In Donoghue's 'Room,' A Mother And Child Make A World Of Their Own Emma Donoghue's captivating novel Room is narrated by a 5-year-old boy named Jack. The setting is an 11-by-11-foot room where he lives with his mother — and when the book begins, it is the only world he has ever known.
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In Donoghue's 'Room,' A Child's World Of His Own

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In Donoghue's 'Room,' A Child's World Of His Own

In Donoghue's 'Room,' A Child's World Of His Own

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

A 5-year-old boy named Jack is the most captivating narrator I've encountered in some time. He tells the story in the new novel "Room," by the Irish writer Emma Donoghue. It's titled "Room" after the 11-by-11-foot room where Jack lives with his mother. It is the only world he's ever known. Emma Donoghue joins me to talk about her novel.

Emma Donoghue, welcome to the program.

Ms. EMMA DONOGHUE (Author, "Room"): Thank you.

BLOCK: And I was in a bit of a quandary when I started thinking about how to talk to you about this book because there's so much I don't want to give away. It's revealed so beautifully throughout the course of the book. And I've actually put reviews down that I was reading in the course of reading your novel because I was learning too much. I wanted to learn it on the page. What do you think people can know safely without ruining the experience, going into "Room"?

Ms. DONOGHUE: Well, what Jack discovers early on, which is a complete shock to him, is that Room is not all there is. I mean, he spent five years thinking that he's in this world with his mother, and that outside there's outer space with stars and planets zooming around.

He thinks that he and his mother are the only two real human beings, and that the man who visits every couple of nights - Old Nick - is kind of borderline -maybe human, maybe not. And he thinks everything he reads about in his few books or on TV is then just fictional. You know, it's all just cartoons. And Jack's discovery that, in fact, they are prisoners is a complete shaking of his world view.

BLOCK: Well, it does unfold in really lovely and beautiful ways. And I think there are a few things we can safely talk about without ruining it for everybody. And one is Room itself, which is really, a character of its own in the book. It's capitalized. Everything in the Room is capitalized - Lamp, Toothpaste, Table.

Ms. DONOGHUE: Yes, I really didn't want it to feel like they are, you know, living this stunted version of the American lifestyle. I wanted to almost think of them as a tribe of two. So, you know, Room has a perfectly valid existence to Jack as a world. It doesn't seem small to him, because he's never experienced anything bigger. And, you know, the Bath, the Bed, the Wardrobe, Under the Bed - these are all separate sort of sub-landscapes for him, and every object in the room is his friend.

BLOCK: Let's give folks a sense of how Jack sees this world - this rich world for him, in which he lives with his mom. I wonder if you could read from page 18. He's talking about a book...


BLOCK: ...that he loves his mother to read for him.

Ms. DONOGHUE: And they only have 10 books, and five of them are kids' books. And we're starting with one.

Ma nearly always chooses "The Runaway Bunny" because of how the mother bunny catches the baby bunny in the end and says, have a carrot. Bunnies are TV, but carrots are real. I like their loudness. My favorite picture is the baby bunny turned into a rock on the mountain, and the mother bunny has to climb up, up, up to find him. Mountains are too big to be real. I saw one in TV that has a woman hanging on it by ropes. Women aren't real like Ma is, and girls and boys not either. Men aren't real except Old Nick, and I'm not actually sure if he's real for real. Maybe half? He brings groceries and Sunday treat and disappears the trash, but he's not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats. Maybe Door makes them up with a beep, beep, and the air changes. I think Ma doesn't like to talk about him in case he gets realer.

BLOCK: Emma Donoghue, how did you find the voice of Jack? How much did you have to experiment, do you think, to get him the way you wanted him to sound?

Ms. DONOGHUE: Well, it was a great help that I had a 5-year-old boy in the house, my son Finn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Your own son.

Ms. DONOGHUE: But I also did a lot of hard thinking about exactly what Jack would know and not know. So Jack is a very peculiar version of a 5-year-old, but I really wanted his language, at least, to have that feel of a 5-year-old. So I charted my son's language, and I followed him around like an anthropologist, you know, writing down his strange grammar.

And then I chose just a few of those classic, 5-year-old traits to give to his speech. For instance, I love the way 5-year-olds try to make the past tense regular. They all say, I eated. I winned. And they insist on the regular past tense until they finally realize that adults are always going to use an irregular one, so then they succumb, and they sound like us.

BLOCK: And Jack, at 5, is unusually verbal because his mother has been so great about teaching him things. In one game, they play - which I love - you called Parrot in the book.Why don't you explain how Parrot works.

Ms. DONOGHUE: And Ma has very mixed feelings about television. I sort of agonized over whether to allow them television or not. You know, I was often in the position of their captor - working out what they would be allowed to have, and what they wouldn't. But I decided that Ma would use TV carefully - just, you know, two shows a day, not all the time - but also that she would, in a way, use it as a linguistic coach. So sometimes, she will let him watch TV and then she'll suddenly press mute, and she'll ask him to repeat back the last sentence he's heard.

And often, he doesn't know what they're talking about - you know, if it's the midterm elections, for instance. But she wants him to be able to understand and repeat back words by someone who isn't her.

So that's one of many ways she coaches him. She also gets him to do yoga exercises, where he stays very still. She works on his reading and writing. So she's, in a way, preparing him for a world that she prays he will someday get to enter for real.

BLOCK: And as she tells him things, as he gets a little bit older, as he turns 5, he is - he just can't believe it, that everything that he has thought up 'til now has been sort of turned on its head, right?

Ms. DONOGHUE: You know, before I had kids, I thought, oh, you should never lie to a kid. But now I've had them, I realize you almost lie to them by definition because if you're trying to summarize something for your 1-year-old, you put it in very simple terms. And so you only gradually complicate the explanation as they get older.

And then I remember a moment my son pointed to a picture in a news magazine, a picture of six hanged people, hanging up by the neck. And he said, what's that? And I said, puppets - because there are those moments you couldn't bear to tell them the cruel truth of the world. So Ma is in a very, you know, concentrated version of that, in that she feels she absolutely has to lie to Jack about the fact that they are prisoners. She doesn't want him to grow up thinking that he's a prisoner and yet, of course, in some sense, it's a betrayal of him that she's lied to him that way.

So, yeah, the book opens with Ma at that point where his questions are starting to build up, and she's just going to have to let the truth come trickling out.

BLOCK: Do you stop and think about Jack still, and wonder about him older, wonder about him growing up off the page?

Ms. DONOGHUE: Yeah. At the moment, I think he's still 5 for me. But I certainly am aware of him, especially, you know - if I'm walking around a city, you know, I see lots of things and I think, oh, that would surprise him. So yes, like all my characters, he does live in my mind. But in a way, you know, his interactions with Ma, they're all based on interactions I've had with my kids. So my memories of my kids are now all jumbled up with the book, you know?

And in a way, I tried to take, you know, just the common or garden experience of parenting. And just by isolating it under a spotlight, I tried to bring out the true and crazy drama of parenting. I mean, I find - the parent-child bond, it's the most unstable, unpredictable kind of love story, and it's asymmetrical in that you will always worry for them, and they won't necessarily worry for you.

And so it's a very, very interesting relationship to me, and it's one that's often written about in very banal and sentimental ways. So in a way with "Room," I was trying to capture the essential drama of parenting.

BLOCK: Well, Emma Donoghue, it's a pleasure to talk to you about "Room." Thanks so much.

Ms. DONOGHUE: Oh, the pleasure is all mine. Thank you.

BLOCK: And you can visit Jack's Room, and an excerpt from Emma Donoghue's novel, at our website,

(Soundbite of music)


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