Emma Donoghue Helps Kids Deal With Dementia (And Still Has Fun) In 'The Lotterys'

Mar 27, 2017

Readers may remember Emma Donoghue for her blockbuster novel Room — the one about a happy little boy growing up in horrifying conditions: Born into captivity. Mom abducted.

Where Room was darkness pierced with light, Donoghue's latest — it's actually for young readers — is pretty much all light. Even the idea came out of fun, Donoghue says. "I don't usually make up my books during dinner parties, but this one came out of a conversation in a very raucous, noisy New Year's Eve dinner party," she remembers. "My hostess said to me, 'How come there aren't good books for middle grade that feature kids with two mothers? You know, write me one, Emma,' she said. And then I thought, while I'm at it, let's make it really big — you know, go big or go home."

So Donoghue dreamed up a big, boisterous, diverse family, one that starts with two sets of same sex couples deciding to have children: "Once upon a time, a man from Delhi and man from Yukon fell in love, and so did a woman from Jamaica and a Mohawk woman. The two couples became best friends and had a baby together. When they won the lottery, they gave up their jobs and found a big old house where their family could learn and grow ... and grow some more."

The book is called The Lotterys Plus One. The family, by the way, grows to include seven kids. And that "plus one" of the title turns out to be the addition that tips the family over the edge.


Interview Highlights

On Sumac, our guide to the family

I would say Sumac — and by the way, all the children are named after trees, because the parents are such hippies — Sumac is the one who sort of keeps them all up to the mark. You know, she organizes the family photos slide shows ... and I liked the idea of taking this good girl and plunking her down in a very chaotic household. She's surrounded by siblings behaving badly, and often parents ... so I liked the idea that the sensible, really naturally introverted one, would be sort of the ringmasters of all this chaos, perhaps.

On "Grumps," the grandfather who comes to live with the Lotterys after being diagnosed with dementia

Well, in a way, the novel is all about culture clash, and although Sumac is perfectly welcoming in general, it's hard for her to make room for this curmudgeonly old man who has never sought out his son's family, doesn't like his son being gay, even. So you know, he's critical of every aspect of the house ... he's really an antagonistic house guest to have, and of course he's wretchedly unhappy at suddenly being yanked away from his own independent life. So really, the novel tries to deal sympathetically with the fact that there's some right on all sides here.

On writing about dementia for young readers

This is one of the first things I decided about the book, because my own mum has been living with dementia for six years now, and she had just been diagnosed when I planned this book. And everything I read about dementia for children had a dreary tone to it, a sort of "let's stop the action and all give you sad facts," you know? So I don't believe there's any subject that can't be handled with a little bit of spark, so I try and make it very accurate, but also accept the humor that can be in misunderstandings, and let him be a real character, not a textbook — and above all, I avoided being too sad, in that the children didn't know this grandfather before, so they're forming a brand new relationship with this man. It's not about seeing a loving relationship ebb away.

Editor Shannon Rhoades, producer Danny Hajek and web producer Petra Mayer contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I got to talk with the writer Emma Donoghue the other day. You might remember she got famous for her blockbuster novel "Room," the one about a happy little boy growing up in horrifying conditions - born into captivity, mom abducted. Where "Room" was darkness pierced with light, Donoghue's latest - it's actually for young readers - is pretty much all light. Even the idea came out of fun.

EMMA DONOGHUE: I don't usually make up my books during dinner parties. But this one came out of a conversation in a very raucous, noisy New Year's Eve dinner party.

MARTIN: What were you talking about?

(LAUGHTER)

DONOGHUE: Well, my hostess said to me, how come there aren't good books for middle grades that feature kids with two mothers? You know, write me one, Emma, she said. And then I thought, you know, while I'm at it, let's make it really big. You know, go big, or go home.

MARTIN: So Donoghue dreamed up a big, boisterous diverse family, one that starts with two sets of same-sex couples deciding to have children.

DONOGHUE: Once upon a time, a man from Delhi and a man from Yukon fell in love, and so did a woman from Jamaica and a Mohawk woman. The two couples became best friends and had a baby together. When they won the lottery, they gave up their jobs and found a big old house where their family could learn and grow and grow some more.

MARTIN: The book is called "The Lotterys Plus One." The family, by the way, grows to include seven kids. And that plus-one of Emma Donoghue's title, it's the addition that tips this family over the edge.

Our guide to this story is the 9-year-old here. Her name is Sumac. What's her role in the family dynamic?

