Emma Donoghue is the celebrated author of beloved novels including Room and Frog Music. Now, she’s back with a new work of historical fiction that will let readers in on the evolving relationship between an aging widower named Noah and his adolescent great-nephew Michael. Donoghue’s work is always insightful and transporting, and we know you won’t want to miss it. Here, Donoghue chats with Bookish about Akin, the power of photographs, and her love of Nice.
Bookish: There are several photos at the beginning of this book. Where did they come from, and how did you decide to include them?
Emma Donoghue: I invented and described these photographs as part of the back story to the novel: They’re some of a set of snapshots that Noah finds in a drawer and figures out that his mother must have taken in 1940s Nice. I asked my great friend, designer Margaret Lonergan, to create a few of these images to let the reader share in Noah’s puzzle-solving: What do these apparently banal, non-art images reveal about what his mother was up to in the war? The reason I chose a visual source for him to discover instead of a textual one such as diaries or letters is that photographs are eloquent and mysterious, because each image can be read as telling several different possible stories.
Bookish: The words “akin” and “kin” carry a lot of weight in this story. When in the creative process did you know that they’d become so important to the project?
ED: I had Noah riffing on words like kinsman and kinship early on, but it took me (and my publishers) months of discussion before we settled on a title. (In the early years, my working title was Great News, but then Tina Fey used that for a comedy series!) The story of a man and the great-nephew he’s never met is all about family–what defines it (nature or nurture?), what obligations does it entail, and how much of a link is it, really?
Bookish: Joan’s dialogue plays an important role in this novel, but the book begins after her death. Why did you decide to write her voice into the story in this way?
ED: I didn’t want Noah’s widowhood to be a simply negative fact about him; he’s a man who’s all the richer for the long, happy, childfree partnership he’s had, so I wanted to keep that alive. Also, Joan is one of the book’s Jewish characters, and given that the story ultimately leads us to the Holocaust, I wanted a Jewish voice to be part of the mix. Finally, it’s a sort of joke on Noah, who’s a card-carrying atheist, so he can’t logically believe in the existence of his dead wife… but that doesn’t stop her talking in his head.
Bookish: Nice really comes to life in the pages of this book. Did you visit Nice to research the setting for this novel?
ED: It was the other way around: Akin grew out of the years (2011-12 and 2015-16) that my partner and kids and I have been lucky enough to live there. I found Nice really inspiring because of its unpredictable, piquant mixture of the touristy and the darkly historical, the luxurious and the trashy, the French and the international.
Bookish: Both Michael and Noah are coping with the aftermath of significant loss. How do you think those losses affect the relationship they build together?
ED: When you’re clawing your way out of a pit you’ll grab any offered rope, I suppose; their isolation and their different needs give these two strangers a strong motivation to overcome their mutual suspicions and make some effort to find a connection. The funny thing is that Noah begins the story thinking that he’s fine and that this unfortunate kid needs his input–financial, educational–but by the end he realizes that his life could really use a shot of Michael’s 11-year-old verve.
Bookish: This book’s plot has an undercurrent concerning aging and mortality. Why did you choose to focus on this theme?
ED: My mother’s dead and my father’s 90, but my kids are teens: Like many people in midlife, I’m sandwiched by worries about losing the older generation and raising the next. I found in the story of Noah and his mother a really interesting hook for these questions about how we understand and judge (and forgive) those who lived before us.
Bookish: What novels have you read and loved lately that you’d recommend to our readers?
ED: Rachel Kushner’s gloriously honest prison story The Mars Room; Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage is a superb study of a relationship pulled apart by an unjust imprisonment; and Helen Humphreys’ Machine Without Horses somehow manages to be a good historical novel as well as a study of how you write one.
Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is a writer of contemporary and historical fiction whose novels include the international bestseller Room (her screen adaptation was nominated for four Oscars), Frog Music, Slammerkin, The Sealed Letter, Landing, Life Mask, Hood, and Stirfry. Her story collections are Astray, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, Kissing the Witch, and Touchy Subjects. She also writes literary history, and plays for stage and radio. She lives in London, Ontario, with her partner and their two children.