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Interview: Emma Donoghue, Part Two

If I had any talent for writing fiction, I would want to write like Emma Donoghue writes.

No story, I suppose, is pure invention. All stories are informed by the author’s experience—by her knowledge and beliefs and idiosyncracies. All stories, no matter how fanciful, begin in the real world; and all fiction—all good fiction—contains resonant, recognizable truths. Maybe I admire Donoghue so much because I can almost imagine myself doing what she does: taking a myth and turning it into something it wasn’t before, or taking a morsel of history and spinning it into something much more alive than bare facts. The work of reworking—renewal, restoration, rehabilitation—appeals to me. It’s what I would want to do, I think, if I could tell stories.

But I am not a writer of fiction. I admit that some of my favorite anecdotes have been burnished to a bright and artful sheen in retelling, but that is only because I believe the little stories of my life become more truly true as they become more entertaining. This is to say that when I declare I have no talent for fiction, that doesn’t mean that I have any particular allegiance to what philistines call truth; it’s just to say that I have no talent for spinning large stories, or telling tales that are not about myself.

So, I read these stories and I am transported. I think about them, and sometimes I write about them, and, on rare occasions, I get to talk to the people who create them. I loved talking to Emma Donoghue. She is a bubbling font of intelligent enthusiasm. The first part of our recent conversation about her glorious new book, Life Mask, was published by Borders. This, the second part, is where we discuss prostitution as the archetypal shit job, the delicate transactions of historical fiction, and the past as “a broader, more ambiguous world.”

Emma DonoghueWhere did you find this story?

Emma Donoghue: Oh, I’ve been interested in Mrs. Damer for so long. I think it began way back when I was writing a book of lesbian history called Passions Between Women—Mrs. Damer came up as pretty much the only woman in the 18th century who was repeatedly named as a Sapphist… Mrs. Damer is unique in that way. You find a couple of other women who were maybe named in one place as a Sapphist, but the rumors just clung to Mrs. Damer—even though it doesn’t seem to me that her behavior with women in public was particularly gushy compared to someone like the duchess of Devonshire, for example.

So, Mrs. Damer was an irresistible magnet for any of my thinking about sexuality in the 18th century. She was a sort of a test case: How come it was all right for most women to be besotted with their female friends, but Mrs. Damer got into trouble? I’ve been preoccupied with her story since I found out about it—about 1990—and I’ve always thought I would tackle it as a novel.

It is a strange case, and it raises a lot of questions about how people have thought about friendship between women in the past and how they think about it now. “Passionate friendship”—a friendship that’s both emotionally intimate and physically affectionate—is sort of impossible today. Anyone looking at that sort of relationship now would call it lesbianism, but that hasn’t always been the case.

ED: Yeah, we’re pretty crude today… Actually, there’s a really interesting novel by Lisa Alther, called Bedrock, about two women who are lifelong friends, and they do ultimately become lovers, but that’s not really what the novel is about. The main point is their wondering, “What is this thing we have between us? What form of love is it? What do we call it?”

Lesbian historical fiction—which, ten years ago, you would have said was the most obscure of genres—is doing so much better. People like Sarah Waters have had such success, and I think it’s because people are actually impatient with labels. I think people are very interested in writing that explores sexuality before the labels, writing that gets back to subtleties and, well, oddities…

I mean, I find it fascinating that Horace Walpole [the author of The Castle of Otranto, who appears as a character in Life Mask] was clearly such a big fag, and yet, at the end of his life, he is besotted by Mary Berry… How do we name the romantic yearning of a 70-year-old gay man—as we would call him now—for a young woman? We might ask, “What’s going on there?” But we need to respect that desire as much as any of his other interests.

Of course, we all know and live these ambiguities in our own lives. I know plenty of people who are officially one thing but have a passion or two on the other side. It’s very liberating to write about an era before the labels were introduced. I mean, the labels are useful—there’s a reason for them—but many people find them confining.

I taught a high school class on the history of gender and most of my students were quite surprised to discover that there was a time when there was no such thing as a homosexual. There were acts that we might call homosexual now, there were relationships between people of the same sex that were romantic and erotic… But the homosexual, as we know it, is pretty much a new thing.

ED: And perhaps not a permanent thing. Nowadays, you get 16-year-olds saying, “Let me just do my thing with whomever,” which is oddly like the 18th century.

