AE: What’s different about writing a historical versus contemporary novel?
ED: For me, the contemporary ones tended to arise out of my own life and the life of my friends. They’ve been more autobiographical. My historical ones have often been a bit meatier in terms of plot or situations. Of course people suffer and die today as well, but for some reason I tend to do slightly lighter and funnier, more chatty novels about now.
AE: Is it easier to write about sexuality in contemporary or historical terms?
ED: Less needs to be analyzed [in a contemporary novel]. What was fun about Landing was it didn’t need to do the sort of "coming out, agonizing over sexuality stuff," because both my characters had been through that already. I could be very playful and explore ideas. Like the fact that so many butches I know have one important man in their life, often their ex-lover. That’s a pairing you wouldn’t expect, but it’s a common lesbian pattern.
In a way it’s easier because you need to analyze less nowadays, but what I love about writing about sexuality before the 1900s is that the labels didn’t really fit on neatly. Even though there were some labels, they didn’t always get attached. If you were a woman living with a woman your neighbors didn’t all say, "Oh, yes, those lesbians there." You might get some neighbors who thought you were charming, virtuous women, and others who thought you were peculiar social losers, and others who thought perhaps you were sexual perverts.
But there was a real range of interpretation, and that meant people were in a way freer to have really odd love lives. Quite often women could love their husbands and yet be madly in love with their women friends as well and not have to choose in the same way. Of course there would be jealousies and difficulties, but they didn’t have to pick a label. In a way it’s very postmodern to go back to the premodern, because the repressive grip of identity politics relaxes. It is so much more open to interpretation and much more muddied.
AE: You’ve said that you don’t necessarily know where your ideas come from, but how do you generally begin a book? What is your process as a writer?
ED: I usually find I’m starting to get preoccupied with a certain character in a situation. Like one novel I want to write is a lesbian custody battle because not only have I been having kids and a lot of my friends have been having kids, but I know a few people involved in terrible tussles for the legitimacy of their motherhood. Often [my ideas] grow out of the circumstances of my life.
AE: As a new mom, I was interested to learn about your film Immaculate Conceptions: Inside a Lesbian Baby Boom. Why did you make this film?
ED: I had seen a few short films about queer parenting, and they were very blandly celebratory, like "Look, we can do this too!" [Whereas] me and my friends were having heated discussions about issues like known donors and who was going to be the birth mother and what they call you. There are anthologies of prose writings, but every video I saw was just "look at our cute babies," so I thought I’d do a video in which I’d ask all those rude questions to my friends.
AE: Which of your books do you think would translate well into films?
ED: Oh [laughs], I think about this stuff because of course I get offers and suggestions. People write to me and say that they want to film Hood or that Slammerkin must be a BBC series, and I get all excited. A couple of them have gotten to the point of meeting with producers and option deals.
At one point I was convinced Slammerkin was going to be made by a Hollywood producer. I was thrilled visualizing the Oscars, receiving the award. [Laughs] It never happened. I’ve learned to not let my fantasies run away with me when it comes to film, because it’s simply so expensive as a medium that people have to be really sure of the commercial appeal of what they’re making.
I had an awful experience of adapting my first novel, Stir-Fry, to screen. I was hired to do so and went through many drafts and each was worse than the next, because each was more mainstream, more straight. At one point, it seemed it was more the story of how Maria gets a boyfriend, with a little lesbian kiss on the side. I realized it was because it cost so much. It could still happen, and I would love if a film were made of my work. It can be done so well, but I’m not holding my breath.
AE: Well, if you were to allow your fantasies to run away for just a moment, do you ever imagine specific actors playing your characters in a film version?
ED: Even those would change over the years as some of them get too old. When I was in talks with the Hollywood producer for Slammerkin, he wanted Angelina Jolie for Doll, the prostitute.
AE: She’d be a great Doll.
ED: [Laughs] But as time goes by, we’d need younger faces.
For more on Emma Donoghue, visit her official website.