When Emma Donoghue delivered her latest novel last March, the publication date was set for 2021. But, surprising her, the editor decided to bring the date forwards. And, pulling together in harmony, her Canadian, American and British publishers rushed it out for a launch date in July.
“I’ve never known them bring a literary novel out so fast,” says Emma, on the phone from her home in Ontario.
There is a reason. The Pull of the Stars, set in a Dublin hospital in 1918, focuses on the famous flu pandemic – and the similarities, and differences with Covid 19 make it quite extraordinarily relevant to today.
“I feel part of the present Covid conversation,” says Emma, “and that is a rare feeling for a historical novelist.”
Emma started penning the novel in October 2018 – the anniversary of the 1918 pandemic. It centres around Julia Power, a nurse working on a specialist quarantine ward for pregnant women afflicted with the strange flu. The action is spread over three intensive days, as some women die, but new life emerges. It’s a claustrophobic atmosphere, reminiscent of Room – Emma’s Man Booker shortlisted novel that became an Oscar nominated film.
“I have a habit of confining my characters into limited physical settings, and following them intensely for a few days,” she acknowledges. “I find it increases the energy and intensity of every conversation. It creates a kind of pulsing pulse in a story.”
Room’s success, whilst amazing for Emma, didn’t change her life in any major way.
“It was enormous fun to feel so in demand,” she says. “When I went to give a reading at my local library there was a queue round the block, and they had to live stream to a second room. I felt such a big shot, but I’m more used to normal life, which is write books and publish them.”
Youngest child of 8, daughter of professor and critic Denis Donoghue, Emma was brought up in Dublin. She wrote her first book at 23, whilst she was attending University College Dublin.
“I was really lucky,” she says. “I found an agent who tenderly nursed me through the first stages. She couldn’t sell my first book to anyone, and she said, ‘write the second one, and I’ll sell them together.’ This sounded implausible, but she was right!”
Emma had moved on to Cambridge by 1994, when Stir Fry came out, followed by Hood. She was completing a PhD funded by a British government scholarship. It was there that she met her partner, Christine Roulston with whom she moved to Canada. They have two children, now aged 16 and 13.
The Pull of the Stars could well echo the success of Room. It has the same urgent energy about it. Some of the birth scenes are so graphically realistic, that they make for gruesome reading. The book, Emma quips, can be seen as a birth thriller! One scene, when a placenta fails to deliver was taken from Emma’s own experience. But it was the involvement of the carers she was most keen to explore.
“I used modern sources to give me the clearest impression of the medical problem, then I would say to myself, ‘What did they have in 1918?’ So much of the knowledge, the machines, the techniques and the drugs would peel away, and I was left with, ‘Oh, in 1918 they would watch and wait. They could see the infection was coming but they couldn’t do anything about it.”
With so many frontline workers succumbing to the flu, Julia Power finds herself in total charge of her three patients, and is able to bend the rules for her patient’s good; although overstretched and scared of the outcomes, she finds the days oddly thrilling.
“A lot of nurses were keeping diaries or writing memoirs throughout the 1918 pandemic, and a lot of them sounded exhilarated. This was a gruelling time, yes, but they felt really important because they came to the fore. There was very little the doctors could offer in terms of medicine or procedures; there were no IV fluids; no antibiotics; barely the use of oxygen and no ventilators, so it really was about the nurses providing comfort.
“I wanted to capture that kind of excitement; it was the equivalent of the way men talked about their time at war; horrendous, but the bonds and the intensity of feeling were important to them. So many men felt a crushing anti-climax when the armistice was declared. The pandemic was, in a sense, the woman’s war. And the book can be seen as a war book for women.”
Whilst most of the characters are fictitious, Emma couldn’t resist bringing in Doctor Kathleen Lynn –a suffragist and activist who, brought in as a locum, is on the run from the police. She proves to be an excellent, caring doctor. Another outsider, young Bridie Sweeney, is sent to assist Julia. Brought up in state run homes, and lent by the nuns, Julia imagines she will prove more of a hindrance than a help, but the younger girl flourishes under Julia’s tutorship.
“I read the Ryan Report on industrial institutions and what really stood out were those subtler moments when they were being told, ‘you are useless.’ I thought, what if somebody like that gets the chance to be incredibly useful, so that, even though Bridie is not being paid, for the first time in her life she gets to feel hugely important?”
We meet Julia’s brother who, returned from the war traumatised and speechless shares Julia’s house; and the author, in describing Julia’s tram and bicycle journeys, paints a vivid portrait of war-ravaged Dublin. But the one, rather poignant love scene takes place on the hospital roof.
“I was quite looking forwards to that scene,” says Emma. “I got a break from the hospital for a while and got to see a few stars.”
Editing the book in lockdown gave Emma a renewed appreciation of the work of our frontline workers – and how they are the only thing standing between us and death. But she’s less enamoured with the world’s politicians.
“I think they are giving us the same bullshit as back in 1918. The false reassurances are meant to keep people spending money. The vague, ‘Stay at home and you’ll be fine,’ is ignoring the fact that so many people just can’t!
“But science is in a much better place than in 1918. We know what a virus is, and we have a much better chance of getting a vaccine. And there’s much more understanding, even by the general public about germs and how they work. If only we would obey the scientists, we are in a much better position than they were then.”
Whilst many writers have felt blocked during the lockdown, Emma has been flying through her work, juggling two fiction projects, and attempting to write a musical.
“Nothing stops me writing,” she says. “I’m very organised and have detailed plans of chapter breakdowns and so on, but within that, I follow my whim.
“If I’m meant to be working on chapter two of one novel and feel like doing a bit of research for a future story I let myself. And being organised means I can do that, because I know where I am. I don’t like a deadline. And I tend not to tell my publisher about my books in advance. I prefer to write them on my own, and then send them in.”
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. Picador: €14.99. Kindle: €9.93.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 29th August, 2020.
© Sue J Leonard. 2020