Forms of Fiction

A novel, a short story collection, an encyclopedic collage. Canadian authors Emma Donoghue, Aislinn Hunter, Eliza Robertson and Diane Schoemperlen had a riveting discussion about the myriad forms a story can take at this year’s IFOA with moderator Catherine Bush. In case you missed it, hear the entire conversation below.  

Trusting the Reader

By Mathew Henderson The first event I attended as an IFOA Delegate this year was an Artist Talk with John Boyne. Boyne, who writes young adult fiction and literary novels, read an excerpt from his upcoming novel, A History of Loneliness. It was Boyne’s account of his YA writing that most resonated with me. Having enjoyed my […]

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.

Ann Patchett in Conversation with Emma Donoghue

By Janet Somerville

On her only Canadian stop on the book tour for her new collection of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, bestselling, award-winning novelist and Nashville indie bookstore owner Ann Patchett sat down with the equally fabulous Emma Donoghue to chat about the writing life. Peering out at the candlelit café tables in the Brigantine Room, Patchett said, “I have the desire to sing the entire soundtrack to Cabaret. This is so romantic. But, I’m an incredible fan of Emma’s work and I want to talk to her.” Before settling in for that very chat, Patchett read a short excerpt from the essay, “My Life in Sales,” because “I am on book tour and I am feeling sorry for myself.” _TB13060

Donoghue said, “Well, luckily I loved the book, which is not always the case of someone you’re interviewing, and I’m excited to be sharing a rug with you. You talk such sense about the writing life and you care about the way a book is made the way you’d care about an ailing dog.” Of the luck in her life, Patchett noted that “at Sarah Lawrence, I had a year with Grace Paley and it was like spending a year with God.” She also had Allan Gurganus and Russell Banks as a writing instructors there, though was quick to note that when she attended the celebrated Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she “got dealt a really bad poker hand. I was in class with Angus Wilson in the last 15 minutes of his life and he only taught in French. And, I don’t speak French.” She was also fortunate to sell her first book, The Patron Saint of Liars, right away, launching a career as a novelist in 1992.

When Donoghue probed about hardships or miseries, Patchett responded, “I hated my first husband. Basically I married, at 24, the first guy who asked me out to dinner. And I was divorced by 25. I didn’t get married again until I was 41.” Her partner at that time had a medical emergency: “And I was thinking, I’m going to have to unplug the ventilator and I can’t do that as your girlfriend, so let’s get married.” They did. And he got well. As Donoghue observed, “There’s this ruthless streak of pragmatism in this collection that saves it from sentimentality.” Patchett added, “It’s a book about all of the things in my life that I feel I’m married to.”

About Patchett’s commitment to the dogs she’s shared her life with, Donoghue suggested, “Maybe it’s great, as a writer, to have a relationship that is not about words.” Patchett talked about “how the plane just crashed when Rose [her dog] died, and that shocked me and I wanted another 16 years. She was a fabulous person, but a lousy dog. She bit children. Now I have Sparky, a rescue, who is a better Buddhist than I am. Every day Sparky asks what he can do for his country.” Because Sparky is listed whimsically as Sparkman VanDeverden (Patchett’s married name) on the Parnassus Books website as a co-owner, he receives several credit card offers each month—yet, his canine mug stares boldly out there alongside the ones of his human companions.

Donoghue said, “I love when you are so honest about the horrors of dementia in “Love Sustained,” which is a hymn to love but also acknowledges how painful it is to watch people get older.” Patchett responded, “The ability to love in a woman does not always fall under the umbrella of being maternal.” Donoghue nodded, “You go inch by inch into intimacy because they need it.” Patchett added, “any moment of spiritual development for me has been taking another human being to the bathroom.” Donoghue noted, “That’s a beautiful thing to know.”_TB13073

On the myth of writer’s block, Donoghue and Patchett agreed: there’s no such thing. Donoghue said, “Writing is like going to work in a mine. You have to hoist your pick.” And, Patchett said, “some things are difficult to figure out, but you keep working at the puzzle.” On her enthusiasm for magazine writing, Patchett explained, “It was so easy for me because I’m not a procrastinator, and writing fiction is really hard. There’s a culture of looking down on women’s work and I wanted to stand up for it. It shaped me as a non-fiction writer.”

Of bookstore life, Donoghue said, “The books are in relationship with each other. People love the discovery of interaction.” Patchett admitted, “I shove books on people, but I will also take them away. You may not start with Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned.” The trick to an indie’s success is to have famous writers come to the store. In the past 10 days, Parnassus Books hosted Donna Tartt, Garrison Keillor, Pat Conroy and Wally Lamb. And, if you happened to be in Nashville on November 14th, you could have had wine with Russell Banks.

Fans of Bel Canto were pleased to learn that Renée Fleming will produce a stage version at Chicago Lyric Opera in Fall 2015. And, although Patchett continues to cash cheques from time to time for the film adaptation that’s in development, she “can’t talk to the producers anymore. They wanted to talk about faces and cup sizes. Can’t do it. Just don’t care.”

About the writing process, Patchett admitted, “I get better and better at staying still and in the chair. But, when I’m in a book, I want to get out.” Donoghue agreed, “I’m always flirting with or eyeing up the next book.”

If you missed this evening of terrific craic, as the Irish say, between two fabulously talented and engaging contemporary writers, you’ll know to be sure to make an extra effort to hear either one of them the next time. May there be plenty of opportunities to do just that.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

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