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The Book Show #1673 - Emma Donoghue

Book cover for "The Pull of the Stars"

Joe Donahue: Emma Donoghue's new novel "The Pull of the Stars", brings us to Dublin 1918, in a maternity ward at the height of the great flu. With the country doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center where expecting mothers who have come down with influenza are quarantined together. Into Julia's regimented world steps two outsiders: Dr. Kathleen Lin, a rumored Rebel on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney. Over three days, these women change each other's lives in unexpected and profound ways. Emma Donoghue is the author of several novels including "Akin", "Landing", "The Wonder", and the international best-seller "Room", in which her screen adaptation was nominated for four Academy Awards. 

It is a great pleasure to welcome Emma Donoghue to this week's Book Show. Thank you very much for being with us, what a great pleasure.

Emma Donoghue: My pleasure.

I have to ask the obvious question, which is- You have now released a pandemic novel, at a time when we are in a pandemic, and I assume that was never something you thought you would be doing.

In fact, I feel distinctly sheepish about to be honest. Um, I wrote the novel in 2018, sold it in 2019, and it was scheduled to be published in 2021. But then after I delivered it at the start of March, my publishers suddenly said, "You know what, it's about a pandemic, it seems more relevant to the conversation this year." So they rushed it out. So I'm a little bit horrified to be trying to promote anything at a time of, you know, global crisis, but at least I get to focus discussions on things like the heroism of medical staff, so I quite like that bit.

What was it about the subject originally that caught your eye and was something that you wanted to write about?

You know, it's funny. Like many people, I had vaguely heard of what's typically called the ‘Spanish flu’, though it seems to have originated in Kansas- But I never really paid much attention because it gets overshadowed by World War One. And when I read an article about it, what seized me was the atmosphere of the times, the feeling of a modern electrified society, you know, lots of people living their busy urban lives, and everything's suddenly grinding to a halt, because adults in the prime of their life were terrified of catching a potentially fatal illness from each other. They were bewildered. They didn't know what they were talking about, and that they didn't even know what a virus was. Science was so ill equipped to deal with that particular flu strain, and it tended to hit young adults in their 20s and 30s. And above all, what I discovered it had women late pregnancy the hardest, and as soon as I heard that fact, I was completely hooked by it and I thought, "Ooh, where did they put those women?" You know, if they were giving birth and had this flu, where would you go and so I began to imagine this strange little maternity quarantine ward.

When it comes to the, the actual idea that there's this pandemic going on- So there's the very real work of the midwife and the nurse of delivering these children. But oh, by the way, these women also have influenza. Having done the research that you did, does it help you better understand what we're going through now?

It does, in that you have to get on with it and try and save lives, even when there are huge gaps in your knowledge. And that was even more true in 1918. I mean, it's been oddly comforting and reassuring for me to research, the 1918 flu in, in the lead up to COVID because we're in a much better position today. You know, we all immediately had that little visual of the spiky Coronavirus, helpful scientific panels in the newspapers. They had no clue. They were, they were literally looking at, you know, the bodily fluids of the dead, under their microscopes trying to spot a bacterium, and it wasn't that, it was a virus. And they were trying out vaccines which had no effect because there wasn't the science behind them. They were bewildered. In some cases, they wore masks or even had mask laws in America. But people tended to wear the masks just outside and then as soon as they got into a busy, full building, they would take masks off. So, you know, they were wandering around in a state of complete ignorance, and yet very much having to get on with doing the things that would save lives, you know: keep people hydrated, help them sit up when they're coughing, and, you know, encourage them to rest. So it was an absolutely fascinating exercise for me. I had no idea it would turn out to be so relevant to this year, but it, it certainly has.

In many ways as you're reading the novel, you, you think of just over that time of how far we haven't come.

Especially about the way pandemics do not equalize, they actually show up injustice. And I've been so strong struck by the echoes between my novels which, you know, being set in Dublin, it's all about, you know, the, the people living in the slums had such a different life experience from middle class who'd managed to kind of, you know, move out to the suburbs. And it was a very hollowed out city and the slums were said to be the worst in Europe. So of course, those slum dwellers and in particular, those women who'd had so many babies, which is an extra complicating Irish factor, you know, being the youngest of eight myself- So there would be women coming into that inner city hospital in Dublin in 1918, who'd be on maybe their 13th pregnancy and just so pre-weakened. So now when I read, when I read analyses of how COVID is hitting poor communities harder, it's hitting people of color harder, for so many socio-economic pre-existing conditions. And the echoes just give me chills. It seems we never learn that, you know, you can't really blame the germs for it, the germs just hit the people who we have collectively decided to keep down already.

