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Emma Donoghue, 1994

Future Perfect: Talking With Irish Lesbian Author Emma Donoghue

By Owen Keehnen

Emma Donoghue has accomplished an astonishing amount for being born in the year of Stonewall. She has graduated from the University of Dublin and is currently completing her Ph.D. at Cambridge. Her play I Know My Heart: A Lesbian Regency Romance (1993) was performed at Cambridge and in Dublin and was read during Gay Pride Week in New York City as part of the Lesbian Play Reading Series. She is a contributor to The Penguin Book of Lesbian Short Stories and the author of Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 (1993). Last month Harper Collins released Stir Fry, Donoghue's first novel--a sweet, warm, compelling coming of age/coming to awareness tale filled with insight and expertly drawn characters.

Recently I had the chance to talk with Emma Donoghue. She was warm, witty, and intelligent. She has three projects in the works and ideas for several more pending. Her future appears absolutely limitless. I was left with little doubt that Ms. Donoghue is destined to be a major force on the lesbian literary and historical fronts in the years to come. It was invigorating just being in her presence.

[Since this interview Donoghue has published numerous books, including Hood (1995); Kissing the Witch (1997); We Are Michael Field (1998); Ladies and Gentlemen (1998); Poems between Women: Four Centuries of Love, Romantic Friendship, and Desire (1998); The Mammoth Book of Lesbian Short Stories (1999); Slammerkin (2000); The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002); and Life Mask (2004).]

Keehnen: I don't think I've ever read so many reviews that constantly refer to a person's age. Does it get tiresome being called a prodigy?

Donoghue: I'm not complaining. I think people often think it means that you have some remarkable genius when in fact I see it as a question of economics and luck. I had a very encouraging family, my father is a writer and my mother is an English teacher. Reading books was seen as a good way to spend an afternoon. I lived with my parents while I was in college so had the free time to start writing a novel while most of my friends, like my heroine, were cleaning offices. Coming from a comfortable enough background and having the time and money and a computer have all helped. I have a very good agent as well.

Keehnen: That's very humble of you. Stir Fry is a wonderful first novel, and with first novels I always have to ask, how autobiographical is it?

Donoghue: Not at all. My heroine is very unsure and tentative. I was absolutely sure at fourteen. She was from the country and I was a city girl reading Freud. I fell in love with a schoolmate at fourteen over what was a couple of weeks. The first week I thought it was a platonic lesbian relationship because it felt very high and spiritual. And then in a couple of weeks I noted in my diary that it was no longer platonic. Then I had a girlfriend at sixteen because I came out to my best friend and she said "Me too." Again luck! But I was interested in telling a story where the heroine finds out gradually.

Keehnen: Speaking of that, your heroine, Maria, recognizes her lesbianism gradually throughout the course of the novel. By having her do that, did you want Stir Fry to be a novel of understanding for straights as well?

Donoghue: I wanted to make my first novel very accessible. I wasn't interested in writing a novel that was just preaching to the converted. I wanted to write a book that seduced the reader into either open-mindedness or lesbianism.

Keehnen: How does Ireland perceive lesbians? Are there role models?

Donoghue: Growing up in Ireland is a little behind, but it's modernizing very quickly. When I was growing up there was no one but Martina Navratilova and she was far away in so many ways. She was much dykier than me, a sports star who lived too far away to be of much use to me, but at least I'd heard of her. I didn't really discover other role models till I was in college, so I grew up in a complete vacuum of images, but actually it allowed me to make up my mind for myself. I wasn't familiar with negative images either; lesbianism was just an unspoken thing in Ireland.

Keehnen: Have reviewers in the United States, England, and Ireland treated the lesbianism of the book differently?

Donoghue: They have all focused on lesbianism, and in Ireland that's especially fun because I'm not the first publicly out lesbian there, but I'm one of them. In Ireland, the journalists have been very astonished. There was one interview I did with a housewife magazine that said on the cover "'I always knew I was different,' says Emma," and then you had to turn to page 35 to see what the dreaded stigma was. In Britain and the U.S., it's been a more sophisticated reaction.

