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The book 'Haven' is a monastic retreat to an island inhabited only by men and birds


Emma Donoghue tends to write about people in a tough spot. Her bestselling novel "Room" centered on a mother and her son in a forced imprisonment. In her new novel, "Haven," three Irish monks in the Middle Ages choose to live a life of isolation on a rocky island. They land on a place called the Great Skellig. It's a real island that Donoghue actually boated past several years ago.

EMMA DONOGHUE: Well, by the end of that boat ride, I had the whole thing in my head because I was struck immediately by logistical questions. You know, I was seized by the question of how they survived. And I thought, how many of them would there be? Well, I thought I need there to be three of them because of the trinity, because the men who settled on this island were absolutely fixed on their goal of getting away from the world and founding an absolutely pure monastic retreat. So I imagined three men - young, middle and old. And by the end of the boat ride, I had the whole, you know, how the action and the drama might play out and how it might all, of course, go horribly wrong.

SHAPIRO: This island is populated with tens of thousands of birds. And you go into incredible detail about the birdlife, cormorants, puffins, auks, which are now extinct. Will you read one paragraph where you sort of describe this in detail?

DONOGHUE: Sure, sure. Here we go. Trian, the young monk, is on the island.

(Reading) Scrutinizing the rock faces below, Trian counts eggs. Just out of curiosity, he's found that a kittiwake will lay two or three in a tiny nest, whereas a cormorant has a huge nest with as many as four - pale blue. Those are the only eggs the monks agree are inedibly foul. Any time Trian's delved into the burrow of a puffin or shearwater, he's found only a single egg. Once he encountered a shearwater in the daytime, and it spat a stinking oil at him. Great auks and guillemots - they, too, lay one pointed conical egg left carelessly on a ledge.

SHAPIRO: Were you always interested in birds, or were all of these details things that you had to learn for this book?

DONOGHUE: They were all things I needed to learn for this book. And my writing is not very time efficient. I was once scolded by someone on a panel. She said, look, if you research 18th-century London, you should get like five books out of that.


SHAPIRO: So I'm imagining you going through the Museum of Natural History Archives taking notes on the colors of the eggs of the various birds.

DONOGHUE: It's true. It's true. For each book, I seem to enjoy the stimulus of going to an entirely new place. And I soon realized that this was a kind of a colonial story, only, you know, the natives, as it were, are the birds in this case. And the monks approached those birds in just the same way, as people have been, you know, hounded out of their territories. And, of course, you know, I couldn't be unaware of the sort of environmental resonances of this story nowadays. While I was writing it, I remember there were headlines about, oh, maybe we'll settle on Mars. That would be a solution to our problems.

And it just struck me as such a sick joke that, you know, if we trashed this perfect earth, people really imagined we could do better on a harsh planet where we'd need to live in a bubble. So, you know, I thought settling on an island was actually a very good parallel with that kind of, you know, wishful thinking about whether a fresh start could save us from ourselves when, of course, we always bring our own baggage.

SHAPIRO: I was rereading the New York Times review of your bestselling novel, "Room," which became a hit movie. And one line in the review stood out to me, which was, "Room" is both a jail and a haven. And here we are 12 years later, where you have a new novel called "Haven," which is about a different kind of jail. When did you notice that you were returning to some familiar themes?

DONOGHUE: I know. I'm a little sheepish about that. I blame the children, Ari.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

DONOGHUE: You know, our kids are 18 and 15 now. And since they've been born, it's not that I always write directly about parenthood, but I very often write these sort of tight little domestic knots in which something can be seen as either idyllic and cozy or as nightmarishly confined.

SHAPIRO: You also keep exploring these themes of faith and obedience. What interests you about them, such that you return again and again?

DONOGHUE: Well, I suppose as an Irish writer and a lapsed Catholic, you know, I'm aware that I grew up in a tradition which had many beauties. You know, I loved all that - the music, the ritual of confession I found utterly thrilling. You walk away feeling - tingling with cleanliness, you know, as if you've been magically wiped clean. So there was a lot I loved about Catholicism. And then when I left it, I suppose I remained fascinated by the sort of the pros and cons about what it offers. And again, I'm trying to show that, yes, you know, zealotry and extremism can really lead one completely off the rails psychologically. But equally, having a very strong faith would bear you up, I imagine, and give you all sorts of consolations, especially if your life was nasty, brutish and short.


DONOGHUE: And in some ways, I think these studies of religion, I think for me, they're kind of parallel with my writing life because I get absolutely obsessed with whatever I'm writing about and nothing could stand between me and it. And I suspect I would - I wouldn't sell my kids for it, but, you know, there's moments when you're wondering, you know, if there's a fire, do I go upstairs and tell the kids before I start to grab my folder of ideas for future books. You know, I'm aware of those seeds of obsession in myself.

SHAPIRO: Did it change your experience returning to these themes of confinement and isolation during the pandemic, when everyone was relatively isolated and following strict rules and experiencing some version of this themselves?

DONOGHUE: Yeah. Well, I did get so bored during COVID that I remember thinking I - that the character of Ma in "Room" was perhaps even more heroic than I realized in managing to keep things fun. I think I would have settled into, you know, grim boredom quite early on in the process of raising a child in a locked room. But to answer your question, I think this book was particularly enjoyable to write during the pandemic because it was just such a long distance to travel in both time and space. And the monks had such concrete problems which were not my problems. You know, there I was at home, you know, obsessing on Twitter over, you know, when would vaccines be made available? And they were wondering, would they live through the night? You know, would their with their bedding blow away in a storm?

So it was highly concrete and yet big existential questions as well. You know, like when Art (ph) says to the monks, you know, does it matter whether we live or die? You know, it's all to the glory of God. We don't matter. So yes. It couldn't have been a better escape. It's funny. You might imagine that only an escapist storyline is an escape, but actually, a very engrossing, dramatic storyline that's far, far from where you are is the most wonderfully distracting occupation during, you know, the tedium of having to stay home.

SHAPIRO: You painted such a vivid image of this island that I had a very clear picture of it in my mind. And then I reached the end of the novel, read the author's note and realized, oh, I have actually seen this very island on screen. That was a bit of a surprise.

DONOGHUE: Yes, the "Star Wars" island. I know. And the funny thing about those films is that they couldn't wipe out the puffins because there are so many of them. So they had to include the puffins in the film and just give them a different name.

SHAPIRO: This is where Luke Skywalker is - I don't know.

DONOGHUE: Yes, it's Luke Skywalker's hideout, I would say. And I love the idea that the birds were just so plentiful that they had to be included in the film. There was actually no way to film that landscape without those birds.

SHAPIRO: Emma Donoghue's new novel is "Haven." Thank you for talking with us about it.

DONOGHUE: It's been a great pleasure, Ari. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ayen Bior
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.