Five Questions with… Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue, author of Frog Music and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Emma on October 1! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: In a piece for The New Yorker, you said that sources for Frog Music “were gappy, mutually contradictory and fantastically suggestive rather than full.” Was your goal to structure and make sense of these historical fragments, or to use them as a point of departure for your own creative imaginings?

© Andrew Bainbridge

© Andrew Bainbridge

Emma Donoghue: Every time I write a historical-based fiction, I have both those goals, and I’m well aware of the paradox. First the studious, geeky, historian in me wrestles with the sources to make sense of them, weed out what doesn’t ring true and extrapolate to fill gaps… and then the novelist shoves that historian aside, saying “Leave the rest to me,” and starts reshaping the story and making things up.

IFOA: What were some of the pleasures of writing a crime or mystery novel? Frustrations?

Donoghue: The fundamental, throbbing pulse of keeping my readers in suspense: I so enjoyed that. I’ve had suspenseful moments or sections in books I’ve written before, but never till now committed myself to the particular writer-reader bargain of the mystery novel. And I loved making the who-pulled-the-trigger question also generate deeper questions about identity and responsibility.

Not so much frustrations as worries; being new to this genre, I kept fearing that I wasn’t doing the sleuth stuff right.

IFOA: Can you comment on the incorporation of music throughout the book?

Donoghue: This was a surprise to me: I invented the title (Frog Music) early on as a phrase to evoke the horny grunting of frogs (the animal Jenny hunts for a living), and then it occurred to me that all the main characters had a performance background, and then I found out that 19th-century people in general sang out loud unselfconsciously… Next thing I knew, the novel was becoming a babel of song.  Even at the late point of writing notes at the back on each folk song, I got more and more intrigued by the way these lyrics and tunes survive and morph in every generation.

Donoghue, Frog MusicIFOA: On your website, you mention that you’ve wanted to write a novel about the murder of Jenny Bonnet since back in the late 1990s. What initially drew you to her story and why did it stick with you?

Donoghue: It was Jenny who drew me inas a wisecracking, cross-dressing frog catcher she seemed the ideal (from a writer’s point of view), eccentric, live-while-you’re-young murder victim. And I found the setting of this crime (1870s San Francisco) irresistibly colourful. But when I finally found a space in my schedule to write Frog Music, it turned into the story of BlancheJenny’s friend and the one witness to her murder.  Which confirms my sense that point of view (who tells the story) is the key decision in writing every novel.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Donoghue: The Fantastic Family Whipple by Matthew Ward (out loud to my kids, and because I’m writing a novel for middle-school readers at the moment); The Farm at Lough Gur (a 19th-century Irish memoir by Sissy O’Brien told to Mary Carbery, for research for my next novel); The New Yorker, in my handbag; Dickens’ Little Dorrit (again) on my phone, to deal with insomnia without waking my beloved.

Emma Donoghue is a writer of contemporary and historical fiction whose eight novels include the internationally bestselling Room. Donoghue presents her latest novel, Frog Music, a lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes in San Francisco in 1876. She discusses her novel with TWUC members Wayson Choy and Emily Pohl-Weary about what it means to write in Canada today.

Five Questions with… Emily Pohl-Weary

Emily Pohl-Weary, author of Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Emily on October 1! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Your upcoming poetry collection is called Ghost Sick. Can you describe “ghost sickness” to our readers?

Emily Pohl-Weary: Ghost sickness or heartbreak syndrome is an explanation for what causes people to waste away from grief. In medical circles, it’s actually called “complex grief syndrome,” which is a label for when living people develop unhealthy relationships with death or someone who’s deceased. Essentially, it’s the belief that an angry ghost might return and try to take someone else with them.

IFOA: Your recent young adult novel, Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl, offers a twist on the paranormal romance genre. What inspired it?

Pohl-Weary: When I began writing Wolf Girl, I’d just finished reading a very popular series of novels featuring male werewolves and vampires who were in love with a human girl. Any guesses? She could barely stay on her own two feet, and there was absolutely nothing interesting about her, except for the two monsters who loved her. This seemed so absurd to me and I got to thinking about why fictional monsters are almost always men. Are we too afraid of monstrous girls? Why? What would a ferocious teen girl be like? There was a lot of unexplored territory. I decided to see what would happen if a small, pretty teen girl turned into the physical manifestation of her worst nightmare.

