The Waterstones Interview: Emma Donoghue
As the title suggests this is a book which deals with kinship, both in the sense of a blood relationship and its suggestion of affinity or common feeling. What drew you to explore this theme – and the meaning of that word – in this novel?
Being the youngest of eight, I’ve always been interested in the fact that you can share a lot of DNA with your siblings without necessarily having much in common with them. And now we’re raising kids in a two-mother family (I’m the bio-mum), my partner Chris and I are always aware of the ways in which kinship can be a matter of nature or nurture, both or neither.
As a reader I loved being so completely immersed in the developing relationship between Noah and Michael – particularly the way that both characters are forced to revaluate their perspectives and assumptions in each other’s company. What did it offer you, as a writer, to focus on two characters so divided by age, social status and experience?
Opposites are always attractive to a writer because we dread our characters sliding into one amorphous goo, and Noah and Michael were particularly fun to flesh out because they’re two generations apart. That means not only are they informed by their ages (and therefore biorhythms and levels of experience) but they’re different historical generations – WWII child v. digital native – so sometimes they’re like people from different planets. Throwing in a major class gap complicated that interestingly, because even stony-broke kids today are on nodding terms with international news (because internet, as Michael might say).
I found that the character of Amber – Michael’s mother – lingered with me as a presence throughout the novel. Through Noah, a reader finds themselves confronting the realities of the American penal system and the wider implication of women’s incarceration for families and children. Was it important to you that a reader see the system and the process through Noah’s eyes and the dismantling of his assumptions and prejudices?
Very. I invented Amber’s situation to make it plausible that Michael would be in a vulnerable situation where he’d have to accept a stranger’s temporary guardianship, but then I got fascinated by the appalling way women’s incarceration (usually for non-violent offences) becomes a punishment for their children. It was a perfect situation to trigger and then alter Noah’s snobberies, because he falsely assumes that if she’s in prison she must be trashy in every sense.
Photography forms an important part of Akin, through the photographs Noah carries, the legacy of Père Sonne and the selfies Michael takes throughout their trip. How important is the idea of what a photograph can show and what it might hide to this novel?
Akin was suggested by the life of Marguerite Matisse but in coming up with a fictional story I quickly decided that twentieth-century photography raised more interesting questions about evidence and truth than painting would. I like the way Noah’s mother’s apparently banal snapshots can be interpreted different ways; how their silence starts to speak.
Much of the novel takes place in Nice and the character and feel of the city comes across very strongly to a reader. Was it a place you knew well already? Why did you choose to set so much of the novel there?
Yes, Akin is the only novel of mine prompted by a place – Nice, where I lived 2011-12 and 2015-16, because of my partner’s job. I found the city the most intriguing mixture of shallow tourist pleasures and grimly complicated history (invaded twice, first by the Italians and then by the Germans). A traveloguish novel set on the French Riviera can lure readers into quite a troubling study of mortality and terror by sweetening the process with the charms of French cafes.
I found myself fascinated by the phantom voice of Joan, Noah’s dead wife – existing as an omnipresent voice in his mind. To what extent did you want to capture the way we carry the ghosts of others with us, a different kind of psychological kinship that makes people get under our skin and in our heads?
Oo, that’s an interesting reading of another kind of kinship! Yes, I wanted Noah’s widowhood not to be purely negative – an absence or a melancholy – but a sort of trace marriage, a conversation continued in his head, suggesting the decades of gentle bickering that came before. And because this is a novel about, among other things, French Catholics and the Holocaust I decided Joan as a Jewish character had to have a voice (an acerbic, unsentimental one) in it.
Noah often finds himself stumbling up against linguistic variations, for example when he thinks about the very different meanings of collaboration, and the novel is littered with tricks of the eye and tricks of language. Did you find yourself thinking about the way language can trip us up when you were writing this novel?
Yes, especially as my French is only good enough to get me halfway into a sentence before tripping me up! Any story of culture-clash is rooted in the tiny linguistic confusions, and that goes for the class and generation gaps between Noah and Michael too. Something I love about fiction as opposed to film is that a novel offers enough time for all these meandering conversations, which can meander and echo each other, harp on and hark back.
In Nice Noah finds himself stumbling upon the past around every corner, from Nazi occupation to the histories of long-dead saints, often finding uncomfortable parallels with the present-day. How important was it to you to convey that sense of echoing experience and repeating patterns in Akin?
I avoid having writers as my protagonists and I didn’t set out to write a meta-novel. However… I found that Noah’s attempt to research – and then imagine – his mother’s wartime years was oddly similar to what I do when I write a novel about people or events from the past. So I suppose Noah shares my own sense of each city being a layered palimpsest – or, put another way, ghosts around every corner. Nice is particularly startling that way, because you’ll be blissing out in the sunshine with a tarte citron when you glance up and read that a young man was hanged from that very pillar by the Nazis.
The mystery of Noah’s mother’s life in Nice is enmeshed in the history of the French Resistance, in particular the real history of the Marcel Network. How did you come to find out about the network’s activities? Why did you decide to make it such a crucial part of Margot’s story?
I was looking for Resistance activities in the South of France with which a Catholic Frenchwoman could plausibly had either helpful or treacherous involvement. The Marcel Network was perfect because it was small (really just one Jewish couple, Odette Rosenstock and Moussa Abadi, and a few helpers), based in Nice itself, and manage to save more than 500 children; it’s the kind of extraordinary true story I was happy to have the chance to share with my readers.