Room without a view

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Stylist Team
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Inspired by the case of Josef Fritzl and other incarceration stories, the first half of Room takes place entirely within the 11-foot-square room in which a young woman has spent her last seven years since being abducted at the age of 19. She now has a five-year-old boy, Jack, by her captor, and it is with his voice that Donoghue tells their story

Your novel Room was inspired by the horrifying true story of Josef Fritzl and the family he imprisoned in the basement of his home. How did you go about researching the story?

I read up not only on the various confinement-for-sexual-purposes cases worldwide (not just Austria but Japan, Russia, Belgium and the States) but on a variety of other subjects - mostly grim (feral children, kids living in prisons and solitary confinement) but occasionally more uplifting stories about resilience and a child's ability to thrive in terrible circumstances. I also researched current police slang and 'sexual assault evidence collection guidelines', how to make your own play-dough and of course Dora The Explorer [Dora features in the novel as one of Jack, the narrator's favourite characters].

Did it cost you a lot emotionally to write about such a horrific subject?

These were all fears and sorrows I was familiar with anyway. When you have a baby, I think you naturally torment yourself with questions like 'Will I ever feel like an individual again?', 'How much would I sacrifice for this child?', and 'What damage have I done this child already by losing my temper?' So yes, researching Room brought me face to face with the reality of some of the horrors we inflict on children, but it also filled me with confidence in the power of mother love. So on the whole it did me no damage.

The media uses the word 'unimaginable' to describe what the Frizl family went through in the basement, yet you've managed to imagine precisely that through the eyes of Jack, the five-year-old narrator. Were there times when you wondered if you could sustain that for the entire novel?

No, I was always certain that Jack's was the best - in fact, the only - perspective from which to tell the story. I did a lot of thinking about him beforehand, figuring out which concepts would be in his mental arsenal, the ways in which he'd be like say my own five-year-old son, and the ways in which he'd be strange. So then sustaining his point-of-view really wasn't hard. Imagination is like any muscle, you know, and writers work their imaginations all the time.

Because your story is told through the eyes of the child, you leave a lot about the adult situation and the mother's feelings to the imagination of the reader. Did you set out to write a novel that demanded a lot of the reader?

Yes, the real technical challenge of Room was representing Ma fully, but only through the eyes of a child to whom she has deliberately lied about many things, in order to protect him. So the reader has to work at deducing many things about Ma, but I think if they do make that effort they are rewarded with a compelling sense of involvement in the novel. It's not that Room demands that much mental effort - it doesn't have some bewildering plot, for instance - but I think it does demand an emotional investment.

Stylist readers have told us that publishing a novel or book is a big ambition for them. Was it like that for you? Why do you think that so many women in particular are drawn to write?

Yes, every since I gave up on my ambition to be a prima ballerina (at about 9), literature has been where I've wanted to leave my mark. I think a great percentage of men would like to publish too, but perhaps women are particularly drawn to fiction; they certainly represent the biggest group of its readers. My three-year-old daughter often sits on my lap, paying close attention to the adults' conversation, watching everybody's faces, as if preparing to write it all down, while her brother is lying in a corner playing with a car... so whether by nature or upbringing, maybe women are drawn to storytelling about human lives.

How did you come to be a writer?

Hard work (I drafted my first novel, Stirfry, seven times) but also good luck (my agent, Caroline Davidson, took me on at 21 and has steered me through the obstacle course of a literary career ever since).

What's your daily writing routine?

Get the kids to daycare and school, sit down at my computer, and try to rush through all the other stuff (email, forms, interviews) in time to leave me a bit of time for actual writing.

What one thing do you wish you'd known before you embarked on life as a writer?

That nobody in the industry knows for sure what's going to be a hit with either critics or readers, so you might as well just write what you love.

What are you reading at the moment and what's your all time favourite read?

Currently trying to read the rest of the Booker shortlist in time for the ceremony on 12th October. If I had to pick one book for a desert island it would be Emily Dickinson's Complete Poems.