Following the success of last year's Room, Emma Donoghue's book The Sealed Letter is being re-released. It features one of the Victorian era's most scandalous divorce trials. Stylist spoke to the author about marriage, divorce and being labelled a 'historical writer':
You wrote The Sealed Letter before Room, how does it feel to be publishing your earlier work now?
I'm thrilled, I don't mind that it's taken so long to come out. Room has made people take all my writing more seriously. It's like one sibling winning the lottery then sharing it with the whole family. I feel like I have the freedom to publish any new book I want.
How closely do you research your books and where do you draw the line between fantasy and fiction?
It’s funny, it’s like I’ve got both a historian and a novelist in my head and I sort of allow each their turn. I fictionalize a lot but I either do it because I can’t find the facts, or the facts don’t make it a good enough story. But I like to follow the facts as far as they’ll take me, because they can have a wonderfully unpredictable quality.
Do you ever feel a sort of responsibility to the past with the stories you’re telling? Like some of the ones you’ve tackled...
I really try and capture the flavour of each person, and just tinker with the timing of it because real life is slow and messy - especially court cases. It’s a well-known fact that anyone who writes Crime stories has to fake the timing by basically speeding up the whole thing, because in practice everything lasts so long in the legal system with enormous gaps. So most of what I do, is establish the exact events and then telescope them, and speed them up. I don’t feel I’ve ever completely transformed my historical sources, I feel the changes I make are relatively minor but there all to do with making it a better story, making it read in a more exciting or flowing way.
How do you pick which stories you’re going to adapt next?
I don’t need to go out looking for them, I just come across them. I remember once I wanted to see pictures at Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath and there was one portrait, which was very unusual, because it was a portrait of two girls in a garden and one of them was black and one of them was white but they were both dressed equally prettily, a very unusual way to represent a black woman in the 18th century. So I literally just read the little plaque then I went away and I wrote a short story about them; they were cousins. I immediately go and research enough to work out whether it’s an idea that’s going to appeal to me. It might be five years before I write it, but I do sort of grab hold of the ideas as soon as i come across them.
‘The Sealed Letters’ to which this book refers were never found, is that right?
I was so grateful I never found it. When you’re researching for the sake of historical fiction, you’re sort of researching with your fingers crossed thinking ‘I don’t want to find too much, I don’t want to find a tell all diary, I want there to be wonderful, big gaps’, so there’s always room for fictionalizing. I was thrilled not to find the Sealed letters because I think it’s such a wonderfully suggestive image for that little private space in everybody’s hearts.
"I’ve got both a historian and a novelist in my head and I sort of allow each their turn."
Emily Faithful was a character based on a real woman - why did you find her story so inspiring?
Thinking of an early picture I saw of her, she just looked like a bulldog- just resolutely unattractive and staring out at the reader with absolute gumption, so different from our idea of a Victorian lady. She’s got a very warm and likeable tone in a lot of her writing, she published things like a series of lectures to kids in America, and she was this kind of strong and highly articulate feminist a very broad range of sympathies. I think what really grew me to her as opposed to all the others in the British woman’s movement was her being dragged into this court-case, I think that gave her a marvellous contrast. Suddenly she was being yanked out of her usual setting of committee meetings, drawing up circulars researching in the British Library; suddenly she had to stand up in court and talk about stains, dresses and rape attempts. I just loved that unlikely combination.
Are there any women around today that you think might be studied by novelists in 50 years’ time?
That’s a good question. Somebody’s probably writing the tragic tale of Amy Winehouse right now…I think probably it’s the prickly ones, sort of fighting ones that will stand out. I’m sure Germaine Grier will be remembered a lot longer because she has the knack of capturing the public attention.
Divorce is at the core of the new book. How do you feel about modern attitudes to it?
What I was trying to do with The Sealed Letter was to recapture the drama that a divorce was in the 19th century. It could be liberating but also a trauma.
In a previous interview you called marriage the M-word, which I found quite interesting. What do you think marriage does mean to people today?
It’s funny because a lot of the more solid and real aspects of marriage have now got shared among other arrangements, like say living together. So being specifically married, that’s the symbolic side of things. I was in Canada when they legalised same sex marriage, and people started writing papers, heterosexual married couples were saying “Don’t take the word, we want the word ‘wife’! You can have all the rights you can have all the legal obligations, but don’t take the word!”
How did you feel about that? It must have been really offensive!
It is - but I found it poignant too, because they weren’t actually saying “we want to oppress you” they were saying “we couldn’t care less if your tax arrangements are the same as ours, that’s fine, but leave us the word”. It’s being able to call yourself wife, or married that has a huge symbolic value for people. Also I know teenage girls who watch bridal shows. They don’t even have a boyfriend but somehow they’re dreaming of the wedding day, the day when you’ll be star of the show and everything will be perfect, it’s an odd fetish really.
"I don’t feel any objection to a term like lesbian writer – so long as nobody thinks that that’s going to tie my hands when it comes to writing"
You've never married (Emma has two children with her long-term partner). Is fear of divorce the reason?
I have this fear that if we ever sign on the line, the next day I'd wake up and the romance would be gone. I think we would have by now if we actually needed it in day-to-day terms to get equality at a legal level, but in Canada being common law- from living together for a number of years, that’s really just as good as [being married].
There seem to be a lot of labels getting applied to you as an author: lesbian-writer, historical writer … how do you feel about those labels?
Even if a writer is born and bred in America and is an American citizen, they will still be called a black writer or a Latino writer, no matter how famous they are it will happen. So I don’t feel any more objection to a term like lesbian writer than I would object to any of these other writers being called by their tags – so long as nobody thinks that that’s going to tie my hands when it comes to writing because clearly I write about whatever impresses me. It’s funny with historical fiction- if the term is used neutrally like 'historical novelist' then that’s okay, but sometimes there’s a slight sneer to it. But I think historical fiction has really managed to come out of its ghetto in the last ten years.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m finishing up a collection of short stories, which are all based on historical incidents, but they’re all about travel, people who have emigrated or made long journeys. I’ve emigrated twice myself, I moved to England for 8 years, and then I moved again to Canada where I’ve been for the last 13 years. So I’m really interested in what happens to a life when you uproot it like that, and also I’m interested in what kind of person does this? What’s at stake when somebody decides to move? Of course, in previous centuries emigration was a much bigger business because there was really no going back; it took so long to get anywhere.
And lastly, what are you reading at the moment?
I’ve been reading a beautiful novella by an Irish writer named Claire Keegan. It’s called Foster, its short novella about a girl being sent off to live with relatives somewhere and it’s just ravishing.
The Sealed Letter (£16.99, Picador) is out on 13 October.
Words: Amy Grier, Main picture credit: Rex Features