Sea birds roosting on cliffs at Skellig Michael, Ireland - the location for Emma Donoghue's new book, 'Haven'. (Photo: Cultura/George Karbus Photography); 'Haven', by Emma Donoghue
> The Big Read
How a 21st Century Feminist Inhabits the Minds and Lives of Sixth Century Monks in “Haven”
In a Q&A about her new bestselling novel, Emma Donoghue talks about loyal fans, religious morality and her next novel, "Learned By Heart." / BY Kim Honey / September 28th, 2022
On a pre-pandemic vacation to Ireland, friends took Emma Donoghue and her family out in a boat off the coast of County Kerry, where she saw Skellig Michael for the first time. The jagged pyramid of rock looks like an inhospitable place for humans, and yet, in the name of God, Irish monks built beehive-shaped huts and a church on its precipitous terrain in the sixth century. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and home to tens of thousands of breeding seabirds. The monks left in the 13th century, but eight centuries later it captivated the bestselling author of the hit novel, movie and play, Room, who has written several historical novels set in Ireland, including The Pull of the Stars, The Wonder and her latest book, Haven.
“By the end of the boat ride, I had the entire story in my head,” Donoghue says in an interview about Haven from Toronto, where she was attending the film festival premiere of The Wonder.
In Haven, a pious and holier-than-thou sage named Artt sets off in a boat from an Irish monastery with two companions: Trian, a compassionate but inexperienced monk, and Cormac, a recent convert to Christianity who can build pretty much anything. After an arduous trip, they reach a rocky spire jutting out of the Atlantic Ocean. “This place was set aside for us when the earth was made,” Artt declares, brushing off concerns from Trian and Cormac that Great Skellig, as it is called in the book, may be uninhabitable.
“I imagined a first landing party that would make all the wrong decisions,” says Donoghue of Haven’s plot. “There would only be three of them, and I wanted them to bring disaster on their own head by the extremism of their policies.”
In a Q&A, the London, Ont.-based author, who is in Paris for the next year with her partner, Chris, a Western University professor on sabbatical, talks about the bleak lives of early Christian monks, being a feminist writer and her next book, Learned By Heart, which comes out in August 2023.
Kim Honey: The last time we talked about your 2020 book, The Pull of the Stars, the premiere of the stage version of Room was on hold because of the pandemic. I saw it in Toronto and it was fantastic. Where does it go now?
Emma Donoghue: There are plans. I can’t say yet, but it’s not over.
ED: I’m thrilled. I’ve seen it already, so I’m not nervous at all. I think a lot of people are going to be drawn to this film. It’s cinematically so beautiful. These are the landscapes of my childhood. I grew up in Dublin and we always used to go for drives into the countryside in County Wicklow, but Sebastián Lelio makes them look entirely new. Every shot is composed like some old master painting, and it’s really quite a spooky film, too. It’s really quite unnerving, and so moving, in the depiction of the bond between the nurse and the child.
KH: It’s coming to Netflix, right?
ED: Netflix funded it, so they’ll bring it out in cinemas in November and then it will stream in December. The great advantage there is that pretty much everyone I know is on Netflix, so they’ll all be able to see it in the end.
KH: Congratulations on Haven. I heard it’s already a bestseller.
ED: My Canadian fans are incredibly loyal. They never know what I’m going write next, but somehow they’re willing to follow me.
KH: What do you think will surprise them the most about Haven?
ED: I think people often expect a historical novel to be just about the past, but the modern author is always bringing her questions to the story, even if the story is set in the past. For instance, I was hugely aware of climate change while I was writing Haven, so ecological considerations came into the story, colonial ones came into the story. I was really aware of the politics of a Christian mission to an uninhabited island. I think they’ll be surprised that it turns out to be about so much more than just a minor episode in Christian history.
KH: These monks were converting pagans like the Picts, so where do they fit in with the history of Christianity?
ED: They’re kind of under the supervision of Rome, but at the very edge of Christendom. What an adventure to just set out to try and find the most bleak, far-away spot you could, and then somehow live there. They were also motivated by things that I would find frankly insane, like a longing for punishment and suffering. And they would never have a full night’s sleep. They would wake up several times in the night to pray. They were very hostile to the body and its needs, and to sexuality [and] women. It’s a tradition about which I have really mixed feelings, but I had this instinct that if I really dug in deep and studied early monks, that actually it could be a story that readers would find gripping.
KH: It was. And it was typical of your work that in that you always have a big surprise at the end. Why do you love a good denouement?
