Author of many books for adults, including the bestselling, award-winning Room, Emma Donoghue releases her debut novel for younger readers, The Lotterys Plus One, this month, about a boisterous, ethnically diverse family of 11, headed by two same-sex couples, one male and one female, whose unconventional life is disrupted by the arrival of their conservative grandfather. The youngest of eight children herself, Donoghue spoke with PW from her home in Ontario, about creating a larger-than-life family, her children’s sense of ownership of The Lotterys, and the beginner’s mistakes she made in writing her first middle-grade book.
Let’s start with the obvious question: after writing so many books for adults, what inspired you to write for a young audience?
I’ve been reading to and with my kids for 13 years—they are 13 and nine now—but even before that I’d always loved children’s books, and read them into adulthood. My parents would be surprised to see me reading Kafka one day and C.S. Lewis the next. But I never had an idea for a contribution I could make to this field until I came up with The Lotterys.
How did you come up with The Lotterys?
Well, you never know exactly when you get an idea, but I can trace this one to a dinner party my partner and I attended about six years ago, hosted by another same-sex couple. One of our friends said, “Why aren’t there any books about families like ours in their stride, written in a blithe way?” And I said, “Okay, I’ll write one.” Once I started thinking about the idea, I thought I didn’t want to just write about a single child with same-sex parents. I thought, “How far can we stretch this family?”
And you did stretch it! Did you know when you sat down to write this story that it would be about a family of 11, or did the various characters evolve as you wrote?
Actually, I wrote it as a family with eight children, since I’m the youngest of eight. But the publishers found this inconceivable. They wanted to make it a family with five children. But I, being Irish, said, “Five children is not a big family.”
So eight was too many kids, but seven was okay?
Well, it was a process of negotiation. And then I started thinking about how to make this family larger than life. And I wanted the book to have the slightly idyllic tone that lots of good middle-grade novels have. Not like YA, which can go dark and gloomy and scary. Middle-grade books have a safety element that I wanted in my book. I wanted the book to be big and extreme and yet safe.
Was all the negotiating done before you began writing?
Well, let me just say that my son, who read the very first draft, will probably kill me one day. So much changed between the first and second draft.
So your son read your manuscript while it was in process—what kind of feedback did he give you?
Yes, my son was about 11 when I was writing the first draft and he was one of the official readers. In fact I asked him and some of his friends—I think there were five—to be a focus group of sorts. I gave them each a $50 gift card to a bookstore for reading and commenting on the draft.
I wrote a questionnaire for them to fill in so they wouldn’t answer in vague terms such as “I liked it.” I asked about moments they’d felt suspense or been confused, characters they’d liked or didn’t. The funniest reply was to the question “Would you like to live at Camelottery [the Lotterys’ nickname for their home]?” One boy took it literally and was alarmed, answering “No, I want to stay with my own family.” Now they are reading the second in the series.
My daughter wanted to read it, but she was only seven then and while she could read, it was a bit long for her, so my partner read it aloud to her. Now she’s reading the book herself. I’m slightly nervous, though, about how involved my kids are in these books—I think the power is going to their heads. They both have a great sense of ownership of these books. But then my kids have inspired pretty much everything I’ve written in the past 15 years because all of my books are about parenting in one way or another.
You mentioned a second book. It sounds like you are not done with the Lotterys.
Yes, I planned The Lotterys as a series and the second one is already drafted and sold. It’s a little tricky, because we don’t know yet if the first one will sell, but I feel it’s always good to approach a project with confidence, and I felt from the start that this family has a lot to say. I knew that it would take more than one book for them all to have their moment in the spotlight. Especially the introverts—you know, in books as in social situations you have to create moments for introverts to have their say.
What kind of input did your editor, Arthur Levine, have in this book?
From the start, Arthur really got this subject. And I think Scholastic is very consciously proud of the diversity of their middle-grade list, including books with LGBTQ themes. Look at titles like Raina Telgemeier’s Drama—one of my daughter’s faves—and Alex Gino’s George. So I feel that the Lotterys have found their perfect home at Scholastic.
Arthur was tremendously insightful, and had a great sense of humor about everything. This being my first time writing for this age group, I made a lot of classic beginner’s mistakes, which he guided me through. For example, all the children are named after trees and I had all the pets also named after trees, which was just too much. So now the pets are named after rocks and minerals. And on a larger level, he helped guide me through the plot movement, and the introduction of the characters throughout the book. I originally had the entire family sitting at the breakfast table, but he—together with the British and Canadian editors—helped me realize that it was overwhelming to introduce so many characters at once. Finally, he found Caroline Hadilaksono to do the illustrations, and I think she’s the perfect illustrator. The ethnic diversity of the illustrations means that I don’t have to explain all that in the text. They have great quirkiness and charm. And while this isn’t a graphic novel, it does tell the story on two levels—text and illustrations—like graphic novels do.
Can you talk a little about your writing process in general and how, if at all, it was different for this book?
I am usually working on several projects at once and what allows me to do this is my rigorous planning. I do so much research and planning that when I drop back into a project after I’ve been away from it, I know exactly where I am. And with The Lotterys, I planned the entire series at once, so I have extremely detailed files. I really enjoyed collecting the details of everyday life. For example, one of my daughter’s friends at school recently showed me a splendid deer antler she’d found in a ravine and I immediately decided that in a later Lotterys book, Wood should have some antlers in his room.
Writing for children is much harder than for adults because I have to constantly weigh the potential readiness of the age range of the audience. And, of course, the range of reading levels, vocabulary, and so on. What’s easy for an 11-year-old can be difficult for a nine-year-old.
The other challenge was that I wanted to keep this book merry in its tone. It’s much more work to include serious material, like dementia, and keep the tone sparkling. But then I never thought it would be easier to write a children’s book!
How challenging was it to write in the voice of a nine-year-old?
My main concern was to make Sumac, the point-of-view character, sound different from Jack in Room. So I picked third-person narration, instead of first person, as in Room. Third person gives you great freedom to be in the narrator’s mind, but you don’t have to write every phrase, every intonation, in their voice. And then I chose to write in a girl’s voice, also to be different from Jack. And of course Sumac is much older than Jack, who is only five.
I was reading lots of books about girls with my daughter, and so many main female characters are spunky and feisty. So I decided that while the family is very boisterous, my point-of-view character would be a quieter, serious girl, but a watchful one.
Do you think you’ll continue to write books for a young audience after you’re done with The Lotterys?
I don’t know—The Lotterys series is a long-term and intensely absorbing project, so right now all my kid-friendly ideas are funneling into that, but who knows? As the Lotterys themselves would say, “Why not?”
When you wrote this book, were you simultaneously working on a book for adults?
Yes, I was working on my most recently published book, The Wonder. And it was the perfect contrast. The Wonder is set in gloomy 19th-century Ireland and when that became too much for me, I could skip over to current-day Toronto.
Besides the Lotterys, what are you working on now?
A theater adaptation of Room is premiering in Dublin and London in May, and I’m working on several film and television projects. Because of the success of the Room film, other opportunities in that arena have come my way and so I’m seizing them. It’s just wonderful to have these new opportunities coming my way in my late 40s—you don’t want to be repeating yourself!
The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donaghue. Scholastic/Levine, $17.99 Mar. 28 ISBN 978-0-545-92581-5