Rachel Giese moderated a lively IFOA discussion with Kevin Barry (There are Little Kingdoms), Emma Donoghue (Room), and Joshua Ferris (The Unnamed) at Harbourfront’s Studio Theatre last night. The foursome explored every writerly theme from where their ideas came from to their work habits, with the three authors coming across as fresh, funny, and humble. It was especially refreshing to see Donoghue—fresh off being shortlisted for the Man Book Prize and the Governor General’s award for Fiction—be candid about the creative process behind Room, which, as well-written and original as it may be, is a deeply disturbing read. Donoghue admitted that the Austrian Fritzl case, in which a father confined his daughter to an enclosed room for 24 years and fathered her own seven children, was the trigger for the story, while Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was the literary trigger.
All three authors agreed that while they are greatly influenced by others work (Ferris mentioned Joyce and Ulysses in particular), it was paramount that they stay away from the work of those they admired during the writing process, as they didn’t want others’ style to infect their own. When that happens, the story is not truly theirs. All three came across as humble and truly worried about the authenticity of their voice—as if it was better to not produce anything than produce something that’s not original.
With all that worrying and the never-ending quest for inspiration, no wonder Donoghue joked that “the overlaps between writing and madness are many,” but the panelists agreed that the writing process is far more methodical than envisioned by fans. Inspiration may come in bursts, but the actual process of writing is very repetitive and difficult. As Ferris put it “as an author, you read and write. Read and write. Repeat.” Being a writer isn’t a magical gift, according to Donoghue, “Everybody has ideas. Writers just make sure they jot them down in the back of the cab.” Ferris admitted to actually doing this, composing the first chapter of The Unnnamed on his Blackberry in the back of a car.
Other topics they broached over the course of an hour were inspiration, character development, the future of fiction, and where a writer’s best work comes from. The panelists did a great job of demystifying what they do, chronicling the long hours they put into work that often gets tossed, sacrificing personal relationships and sometimes their own sanity for the sake of their art, and all that time worrying about where the next bout of inspiration—and the next pay cheque—is coming from.
But the biggest take-home of the evening? Writers find inspiration in anything, write about everything, and when it’s flowing, you just have to get out for your own way. As Ferris put it: “The best fiction I’ve ever written is not soiled by my attempts.”