IFOA: You’ve worked on a lot of different writing projects recently (a teen novel published last year, a new collection of poetry, the revision of a feature film screenplay). Why is literary variety important to you?

Pohl-Weary: Each project demands its proper form and genre. I couldn’t have conveyed the experiences in Ghost Sick through anything but poetry, or the high-paced, character-driven plot of Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl in anything but a novel. It takes me a really long time to finish a writing project and when I’m learning—which is inevitable when you change genres—it’s easier to stay engaged. I’m influenced by all kinds of storytelling and want to write whatever I’m consuming. In my opinion, movies, TV shows, video games, songs and comics are just as fascinating and filled with potential as books.

IFOA: You’re currently working toward your PhD in Adult Education and Community Development. How have you balanced your education with your creative writing?

Pohl-Weary: Not too well! I’m hoping to get back to the research in the new year. But I love the way the scholarly community encourages people to wrestle with huge theories and concepts, and that little people (like me) get to stand on the shoulders of giants. My hope is that whatever thesis I eventually write will turn some important thoughts into a format that’s accessible to a wider audience. I’ve been thinking a lot about how popular teaching methods can make creative writing more accessible to a diversity of voices and life experiences.

IFOA: You’re very involved in literary outreach programmes in Toronto. Can you explain your role as the 2014 Toronto Public Library eWriter in Residence for Young Voices?

Pohl-Weary: From October to December, I’ll be available as an online resource for young Toronto writers via the TPL’s website at So if you’re between the ages of 12 and 19, and like to write, you can submit a story, poem, rant or whatever for feedback, and I’ll respond by email. I’m also going to be blogging about the writing life, tips I’ve gleaned, resources, and my path to becoming a writer. Basically, it’s an opportunity for me to geek out about writing while encouraging teenagers. How fun is that? I truly love the Young Voices programming at the library—it’s innovative and brings teen writers into the Canadian literary conversation.

Emily Pohl-Weary is an award-winning author, editor and arts educator. Join her and other members of The Writer’s Union of Canada on October 1 as they discuss what it means to write in Canada today.

Five Questions with… Linda Holeman

Linda Holeman, author of The Devil on Her Tongue and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Linda on June 25, as well as a copy of The Devil on Her Tongue! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: What was your research process for The Devil on Her Tongue?

Linda Holeman:  After spending time in Portugal and falling in love with the country’s history and culture, I came home and spent months immersed in Portuguese non-fiction and literature. I returned to Portugal when I was certain of the shape and setting I wanted for my novel.  Armed with camera and notebook, I explored Madeira’s capital of Funchal from the sea front to its hilltop quintas. I drove around the island, stopping in villages and walking the levadas; I went into churches and cemeteries, into wine lodges and into cafes and bars where I listened to the haunting melodies of fado. I stood on cliffs overlooking the tossing sea. I ferried to Porto Santo, and on that tiny island I understood the rhythm of an isolated life in the middle of the ocean. I walked the beach, smelling the air and water and studying the sky in sunlight and under the stars.  To write about a character in first person, I have to become that character in an alternate universe to my own life. Being in Diamantina’s world eventually brought her voice to me, clear and sure, and I knew her well enough to tell her story.

(c) Randall Freeman

(c) Randall Freeman

IFOA: Do you consider yourself a feminist writer?

Holeman: The protagonists in my historic novels lived in a time and environment which made it impossible for a woman to have anything close to gender equality. As a champion for women’s rights, I advocate and support the civil liberties and equality of women. And so as a writer, the challenge I face is to find a way to write about women who break away from traditional gender roles and are still believable to 21st century readers. Diamantina is faced with the knowledge that the only roles open to her are wife or nun, but she can be neither, due to the circumstances of her birth. And so I had to find a way for her to forge a life for herself, one in which she could make choices regarding sexuality, reproduction, and the workplace—all still current issues for many women world-wide.

IFOA: You have written several novels for young adult readers. Is your process the same when you write for this audience?

Holeman: Although my research processes are the same, the actual writing for adults and young adults requires a slightly different mindset for me. While young readers today are very sophisticated and savvy, and want to read about real issues, I’m still very aware of my use of graphic images and language. I temper my words so that the visuals they present won’t be overly explicit and/or disturbing in scenes of violence, sex, and so on.  The other difference is that I rein the novel in, reducing the number of characters and back stories and tightening the arc, resulting in a shorter word count. My YA novels have typically been half the length of my adult novels.

