Five Questions with… Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue, author of Frog Music and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Emma on October 1! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: In a piece for The New Yorker, you said that sources for Frog Music “were gappy, mutually contradictory and fantastically suggestive rather than full.” Was your goal to structure and make sense of these historical fragments, or to use them as a point of departure for your own creative imaginings?

© Andrew Bainbridge

© Andrew Bainbridge

Emma Donoghue: Every time I write a historical-based fiction, I have both those goals, and I’m well aware of the paradox. First the studious, geeky, historian in me wrestles with the sources to make sense of them, weed out what doesn’t ring true and extrapolate to fill gaps… and then the novelist shoves that historian aside, saying “Leave the rest to me,” and starts reshaping the story and making things up.

IFOA: What were some of the pleasures of writing a crime or mystery novel? Frustrations?

Donoghue: The fundamental, throbbing pulse of keeping my readers in suspense: I so enjoyed that. I’ve had suspenseful moments or sections in books I’ve written before, but never till now committed myself to the particular writer-reader bargain of the mystery novel. And I loved making the who-pulled-the-trigger question also generate deeper questions about identity and responsibility.

Not so much frustrations as worries; being new to this genre, I kept fearing that I wasn’t doing the sleuth stuff right.

IFOA: Can you comment on the incorporation of music throughout the book?

Donoghue: This was a surprise to me: I invented the title (Frog Music) early on as a phrase to evoke the horny grunting of frogs (the animal Jenny hunts for a living), and then it occurred to me that all the main characters had a performance background, and then I found out that 19th-century people in general sang out loud unselfconsciously… Next thing I knew, the novel was becoming a babel of song.  Even at the late point of writing notes at the back on each folk song, I got more and more intrigued by the way these lyrics and tunes survive and morph in every generation.

Donoghue, Frog MusicIFOA: On your website, you mention that you’ve wanted to write a novel about the murder of Jenny Bonnet since back in the late 1990s. What initially drew you to her story and why did it stick with you?

Donoghue: It was Jenny who drew me inas a wisecracking, cross-dressing frog catcher she seemed the ideal (from a writer’s point of view), eccentric, live-while-you’re-young murder victim. And I found the setting of this crime (1870s San Francisco) irresistibly colourful. But when I finally found a space in my schedule to write Frog Music, it turned into the story of BlancheJenny’s friend and the one witness to her murder.  Which confirms my sense that point of view (who tells the story) is the key decision in writing every novel.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Donoghue: The Fantastic Family Whipple by Matthew Ward (out loud to my kids, and because I’m writing a novel for middle-school readers at the moment); The Farm at Lough Gur (a 19th-century Irish memoir by Sissy O’Brien told to Mary Carbery, for research for my next novel); The New Yorker, in my handbag; Dickens’ Little Dorrit (again) on my phone, to deal with insomnia without waking my beloved.

Emma Donoghue is a writer of contemporary and historical fiction whose eight novels include the internationally bestselling Room. Donoghue presents her latest novel, Frog Music, a lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes in San Francisco in 1876. She discusses her novel with TWUC members Wayson Choy and Emily Pohl-Weary about what it means to write in Canada today.

Five Questions with… Emily Pohl-Weary

Emily Pohl-Weary, author of Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Emily on October 1! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Your upcoming poetry collection is called Ghost Sick. Can you describe “ghost sickness” to our readers?

Emily Pohl-Weary: Ghost sickness or heartbreak syndrome is an explanation for what causes people to waste away from grief. In medical circles, it’s actually called “complex grief syndrome,” which is a label for when living people develop unhealthy relationships with death or someone who’s deceased. Essentially, it’s the belief that an angry ghost might return and try to take someone else with them.

IFOA: Your recent young adult novel, Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl, offers a twist on the paranormal romance genre. What inspired it?

Pohl-Weary: When I began writing Wolf Girl, I’d just finished reading a very popular series of novels featuring male werewolves and vampires who were in love with a human girl. Any guesses? She could barely stay on her own two feet, and there was absolutely nothing interesting about her, except for the two monsters who loved her. This seemed so absurd to me and I got to thinking about why fictional monsters are almost always men. Are we too afraid of monstrous girls? Why? What would a ferocious teen girl be like? There was a lot of unexplored territory. I decided to see what would happen if a small, pretty teen girl turned into the physical manifestation of her worst nightmare.

IFOA: You’ve worked on a lot of different writing projects recently (a teen novel published last year, a new collection of poetry, the revision of a feature film screenplay). Why is literary variety important to you?

