I always knew I wanted my novel Room to work on two levels: as a universal, almost fairy-tale story about love between mother and son, and as a totally realistic child’s-eye account of being raised in a locked room that measures 11 foot by 11. To get the second bit right, I didn’t just read up on experiences similar to the one in my story—the roughly half-dozen young women who have survived lengthy, secret confinement, mostly famously in Austria and the U.S. but also in Belgium, Japan and Russia. I followed my nose in many directions to understand, as deeply as I could, every aspect of what Ma and Jack might go through, both inside and outside their prison.
Appalling though much of the material I’d been researching was, it reminded me how much kids are at the mercy of those who look after them, and what a holy duty we have to give them both the love and freedom that they need.
For my previous historical novels, I’ve mostly worked in university libraries; this time, my library was the Internet. That made the research pretty visceral—videos of dungeons on YouTube—and also gave it a moment-by-moment, one-headline-followed-by-the-next quality: sad stories gathering a few more dreadful details every day, until they fade from the public view. Many of my sources were not ‘expert opinions’ but the raw reactions of people all over the world who rush onto message boards. Listening in gave me insight into what such cases mean to those who hear about them: how they trigger empathy as well as voyeurism, judgment as well as revulsion. And also what such unsought celebrity—being put on a pedestal, and knocked off it too—might do to a survivor like Ma.
The worst topic was something I really needed to figure out: exactly what children can and can’t survive. I found a site called Feral Children and forced myself to read through all its cases of children raised in confined or abusive settings. In the first week I kept bursting into tears, eyes locked in horror on my screen. The story of Jack and Ma is really not that bad compared with many I read; there are cases of children neglected, starved or tortured over long periods, often by their own parents or guardians, that I try not to think about anymore because they make me shake.
But I also came across much more heartening material about what psychologists call resilience: the power to get through things that might destroy someone else. I read academic papers on the kind of family model that could allow Ma and Jack to endure both their prison and its aftermath. I studied unassisted birth, women having babies in concentration camps and raising their kids in jails all over the world, what it’s like for children conceived through rape, and the long-term effects of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.
I talked to a friend who breastfed her kid till the age of five. I looked up pop hits of the early 2000s to find out what songs would be lingering in Ma’s head. I checked out police slang, sexual-assault evidence-collection guidelines, the protocols of expensive psychiatric clinics, treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder.
I picked my brother-in-law’s brains on the matter of how Old Nick could have created a secure prison from a garden shed, and tracked down the most high-tech glass available for the skylight, the kind that looks transparent but is criss-crossed with unbreakable mesh. I designed Room on a home-decor website, figuring out how to fit all the furniture in.
Finally, the pleasantest research I did was playing with and listening to my children. My son Finn was five while I was writing the book. I analysed his quirky grammar, noted his obsessions, even asked for his help with ‘the book about Jack and the bad guy’: for one scene, he let me roll him up in a rug to see if he could wriggle out. Appalling though much of the material I’d been researching was, it did one good thing for me: it reminded me how much kids are at the mercy of those who look after them, and what a holy duty we have to give them both the love and freedom that they need.
Emma Donoghue is the author, most recently, of Room, which is longlisted for the 2010 Booker Prize. Born in Ireland, Donoghue now resides in Canada with her partner and their children.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our interview with Emma Donoghue for Room.