Yeah, I have a friend who’s transsexual and he knows some trannie youngsters… My friend is sort of old school, in that he was very uncomfortable growing up in a girl’s body and he’s struggled his whole life to be a man, and now he’s encountering young people who are much more flexible about gender and sexuality…

ED: The tension between transsexual and transgender is fascinating. They really are two different philosophies.

And the kids, they’re just mixing it all up.

ED: You know, I can think of some novels about people of ambiguous gender in previous centuries—something like Patricia Duncker’s novel about James Miranda Barry. I think people are fascinated by stories of cross-dressers because, again, it’s getting back before there were two absolutely neat genders. It’s looking back at explanations like hermaphroditism, or someone’s sex miraculously changing, or someone living a life in disguise—these are all different ways at coming at what we now tend to call transgender.

I’ve always found it liberating to go back to the past and step outside the narrow frame of discussion that we have nowadays. So many of our conversations are, “Do you believe A, or do you believe B?” In particular, when I started writing in the early ’90s, there were a lot of very deadening feminist controversies: Are you pro- or anti-SM? Are you pro- or anti-abortion?—this kind of thing. And if you step back a couple of hundred years, it’s as if you’re in a broader, more ambiguous world.

That’s totally true. So many categories that people cling to—that people think of as God-given or natural—are products of the 19th century.

ED: Sure. Look at a word like “wife.” People use it as if it has this unchanging meaning, when in fact, a kind of double-income, equal partner thing: that’s totally different from what “wife” meant a hundred years ago.

That brings us, somewhat obliquely, to one of the things that I’ve particularly enjoyed in your fiction: I appreciate the way you depict women at work. It drives me slightly crazy when people talk about “working women” as if they’re a mid-20th-century phenomenon, and purely middle-class phenomenon—as if “working women” only become “working women” when they are women who could have stayed at home. Is this something you’ve consciously tried to depict in your fiction, or something that comes out simply because you’re trying to depict reality?

ED: You know, that’s interesting, because I remember getting a bad review of my very first novel, Stir-fry. It was about students, who didn’t have jobs yet, and the reviewer complained that these girls just mooned around all the time, thinking about their love-lives, and they seemed to have no interest in the world of work. Since then, I’ve gotten a bit older, and I’ve gotten interested in lives that have a bit of substance in them, so there’s more going on in them than romance.

In Slammerkin, I consciously decided to make the main character a prostitute because that seemed to symbolize all shit jobs. I mean, people say, “I’m whoring for Microsoft,” or, “I’m a media slut,”—they constantly use this metaphor. Where do you feel that you’re selling yourself, renting yourself out? I think that prostitution is an archetypal job. Perhaps because I’ve never had a real job, I’m fascinated by the bargains that people make with the world of work.

I was so lucky with Life Mask. As I’ve said already, this was a great story, that kind of fell into my lap, and I didnt’t need to do much with the overall shape of the story. Similarly, I didn’t need to go to great lengths to find career women. I mean, there were actually more traces left of the careers of Eliza and Anne than of Derby. He was such a background figure; it was quite difficult to track down any aspects of the Whig party that he had taken part in. But there were many traces of the art career of Mrs. Damer and the theater career of Eliza Farren. So, in a way, that made it very modern. What’s interesting is that you’ve got this society in which men and women seem so equal—they’re very sophisticated and chatty and they’re all fairly well educated and they’ve all got they’re work—then ever now and then the women come against this glass wall. I mean, the duchess of Devonshire: she seems such a free agent. And then she gets pregnant by a lover and suddenly her husband sends her off into exile in revolutionary France and keeps her children from her. So, really, it’s a misleading kind of modernity.

That’s another thing I try to do in historical fiction: to keep readers carefully balanced between moments of feeling that these characters are just like them and moments of feeling gasp who the hell are you? For instance, I’ll have a character come out with some nice, liberal, lefty sentiment and then say, “I’d never have black in the house.” You have to balance it very carefully. You don’t want to make your readers feel that these characers are vile, but you don’t want to erase the fact that they had views we wouldn’t.

MORE EMMA DONOGHUE
Interview, Part One
Archival Interview
Review of Kissing the Witch
Review of Passions Between Women

September 16, 2004 | Permalink

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