Give me a sense of the character Julia Power, of how she came to you. And the, the woman that she is in this novel, there's a, there's a passage where you write, during a very difficult birth, and you write, "That silence as she held her breath and bore down, there was nothing like it. I realized something then no other job would ever satisfy me." That tells us a lot about her, doesn't it?

Yeah, with Julia, I really began with her job. And the reason I give her the surname Power is that as a nurse, she has no power, nurses in those days we're- It was like being a very, very low ranked soldier, you know? Just very, you know, stiff military style hospital. But I thought during a moment of chaos like that, when the hospital and so understaffed, and she might well find yourself running her own little ward for the first time. So in a way, she's a, she's a highly skilled, zealous worker who for the first time gets to do things her own way, and finds new strengths in herself as so many medical workers have. So, yeah, we begin with the job for her and I didn't want her to be, you know, longing to have the babies herself in some pathetic way. So I decided to make her a spinster who's got a very specific sense of vocation for helping other women give birth, and you know, her own mother, like so many, died of fever after birth. And, and Julia really has a kind of a mission, she wouldn't, you know, call it feminism, but she has a mission to help these women get to their brutal lives. And I wanted, I thought it would be fun to make her just turning 30 first of all, because that was a real marker that, you know, "You're a spinster now", but also in the month when the novel is set, um, women would vote for the first time in Britain, women over 30. So it was a real sort of, you know, marker of, are you that generation? Who are unlikely to marry now, very low birth rates after the war, and who get the vote for the first time. So she's really off her generation and above all she's head down and concentrated on the job. But I wanted her to, to sort of come intellectually awake over these three days and start to sort of notice aspects of our society that she never has before because the pandemic is lighting everything up like a sort of harsh flash of light, lightning.

The name of the novel is "The Pull of the Stars" by Emma Donoghue, it is published by Little Brown. The way the book is segmented is red, brown, blue, black. It is a phrase that you use several times in the book red to brown, to blue, to black- The most, as you say, at one point, "a terrible rainbow". Tell us a little bit about that phrase and how it came about in playing such a large role in the novel.

Sure, sure. I didn't want this novel to be kind of weighed down by statistics. I think when you write about some big event like, I don't know, the Holocaust, you cannot let yourself get lost in sort of sociological thinking and sociological writing, because what fiction does best is getting really close up. It's the specific of tragedy and heroism. So and I, I'd find myself fixating on any little details about the flu, which would make it very and sensory. So I early on came across the idea that people's faces darkened as they got cyanosis, their tissues were starved of oxygen, basically. So, so a nurse would look out for this kind of color change. And it was very often called the "blue flu" or the "black flu" because of this strange darkening in the face of people who were starved of oxygen. So I decided I'd name the chapters after this, as a kind of subtle hint to the reader that you know, we are heading downwards into darkness, things are getting more and more frightening, things are getting worse. And, and the novel itself too is named after the flu in that "the pull of the stars" is a literal translation of influenza. Influenza meant influence and the story is that medieval Italians thought that these illnesses were the stars, literally giving us a tug. So I like the idea that not just your, your abstract destiny, your fate might be written in the stars, but also whether or not you are going to be the one to come to this illness- That other people had without symptoms or with almost none. I mean, just like COVID this was a thing you didn't know how much to fear it, just utterly unequal, and, and it could appear to be utterly, cruelly random.

We learn about that aspect of the meaning of influenza because even the characters have a relationship to the stars themselves.

