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Interview with Emma Donoghue, Life Mask
Emma Donoghue, author of Life Mask and the bestselling book Slammerkin, is an Irish novelist, playwright, and historian. In 1990 she earned a first-class honors BA in English and French from University College Dublin, and in 1997 a PhD from the University of Cambridge. Her novel Slammerkin was a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and was named a notable book of the year by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and a host of other publications. In 1998 she became a permanent Canadian resident, and now lives in Ontario.
Life Mask, a gripping historical novel by Emma Donoghue, is based on a love triangle that hit the headlines in late eighteenth-century London. Lord Derby, the unhappily married inventor of the horse race that bears his name, is the steadfast suitor of England's leading comedy star, Eliza Farren. When the lowborn actress begins a deep friendship with the aristocratic widow Anne Damer, a sculptor and rumored Sapphist, the consequent scandal threatens to topple Eliza from her precarious position and destroy the lives of all three.

1787 is a time of high art and big business, glittering spectacle and financial disasters. In Parliament, on stage, in the bedroom, at the racetrack, old loyalties are wrenched by the winds of change. As war and terrorism loom, and freedom is eroded in the name of national security, the World struggles to survive these revolutionary times.
Q: In the early '90s, you stumbled across a passage in Hester Thrale Piozzi's book, Thraliana and, in it, you were introduced to Life Mask's main characters: Lord Derby, Anne Damer, and Eliza Farren. What specifically drew you to their triangular story?
A: They were all great friends until gossip divided them—specifically, Anne Damer's 'outing' in the newspapers as a rival to Derby for Eliza Farren's love. That made it such a perfect story for our modern, self-conscious, media-watched times.

Q: Life Mask is meticulously researched: the political climate, the social backdrop, and the intricacies of real-life relationships. From beginning to end, how long did it take you to write this 639-page novel?
A: It's hard to tell, as I work on several projects at once, but I'd guess the work added up to about three or four years. The research had to be thorough (some would say obsessive!) because this particular story depends on the subtleties of social interaction among a particular generation of the British elite.

Q: In your Author's Note, you say that Life Mask "is fiction, but the kind that walks arm in arm with fact." Set over a ten-year period (1787–1797), the story involves more than eighty real people—thirty of whom are important characters. The job of melding this much fact and fiction seems to be a veritable juggling act. How did you go about writing the book?
A: It certainly was a huge technical challenge! I've never written such a complex, intricate story with three protagonists before. Something that helped was that during my research I constructed a detailed chronology of what was going on (in current affairs, gossip, weather, as well as in my characters' lives) in any particular month—sometimes, on any one day. I also had files on each main character and their houses, as well as on their main spheres of interest (politics, sport, art, theatre). I only let myself change facts, such as the time or place of events, when I felt the plot really needed it. Mostly I felt like a thrilled detective as I fit the jigsaw pieces together, puzzling out the private story behind the headlines. I kept swapping hats: as a historian, I'd ask myself, "Is it true?" and as a novelist, I'd add, "But is it gripping?"

Q: Eighteenth-century politics plays a major role in this novel, and it's discussed and recounted with vast depth and detail. What were some of the challenges of this aspect of the novel?
A: Whew. You're reminding me that even during the final rewrite I got muddled and had to shoot off to the library for books on the complex splits in the Whig Party during the French Revolution. I've never taken such an interest in party politics before, but it was crucial to Life Mask, because in the period of the novel (so similar to our pre- and post-9/11 era) many of my characters went through a seismic shift, from becoming left-wing idealists to becoming panic-stricken Tories. Getting into the head of Lord Derby led me into several unfamiliar areas; in fact, I was most surprised to find myself developing a passionate interest in cockfighting!

Q: With lesbianism—or sapphism as it's referred to in the book—being so hush-hush during this time period, how did you uncover such detail about Anne Damer and her relationship with Mary Berry? In Anne's life, you skillfully captured the shame that was involved, the strain that the rumors caused, and finally the joy that she found.
A: My sources were in one sense full—wonderful letters between Anne and Mary, as well as between other "romantic friends" in their circle—and in another sense lacking, because (not surprisingly) they left no hard evidence about whether they ever in fact became lovers in a physical sense. This is often true of male-female couples, too, but with them the presumption is generally a "yes, they did," or a baby provides the proof. But this was an area where I felt comfortable inventing plausible moments and situations, because I've worked a lot on lesbian history in different eras.

Q: On several occasions, you intertwine the notion of masks: life masks, death masks, and figurative masks that people wear. For instance, Horace Walpole says on his deathbed, "Everybody wears a mask. Hadn't you noticed? We put them on for one very good reason: we dislike our own faces…. We wear them to persuade ourselves as much as others." How can you compare this symbolism to our modern-day world?
A: Nowadays we talk a lot about roles—combining one's role as a mother, lover, writer, etc.—and a mask is much the same thing. In particular, with celebrities, we're all aware that public image sometimes bears little relation to private self. I found the mask a wonderful central metaphor because it has both negative and positive aspects. It can mean hypocrisy and self-delusion, but it also gives you the freedom of throwing yourself into a new mode of being.

Q: What was the most intriguing part of writing this book?
A: For me writing is always about character more than plot. I have to love the people. I can satirize them or show them behaving appallingly—in Life Mask, for instance, the playwright Sheridan is a real bitch—but I have to fundamentally identify with and appreciate them. So in this novel, what I found most rewarding was inhabiting the minds of three such different people—a male aristocrat; a genteel, eccentric widow; and an actress of working-class origins—and letting my perceptions and sympathies swing back and forth between them.

Q: You've been a full-time writer since the age of twenty-three—about eleven years—and since then you've published everything from fiction and works of literary history to anthologies and plays. To say the least, you've been very busy. How would you describe or classify yourself as a writer?
A: I think most writers of my generation use that general term, "writer," as opposed to specific ones like essayist, poet, screenwriter, etc; there's a great sense of freedom and flexibility as we move between genres. But more and more—and particularly since the birth of our baby son last year, who naturally limits my work time!—I see myself first and foremost as a novelist. Labels like historical novelist, Irish novelist, lesbian novelist…they're useful on occasion, and I don't resent them, but they'll never encompass all the stories I have to tell.

Q: With the success of Slammerkin (Harcourt, 2001), The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (Harcourt, 2002), and now the much-anticipated release of Life Mask, what projects are you currently working on?
A: I'm back in contemporary fiction, with a novel about long-distance relationships and immigration; it's a marvelous change, after my three-book run of historical fiction. It's important to keep trying things out and setting new ambitions for yourself instead of settling into a rut!

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Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue

Life Mask
Life Mask

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