With a voice that captures the changing face of contemporary Ireland as easily as the British Isles in the 1300s or London in the 1700s, lesbian writer Emma Donoghue is known for taking on fascinating times and characters. Since the success of her first book, Stir-Fry, published when she was only 25 years old, Donoghue has written four other novels, including Slammerkin and Life Mask, three collections of short stories, two books of literary history, two plays, and edited two anthologies.
A five-time finalist in the Lambda Literary Awards, her latest book, Landing, was recently nominated for an award in the bisexual category. Donoghue returns to the historical novel with her next book, The Sealed Letter (due out later this year), which takes place in 19th-century London and features the feminist Emily Faithful. I recently spoke to Donoghue about The Sealed Letter, how motherhood changed her writing, and why books about lesbians are important.
AfterEllen.com: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Emma Donoghue: Probably when I was about 14, which is absolutely simultaneous to discovering I was a lesbian. The two have always been connected for me.
AE: Growing up, did you look for lesbian writers or stories to read?
ED: I did, and I could find nothing until I found a hideous Dutch novel when I was about 18 at the university bookstore. It was the most lurid, grim thing about a woman leaving her lover to go back to her husband in order to get pregnant. You think she’s dumped the girl and then she comes back and says, "Ta da, look, I’m pregnant and we’re going to have a baby!" And then her husband walks in the door and shoots her dead.
I’ve never been able to track [this book] down. I paid good money for this, but later on in a fit of disgust I threw it away. [laughs] I should have kept it.
AE: So then was it important for you to represent lesbian characters in your own stories? Is that something you thought about when you first began writing?
ED: Absolutely. I wrote poetry until I was at university, and that’s fine because you don’t need to specify the gender — it’s like pop songs where you can just say "you." But as soon as I started writing fiction, like most young writers, I had to write about what I knew, and so obviously lesbian content was going to be in there at least some of the time. From the start it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to write closeted fiction.
AE: Do you find that most people know or think of you as a "lesbian writer"?
ED: Not so much anymore because I got my biggest block of new readers with Slammerkin. That is one of my books that happens to not have lesbian content. I think lots of straight women who came across that book in their book clubs and so on probably just think I’m a historical fiction author. And then I have my loyal lesbian contingent as well.
AE: It’s interesting. I often hear minority writers asked if they resent being placed in a specific category — whether it has to do with sexuality, race or even nationality — but I sometimes wonder about pride. Many readers are desperate for books with lesbian story lines or even characters. Do you ever feel proud that your voice and access contributes to an area of literature that’s still relatively underrepresented?
ED: Absolutely. Getting back to the word you used — "resent" — I refuse to resent it. On policy I don’t resent it.
First of all, as a lesbian reader, I was so hungry for it, so who am I to get all snotty now? Also, there’s really nothing to be ashamed or sheepish about. Just as Toni Morrison needn’t get sheepish that she’s writing about black people, I have no reason to be sheepish about writing about queer people. As long as I write about them well. I often include straight characters, whereas so many straight authors never include queer characters. So I think I’m doing fine in terms of the diversity of sexuality.
Of course, it’s occasionally inconvenient if your work is perceived as only interesting to lesbians, but that’s really a problem of marketing or readers’ perceptions. When I first started to write and publish, I was aware that there were lesbian novelists out there who were terribly embarrassed or awkward about it.
But even writers who are women — I used to read interviews with them and they’d say, "Don’t call me a woman writer!" That attitude or fearfulness of being labeled, I think, is more of a limitation than the label itself. If you are perfectly happy to accept the label and keep publishing good stuff, then other readers will come to you.