Exclusive: Room screenwriter Emma Donoghue on how her family, her research into autism, her religious background and a real-life abduction all informed her story

Exclusive: Room screenwriter Emma Donoghue on how her family, her research into autism, her religious background and a real-life abduction all informed her story October 22, 2015


Audiences and critics alike have been singing the praises of Room — which concerns a five-year-old boy who has spent his entire life inside a garden shed, and the mother who is trapped in there with him — since it premiered at the Telluride film festival last month. I had the privilege of speaking to Emma Donoghue, who wrote both the film and the novel it is based on, when Room came to the Vancouver film festival, where it won the award for most popular Canadian feature. (The film is an Irish-Canadian co-production, and Donoghue herself was born in Ireland but now lives in Canada.) The first part of that (spoiler-filled) interview is here, and the rest of it is below.

Now as I understand it, the inspiration for this, if that’s the word, was a true-life case involving a father and his daughter?

Donoghue: Yeah, it’s an Austrian case, the Fritzl case, and really, I made Room as different from it as I could. I made it one child instead of seven, a total stranger instead of her father, seven years locked up instead of I think about 23 years, and I made it an above-ground space with daylight instead of a basement dungeon with no light, and what else did I change–? I just made it less grim, you know, that Jack has enough food, vitamin pills, that he’s not being harmed, because I wanted to focus on the issue of freedom. What if you had everything you needed except freedom? When a baby is still in your arms, they wouldn’t really care or notice, but of course, as we all get bigger, we want more. And so I was trying to find that moment where a mother would decide that actually, my child at this point needs the world more than he needs me, so it’s worth risking cutting that umbilical cord, it’s worth separating. Because in my experience with parenthood, there are so many moments like that where you think, “Do I let them cycle down the road without their helmet on? Do I let them ride in the taxi with no seatbelt? Do I let them go off on holiday for a month without me?” There’s all those moments of letting go. Parenthood is a series of letting go.

One of the fascinating things about this story is that, when they get out, on the one hand the world is more free, but on the other hand Jack becomes aware of limitations he never knew about before. The fact that you don’t touch other people’s privates, and things like that.

Donoghue: Yes! So many rules, so many laws about things like property and theft, so many concepts that are rigorous and stressful for children to learn, and it’s so difficult to explain to a child. When I moved to Canada [in 1998], the Canadian government gave immigrants this book on ‘Life in Canada’ that explained things like, “In a supermarket, you go around taking things and putting them in your trolley and you only pay at the end, but in a shopping mall, that moment where you step over the threshold of each shop, even though there’s no actual door, you have to have paid for the thing by then or it counts as stealing.” This is actually a crucial thing you need to know about life in the developed west, you know, but it’s not usually spelled out. And that’s the kind of thing you have to teach children. Yes, we’re all allowed to take one candy as we leave a restaurant, but in a shop, if you take one candy, that’s stealing. So Jack just has to learn all the rules in a speeded-up way, whereas usually our children learn these rules one at a time. But all these rules are arbitrary, and they’re all quite difficult for our kids to learn, and so Jack’s childhood is just a kind of faster version of everybody else’s.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard anyone say anything quite like this before, but part of my own personal reaction to the film was motivated by the fact that I have two sons who are on the autism spectrum.

Donoghue: So many people have written to me about their autistic children! When I was researching the book– Of course there’s hardly anyone in the world in Jack’s kind of situation, right? Because those who’ve been raised in basements and so on, they’re usually damaged — they didn’t have enough oxygen or they didn’t have enough people talking to them or they were beaten or raped or whatever. So I had no Jack to talk to, obviously, so I looked at every analogous situation I could — like children who have been adopted from an orphanage in Russia, so suddenly they’re in this world of sensory stimulus where they have been stuck in their bed for months on end. But one obvious analogous situation to me was the autism spectrum, because I have a friend in particular who works with autistic kids, and she talked a lot about sensory overload. I remember seeing some BBC documentary which tried to capture visually what an autistic person might experience in a supermarket: the lights and the sound and the product names. So yeah, I don’t see Jack as autistic himself, but I see his experience of the world as a bruising and tormentingly varied place, and as very like what they, as far as I know, must experience.

Well certainly as a parent, watching Jack in the film, I had that same feeling of communication issues and socialization issues and is-he-ready-for-the-world-yet issues.

