How do you land, settle and survive on a remote, rocky island in the Atlantic Ocean when you don't have the Millennium Falcon handy? Emma Donoghue, the award-winning author of Room, set herself the task of imagining how the first three monks to land on Skellig Michael managed to survive long enough to make the island (kind of) habitable. She told Brendan O’Connor that the idea for the book came from a boat trip around the Skelligs she took in 2016:
"I was looking up thinking, 'Where did they begin?’ Before they cut the steps, they must have, you know, caught a fish for their lunch, but then their priorities were religious, they were focused so much on the praying and the copying out of books and the building of, you know, stone crosses and so on, that that complicated the ordinary difficulty of living through the first winter."
Set around the year 600, when the first monks are thought to have landed on Skellig Michael, the new novel, Haven, tells the story of how the three Irishmen set out into the Atlantic Ocean and found a very steep, puffin-infested rock and decided they would build a monastery on it. It’s an intense, but often funny tale and if the notion of three religious men on a craggy island sounds a little familiar, well, it’s something Emma acknowledges:
"It’s got a very, sort of, serious side, sort of Beckettian, but there’s, I must admit a Father Ted influence there too. There’s a certain dark comedy to how on earth you survive when you’re living with somebody who really thinks that the point of life is to get to heaven as fast as possible."
One of the aspects of the story Haven tells was how the monks adapted to an island that had a large puffin population, but not much else. How did they manage to survive with so few resources? Emma loved doing the research to find out likely ways the monks could have coped:
"How on earth will we have a lamp when it starts getting dark, you know? Well, if you squeeze certain birds, you get oil out of their stomachs – who'd’ve known?"
One of the more bizarre and, let’s face it, creepy methods the monks were forced to adapt in order to survive was one involving puffins being used to cook, em, puffins:
"I sweated over that research detail. I was like, ‘How on earth are they going to last if they’re not trading for firewood?’ But then I found a reference to 17th century Newfoundland, where they used to cook birds over a fire of birds. So, the fuel and the food, it was all the same species and that was my breakthrough. I thought, ‘They could actually burn puffins.’"
What, you might wonder, after you’ve taken a moment, do they do when the puffins run out? Well, that wasn’t likely, apparently, as even Chewbacca discovered on his visit to Skellig Michael:
"That’s why, in the Star Wars films, they had to include the puffins – under the name of porgs – because they simply wouldn’t be kept outside, they couldn’t be kept off the screen."
And they were roasted on the fire in Star Wars, too. 'Tis a hard life being a puffin. You can hear Brendan’s full conversation with Emma – including news of the screen adaptation of her novel The Wonder, starring the great Florence Pugh – by going here.
Haven by Emma Donoghue is published by Picador.