The marvelous writer Emma Donoghue is, as I said in a recent tweet, “ever a delight, so smart, so witty, so thoughtful.” Despite her literary heritage (her father Denis Donoghue is a well-known critic and academic, and Emma herself has a PhD in literature) and considerable writing chops (she’s won and been nominated/shortlisted/longlisted for many a prize), Donoghue never veers into pretentiousness. Fans of her 2010 “Room” will be pleased to know that her latest novel, “Frog Music,” is utterly unlike any of her other books, yet completely engrossing, readable, and fascinating on several levels. I spoke to Emma Donoghue while she was in Manhattan on her book tour.
Washingtonian Books: Many readers in our audience are still getting over or getting into your last novel, the bestselling Room, about a mother and son whose long confinement by a psychopath casts long shadows on their lives after rescue. Your new book, Frog Music, could not be more different, could it?
Emma Donoghue: Yup, yup! If you put it another way, it would actually be a terribly difficult challenge for me to repeat myself. It’s like going on a date. It only flows because I’m in a condition of enchantment for each book. It really helps to keep the spark! I’m a serial monogamist of book writing.
WB: Frog Music has received some incredibly positive reviews, but just recently it got a poor one from Janet Maslin of The New York Times. Your thoughts?
ED: Reviews of any novel are so entirely personal that I don’t worry about it. Fiction enthralls some and irritates others. But may I say one more thing about this? I’m so lucky to be getting reviews in The New York Times at all! I have friends who would kill for the same.
WB: You talked about a “spark.” What sparked this new novel? Was it a character? An idea? An event?
ED: It was the character of Jenny and her murder, which is revealed quite early in this book—that’s not a spoiler! In real life, a murder so rarely fits the character of the murdered, but in this historical case, it did, although it sounds a little cruel to say so. Jenny had a high-speed, incongruous life and a remarkable sense of humor. I think she would have appreciated these attributes in her death.
WB: Once you had the key to this book, what helped you to unspool its plot?
ED: I knew all of the characters—almost all of them based on real people—had all been performers. Jenny was a lapsed child actress, Blanche was a burlesque performer, and so on. It wasn’t just a murder mystery, but a mystery of unpeeling each person, finding those moments when a bit of truth peeps out of the masks people have put on for each other.
WB: You’ve written about sex workers before, notably in Slammerkin. How does your character Blanche Beunon’s reality differ?
ED: One of the reasons I wrote Blanche as I did, with great amounts of humor and exuberance, is that I didn’t want to do the numbing prostitution thing again, in which a woman is ground down by the patriarchy. I find the ways in which Blanche’s world falls apart more ethically interesting. One of those ethically interesting things is her feelings about motherhood. In both Room and this new novel I’ve attempted to defamiliarize motherhood, to take it out of its usual context and explore whether somebody like Ma [in Room] or Blanche has it in herself to protect her child. To anyone who says “No! It’s banal! Everyone’s felt these things!” I respond: Yes, in every house on every block people are feeling these things. I try to put characters into odd enough situations that they’re not always in a position or mood or what have you to put someone else first.
WB: Let’s talk about your title, which has quite a few layers, including French popular music, animal husbandry of a sort, and cuisine.
ED: The frog thing just fell into my lap. When I found out that there were frog hunters, like Jenny, I just thought it was the most interesting job. The frog is also such a rich sort of trickster figure in folktales, but the animal has a serious side, too: Frogs transform from one shape to another. They’re slippery in every way…and an environmental barometer…and also a foodstuff. One of the things I wanted to explore in the novel is how seriously the French take their pleasures—including food.
WB: In your novels, clothes often make the woman—or, in the case of Jenny, clothes often make the woman, a man. Are you obsessed with people hiding behind costumes? Or is it something else?
ED: In a way, if you look at the external facts of Jenny’s life, quite a few bad things happen to her and you could choose to tell hard-luck way, but I find it’s much more interesting to present her “free wheeling” in on her bicycle. She keeps hiding—if that is indeed what she is doing by dressing like a man—because sometimes instead of telling everyone your business, it’s better to shove all that behind you and remake yourself. Both Jenny and my character in Slammerkin unfortunately overestimate what clothes can do. I think clothes are terribly important, but there are also limits. As the mother of a son and a daughter, I think about these things all the time. When I write contemporary fiction, I write about a world in which men and women really do live alongside each other. But when I write historial fiction, as in the case of Frog Music, I enter a world in which our Western culture and the patriarchy influence so much.
WB: What comes next for you, Emma?
ED: I’ll trying to write a children’s book. I’m so nervous! I’m just gritting my teeth. I think it’ll be a middle-grade novel. Tackling a murder mystery gave me new confidence. But I’m still nervous!