Interview With Emma Donoghue


AE: What do you think of the current state of lesbian fiction? Obviously, and thankfully, it’s changed since you first bought that Dutch novel at university.
[laughs] Yeah. It’s funny. I went through a few phases as a reader. First of all, I was grateful for any lesbian content, so I bought all the early lesbian mysteries, even though I’m not a huge mystery reader. There came a point, maybe in the mid-’90s, when I thought, I don’t have to buy every title. My hunger abetted. It’s like that moment in a meal where you realize you have to slow down.

But in recent years, because mainstream publishing has gotten so much more open to lesbian content then it used to be, we’re seeing some really wonderful work being done by writers like Ali Smith. It’s a great moment because writers like her, or Sarah Waters, had they published 10 years earlier might well have been stuck in that pigeonhole. But they have reached a broad readership, which they absolutely deserve because of their writing. The lesbian content doesn’t seem to be getting in the way, and that’s a thrilling moment. The era in which you have to be terrified of the label is gone.

Even if you are labeled as a "lesbian writer," it doesn’t mean anyone’s going to tell you not to write about other things. Ali Smith’s work moves through a spectrum. It’s not like she focuses on lesbian themes every single time. She does it when she feels like it.

[Sarah Waters] is particularly fearless. She didn’t think, "I should leave out the gold-plated dildos, and that will help me get published." She just did her thing. By taking on the most tiny of genres — lesbian historical fiction — and by doing it with great razzmatazz, she’s ended up with this mass-market readership. She’s a model for how to view your career: Just go about your business with enormous passion, and readers will follow.

AE: Who inspired you when you were first starting out?
The one who was really important to me as a role model was Jeanette Winterson. At university, when I first started to write fiction, I came across The Passion and that was the first really good lesbian novel I found. That was a breakthrough for me. I actually thought: "Oh, you don’t have to write trashy murder mysteries. It is possible to write a superbly literary book and be an out lesbian and not give a damn."

AE: What is the most difficult part of writing?
I do hit a boggy period in the middle of a book. There’s drama in the beginning and drama in the end, but there’s a certain amount of story you have to tell in the middle. In the first chapter you often have to give a lot of information, and you want to say to the reader: "Bear with me, I promise you’ll care about these people in a while, but you have to just bear with me and get to know them."

I think I’ve gotten a bit better at my writing process over the years, and so I’m enjoying it far more. With my first one, Stir-Fry, I went through eight drafts and I was really sick of it in the end. But now I do a lot more planning for my plot, and I really mull over what should happen and when. Mothers always say this, but having kids forces you to be more efficient and work out what you’re doing.

AE: How else has motherhood changed you as a writer?
I used to really spread myself thinly all over many dramas. I used to write radio drama and some stage plays and I always had a lesbian history project on the go and lots of fiction. I was like a kid in a candy shop. Now I feel I have far less time, especially because our youngest child is only 6 months old. I write one thing at a time.

It’s made me chose fiction because, first of all, you can write it anywhere. You don’t have to work with a theater company. But also it’s my favorite, so if I have to temporarily pick one, then fiction is it. I’m not sure it’s changed the content as much. I hoped it would make me deeper and profounder, but no sign of that yet. [laughs] Perhaps just a bit more irritable.

AE: Tell us about your upcoming novel, The Sealed Letter.
It’s a courtroom drama about a divorce case, so my sources are the newspaper reports from the time. It’s a mucky divorce case. That gives the plot excitement I don’t usually have, because my novels are very character-based. It’s tighter, tastier, and it only takes place over about two months. It is more suspenseful.

Basically, it’s about a feminist who got involved with a bad girl. A very respectable early feminist from the 1860s, Emily Faithful, who set up a women’s publishing house. Her best friend, this slutty wife of an admiral, calls Emily as a witness in her divorce case. It’s this wonderful collision of worlds. It’s about being called into court by the woman you care deeply for [but who's] obviously been bagging her way through the British army.

AE: Sounds fantastic. When will it be released?
It comes out in Canada in April, and then in the States in September.

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