Emma Donoghue: Making Beautiful Music
Author: Courtney Gillette
May 18, 2014
Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, Frog Music, breathes life into the mystery of Jenny Bonnet, an infamous woman-in-men’s-clothing in 1870s San Francisco. The puzzle of Jenny’s life and the drama of her murder are explored by Blanche Beunon, a French burlesque performer who befriends Jenny mere weeks before she is shot. It’s a story that unfolds in a stunning, sweltering city thick with music, greed, and a ghastly epidemic of smallpox. Many of Donoghue’s novels, stories, and plays begin with a spark of historical fact from which she expertly weaves the foundation of research with the magic of storytelling.
Donoghue spoke to Lambda Literary about the queerness of blurred relationships, Frog Music’s impressive structure, and the first time she didn’t purchase a lesbian book.
Congratulations on Frog Music. I’ve been telling people it’s so rare to read a novel where the Afterward is one of my favorite chapters.
I’m glad you think so, I’m a little sheepish. One review described it as twenty pages of homework! I think I should really print a big notice at the start of it that says, “Listen, fiction readers, feel free to skip this, okay? This is just for the geeks among us!”
I felt that reading a novel about all of these marginal people, and then reading the Afterward that contains the historical facts of when they were alive—it’s really moving.
Oh, thank you. Particularly with the history of obscure people and obscure categories—women and prostitutes and queers—I think you’re obliged to share your research. It would be such a waste to have something dug up and transformed into fiction, and then have no way for anyone else to access this material.
Characters who are usually culturally ignored and sidelined, they get the epic attention in this novel.
Jenny Bonnet is such an interesting figure. What it reminds me of is my first play [I Know My Own Heart], which was about Anne Lister in Regency Yorkshire. She was so weirdly alone in her time, and thus she was just the kind of self-identified lesbian who you would expect in the 1890s, but she was like that in the 1790s. I think that Jenny Bonnet is way ahead of her time because of her playful approach to gender. I don’t know anyone else who was strutting around like that in the same spirit, though she wasn’t passing as a man. She was doing gender that on the streets of San Francisco now would be routine, but in the 1870s was not so much.
You write in the Afterward that you first read about Jenny Bonnet in this book Wild Women: Crusaders, Curmudgeons, and Completely Corsetless Ladies in the Otherwise Virtuous Victorian Era by Autumn Stephens. It’s also where the inspiration for the subject of your first play came from, and some of your other stories. How did you come upon this book, and what was it like to first read about Jenny?
I think I found it in the gift shop of a museum. I love museum gift stores. I don’t even remember which museum. In a way, Jenny Bonnet has never been completely forgotten. You know, there was obviously a big cluster of newspaper articles just after her death, but every now and then someone would dig up her story, and her story got a little bit more distorted every time. Everywhere you see this line about how she got prostitutes to give up the sex trade and become pickpockets in her girl gang. I think that is a real distortion. But what’s interesting is that we never quite forgot her. In fact, my favorite detail is that she inspired a clog dancing show at one point. I think novelists often get credit for these stories, that we plucked them out of the archives, but of course we’re always drawing upon the work of others.
When I first read about her, what piqued my interest was this mysterious murder in a room where there were two women and nobody quite knew what they were up to. I sort of assumed, at first, oh, they must’ve been lovers. But then the sources actually lead me to something a little different, and because Jenny Bonnet just sounded so slippery, uncommitted to anyone. She had this really interesting mixture in her past with the ex-husband, and the reform school, and times of her life in skirts and times of her life in trousers. I wanted to make her a bit harder to pin down than that. It doesn’t become a straightforward romance, it’s the story of a disruptive friendship.
I love these relationships that you can’t quite define. In one of my previous books, Life Mask, one of my main characters is the writer Horace Walpole—who everybody now would say was gay—but late in life, he had a passionate, passionate devotion to this young woman. That strikes me as a very queer kind of relationship. It wasn’t what you would’ve expected of him, but it was genuine and with an age gap as well. So I absolutely love pre-modern relationships that are impossible to pin down with modern labels.
What’s so intertsing about the construction of the novel is that the mystery of Jenny’s murder unfolds alongside the mystery of who she was. How did you decide that Jenny’s story would be told best by Blanche—this other fascinating person—as opposed to just writing a novel about Jenny?
In a way, everyone assumes that a first person narrative is the most authentic and gripping. But sometimes you want to give a reader the sheer pleasure of getting to know a character who is a bit enigmatic and tricky and plays games and doesn’t reveal themselves. But to do that you’re better off doing it through the point of view of somebody else. There’s a reason that The Great Gatsby is not narrated by Gatsby. Could you imagine? “Here I am, this enigmatic lover and figure, let me tell you my story!” It’s not the same thing. You want to triangulate through the quiet and watchful narrator.
I thought at first I would have the best of both worlds by going between the points of view of Jenny and Blanche, because I’ve often done that in previous books. I tried it that way and I got about a third of the way in, and I was just discontented with it. It seemed too convenient to be giving you all the information between the two women, and then I thought, no, I’m going to start with Jenny’s death and let Blanche tell the whole story. In a way, Blanche is more like us. She doesn’t understand Jenny, She doesn’t know all the facts. She’s struggling to, as you say, puzzle out the mystery of Jenny’s character as much as the mystery of who killed her, so I decided to not only have the time structure go back and forth but to also make Blanche our only point of view. What’s great is that no matter how much you plan a book, you still have to make changes when you’re in the trenches writing the thing.
How do you balance research with the creation of the story at hand? Were there any surprises in writing Frog Music?