Donoghue: How much to push them, how much to let them stay as they are, maybe playing with the train in the corner, and how much to say, “Come on, time to meet your uncle!” Yeah, yeah, and of course, with all kids, you can’t help but say to yourself, “Okay, if my child is all clingy, do I let them stay beside me, or do I encourage them to go off in the playhouse.” And every child is different. And one reason I wrote Room is that we’re a two-mother family, right, so we feel normal to ourselves, right? Two kids, two mothers. And yet my children are now, as they get a bit older — they’re eight and eleven now — so they’re starting to meet people who go, “What do you mean, you don’t have a dad? What do you mean, you have two mothers?” So there’s that moment when you realize that the outside world doesn’t see you as a valid family in some cases, that it sees you as stunted or missing. So I tried to give that sense to Ma in the book and the film, that she and Jack were a valid family, but suddenly the outside world is saying, “No, you are a pathetic simulacrum of the real thing.”

Well, in her case, she’s an abductee, and in that interview she explicitly denies that Old Nick is the father because he didn’t have a “relationship” with Jack, and yet, I can imagine scenarios where, on a purely biological level, you know how doctors ask about family histories and things.

Donoghue: Of course, of course. She’ll have to have the conversation, yeah. I was just writing a piece for Harper’s this summer about talking to my kids about their donor, actually, and with all these issues, the earlier you bring things up, the better. Because when you tell a child something that the world considers unusual about them early on, it’s like, not a big deal. With kids who are diabetic or whatever, if it’s just known early on, then to the other kids in their class, it’s just how that kid is. It’s not big and scary. There doesn’t have to be some coming-out moment.

The website I write for, Patheos, is sort of a multifaith website, so I have to get a religion question or two in there.

Donoghue: Cool. It’s all too rare, actually. It’s never discussed, so go for it.

One of my questions had to do with the potentially Gnostic implications of the story — being raised in a sort of artificial world, almost a Truman Show kind of thing, and then eventually breaking free of that — and I noticed that in your book, you do refer to Plato’s Cave, and that did occur to me as well.

Donoghue: Definitely. Actually, in the film, that bit where Jack’s spending the day on his own, and he’s suddenly discovering the shadow of his hand on the wall? Lenny was saying that’s his little Plato’s Cave moment. He’s like, “Oh, that’s a shadow of my hand, so there must be something outside that makes the shadow.”

Also, in the book, I noticed a lot of references to Baby Jesus or things like that, but I don’t remember them being in the film as much.

Donoghue: Well, because Lenny’s a fervent atheist, and I’m a Christian, so we overlapped as best we could, and we both agreed on it being a story of, in a way, placing your faith in love, in parental love. So he dropped the Christian elements completely, but I think the story still works. I mean, it’s not like the Christian elements were needed for our readers to connect with, not a bit. The way I saw it was that Ma would pass on to Jack whatever she had — Kylie Minogue songs, Christmas, anything that made life meaningful — so yeah, she uses that Christian context. But I don’t think all readers have noticed or found that side of things important. So I think the film still works.

It’s not just that there’s the painting on the wall, of Jesus and John I think, but there’s even a reference to The Shack and The Da Vinci Code [in the reading material within Room] — that’s pretty broad.

Donoghue: I actually chose the mainstream bestsellers that I would hate to be stuck in a room with, like The Da Vinci Code! I only read The Da Vinci Code because I was breast-feeding, so, y’know, I needed something that was a page-turner. But yeah, because it’s a mother raising a child who is potentially heroic, I saw it not only as being like Mary and Jesus with Old Nick as the Devil — in Britain, “Old Nick” is a slang phrase for the Devil — so yeah, I saw the Mary and Jesus elements as pretty obvious, but also kind of Adam and Eve elements. To me it was important for Jack to be male. I liked the idea that they act as this kind of microcosm of human civilization, this male and female. And also as a contrast to Old Nick; he’s such a devilish figure, I thought having a really good male figure, in the form of Jack, kept that balance. So to me, the mythology behind Room — and also not just Christian stuff, but storylines like in Rapunzel, or the story of Perseus who is born to a walled-up virgin. Basically there are very ancient archetypes about virginity as a kind of a walled-up fortress, and the idea of this hero child being born out of that, so there are lots of famous virgin births, as it were, not just Jesus. So those elements were really important to me, but funnily enough the film still works without them.

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