Canadian artist Emma Donoghue ‘accepts the inspiration’ from whatever wordy world she wants

Award-winning Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue has just released her latest novel Learned By Heart PHOTO: PUNCH PHOTOGRAPHIC

Writer. Screenwriter. Playwright. Historian. Seuss.

Hell, let’s just make it simple for all of us idiots in the back: she’s a wordsmith.

A wonderful one. 

Over her 25-plus-year communicating career, Irish-Canadian word-pusher Emma Donoghue has written dozens of novels, short stories, scripts, plays, and even a book for the kidlets. She is perhaps best known, though, for the Academy Awards-nominated, heart-breakingly beautiful box-office bummer Room, her own cinematic adaptation of the even-more masterful novel of the same name.

Donoghue’s latest work, which she’ll bring to Calgary’s Wordfest, taking place Oct. 11 to 15 at several Beltline venues, is the historical-fiction novel Learned By Heart. The tome is a return, by the author, to the world of real-life 19th-century English diarist Anne Lister — the subject of Donoghue’s first play, which is a very loose adaptation of Helena Whitbread’s book of dispatches from the life of the openly and righteously confrontational queer rabble-rouser, I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, 1791-1840.

The new, “long-brewing” 15th novel from Donoghue is a maybe/maybe-not fictionally factually fantastic biostorying of Lister at the age of 14, when she entered into a relationship with fellow student Eliza Raine at the Manor School in York — a novel that’s based on actual missives by both women, furthered by Donoghue’s compassionate and poetic imagination, and how it hits the page. 

It’s gorgeous.


It goes straight for the heart and doesn’t let go.

Prior to Emma Donoghue’s appearance at this year’s Wordfest, she spoke with theSCENE about Learned By Heart, her busy career and where she finds her inspiration.

(The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Q: How is everything in your world these days?

A: Oh, it’s busy. Yeah, gosh, ongoing things and fixing things and planning things …

Q: I’m just happy I got dressed and got out of bed, and you, it blows me away all that you have going on. How do you keep it all straight?

A: I’m very organized, you know, I have lots of different folders on my computer screen with all the things that are nearest publication or performance over on the left. And then over on the right, there’s all the things that are to be written several years from now. It all sort of flows at me from toward the right of the screen to the left. And I do an awful lot of plans and outlines and research folders. 

Q: I thought writers were supposed to be lazy. 

A:  We cover the full spectrum of human variety. Whenever I go to a festival, like I was at the Eden Mills (Writers’) Festival last week, and I love it because you’re talking to all these other writers and you’re hearing about their process, and it’s nothing like yours. You know, it’s a very individualistic business. 

Q: Well, let me say congratulations on Learned By Heart. Another wonderful novel. Let me ask you, when do you know it’s a novel? And when do you know it’s not a play? When does an idea become what you make it?

A: I know what it is. Because I’m not just thinking, “Oh, that’s an interesting historical case,” I’m thinking, “I can see that on a stage or I can picture that on a screen” … So I would say quite early on with fiction. It’s where I have this irresistible urge to understand things from the psychological point of view of the main character and fiction gives you the most access to someone’s thoughts, I would say, and … there’s ample time to say everything you want. Whereas with performance forms, like theatre and film there’s always a limit to how much you can fit in. So you have to be really disciplined about which conversations to include, that kind of thing. But fiction is really, it’s not limited that way. So I’d say, yeah, quite early on, I get a distinct vision. 

But often what takes me years is deciding on things like who’s to be the point of view of each part of the book, or how much to cover in terms of which slice of life … So in the case of Learned By Heart, I would say, I knew 30 years ago that I wanted to write more about Anne or, in particular, her encounter with Eliza Raine. And then I certainly knew 10 years ago that I wanted to do a novel about their time at the boarding school. But I was still mulling over things like, should it be alternating between the point of view of the two girls or, as it ended up, being entirely from Eliza’s point of view. So that kind of, I suppose, relatively technical issue, can take a lot of brooding over before I’m ready to start actually writing.

Q: So you honestly knew you were going to write this book 30 years ago?

A: I tried to remember because I certainly came across Anne Lister more than 30 years ago … And I wrote my first play about her more than 30 years ago. And I was always interested in getting back to her teenage years. But I certainly could remember I went on a research trip to Yorkshire in 2015. So. yeah, I was probably getting very serious about it at that point … 

In this case, I’m really glad I waited, because over these decades, far more has been found out about Anne and her whole circle. And in particular, there’s now this amazing sort of community (of people) who transcribed those letters for me, which are the main source of the novel. I wouldn’t have been able to read those letters if these people hadn’t put in the enormous work of poring over those digitized transcripts, digitized scans… And again, there are lots of people whose brains I was able to pick on Twitter and that would not have been available even 15 years ago. So in this case, I’m glad I waited.