ED: I never assume I have the reader’s attention. I want to hold them, and things like suspense and surprise are all part of that. If I want the readers to have to work quite hard to read about lives that are very different from their own, to get deep into things like theology, I want to reward them as well. I also love when you get readers to be very fond of a character before you learn whatever is most “other” about that character.
KH: You do feel very deeply for the characters. At the beginning, Artt seems to be this upstanding man who has his heart in the right place. It was surprising to me that he chooses to be called a prior, because it means first among equals. But then Cormac and Trian take vows of obedience to him. So isn’t it inherently more about him being first than an equal?
ED: It is in a way, yes. They’re misled. And the thing is, Artt’s not a hypocrite. He does mean all these things, but I think what we gradually see is that really he’s very motivated by the sheer power of being the guru. He’s like a cult leader, in that he starts to behave worse and worse, because he has total power over these people. It was not an age in which people were typically equals or had equal rights. Even within the church, they might talk about being one big community, but, as St. Benedict said, a monk is a slave; he has chosen to bind himself to his Abbott. So I was trying to capture that very different medieval mindset.
KH: I have a sticky note I put on the book cover that says “blind faith,” because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
ED: They have to learn to use their intelligence. For instance, Trian has a kind of instinctive love and appreciation of nature, but he’s got this boss who is basically saying, “Kill the birds!” Trian doesn’t want to speak up and say, “Do we need to kill all these birds?” So it takes a lot to bring him to the point where he glimpses the absolute madness within Artt’s form of religion. Rather than saying religion is good or religion is bad, I wanted to show that religion can be what makes you claim all the birds as your raw material or what makes you watch the birds with absolute reverence and appreciation for the beauty of creation.
KH: What was your favourite part of this book to research, because there is a lot of detail on seabirds, monks copying out texts on vellum and the geography of Skellig Michael.
ED: I really liked using archeological reports as a main source. I’ve never done that before. I was trying to figure out what plants that would be on the island and which ones were even halfway edible, and which ones could be used for bedding. I found just one that could be tree-sized, which is the rowan. And then I thought, what if there’s just one? That’s an example of how the minutiae of research can actually give you ideas for the plot.
KH: Your novel Akin was told from a man’s point of view, and this one is told from the POV of three men. How hard is it to get inside the heads of men, especially Artt, who is a woman hater?
ED: I don’t find it any harder than getting into the heads of women, particularly if the women are completely unlike me. I love when I get to write men. And I think one thing that makes me a feminist writer is that I’m always interested in gender roles and how they can imprison people. These monks withdraw to an island to be far away from women. It was such a misogynistic project; they’re saying, “we’ll go there and we’ll be pure, we’ll have no lust, because women won’t be tempting us.” So I think my fiction is always very gender aware, shall we say.
KH: When I spoke to you in 2020, you were working on this book. How long did it take to write?
ED: It’s hard to know, because I always work on several things at once.
KH: Yes, your next novel, Learn By Heart, is coming out next year.
ED: And now I’m working on the one after that already. I got the idea for Haven in 2016 and I wrote it mostly in 2020 and 2021.
KH: The next one is about Anne Lister, who has been called the first modern lesbian. You have been intrigued by the story for a long time. This is another idea that you’ve had even longer than Haven?
ED: Yes, because I wrote my first play in 1993 [I Know My Own Heart] about Lister when she was in her twenties and seducing all the women of Yorkshire, but even then I knew she had been at boarding school [before that] and had her first love affair with an Anglo-Indian heiress. I assumed somebody would write about them, as it was such a great story, and I’ve been waiting almost 30 years. Finally, I thought, well, I’ll have a bash.
KH: I read that Lister had a secret five million-word journal. Did you read the whole thing?
ED: Oh, not the whole thing. There are several books of excerpts from it, and most excitingly in recent years, a team of hundreds of volunteers have been transcribing it. So they each get sent a batch of pages to copy it out, and it’s very difficult to read. Even the bits that are not in code are in very confusing handwriting or sometimes crosshatched – written in two different directions. What’s really exciting is that fans of the TV series [based on Lister’s diaries], Gentleman Jack, have been really helping the scholarship by volunteering as transcribers. For my novel, I drew on a lot of their input and reached out to fellow Anne Lister enthusiasts on Twitter for a lot of information about other characters in their lives and family history.
KH: Are you going to France for a year? Did I see that on social media?
ED: We have been based in Paris since last month. It’s Chris’s sabbatical, and we always go to France for sabbaticals. So this year is Paris.
KH: And are you doing research there?
ED: Not for the next novel, but a future novel. I like to keep busy, what can I say?