Pohl-Weary: Each project demands its proper form and genre. I couldn’t have conveyed the experiences in Ghost Sick through anything but poetry, or the high-paced, character-driven plot of Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl in anything but a novel. It takes me a really long time to finish a writing project and when I’m learning—which is inevitable when you change genres—it’s easier to stay engaged. I’m influenced by all kinds of storytelling and want to write whatever I’m consuming. In my opinion, movies, TV shows, video games, songs and comics are just as fascinating and filled with potential as books.

IFOA: You’re currently working toward your PhD in Adult Education and Community Development. How have you balanced your education with your creative writing?

Pohl-Weary: Not too well! I’m hoping to get back to the research in the new year. But I love the way the scholarly community encourages people to wrestle with huge theories and concepts, and that little people (like me) get to stand on the shoulders of giants. My hope is that whatever thesis I eventually write will turn some important thoughts into a format that’s accessible to a wider audience. I’ve been thinking a lot about how popular teaching methods can make creative writing more accessible to a diversity of voices and life experiences.

IFOA: You’re very involved in literary outreach programmes in Toronto. Can you explain your role as the 2014 Toronto Public Library eWriter in Residence for Young Voices?

Pohl-Weary: From October to December, I’ll be available as an online resource for young Toronto writers via the TPL’s website at So if you’re between the ages of 12 and 19, and like to write, you can submit a story, poem, rant or whatever for feedback, and I’ll respond by email. I’m also going to be blogging about the writing life, tips I’ve gleaned, resources, and my path to becoming a writer. Basically, it’s an opportunity for me to geek out about writing while encouraging teenagers. How fun is that? I truly love the Young Voices programming at the library—it’s innovative and brings teen writers into the Canadian literary conversation.

Emily Pohl-Weary is an award-winning author, editor and arts educator. Join her and other members of The Writer’s Union of Canada on October 1 as they discuss what it means to write in Canada today.

Five Questions with… Linda Holeman

Linda Holeman, author of The Devil on Her Tongue and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Linda on June 25, as well as a copy of The Devil on Her Tongue! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: What was your research process for The Devil on Her Tongue?

Linda Holeman:  After spending time in Portugal and falling in love with the country’s history and culture, I came home and spent months immersed in Portuguese non-fiction and literature. I returned to Portugal when I was certain of the shape and setting I wanted for my novel.  Armed with camera and notebook, I explored Madeira’s capital of Funchal from the sea front to its hilltop quintas. I drove around the island, stopping in villages and walking the levadas; I went into churches and cemeteries, into wine lodges and into cafes and bars where I listened to the haunting melodies of fado. I stood on cliffs overlooking the tossing sea. I ferried to Porto Santo, and on that tiny island I understood the rhythm of an isolated life in the middle of the ocean. I walked the beach, smelling the air and water and studying the sky in sunlight and under the stars.  To write about a character in first person, I have to become that character in an alternate universe to my own life. Being in Diamantina’s world eventually brought her voice to me, clear and sure, and I knew her well enough to tell her story.

(c) Randall Freeman

(c) Randall Freeman

IFOA: Do you consider yourself a feminist writer?

Holeman: The protagonists in my historic novels lived in a time and environment which made it impossible for a woman to have anything close to gender equality. As a champion for women’s rights, I advocate and support the civil liberties and equality of women. And so as a writer, the challenge I face is to find a way to write about women who break away from traditional gender roles and are still believable to 21st century readers. Diamantina is faced with the knowledge that the only roles open to her are wife or nun, but she can be neither, due to the circumstances of her birth. And so I had to find a way for her to forge a life for herself, one in which she could make choices regarding sexuality, reproduction, and the workplace—all still current issues for many women world-wide.

IFOA: You have written several novels for young adult readers. Is your process the same when you write for this audience?

Holeman: Although my research processes are the same, the actual writing for adults and young adults requires a slightly different mindset for me. While young readers today are very sophisticated and savvy, and want to read about real issues, I’m still very aware of my use of graphic images and language. I temper my words so that the visuals they present won’t be overly explicit and/or disturbing in scenes of violence, sex, and so on.  The other difference is that I rein the novel in, reducing the number of characters and back stories and tightening the arc, resulting in a shorter word count. My YA novels have typically been half the length of my adult novels.

IFOA: Which author (living or dead) has made the greatest influence on you and your writing?

Holeman, Devil on Her TongueHoleman: There isn’t one writer. I have been and continue to be shaped as an author by my past and present reading, which is broad and has no set direction. As I’ve grown and evolved, so has my reading: a writer who influenced me when I was twenty wouldn’t necessarily do the same when I was forty. From the time I fell in love with reading, which was at six years old, I wrote my own stories in my head.  When I began my journey in becoming an author, I pulled out all I had absorbed about rhythm and flow of both plot and dialogue, about characters and why I felt about them as I did and what kinds of scenes resonated with me – and why. Basically I’m saying that I take my cues from a lifetime of reading great authors.