Q: What an incredible human being and an incredibly rich life. What what is it, though, that draws you to back to her?

A: It’s a fascinating mixture, so many admirable qualities, right, all that energy and ambition and drive and defying the social rules. But then she was also in many ways, you know — good to use some old fashioned words, like a “rake” and a “bounder.” You could say that she kind of took on some of the worst aspects of traditional masculinity, you know, she was just always burning through one girl after the next and often several at a time. She, for instance, when she was lovers with a woman called Mariana Belcombe, she seduced at least two of Mariana’s sisters. So she was highly libido-led … So I suppose I find that a really appealing mixture that she’s not some role model. And above all, in the diaries, she’s so frank and honest and analytical about her life. About identity questions, but also about the little social subtleties of, you know, who said what, and gossip and hints of innuendo. So she just told the truth about everyday life in a way that a few others did. It was a great age of euphemism and failing things. So her frankness makes her very appealing to a more modern audience. 

Q: Just hearing you talk about her, there’s an obvious affection there and even admiration, or am I hearing something I want to hear?

A: No, you’re right there is that there is a huge admiration, but I just think she’s a very flavourful character, because she often behaves badly, too. And I can certainly relate to her — I put a few autobiographical moments into the novel, you know — I was that kind of teenager with a wide vocabulary, who sometimes alienated people by showing off too much, you know?

Q: How much of this book is real and how much is you?

A: I would say, it’s as real as I could make it. It’s really steeped in the papers (about her life). So for instance, OK, that whole scene where she and Eliza go to the ball, and that’s based on a conversation Anne had decades later. In the 1830s, she recorded in her diary that she was talking to one of the women she fancied and spoke of going to a ball in disguise. And we can’t tell from that reference whether she actually did go …

It had to be fiction because often I’m mostly talking about moments in Lister’s life, way back  … when she was just a teenager, and nobody was recording anything she did — we’re not even sure how long she spent at that school. 

So I think what I love about fiction is that I can gather every tiny, little fact possible in visiting the rooms and looking at the layout of the rooms in the school, and reading about balls at the time and what music they would have played and you know, what food they would have served. And so I put all these little facts together, but then ultimately, I have to just make up the scene and how it would have felt. So I like that combination of truth and imagination.

Q: I apologize for not knowing this,
but has she now become a modern lesbian icon?

A: She is, yeah, absolutely. But she’s been really only a lesbian icon until the last couple of years, meaning nobody else ever heard of her. Yeah. So what’s amazing, is that due to the TV series Gentleman Jack for BBC and HBO, she’s become a bit of a pop-culture icon more broadly. And, for instance, in Yorkshire, they’re now really fond. They’re now really proud of her. And there’s all this tourist infrastructure around visiting her old haunts, when, in fact, she was a figure of sort of scandal and obscurity for so long. So I think
if she was in Yorkshire now, she’d be like,
“Oh, my God, they’re selling beers named after me.”

Q: Is there a lot of pressure knowing that she has so many stans? Is there pressure? Do you know you’re gonna get feedback saying, “No, that’s wrong, and blah, blah, blah?” Or does that also make it fun?

A: It’s certainly possible. But I have to say that the fans and other scholars, they really appreciate anyone taking the trouble to spin a fiction within the known facts, you know, and I did an awful lot of checking things with others and sort of staying up to date on what’s being discovered. So I don’t think there’s anything radically wrong in there. But I think people appreciate the effort.

Q: Wouldn’t it have been easier for you, and for the novel, just to not use the name Anne Lister or not use these real people? Would it have been easier just to be inspired by the story?

A: Helen Humphreys has a novel which is clearly inspired by Julia Margaret Cameron, the photographer, but she didn’t want to have to feel accountable. So she called her something else. But the novel was clearly about a Victorian woman living on the Isle of Wight, doing photographs who had all these famous friends. And so all the reviewers just interpreted it straightaway as Julia Margaret Cameron and wrote about it as such. So, you know, if what you’re writing about is a fairly unique case, like in my case, an early 19th century Yorkshire, lesbian diarist, you might as well just be honest and use the real name unless you want to change something radical. 

Q: This leads me to a more basic question, which is, wouldn’t it be simpler to write novels where you just made things up? 

A: It would absolutely be simpler. I don’t know why I take on this double life of private detective and having that information but also make it an entertaining novel as well. But I can’t argue with what inspires you. You have to just accept the inspiration.

Emma Donoghue will be participating in a pair of events during Wordfest, which runs Oct. 11 to 15, including: The Way We … Hex the Patriarchy Oct 13, 7 p.m. at DJD Dance Centre; and What a Pair!, Emma Donoghue with Mona Awad Oct 14 at 9:30 a.m. on the second floor of Memorial Park Library. For tickets and more information, please go to