IFOA: Which author (living or dead) has made the greatest influence on you and your writing?

Holeman, Devil on Her TongueHoleman: There isn’t one writer. I have been and continue to be shaped as an author by my past and present reading, which is broad and has no set direction. As I’ve grown and evolved, so has my reading: a writer who influenced me when I was twenty wouldn’t necessarily do the same when I was forty. From the time I fell in love with reading, which was at six years old, I wrote my own stories in my head.  When I began my journey in becoming an author, I pulled out all I had absorbed about rhythm and flow of both plot and dialogue, about characters and why I felt about them as I did and what kinds of scenes resonated with me – and why. Basically I’m saying that I take my cues from a lifetime of reading great authors.

IFOA: Your biography on  your website mentions that you talk with your partner about story and character “…in some way everyday.” How do these discussions influence your writing?

Holeman: My partner Martin studied film and screen writing and works in that arena. He can dissect a film in much the same way that I like to pull apart and study a novel I’ve read.  I have no formal education in creative writing: I learned to write by reading and the act of writing itself, and have always written by instinct. Martin is on the opposite end of the spectrum, with a deep and solid educational background in writing. Our different approaches – his more formal and mine more reflexive – create intense and sometimes heated debates on the ebb and flow of a good story, including character development and arc. We spend a lot of time discussing a movie we’ve watched together, or a novel we’ve both read or my own work-in-progress.  These discussions are motivating and helpful in having me look at my work from a different angle.  And they’ve also made me come to the realization that I tend to think of life as a story. That would account for why I often try to shut out all other sounds and hear classical music in my head as background : everything appears more interesting, bearable – and elegant!

Linda Holeman is the author of several internationally bestselling historical novels as well as eight other works of fiction and short fiction. Linda presents The Devil on her Tongue, a spell-binding story of loss, romance and betrayal set in 18th-century Portugal. She presents alongside Emma Healey and Tom Rachman on June 25th.

Five Questions with… Priscila Uppal

Priscila Uppal, author of Projection: Encounters with my Runaway Mother and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, answered our five questions.

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Priscila on May 28! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Projection is about your complicated relationship with your absentee mother. How did the rest of your family respond to you telling this story?TA20 Projection Jacket Dundern.indd

Priscila Uppal: I debated whether or not to tell my father that I was embarking on the trip to reunite with my mother. In the end, I decided to tell him, since I am an honest person. Nevertheless, I do think he was hurt, as if my desire to see my mother was a criticism of his own challenging parenting as a single-parent quadriplegic father. My father doesn’t read any of my books—for medical reasons, it is difficult for him to concentrate on text in bulk—and I told him if he was going to start, this is not the one I would recommend. He has a copy of the book, but I don’t think he has read it yet. I don’t want him to be hurt by any of the revelations.

I also consulted with my brother before embarking on my journey. I asked him what he might want to know about the trip when I returned. He said, “Nothing. I want to know nothing.” My brother and I are very close, so I’ve tried to respect his wishes as much as possible, but due to the success of the memoir, my brother has certainly heard some strange stories about what transpired. In fact, my brother supports my work and loves a good party, so he came to Toronto for the book launch of Projection, as well as for the gala night for the Hilary Weston Prize. At these events, he was hearing about details of my encounters for the very first time and he was, admittedly, a little freaked out. He has also not read the book, and though he send copies of the book to friends and colleagues, he is repeatedly told for his own sake “not to read this book.”

IFOA: You recently adapted the book into a surreal poetic play, Six Essential Questions. Tell us a bit about that process.

Uppal: Usually, adaptations happen after the publication of an original source text. However, in my case, I was writing the memoir and eventually the play at the same time (for the last three years I was writing both simultaneously). I am someone who is fascinated by genre, form and literary conventions, and so I am always up for the challenge of understanding those conventions and then doing something unconventional with them. For the memoir, I was chained to the facts of the case. I analyzed the reunion in realistic, concrete details. Since the story is stranger than fiction, I think it was important not to take many liberties with the facts. Nevertheless, since my mother lives in a fantasy world, I wanted to acknowledge this part of her character, so I used the analysis and frame of films to speak to this part of her personality and to our understanding of each other (my mother sees between 1 and 8 movies per day in the theatre and it is her way of escaping the pain and trauma of her past).