DONOGHUE: I would say Sumac - and by the way, all the children are named after trees because the family, you know, the parents are such hippies. And Sumac is the one who sort of keeps them all up to the mark. You know, she organizes the family photos and slide shows. And, you know, she's very - she's very...

MARTIN: She's the responsible one.

DONOGHUE: Exactly. And I liked the idea of taking this good girl and then plunking her down in a very chaotic household. She's surrounded by siblings behaving badly and often parents (laughter) losing the run of themselves as well. So I liked the idea that the sensible, really naturally introverted one would be sort of the ring master of all this chaos, perhaps.

MARTIN: So one of the grandfathers is suffering from dementia. And his son says it's time for you to come live with us in our family. Sumac is charged with being his minder, figuring out how to make him part of their family. How does she navigate that?

DONOGHUE: Well, in a way, the novel is all about culture clash. And although Sumac is perfectly welcoming in general, it's hard for her to make room for this curmudgeonly old man, who is - who has never sought out his son's family, doesn't like his son being gay, even. So you know, he's critical of every aspect of the house, from the fact that they - they follow the, if it's - if-it's-yellow-let-it-mellow principle of water conservation, for instance.

MARTIN: Sure (laughter).

DONOGHUE: He's horrified by that. So he's really an antagonistic houseguest to have. And of course, he's wretchedly unhappy at suddenly being yanked away from his own independent life. So really, the novel tries to deal sympathetically with the fact that there's some right on all sides here.

MARTIN: So this is - I mean, this is a lovely story. And it's about family and relationships. But it's also a story about a tough thing, which is dementia. And you're writing for young readers. How did you think about presenting this particular condition?

DONOGHUE: This was one of the first things I decided about the book because my own mum has been living with dementia for six years now. And she had just been diagnosed when I planned this book. And everything I read about dementia for children had a dreary tone to it, a sort of - let's stop the action, and I'll give you sad facts, you know? So I don't believe there's any subject that can't be handled with a little bit of sparkle.

So I try and make it very accurate but also, you know, accept the humor there can be misunderstandings and let him be a real character, not a textbook. And above all, I avoided being too sad in that the children didn't know this grandfather before. So they're forming a brand new relationship with this man. It's not all about, you know, seeing a loving relationship ebb away.

MARTIN: Yeah. You dedicated the book to your mother, saying, quote, "with love and thanks for all the conversations." Can you talk a little bit about how you started to see those conversations change when you started to notice that something was shifting?

DONOGHUE: I could talk about it. I may cry. But let's - let's hope I don't. My mum, funnily enough, you can still have conversations with my mum now, six years on. It's just that you have to accept it's conversation that's not tied to any particular meaning because she's - she was a teacher of English and a lifelong book lover. She's always had a really wide vocabulary. And that's a big plus when you get dementia. I always say to myself, if I end up with dementia, at least I'll have many words to choose from (laughter) because you find yourself using, you know, synonyms - maybe elaborate or vague synonyms for words you've forgotten.

So yes, my mother still has many, many words. And her sentences still spill out in a very plausible conversational rhythm. It's just that there's no actual specific meaning to them. And my mother was wonderfully out about her dementia. She would sort of - she would say to me, I came out to the window cleaner about having dementia.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DONOGHUE: You know, I love the way that verb for coming out of the closet has now become so socially useful for all sorts of situations, like when you need to explain to the window cleaner that you don't know if you paid him or not.

MARTIN: How were you able to rethink your relationship? Or maybe you didn't have to. But it would seem to me, as someone who has not gone through this, but that you would have to make peace with the relationship you had with your mom as she was and accept the person she is today.

DONOGHUE: Absolutely. I think, strangely enough - I think it's easier to do if you have a very good relationship because if you have a lot of unfinished business with a parent, then you'll always be wanting to kind of, you know, finally clarify issues. And you can't because they're confused. But in a way, my mother and I, there's nothing that remains unsaid. You know, I'm looking at the book, for instance, and I'm thinking, this is one of the first of my books that she won't read.

But on the other hand, I know what she would think of it, you know? (Laughter). She's in my head. And also, when you're an emigrant, I think you often carry your loved ones as almost little memory packages. You can't talk to them every minute, and so you sort of mentally supply how you think they would react. It's like she's in a very far away country.

MARTIN: Novelist Emma Donoghue, her new novel for middle-grade readers - and their parents, we should note - is titled "The Lotterys Plus One." Thanks so much for talking with us, Emma.

DONOGHUE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.