Yeah, I- Because of the title, I knew I wanted there to be a scene where they were up on the roof, getting a glimpse of a bigger world, you know? I knew you can put your readers through a certain amount of upsetting stuff, but you have to give them little breaks. So I carefully built in moments when they're outside the hospital, and because it's just so intensely confining in there, and I do have this bad habit of keeping my characters and my readers in small spaces, you know? I never- I don't necessarily always lock the door, but you know, I imprison them in small worlds. So yeah, I knew from the start that because of that title, I would have to have a scene set at night, up on the roof of the hospital when they're when they're looking up at the, the moon and the planets and the stars. Just slightly more of a sense of a wider world of possibility. And similarly, I said to myself, "They have to eat something nice," because, you know, a lot of Irish traditional food- Um, I couldn't make a boast for it and I didn't think it would be at its best in 1918 either with, you know, horrible, lumpy war bread and so forth. So I thought, okay, "They gotta eat something nice", so I decided that Julia's war veteran brother, who's, he's an interesting character and that he's mute due to shell shock, but he still has quite a strong relationship with her. And I thought: "For her birthday, you will give her one lovely orange, and three little chocolate truffles." It was kind of a promise to myself, there'll be a few moments in the novel, when, um, when my characters and we will get just a little break from all the all the hideousness.

Let's talk about Bridie Sweeney, it's a fascinating character. You write in the author's note, "'The Pull of the Stars' is a fiction, pinned together with facts." And you say: "That almost all details of Bridie Sweeney's life were drawn from some of the rather less harrowing testimonies, in the 2009 Ryan report on Irish residential institutions." Tell us a little bit about that report and how it informed this character- Who I want to talk about, more about, because it's just such a cool character.

Yes, she's the only character who I have drawn, not from one particular person in history, but from a sort of collective body of evidence. In this case, um, like many countries, Ireland has been really examining its past and calling itself to account for its history of, you know, locking up many of its citizens. So in our case, we weren't locking up our native people, we were locking up our poor people basically. And the Catholic Church and the Irish state, and before that the British state before independence, um, were all very complicit in running these organizations, these orphanages, and mother and baby homes and Magdalene hospitals, and reformatories, which, you know, traditionally would have been thought of as a very good thing and that they stopped people from starving to death. But we now know that they were full of abuses too. And none of these are specific to Ireland or the Catholic Church, but that's our particular history. So I read through the big sort of government inquiry on these institutions. And you know, I didn't, I didn't touch the, the harrowing stories of whippings and rapes and so on. I was, I was much more interested in the tiny little moments when somebody giving evidence, say in her 60s or 70s, would say something like, "They always told me I was useless. They said, 'I was,' just, you know, '"Living off their charity, and I should be grateful because I was useless.' "And I was I was intrigued by the idea that you might come out of an institution like that physically just about all right, maybe, but, but with a feeling that you just didn't quite count as a full person. And I thought it would be very interesting if a volunteer at this hospital, who's bringing no education or skill to the table as it were, finding herself useful just because she is eager and capable and has a strong pair of hands, and she's energetic and curious, and in practice, she finds she has a huge amount to give. And I was trying to capture the way many nurses, and in particular many volunteers, looked back on the flu pandemic with a kind of exhilarated nostalgia, saying "For the first time ever, we really felt so important, so needed." And because so many of the men were away at war and the flu pandemic has been described as a real kind of women's crisis. And so I like the idea of taking this kind of survivor, this victim, you might say, of awful orphanages and, and basically seeing her flourish for the first time because she's given something to do that she knows to be really important and she finds his good at it.

Bridie comes in and just kind of shows up. Nurse Power is by herself and is in charge of this Ward, obviously needs a great deal of help, does not know anything about this young woman and yet she is there, she is efficient and helpful, and very much a free spirit.

Yeah, I didn't want it to come across as a traditional victim character at all. Um, I knew I wanted the novel to have a lot of humor to leaven the darkness. And I suppose I was trying to capture the kind of, you know, make do and mend, improvisational spirit that we've seen even nowadays with COVID. You know, we've heard of healthcare workers improvising PPE out of garbage bags, that kind of thing. That astonishing spirit of, you know, we don't have all the right equipment, we certainly don't have all the information but we will somehow manage. Um, and the teamwork especially, you know, nobody's saving lives on their own, the, the amazing teamwork we've been seeing, even at times of crisis and fear. And so that's really what I was trying to capture: the whole sort of spectrum of healthcare workers, from a lowly hospital volunteer all the way up to doctors, that they were all, they're all part of the web that was standing between so many patients and death.

The ability for the nurses and those working in the units, as you mentioned a moment ago of, of the stories that we're hearing of COVID now of people figuring out how they're going to make something work. The ingenuity that you write about is really incredible.

