Interview | Emma Donoghue on writing hunger

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Emma Donoghue, © Punch Photographic, 2013.

Eliza Haughton-Shaw


Emma  Donoghue
on writing hunger


Emma Donoghue is an award-winning author, best known as the writer of the novel Room (2010), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker. She went on to write the screenplay adaptation, also titled Room (2015), directed by Lenny Abraham. Room became an Oscar-winning film and gained an Academy Award nomination for its script. Since then, Donoghue has gone on to write a further three novels for adults as well as a YA fiction series. I spoke to Donoghue about the second of these novels, her 2016 book, The Wonder.

Set in Ireland in 1858, seven years after the potato famine, The Wonder tells the story of an English nurse who is hired to spend two weeks observing an eleven-year old girl, who, her parents claim, has not eaten for months. Based on the almost fifty cases of ‘fasting girls’ – of women who claimed to be surviving without food for months on end in Europe and North America between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries – Donoghue’s novel anticipates the invention of anorexia as a clinical pathology in the late nineteenth century, and as a cultural pathology in the twentieth.

In Fasting Girls (1998), the historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg describes how medieval women saw fasting as a demonstration of holiness: they were ‘preoccupied by noneating because food practices provided a basic way to express religious ideals of suffering and service to their fellow creatures.’ In the nineteenth century, the epithet ‘fasting girl’ is transferred to the hysteric, moving from an expression of religious piety to a gendered and often sexualised pathology. Donoghue’s novel sits on the threshold of this change, the girl at its centre a blank slate upon which those around her— and implicitly the reader—project their own ideas. After reading it, I wanted to speak to her about the predicament of ‘writing hunger’ and how her book came into being.

The Wonder is a book about a child who decides not to eat. Can you remember what drew you to this subject, in particular?

As often happens to me, it was historical fact that prompted this novel – but of course I have personal reasons for being grabbed by certain historical facts rather than others. When I first came across the ‘fasting girl’ phenomenon, back in the late 90s, it fascinated me for the questions it raised about the subjection of women and children. (And also because a friend I made around then had a daughter struggling with anorexia.) For a novelist, the idea of a protagonist gaining a weird power by being visibly powerless is a real draw, because we generally like our characters to be underdogs who nonetheless have agency. Even though most of the ‘fasting girls’ cases I was drawing on were from Britain or North America, I decided to set my story in Ireland so I could use Anna to explore my home culture, Irish Catholicism, and its roots in asceticism. One thing that drew me to the fasting girl as a central character was the notion of a child silently acting out some of her (secular as well as religious) culture’s deepest, sickest beliefs, such as (to put it simply) ‘the female body is a dangerous thing’.

Both Room and The Wonder have at their heart a single room shared by an adult and a child. Late in the novel, Anna reflects that the room is stretching: ‘The outside fits in the inside.’ I was put in mind of Gaston Bachelard’s statements in The Poetics of Space, where he writes that before the individual is ‘cast into the world’ he is ‘laid in the cradle of the house’. What is it that the room allows you to do, as a writer?

People often wonder if it’s some private pathology that makes me lock my characters up in these narrow rooms, but I see it more as a powerful literary device for isolating certain relationships, sharpening the spotlight, asking such questions as (in the case of Room) ‘What might motherhood feel like if it was all you had?’ It’s unity of time, space and action; it’s a stage. Jane Austen used a village, Herman Melville a ship, William Golding an island. Honestly, I’m too myopic to write novels on a broad, sweeping canvas; I need to stopper the test tube to create that intensified Brownian motion between the atoms.

I am interested in the relation between the pathology of self-starvation and the culture in which it happens. Maude Ellman writes interestingly about self-starvation as an attempt to ‘release the body from all contexts, and even from the context of embodiment’. Drawing on the ancient links between eating and knowledge, she calls anorexia an attack on the social fabric itself: where culture involves ‘eating up’ the external world and turning it into material for thought—an inner world of symbols and ideas—the anorexic refuses to become part of the ‘exchange’ of meanings.

Reading your novel, I was interested by how it explores the links between self-starvation, as an isolated pathology, and the uses made of the child’s body by adults who variously ‘dismantle’ its meanings. Lib, in her narration, includes all kinds of cultural ‘evidence’: biblical allusions, empirical observations of the child’s body, scraps from medical textbooks, newspaper reports, and pieces of local religious superstition. Is this how you always work, or did you find it particularly useful to think of anorexia as constructed out of these other materials?