IFOA: Your biography on  your website mentions that you talk with your partner about story and character “…in some way everyday.” How do these discussions influence your writing?

Holeman: My partner Martin studied film and screen writing and works in that arena. He can dissect a film in much the same way that I like to pull apart and study a novel I’ve read.  I have no formal education in creative writing: I learned to write by reading and the act of writing itself, and have always written by instinct. Martin is on the opposite end of the spectrum, with a deep and solid educational background in writing. Our different approaches – his more formal and mine more reflexive – create intense and sometimes heated debates on the ebb and flow of a good story, including character development and arc. We spend a lot of time discussing a movie we’ve watched together, or a novel we’ve both read or my own work-in-progress.  These discussions are motivating and helpful in having me look at my work from a different angle.  And they’ve also made me come to the realization that I tend to think of life as a story. That would account for why I often try to shut out all other sounds and hear classical music in my head as background : everything appears more interesting, bearable – and elegant!

Linda Holeman is the author of several internationally bestselling historical novels as well as eight other works of fiction and short fiction. Linda presents The Devil on her Tongue, a spell-binding story of loss, romance and betrayal set in 18th-century Portugal. She presents alongside Emma Healey and Tom Rachman on June 25th.

An Evening with Lorrie Moore

By Janet Somerville

(c) Linda Nylind

(c) Linda Nylind

Last Monday, Jared Bland interviewed and hosted a reading by Lorrie Moore, which was followed by a Q&A with the audience.

The candlelit tables in the Brigantine Room, surrounded by hundreds of Lorrie Moore acolytes, had the full-to-bursting space abuzz as Moore read a story from her new collection Bark.  Before her reading Moore said, “I always feel so scolding. Feel free to take cell phone calls as I read from ‘Thank You For Having Me,’ which is how I feel about being here.” The audience was rapt in between the swells of laughter in response to lines including: “What a good idea to have the look of Big Pharma at your wedding;” “He would rather look startled and insane than 56;” and “’Marriage is one long conversation,’ wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. Of course, he died when he was 44, so he had no idea how long the conversation could really be.” Great, right?

Bark by Lorrie Moore

Bark by Lorrie Moore

Moore’s reading was followed by a conversation with The Globe and Mail arts editor, Jared Bland. About her process, Moore said, “Stories begin for me with an interest in a particular feeling or a situation, and, with luck, the story has preserved them. People think writing is about words. But, it begins with a feeling and you’re trying to find the language and dramatic circumstances that will express it.” When asked her if writing was cathartic for her, Moore responded, “I don’t believe in catharsis. It’s cheap and temporary and not a fiction writer’s business. I want people to be in possession of a feeling.” I had never thought about catharsis in that way until Moore articulated it. On finding and using humour in her work, Moore explained, “It’s a great leap of trust to assume that someone else will find it funny and you never really know if the audience does. They could be drunk.”

What I didn’t know about Moore until last night was that she’s as much a fan of The Wire as I am. It is, after all, the best narrative television ever made. Yet, when asked if she’d ever consider writing for TV, Moore was firm: “I don’t have any desire to write for television because it’s collaborative and you don’t get to control everything.”

After the onstage conversation, Moore patiently signed copies of her books for many delighted readers. There’s such a warmth and light that shines from Lorrie Moore. Those of us lucky enough to hear her on her only Canadian stop on the Bark tour basked in her radiance.

Follow Janet Somerville on twitter @janetsomerville

Spoken word an important part of Harbourfront Centre’s Black History Month lineup

Harbourfront Centre’s annual Black History Month Celebration, Kuumba, returns this weekend (Feb. 7–9). The three-day festival features an incredible lineup of music, comedy, dance performances and more that explore the idea of legacy and identity.

5 Fingers_ 1 Fist  - Kuumba blogAs part of this rich celebration of art, culture and heritage, Harbourfront Centre has programmed a 5 Fingers 1 Fist Spoken Word Showcase, featuring three spoken word performances from Jordan “JV da’ Poet” Viera, Quentin Vercetty, Trevlyn Kay, David Delisca and Randell Adjei. The first is a tribute to the 1968 Olympic protest, the second is a tribute to Nelson Mandela and the last performance features each artist showcasing their individual talents in short dialogues of poetry.

Check out this post from BlogTO for a taste of what you can expect this Saturday night!




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