With the play, I was able to explore the magic of theatre. I love how theatre can be expressive in nature and provide the audience with an alternate reality for a specific period of time, theatre can cast a spell and take people on an emotional journey. So, with the play, I tried to find the equivalent visual, audio, dramatic and poetic vocabulary that would give an audience an understanding of what that trip to Brazil “felt like.” The play is surreal, absurdist and poetic—an emotional carnival.

I think the memoir is a tale of a tragedy with some comedic elements. The play is a dark comedy trying to ward off the tragedy at its core.

© Daniel Ehrenworth

© Daniel Ehrenworth

IFOA: You’ve written poetry, novels and now this memoir. Which form do you find the most challenging to write?

Uppal: I think every book is a challenge, and ideally a different challenge. I love working in different forms because I think it spurs me on creatively. I love writing in all of them. I would welcome the opportunity to work on a screenplay or an opera libretto next.

IFOA: What’s the best thing you’ve read in the past six months?

Uppal: I just finished The Psychology of Creative Writing edited by Scott Barry Kaufman and James C. Kaufman, a book that collects a lot of the research done about and on writers in the last century, and that explores how writing affects our personalities and our experiences and vice versa. As a writer of many genres, and as a teacher of creative writing, I found this book captivating, disturbing and enlightening.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I often wonder…

Uppal: …who will drop into my life next…

Priscila Uppal is an internationally acclaimed poet, fiction writer and playwright. She lives in Toronto, where she teaches English literature and creative writing at York University. Priscila will present her Governor General’s Literary Award-nominated memoir, Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother, alongside memoirists Plum Johnson and Lynn Thomson on May 28.

Five Questions with… Lynn Thomson

Lynn Thomson, author of Birding with Yeats and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, talks to us about inspiration, influences and great reads!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Lynn on May 28th! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

 IFOA: What inspired you to write about your time birding with Yeats, as opposed to any other time in your life? birding

Lynn Thomson: I wrote about birding with Yeats, rather than any other time in my life, because that’s what the people at House of Anansi commissioned. They thought it was unusual for a teenaged boy to want to spend hours alone in the forest with his mother, and they wondered what the story was behind that. I was confident that people would be interested in this topic because whenever I described one of our birding expeditions to my writing group, they loved it. They wanted more. Of course, the book isn’t only about our bird watching—it also encompasses stories of bookselling, family, how we learn to let go of our children…

IFOA: How has Yeats been with the attention?

Thomson: Yeats is really proud of me. He decided early on that he wasn’t going to be in my limelight, if I have any, so he’s staying in the background. He gets a bit tired of people asking if he’ll sign the book (which he won’t do), but otherwise, he seems okay with it all.

IFOA: What are your favourite or typical places to write?

Thomson: My favourite place to write is at my desk in our “library” on the second floor of the house. My sister gave me her old desk, which is a lovely wooden desk with brass handles on the drawers and a faux leather top. It faces the window with a view of the street and our big mountain ash tree in the front yard.  The room is filled with books.

Lynn ThomsonIFOA: How has bookselling influenced your writing?

Thomson: I’ve always read a great deal. I don’t know that I would have read any differently if I wasn’t a bookseller, but in my job I’m exposed to books I may not have seen otherwise. I think that reading a wide variety of styles and voices, to say nothing of stories, gave me confidence that my story was worth telling. On the other hand, I know very well that there is an awful lot of competition out there and that not everyone’s book is going to succeed. I tried not to let that idea take sway while I worked on the book!

IFOA: What have you read in the past six months that you really loved?

Thomson: There are some really great new books out there right now. I loved Miriam Toews’ book All My Puny Sorrows, Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk and Nadia Bozak’s El Niño. I’d also recommend a very fun, tongue-in-cheek look at lawyers: Bay Street by Philip Slayton.

Lynn Thomson is a bookseller in Toronto. She will present her first book, Birding with Yeats, a touching memoir about a mother, her son and the wonder of the natural world, alongside memoirists Plum Johnson and Priscila Uppal on May 28th.  





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