Two Writers Share Their Wisdom

Writer’s Week at Listowel provides an opportunity to learn from some of the most successful names in the business. There are workshops on various aspects of the craft, this year including song writing. And then there are readings and discussion sessions with various authors. In this post I hope to share some of the wisdom I gained yesterday from Emma Donoghue and Colm Toibin.

Donoghue answered questions from her audience and, afterwards, signed copies of her books. Her latest novel, “The Wonder”, was on sale at a special discount price, thanks to Easons and The Irish Times.

She talked about research and how it is the absence of information that presents the writer of historical fiction with the opportunity to use her imagination to make things up. “The Sealed Letter” is about a real divorce trial in which the legal representatives kept referring to the contents of a sealed envelope but the actual contents were never revealed. Thus she was able to invent what it might have been. She used the same context to explain that she always tries to avoid painting her villains as all bad. Whilst her sympathy at the start of the project was very much with the wife, the more she got to know about the husband and his background, especially the mores of the time which prevented men from showing emotion, the more she came to care for him, too.

Her research often involves her children, as in when she wrapped her son in an old rug to see how the escape method she’d devised for Ma and Jack in “Room” would work. Now that she has started writing for children she regularly bounces ideas off them.


Inevitably a lot of questions concerned the filming of “Room” and the extent of her involvement with the process. She said that she had been determined not to give up the film rights to the Hollywood machine. She had several offers that she turned down until Lenny Abrahamson approached her with a ten page treatment which she liked. She was able to work with him and his team on the basis of trust, taking the project to an advanced stage before signing the final contract. She was full of admiration for the dedication of the team and the detail that went into the design of sets and costumes. She added that the process of translating the story from written word to film was illuminating, particularly in the way that cinematic techniques can often make dialogue superfluous.

Killing Clytemnestra

Toibin read several long extracts from “House of Names”, linked with brief outlines of the story. His reading voice made the most of the lyric quality of his writing. In answers to questions he described the process of writing the scenes of violence in the novel as extremely harrowing. He wrote the murder of Clytemnestra in a single ‘take’ and did not attempt a re-draft. He wrote outside and on his return to the house a friend was concerned that he looked so drained. “I’ve just killed Clytemnestra,” he explained.

He said that he could see parallels between Greek myths and Irish legends, especially that of “The Children of Lyr”, not least the significance of swans in both traditions. But he deliberately concentrated on the characters, avoiding suggestions of intercession from the spirit world or the gods.

Answering a question about “The Testament of Mary”, Toibin said he had been influenced by the prominent place of Mary in Irish Catholicism, alongside the fact that she is only ever in the background in the gospels. He wondered what she would say if she were allowed to do so. He wrote it more or less in a single uninterrupted session and kept it short enough to be read also in a single sitting.

His advice to young writers: never leave anything unfinished. As someone with several incomplete projects on my hard drive, I found that personally hard to take!

Donoghue, incidentally, stated that she always has several projects on the go at various stages of development, not that any of hers are likely to remain unfinished for long!

2 thoughts on “Two Writers Share Their Wisdom

  1. Very interesting – thank you! I like what Donoghue said about the lack of information allowing the writer to use her imagination. I hadn’t thought about that before, but I suppose it must be harder to set historical fiction in a period that we know a lot about – readers are more likely to pick up on any inaccuracies. On Toibin, The Testament of Mary was the book that introduced me to him, and it still ranks high on my personal list of best books. And I did indeed read it in one session…


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