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?
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.
IFOA: 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 in—as 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 Blanche—Jenny’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.