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Writing Room: Why and How

Writing Room: Why and How

Although I have often been inspired by real events from previous centuries, this is the first time I’ve ever felt compelled to tackle a subject from today’s headlines. I was taken over by the idea of a child born in captivity, and raised in secret isolation in the middle of a contemporary city, with everything he needs except one of the biggest things — freedom. It struck me as one of those weird situations that can illuminate the human condition: Jack and Ma’s story might turn out to be, in some sense, everybody’s story.

I suppose the theme drew me irresistibly because I have two small children (a son who was four when I began Room in April 2008, and a daughter who was one — they’ll be six and three by the time it’s published). In my experience, the bond between mother and newborn is a tiny, cozy world that gradually relaxes its magic to let the rest of the world in. But motherhood — even under ideal circumstances — also has elements of nightmare as well as fairy tale, sci-fi as well as realism: it’s a trip like no other, and it can occasionally feel like (let’s admit it, shall we, mothers of the world?) a locked room. And so can childhood, as I recall: kids are stuck with the parents they get, just as we are stuck with them. So I suppose I wanted to explore the most bizarre of parent-child situations as a way of shedding a new light on that most everyday, banal experience of raising kids.

Our culture is constantly telling stories about psychos who capture women. I deliberately kept my kidnapper out of the spotlight. The more I read and thought about it, the more it seemed to me that there is no comfortably fixed moral distance between a kidnapper and the rest of us. (The existence of entire slave-owning societies reminded me that humans often find it both convenient and pleasurable to own others.) It was not Old Nick’s evil that fascinated me, but the resilience of Ma and Jack: the nitty-gritties of their survival, their trick of more or less thriving under apparently unbearable conditions.

Room is a book about the smallest of worlds, and the biggest. Small ones (such as couples, families, workplaces) have their pleasures as well as their irritations; big ones (cities, nations, the Internet) both attract and alienate. Some days we all feel trapped in our particular life circumstances, and other days we find there is more freedom inside their limits, and room inside our heads, than we ever knew. 

Strange as it might seem, I found that writing historical fiction was the ideal preparation for Room. I decided that, as much as any medieval peasant or eighteenth-century prostitute, Jack should take his peculiar environment for granted. The main difference was that this time I did my research not in archives and libraries but almost entirely online, and the first whole week of it, I kept bursting into tears. I forced myself to study the details of many cases of kidnapping for sexual purposes from all over the world, and message boards gave me a fascinating lens into what these news stories mean to their audience. I flinched through every website I could find about children raised in limited or abusive settings — those who are left stunted, and others who are granted miraculous happy endings. I read about mothers and babies in prisons today and in Nazi concentration camps; about unassisted birth, children conceived by rape, family psychology, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Not all my research was the kind that made me shudder. I drew on the different child-rearing experiences of my friends, for instance, one of whom breastfed her child till age five. Just as in previous novels I put together a mini-dictionary of how people spoke in 1788 or 1864, this time I made myself a dictionary of my son’s kid-English, then narrowed it down to some classic errors and grammatical oddities that would not seriously confuse readers. I found inspiration in some great novels of parents and children in extremis, from We Need to Talk About Kevin to The Road, as well as fables of strangers moving between different societies, from Gulliver’s Travels to Robinson Crusoe to Brave New World. I looked up police slang, and pop hits of the early 2000s. I picked my brother-in-law’s brains on the matter of how Old Nick could create a secure prison from a garden shed, and I designed Room itself on a home-decor website.

Does that sound flippant? My characters taught me that you get your laughs where you can. Jack’s magpie spirit — his scavenging of facts, fantasies, and sensory stimuli — infected me, and so did his sense of humor. Children are passionate but unsentimental in dealing with whatever life is handed to them, so I tried to be, too. I drafted Room in six months; this is the easiest book I have ever written, because I knew what I wanted it to be.