Yeah, yeah. And I think- There had never been anything like it, and there was so much they didn't know. What impresses me is that they were sort of learning on the job. So at first, for fever, they doled out a lot of aspirin. And then, the doctors began to notice that some patients were dying and they began to suspect that it was a very high doses of aspirin. So then, in Ireland, they were mostly doling out whiskey, which of course would have no direct effect on the symptoms, but would be kind of generally sedative. There was so little they could offer. They focused on things like, you know, ways of propping the patient up. So, um, one of Julia's difficulties is that her patients being pregnant as well, you know, at any one moment she's trying to work out whether a sudden change in blood pressure or, or sudden weakness is to do with the flu or to do with the childbirth. And but of course, life is like that, isn't it? We, we always have more than one thing going on, um, no symptom exists in isolation. So I suppose I was trying to capture to this combination of a flu pandemic and childbirth, the kind of, you know, crazy multitasking nature of life, maybe. Especially women's lives.

We are talking to Emma Donoghue, her new novel "The Pull of the Stars". It is published by Little Brown. Back to the author's note, just for a moment because as you mentioned that Nurse Power, and- Julia Power, and Bridie are both invented and the rest of the characters are as well, as you say, with the sole exception of Dr. Kathleen Lynn. She lived 1874 - 1955, give us a sense of this extraordinary woman.

Sure, I've often written about real people, and I love it, it's so stimulating. But, of course, you know, your hands are slightly tied as well. You want to stick within the truth and it's sometimes it's awkward. So in this case, I was not looking for a real person to add to my story. I was just wanting to know what the life might have been like for doctors in Ireland around 1918. And I come across Kathleen Lynn, and she was just too extraordinary because she was not only a very highly qualified doctor, but one who no one hospital had secured permanently because, basically the men doctors didn't want a female colleague. So she was a kind of a roaming doctor and set up her own private flu clinic for the poor. And she specialized in. um, midwifery, and ophthalmology, and insanity. So, you know, quite, quite a reach there. But she was also the Chief Medical Officer of Sinn Féin, Ireland's Revolutionary Party, and she'd been involved in the 1916 rising, she'd been there, you know, in the hail of bullets. So, what a combination. And during the, the few weeks of November 1918, she was on the run from police, because they were rounding up all Sinn Féin members and she was one of its chief executives. So um, the idea of this doctors concentrating very hard on studying the flu and testing out medicines and, and helping people to the flu while simultaneously on the run. You just couldn't make it up. And in my first draft I tried including just a fictional version of her, to keep our kind of extraordinary illness at bay. She's not like anybody else. And I might as well give her, her little bit of fame because she should be much better known than she is.

And Julia obviously respects her talent and is very happy to have a, a woman and a doctor, who knows what she's doing because there's a great deal of incompetence elsewhere in the hospital. But there is this concern about her beliefs.

You know, Ireland was so divided at the time I'm sure most people in 1916 weren't shocked and horrified when, when suddenly there was gunfire in our streets because it wasn't a mass revolutionary movement at that time at all people were just like, "Who are these messers causing trouble and, you know, rebelling against the king in the middle of wartime?" And then just three years later, most people were voting for Sinn Féin and Ireland, you know, split away from Britain and we had our own country. That’s astonishingly fast speed of cultural change in a time before social media, you know? So I suppose I was, I was wondering what happened during those few years? And how the war and even the pandemic, might have contributed to that. So just in the case of one person, Julia, I wanted to show her mind beginning to open on that. I mean, I wasn't raised with kind of passionate republicanism at all, my family were very much anti-IRA. But I was intrigued by the question of how somebody like Dr. Lynn might have at least started someone like Nurse Power thinking, might have put the right questions to her, might have encouraged her to start thinking, you know, "Are there political reasons why the Dublin slums are the worst in Europe? You know, what, you know, what has caused Dublin to be such a destroyed city? Could it be that we gave up having our own government?" So I was trying to capture some of that kind of idealism that you see in early Irish republicanism, um, for instance, um, Ken Loach's film, 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley', was very good on that. And another influence on me was Roddy Doyle's novel, um, "A Star Called Henry",  because both of those works managed to capture the kind of passionate socialism that was part of that early impulse to break away from Britain, you know, a wish to, to make the world better. And a lot of these revolutionaries were workers’ rights advocates, and they were a feminist as well. So it's a very interesting combination of social justice movements.