I do often use a sort of cultural collage technique, yes, but perhaps particularly so here because Anna’s story is so strange. I don’t call her ‘an anorexic’, whether in the book or in interviews, because the illness was only just beginning to be labelled as such in the 1870s, and I deliberately set Anna’s (fictional) case just before that in 1859, so that some of her contemporaries might still see it as a hoax, others as a religious miracle, others as a medical miracle, others as a mental illness. The notion of the anorexic as a certain character type – the perfectionist girl, isn’t that the stereotype? – really hadn’t been formed then. But obviously a girl not eating in the 1850s had so much in common with a girl not eating today, even if it also had roots in that long religious (Christian but also Hindu/Jain) tradition of saintly fasting or starving. So I read a lot about anorexia but also about other ways of trying to understand the refusal of food. And I tried to look outside the medical/psychological field of discussion.

Ellman was one of several literary/historical writers I found really helpful. I was looking for the broadest possible range of meanings for Anna’s not eating, because I wanted this character to seem like a blank page on which the adults around her could project their own stories – theories of faith, miracles, sickness, superstition, deception, even self-determination. It was easy enough to find writing that described or analysed the misery of the starving child, so what I looked for to supplement that was writing that hinted at ways the girl might (also) be a rebel, an artist, a mystic… But of course I was well aware of the danger of creating one more artwork that glamorizes anorexia, making money off pain I’ve never experienced. So I tried to find that line, aiming to understand what might motivate Anna – and appreciate her peculiar strengths – without ever celebrating self-starvation.

In Room, you tell the story from the perspective of the child, while here you reverse that by making your narrator a nurse, and an outsider to the community and the family she observes. What made you choose to tell the story through Lib? And did you ever contemplate telling the story in the words of the child?

No, in both cases I had a strong conviction that I should keep one character particularly enigmatic – the mother in Room, the fasting girl in The Wonder – by not having any of the novel told from her point of view. Anna’s self-starving is a weirdly eloquent statement, and although she, through dialogue, lets slip some interesting notions, I didn’t want to attempt to offer a full ‘how she sees her life’ section. Readers always notice that telling a story from X’s point of view gives insight into X, but what they are often less aware of is the suspenseful power of NOT telling it from Y’s point of view – keeping Y as a mystery we (along with the narrator) long to know better and figure out.

I wondered, while reading, about the genre your book falls into. It sometimes feels like a detective story or a riff on one of Freud’s early case studies, which are often read as mini-detective stories.

Yeah, I am rather a genre-bender! Some readers were disappointed that Room began as what they took for a thriller and ended up with elements of parable and social commentary. Similarly, The Wonder has the bones of a sort of domestic thriller – secrets do get spilled – but I’m more invested in all the tiny details of culture and character than in the broad strokes of plot.

I wondered how you encountered, creatively, the question of how to make anorexia into a narrative form: how to make it intelligible while not making it too neatly resolvable. Anorexia seems to resemble a political act, like a hunger strike, but it is also chosen without reasons; it both has and transcends reasons, if that doesn’t sound too grandiose. As a storyteller, did you think about how to make the illness intelligible without making it into a ‘secret’ to be revealed?

I fretted over this, yes. I’m always aware that the reader longs for some satisfaction or resolution, but they don’t want to be fobbed off with something simplistic or pat. If you give them a clear story with an ending that relieves some of their terrors, it’s possible to persuade them to put a lot of emotional and intellectual work into puzzling over the terrain first (how Anna’s context and family might have incited her to say no to food, say, or how Jack’s unique childhood might have shaped him). I’d hate anyone to come away from The Wonder with a simple diagnosis such as, ‘Oh, she stopped eating because she was molested’. But you can’t – shouldn’t – just abandon your reader in a murky, labyrinthine landscape of confusion either.

Your novel obviously has a huge amount of research behind it, straddling the Irish famine, nursing in the Crimean War, and of course the cases of ‘fasting girls’— which as you mention in your note, spanned several centuries as well as both Europe and North America. Were there particular case studies which moved you, or which stayed with you through the process of writing the novel?

The one I began with was the 1870s case of Sarah Jacob in Wales, but because the supervised period of observation led rapidly to her death, I found it too unbearably sad to write about. Only about fifteen years later did it occur to me that I could write a fictional story which had many of the elements I found so interesting in the Jacobs case (such as the role the media and medical staff played in shaping what they thought they were just watching), without the brutal ending. I found about fifty other cases, and borrowed elements from many of them – for instance, one early nineteenth century case in which a fasting mother was exposed as having received food secretly from her adult daughter via kisses. One thing I found fascinating is that their contexts varied widely in time and place, and the fasters weren’t all clearly motivated by religion (and it wasn’t a Catholic thing any more than a Protestant thing); like some cultural nightmare that kept being played out over and over again in different times and places.

