How Emma Donoghue's pandemic novel came out right on the cusp of Covid

Emma Donoghue, whose screenplay of her bestselling book Room earned her an Oscar nomination, may not have a crystal ball but her new novel about life in Dublin during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic is eerily timely. The author spoke to Jenny Lee

Best-selling Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue. Picture by Mark Raynes Roberts

PEOPLE wearing masks, streets being sprayed with disinfectant, posters warning citizens to ‘wash your hands’ and ‘cover up each cough or sneeze’... Irish-born novelist Emma Donoghue's latest book, The Pull of the Stars, could well be set in the present day.

Instead, although the novel's parallels to the present-day Covid-19 pandemic are uncanny, in fact it is concerned with the events of the Spanish Flu epidemic more than 100 years ago.

“The novel wasn’t due to come out until next spring. Two days after I delivered my final draft Covid-19 was declared a pandemic,” says the author, whose previous novels include Room, and The Wonder.

Donoghue resisted the temptation to edit the book in response to emotions triggered by the current pandemic unfolding around her.

“There were so many echoes of today that we didn't need to put in any parallels,” says Donoghue, speaking to me via WhatsApp from her home in Ontario, Canada, which she shares with partner Chris and their teenage children Finn and Una.

While publication dates have been pushed back all over the world this year, The Pull of the Stars was put out as quickly as possible – understandably, given its unexpected pertinence.

Set in Dublin during the 1918 pandemic, with Ireland in turmoil from both war and disease, it tells the story of how love, compassion and humanity can survive in the bleakest of circumstances.

It features nurse Julia Power, who is in charge of a tiny ward called Maternity/Fever in an understaffed hospital in the city centre where nurses try their best to battle a virus for which there is no cure.

It’s not the first time Donoghue has written about a global health crisis – her 2014 novel Frog Music is set in 1876 San Francisco, which was in the grip of a smallpox epidemic.

“I don't think I will specialise in it,” she laughs. “It’s a great topic to write about as a nurse's life is so dramatic because the decisions they make and their ethical stakes are high at every turn.”

Donoghue captures the timeless compassion shown by nurses, that we have witnessed now in 2020 – a crucial difference being that one of the main ‘medicines’ they used in 1918 was whiskey.

A defining strength in Donoghue’s work is the narrative voice, and in The Pull of the Stars she describes Nurse Power’s every thought and move in detail; interestingly, in terms of literary style, there are no quotation marks.

“I try to customise my style to each individual book I write. I've never written without quotes before but I had a strong instinct this book needed it. I wanted it to have an almost hallucinating feel where the conversations Julia is hearing and engaging in and her thoughts are all blurred together,” explains Donoghue, who achieved a first in English and French at UCD before completing an English PhD at Cambridge University, where she met her Canadian partner.

Although a work of fiction, elements of fact are woven into the novel through real-life historical hero Dr Kathleen Lynn.

The Mayo-born daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman, Dr Lynn was a rebel in the 1916 Rising and a suffragist who co-founded St Ultan’s Hospital for Infants with her friend and partner Madeleine ffrench-Mullen in 1919. After imprisonment in Kilmainham Gaol, she became vice-president of Sinn Féin, being elected a TD in 1923.

Donoghue admits to having “barely heard of her” until she began researching the book.

“I wanted to find out what was life like for doctors in Ireland at this time and her name came up very quickly. I thought she was just the most fascinating combination of things with her busy political life and her commitment to poverty and women's causes, and just so experimental in her medicine too as she was already trying out vaccines in November 1918.

“Lynn was such a builder of bridges and when she did found her own children's hospital it was open to everybody. She was completely non-sectarian and broad in her interests.

“I thought she would be a marvellous addition to my novel because she had a slightly more bird's-eye view of it all in terms of medicine and politics.”

While Donoghue admits she enjoys writing “dark, dramatic and gritty material”, she does confess that reading the The Ryan Report into Irish institutional abuse of children, as part of her research, was “extremely difficult”.

“There were so many witness reports, but the ones that captured my imagination were those who were told they ‘were useless’ or a ‘burden’ by their elders."

As a result Donoghue created the character Bridie Sweeney – a young volunteer helper sent by the local convent, to help Nurse Power. Although uneducated, she proves to be quick learner, caring by nature and pragmatic by experience.

“I wanted to give this character a job to do for the first time in her life so she wouldn't feel downtrodden anymore. And I thought it would be a good twist if Bridie turns out to be absolutely brilliant at this job.”

The drama unfolds over three days, mainly set in the intensity of a tiny, darkly lit ward. Donoghue believes that using constraints of time and space intensifies the emotions and psychological effects upon both her characters and her readers.

“I think fiction is absolutely superb at capturing psychology, especially if you put people into a situation of intensity – a long shift with no breaks or stuck in one room together,” says Donoghue, alluding to her 2010 novel Room, the story of a mother and child held captive for years in a garden shed, which she adapted into the Academy Award-nominated movie of the same name.

Donoghue, whose father grew up in the Co Down town of Warrenpoint, has also reworked the stage play of Room, but the north American premiere on March 13 was cancelled due to Covid-19.

I ask her if, following the success of Room, she thinks about how a novel will adapt for film or stage when she is writing new work.

“No, I focus on one genre at a time. You don't want to come up with something that is like a puree of all the genres. When you are writing a novel it should be because you think it is the best form for the story.”

Now that she has finished her 13th novel, has she given thought to who would play the roles of Kathleen Lynn, Bridie Sweeney and Julia Power in the movie version? Saoirse Ronan perhaps?

“Everyone brings her name up,” she laughs. “I will name no names, but they would be three very juicy women's roles wouldn't they?”

Donoghue has a number of new projects on the go at the moment including a book set in medieval times, a contemporary novel and a play.

“I have a whole procession of projects coming at me like a conveyor belt of the imagination and I feel quite hassled about them, with each of the projects wanting me to write them,” she says.

:: The Pull of The Stars by Emma Donoghue is published by Little, Brown and Co and is available now.

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