Dr. Lynn says toward the end of the novel, "The human race settles on terms with every plague in the end, or a stalemate at the least. We somehow muddle along sharing the earth with each new form of life." When I read that, I thought, well, I needed to read that.

You're right, you're right. And you know, it's not as if all the other plagues have gone away, you know that the top infectious disease killing people at the moment is still tuberculosis, which both my parents had in Ireland in their teens. You know? We have so many plagues and we do somehow muddle along, and I don't think we should all completely lose our minds with terror this time. Of course, this one, you know, has unique qualities, but it's not the first time we've been absolutely shattered by a new germ. And I was really trying to, I suppose use Dr. Lynn's presence in the novel to give some of those wider perspectives on things, some of the kind of intellectual breath, you know, that it would be a bit unnatural if my nurse character was well informed all about, you know, the war and international medicine and stuff. So I let the, I let the doctor bring in some of these bigger ideas. While also staying very connected to the nitty gritty of you know, whose chamber pot has been, has been changed?

Yes, given that the book does take place over three days, and there's a, there's a constraint there that that you touched on a moment ago, that, that's interesting in and of itself. Because it's, it's a very interesting three days and where a friendship goes much further and much more is learned. And there is a turning point in almost all the lives that are written about in this novel.

Yeah, I love constraints, I find- And I always think of the 17th century French playwrights' reliance on, what they call the unities of time, space and action, is simply better to write a gripping story if you set it over one hour in a broken down lift to people that if you attempt to kind of survey all of contemporary New Orleans. And certainly my skills lie more in those directions. I have no, I have no skills for the epic. I'm so impressed by writer like Jane Smiley, who could just, you know, have her novels zoom over different continents, and she does it so well, but I really don't. And if I, if I bring my characters together, and then I, in some ways, imprison them, it turns up the heat, it intensifies older relations, and then every little conversation and starts to have knock on effects, and echoes on the next conversation. And as you say, people can get to know each other and change each other's lives so fast. It's a sort of an exercise of intensification. So yeah, there's nothing I like better than a strict limit. Like, you know, "You've only got three days, the clock is ticking."

An exercise in intensification, which brings me to a question of, for you as a writer, is there an intensity that you wouldn't have if there was a little more air in the room?

Oh yeah, I, I hate to admit to how much I enjoy putting my characters to these things. Um, you know, being a writer, I'm not sure it's a very benign impulse. I was really aware with "Room" that, you know, I was the ultimate kidnapper, I was the one shutting, shutting this woman into this situation and bringing a child into it. I was the one who literally shopping for their meager furniture, on you know, at the cheaper end of IKEA website. So I'm now aware that with all my books, and it's really to my benefit that I that I trap my characters in time and space, but all I can say is that I think the real gift you give a character is, is good dialogue and intense time on the page. It's not even about whether they live or die. It's about whether you shine the spotlight on them. And I am, I think, whether I'm writing about real historical people or invented ones, I think I'm perfectly generous to my characters in terms of giving them, you know, opportunities to flourish. Even if they don't always get official, happy endings.

That's a great way of putting it, "A generosity to your characters". Did, did that come early to you? Or is that something that you worked on?

I think it came early. And I pretty much never write a character who's a pure villain. The psychopath in "Room" would be a rare example. But even then, like, really, I keep him off to one side, he's barely a character. So when I do give my characters, their time and space on the page, I usually am doing it with some measure of sympathy. So even if they behave badly in some ways, I often give them kind of, you know, either self-knowledge or a kind of rueful and acknowledgement of their own flaws. Or, you know, even if they're very verbally malicious characters and give them a lot of humor, so, so you can't help but like them, even if they're shocking you.

The book is absolutely beautiful. And it is "The Pull of the Stars" by Emma Donoghue, published by Little Brown. Emma, what a great pleasure to have you on the program. Thank you so much for being with us.

Thank you for your thoughtful questions.

Joe talks to people on the radio for a living. In addition to countless impressive human "gets" - he has talked to a lot of Muppets. Joe grew up in Philadelphia, has been on the area airwaves for more than 25 years and currently lives in Washington County, NY with his wife, Kelly, and their dog, Brady. And yes, he reads every single book.
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