Keehnen: Are you planning a sequel?

Donoghue: No, but I've almost finished my second novel, Hood. It's much more ambitious; it's my death novel, a bereavement story. It's about a lesbian couple that's been together since convent school and one of them dies in a crash. The title refers partly to "Little Red Riding Hood" and partly to the hood of the clitoris. I got one review of Stir Fry in Ireland that said, "Don't worry, the sex scenes wouldn't offend a bishop." And I thought, "Oh my God, if I'm not offending bishops, I'm not doing the right thing here." So in the second one I'm trying to offend bishops much more. It's really fun mixing in the sex and Catholicism and blasphemy.

Keehnen: You've traveled here a great deal; in fact, you were at the Womyn's Music Fest in 1993. What did you think?

Donoghue: I adored the Michigan's Womyn's Festival. It restored my idealism in women's communities. Blissful!

Keehnen: Are you going back this year?

Donoghue: No! I have to go home and finish the novel, and I'm also working on a second play.

Keehnen: Before we get to that, in your travels what difference have you noticed between Irish and U. S. lesbians?

Donoghue: I think a lot of lesbianism is international, or, rather, I fear it's U. S. culture. We come here and go home with our freedom rings and flags. A lot of lesbians in Ireland seem to have spent some time here. A lot of Irish lesbians emigrate here for fear things will never change at home. But things are. We went this year from complete criminalization of homosexuality to an equal age of consent in one move. I'm hopeful because I'm so fond of Ireland.

Keehnen: What's your second play about?

Donoghue: It's called Ladies and Gentlemen and it's set in late nineteenth-century New York among male and female impersonators in the music halls. They're all true characters.

Keehnen: Your first play I Know My Own Heart: A Lesbian Regency Romance was performed at Cambridge and in Dublin. What was the greatest challenge you found about creating a drama?

Donoghue: Well, with that play the challenge was to take a very unwieldy source, these diaries, and give it a dramatic structure. Diaries are so miscellaneous and in such little bits and pieces that I had to chop them up and put together a story. I had to simplify a great deal because this specific woman seduced so many women that I had to make composite characters; otherwise it would have been a bedroom farce. She seduced all her friends' sisters. So I had to reduce that to one situation. There were lots of questions on how to show sex on the stage. So I had them go up and under the skirts. It worked quite well. I was working with straight actresses and I kept having to say "Your head is too far away, you would not be achieving anything. Get the head in! Get the head in!" There is an interest in doing productions in New York and San Francisco.

Keehnen: Tell me about your nonfiction work, Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1688-1801.

Donoghue: I wrote that on the side. I had funding from the British government to do a Ph. D. on a feminist topic, but I was finding so many fascinating texts that needed looking at in the light of lesbian history, so I sort of went between the pages of my paper and worked on it. Then it was sold to a small feminist press, and I hope to have an American edition soon. It was a big challenge to write a book that would be readable and scholarly. I think that's a challenge that should be met by all academics, especially in areas like queer theory, which should be so rooted in real life but often floats off somewhere. It's completely cut off from the community inspiring the work.

Keehnen: Amidst all this productivity you've also managed to get a degree at the University of Dublin and you're currently doing your Ph. D. at Cambridge. What's your thesis?

Donoghue: Not a lesbian topic! It's on eighteenth-century writers and their professional friendships--how men and women helped each other and how it inspired platonic friendships, where men and women could be seen as just friends.

Keehnen: Do you have any long-term goals?

Donoghue: Just to get better and better at writing, particularly fiction.

Keehnen: I'm convinced you can do anything you put your mind to, and probably a couple of additional things at the same time.

Donoghue: Thank you.

Keehnen: Thanks, Emma. It was truly inspiring getting to know you.

About Owen Keehnen
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films,
Related Pages

Donoghue, Emma

English Literature: Twentieth Century


Music Festivals


Field, Michael [Katharine Bradley, and Edith Cooper]

Navratilova, Martina

Norris, David



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