Lib seems, at first, like an extremely emotionally unavailable person, and a proxy for the perspective of an outsider thinking in sceptical terms about the motivations of the child and her family. It is through her that the different narrative scales of the book— the child’s body and the wider cultural landscape—ultimately connect. However, the novel also imagines the child’s influence on, or even kinship with, Lib. Was it important that the nurse’s and child’s predicaments were somehow related?

In the Jacobs case I was horrified by the idea that the nurses hired to watch her must at some point in the week have realized that they were killing her. So I always knew that my point of view was going to be a nurse, and that even if that nurse thought of herself initially as the sensible, rational, neutral observer, the novel (to be an ethical project) would have to treat her as it treats Anna, as someone with complexities and damage of her own. Despite what I’ve said above about wanting Anna to be an enigma, I needed that to be one of the contrasts (like English/Irish, scientific/religious, adult/child) that The Wonder would end up deconstructing. If Lib wasn’t such a hot mess, the novel would risk pinning Anna like a butterfly to a card, implying that she is its only puzzle, its only problem. To me the difference between a study and a novel is that in the novel, characters change, and ideally they should change each other. I added the journalist, too, to complicate the nurse/patient binary further, and to create a strange sort of love triangle.

I am interested, again, in your research and particularly about the relationship between ‘fasting girls’ and the modern epidemic of anorexia. (Between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, and hospital admissions for eating disorders more than doubled from 2010-2011 to 2017-2018.) What do you think about the similarities and differences between mid-nineteenth century religious fasting and a modern secular anorexia?

I’ve touched on this above, but basically I’m fascinated by the way their official lines are so different – ‘I’m offering my hunger up to God’ versus ‘I don’t want to be fat’ – but so many of their underlying impulses seem similar. The fasting girls rarely mentioned (or were described in terms of) thinness, but their concepts of purity, virtue, self-control, femininity and ecstasy may have meant something similar.

How did you go about imagining the perceptions and sensations of a starving child? I am thinking particularly of later scenes in which the child seems to experience a kind of ‘floating’ or jouissance. I was reminded of the scene in Room where the child is wrapped up in the rug, and later sees the outside world for the first time. Both predicaments seem to involve almost spectacular leaps of imaginative faith.

I’ve never dieted in my life. I suppose I just researched a lot (from saint’s hagiographies, to suffragette and IRA prisoner stories, to studies such as that famous re-feeding experiment during WW2) about the physiological and psychological effects of going without food… and then I imagined hard. I find this kind of work – conjuring up experiences I’ve never had – as satisfying as it’s difficult; it literally gets me out of my head.

Finally, the relationship between Lib and Anna partly evolves from Anna’s attempts to guess the nurse’s first name. The name seems to figure as a link between the adult and child and their equivalent forms of refusal; the refusal of nourishment and of intimacy, respectively. How much do you think about names or what characters are ‘called’ when you come to write your novels?

The Rumpelstilskin story in which you gain power over someone by figuring out their name is one I come back to quite often. When I’m not obliged to use the real (and often pedestrian) name of a real historical character such as Mary Saunders in Slammerkin, I put a ridiculous amount of time into choosing names. Readers rarely notice, especially if I end up choosing something fairly common such as Anna! Often, they’re just plausible names of the time, but usually in the case of my main characters they have meanings. I wanted to liberate Lib, and I wanted Anna to have an echo of the cult of anorexia on those horrifying pro-Ana websites with their ‘prayers to Ana’.

This reminds me of something I find rather disturbing about the job of novel-writing: I often become aware (quite late on) that I’m in a relationship with my characters which echoes the one they have with their captors or tormentors. I’m Old Nick in Room, in the sense that I’m the one who shut them in there and decided which few books and which cheap Ikea furniture to grant them. I suppose I also try to be Ma and find them a light to illuminate the tunnel, or a way out. In the case of The Wonder, I was so aware of the ethical dangers of using anorexia as a sensationalist topic to peg a historical novel on, I felt implicated – like Lib – in the experiment. So when Lib agonises over her obligations to a child she’s coming to love, that’s me, saying ‘Argh, I really hope I’m not going to fuck this up.’

Interview by Eliza Haughton-Shaw.

For more information and to buy The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, visit Pan Macmillan’s website.

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Eliza Haughton-Shaw is a writer and academic. She is currently writing up a PhD on literature and eccentricity at the University of Cambridge.


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