit stupid that it took so long for me to realize: I could just make one up.

I guess we tend to get stuck in our methods.

That’s exactly it. I think it’s so important to try new challenges in your career, even if you risk failure. I have a children’s book coming out next spring and I’m so nervous about doing events with kids; kids aren’t polite in the way that adults can be. I think being slightly afraid is probably very healthy.

How do you tell a good idea from a stinker?

My method is, basically, time. I typically note down all my ideas, and maybe do a bit of research, and then I let them sit for years on end. It works for me because I’m typically committed to several things already, so there is plenty of time for ideas to percolate. It’s almost like a compost—occasionally two ideas will come together into one.

You’re a big believer in the effectiveness of multitasking. How does it work for you?

It’s not five projects in a day, but I might work two weeks on one thing, then two weeks on another. I like it when my projects contrast. I was doing The Wonder, which is very dark and adult, at the same time as the kids’ book, and it was great because each was kind of a respite from the other.

So rather than procrastinating by watching TV, you just turn to a different project?

Exactly! Sometimes I’ll let myself do a few days of work on a book I won’t be writing for years and that feels very illicit. Like, I shouldn’t be doing this—don’t tell Emma!