One of the most striking aspects of Emma Donoghue’s career is how restless she is. She has, she tells me at one point in this week’s episode of Experience, the next five books planned in her head, but one has just jumped ahead of the others because she has moved to Paris for a year where her wife is working.

So suddenly a novel about Paris is at the front of the queue. Her next book, which will be released next August, is set in York in 1805 but she doesn’t want to talk about the others in the line just yet.

On the evening we met, she had got off a plane from London for a weekend in Dublin where Room, the film of her novel directed by Lenny Abrahamson, would be shown in the NCH. 

It is a novel and film that endures and it demonstrates Donoghue’s range. In the podcast we also talked about the transformation of Irish culture and whether she could live in Ireland again.

Her current book, Haven, is set on Skellig Michael in the 7th century. It’s a haunting story of the tension between purity and pragmatism. A holy man, Artt arrives at Clonmacnoise and has a dream about heading to a purer land with two of the monks, who he identifies as Cormac, an older man whose life has been full of tragedy, and Trian a younger monk. They head off on the Shannon into the Atlantic and Skellig Michael is where Artt believes his vision can be realised.

Dion Fanning with Emma Donoghue. Photo: Bryan Meade

Over the course of the novel, Cormac and Trian attempt to fulfil the vision of the holy and pure Artt while also attending to practical matters like food or shelter which Artt believed God will provide. Over the course of the book, the unbending fundamentalism of Artt leads to increasing disillusion from his followers.

This is a timeless story and a memorable one. Haven demonstrates again Donoghue’s capacity for research into a period or a way of life which she would previously have know nothing about.

Donoghue was the youngest of eight children of the academic Denis Donoghue. “Even though I’m very prolific, my dad was just astonishingly prolific.”

Donoghue was working until he died and had just completed a book on Henry James. His youngest daughter hadn’t seen him for a while when Covid arrived, cancelling a trip in March 2020, but Denis Donoghue died in April 2021 and Emma hadn’t seen him for a couple of years at that point.

“What was crucial for us was, we had a belated family funeral for him. It was August instead of April. There had been a long stretch. But we gave him a proper send off.  We had the religious ceremony and we had a literary get together in the Irish Writers Museum. And we went up to Warrenpoint and we stayed in the area, and we sort of toured around his old haunts and stuff so that felt crucial. So I think ritual and marking these things is crucial. And to me, I found it quite consoling to be working on Haven as well, because it’s his kind of cultural territory. In particular, the way the scripture and the Irish prayers and so on,, it’s a religion of words. And you know, the main work they have on this island is copying out the Scripture. So this detailed, reverent attention to words in Christianity, and I think a lot of my father’s interest in literature grew out of that.”

Her father wrote a memoir Warrenpoint about his own early years and his father’s time as an RUC man in Warrenpoint where, because he was a Catholic, he never rose above the rank of sergeant

Emma Donoghue’s mother had died a few years earlier so the passing of time has led her to feel a renewed urgency to make the most if everything.

“I feel orphaned, it’s true. It makes me think a lot about what I want to get done in my limited time.”