Oh, many surprises. At first, it was very much a story about Jenny’s murder, and then I realized that Blanche’s background is pretty interesting, too. There’s this one line in the inquest when Blanche suddenly turns to the coroner and says, “And I have a baby, one year old and his dad has taken him away and I don’t know where he is.” It was like, hang on, a baby? The baby turns out to be totally central to the book, which I wasn’t expecting at all. It’s kind of unearthly that I’ve ended up with a story that, you could say, is like Room, in that it’s about a woman in her mid-twenties who has a baby and has to rise to the challenge. In this case, rises to the challenge very badly.
Your previous story collection, Astray, also draws upon historical records. Was there a point at which you realized that, with Jenny’s life and Blanche’s life, you had a novel on your hands and not just a short story?
This one was always going to be a novel. I’ve been doing this sort of fact-based fiction since my novel Slammerkin, which came out in 2000. With that novel I was foolish enough to think it was going to be a short story, but as soon as I tried explaining to the reader why a sixteen-year-old girl would pick up a hatchet, a meat clever in fact, and kill somebody with it, I realized, okay, this one’s going to take a novel. I would say now that I have a slightly better sense of what has to be a novel. The world of [Frog Music] was so rich with San Francisco, burlesque, and the immigrants from France, that it would’ve been a waste of the material to make it a short story. I wanted to spend years on end in this world. Sometimes I’ve written short stories that could be novels, but I can’t bear to spend a few years in such a big world. With this one, I’ve been looking forward to it for years.
When did you start this project?
I came across the idea about fifteen years ago, and I was doing bits of research sporadically over the years. Like, if I was in New York for the day, I would rush off to the public library and look up a few articles I couldn’t get anywhere else. I knew it was going to be my next book after Room. Room just took so long to publicize, although I’m not really complaining, but I was just itching to get to this one. We went away to France for a year because my partner’s a French professor, so we went on an academic exchange. It was a good moment to draw a line under the publicity for Room, and say, okay, now I’m going to France and I’m going to write this novel! It was such a pleasure to be able to plunge into it at last.
There’s such a rich catalogue of music throughout the novel.
That was a surprise to me, too. From the title, I expected to throw a couple of songs in there, but I got more and more interested in them. I realized that the history of folk music, it’s like the history of different ethnic groups. It’s always muddied by people. People and songs always kind of jump the walls and go fraternize with each other. There’s nothing [completely] pure in the musical tradition. I found songs that started as satires and ended up being sung in earnest, songs being sung by different ethnic groups and songs that we now think of as terribly high culture. Like opera, it was sung in the streets like anything else. I especially enjoyed evoking San Francisco’s multicultural music. I’m also just a sucker for folk songs. They’re like fairy tales, which have been passed on by oral tradition. They must have a deep down appeal to every generation or else why would anyone have bothered to pass them along?
Were there challenges incorporating music into a novel?
Of course the risk is some readers may find it incredibly irritating. One early reader said to me, “But you can’t actually hear the songs, can you?” However, he could always buy the audiobook, which features the actress bursting into song at every point. I’m thrilled I insisted on that, actually. I said, “Listen, I don’t care how the actors do the audiobook, but they’ve got to sing the songs!” I haven’t had a chance to hear it yet. It’s waiting for me on a CD back home.
In the New York Times Book Review, you were recently asked about books that influenced you, and you said that it was Jeanette Winterson’s novel The Passion that “made [you] believe that fiction could feature a lesbian storyline and still be truly literary.”
You might say I was naive not to have realized this!
But that’s a revelation I completely identify with. I remember reading a lesbian memoir for the first time and realizing, “Oh! People will read about lesbians’ lives!” It hadn’t occurred to me until I was reading it.
Well, because so many of us, when we were first seeking out lesbian storylines, were doing it like desperate junkies, searching for something to relieve our needs! So it wouldn’t have occurred to us that this was a cultural product that other people would like to read. But also, when I first found lesbian books, usually imports from America, I bought any of them, all of them! And a lot of them weren’t that literary, but they hit the spot. They saved my life. They made me realize I could be a part of this world. But they seemed a different thing from literature. The Winterson was a real breakthrough for me. I also remember the first moment—and this might sound like a strange breakthrough—but I remember the first moment I went into a bookstore and there was a lesbian book, and I didn’t buy it. I thought, oh, I don’t actually need to buy that one! I’ll wait a buy a good one.
What a nice abundance of queer literature there is, that we can afford to discern our tastes among it.
Absolutely, and not feel so desperate for it that we’ll buy anything! Or the first time you see a lesbian or gay character on a TV show and think, oh, that one’s not so special.
Finally, and this is my own selfish question, I was reading comments you made about your first novel, Stir-Fry, and you mention wanting to pull the novel just before publication so that Hood would be your debut. It was really comforting to read about a successful writer having such doubts when she began. Do you have any advice about battling insecurity that you would provide to emerging writers?
I think that what I would say is that I was entirely wrong. I remember my editor talking me down. I rung her up to say, Stir Fry’s really immature and shallow, it won’t work!
She said to me, “Emma, lots of people are going to prefer Stir Fry,” and she was entirely right. It sold much better. Clearly, it’s not that I was insecure in general—I wasn’t—I just had this feeling that Hood was much stronger stuff. I would still say it is, I would say it’s a far better book. But readers need all sorts of things from their books. Sometimes a relatively light touch is what they need. A book of mine like Landing, which is really a romance, that has meant a great deal to many readers even though it’s not as meaty or gripping as some of my other storylines. We’re not always in the best place to judge our own work. There’s a lot to be said for just making the book as good as you can, sending it out into the world and not worrying about it.