Internationally acclaimed author Emma Donoghue – who won an Academy Award earlier this year for the screenplay adaptation of her bestseller Room – has a new novel due for release this month. I’ll have more to say about that new book, The Wonder, at a later date. In the meantime, I thought it might be worthwhile to share this interview I did with Emma for Good Reading in March 2013.
Betrayal, adoption, slavery, piety, senility and love in its many guises are among subjects author Emma Donoghue explores in a new short-story collection inspired by people from bygone times.
With journeys at its heart, Astray is an intricate exploration of the lives behind incidents reported in old newspapers, journals or archived documents, and reflects the author’s interest in a broad cross-section of subject matter and writing styles.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1969, the youngest of eight children, and mostly educated in Catholic convent schools, Emma now lives in Ontario, Canada, with her partner and their two children.
The critically and publicly acclaimed author of 2010 novel Room has been writing short stories, novels, plays and literary history ‘more or less simultaneously’ since she was 19, publishing six novels before Room and four short-story collections before Astray, plus biographical, historical and academic texts.
‘Short stories are a particular pleasure because each represents so much less of a commitment, in terms of time and headspace; I can afford to write a short story that takes me in some peculiar new direction because I know I won’t be gone for long,’ Emma says.
As an example, Emma has written two short stories featuring ‘undead’ narrators, but concedes she’s unlikely to write a whole vampire or zombie novel.
‘Something peculiar about me as a short-story writer, though, is that I am almost always thinking of the collection the story will ultimately end up in.
‘Kissing the Witch was written all in one go, and for The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, Astray and Touchy Subjects, I had the theme and the method early on in the process of writing and gathering the stories.’
Emma sees herself as a fairly strategic writer – attributing this tendency to her ‘lapsed-academic background’ – and, after publishing one or two travel-themed stories, recognised she wanted to write a historical collection about journeys to, from or in North America.
‘I get a great, slow-ripening satisfaction from dreaming up, shaping and honing these collections over long periods – in the case of Astray, about a decade and a half.’
The new collection includes background notes for the stories, many of which had their roots in articles Emma discovered while ‘relaxedly’ trawling through old documents.
‘You never know where you’re going to find those odd historical moments. Mostly I keep my eyes peeled and when I come across one I do a bit of initial research right away.
‘I probably looked at 40 cases, which got narrowed down to the 14 stories in Astray. Many historical incidents have been perfectly well served by other writers, others are too damn sad, others just too predictable in their emotional architecture.’
When asked about her favourite stories or characters in Astray, Emma reveals her preferences aren’t always based on personal connection.
“With The Gift, it is personal, I suppose, because having two kids has made me very aware of the different claims those who give birth to children and raise them can make.
‘But I like Man and Boy because it was such an enjoyable challenge to write a human-elephant love story, not because I have any skin in the game.’
Her two children also influence Emma’s working day, which is ‘wonderfully structured’ by the arrival times of their school bus.
‘It feels like work, but such satisfying work – such a right use of every muscle and neuron – that I wouldn’t want to be spending my days any other way.
‘My only fear is that sitting so much will lead me to an early grave, so I’m about to make the experiment of a treadmill desk…’
Inspired in part by the locked room as a metaphor for the “claustrophobic, tender bond of parenthood” and by the Fritzl family’s escape from their Austrian dungeon, previous novel Room expanded Emma’s readership beyond its early scope and its success has had an effect on everyday life for the whole family.
‘To use a fairytale analogy, which [character] Jack would like, Room has been like the magical child who carries back heaps of treasures to the whole family; it’s brought all my work not just more readers, in more countries, but more serious consideration from the publishing business too.
‘I’m not bothered by it being a ‘hard act to follow’ because all my books are such one-off oddities, nobody could have expected me to become a reliable ‘brand’.
‘I will admit that Room has been the kind of annoying, high-maintenance baby who hogs more attention than all the others; for a long time my working day was eaten up by endless interviews and tours. But these are still good problems to have!
‘And now I have time to write again, so I’ve no complaints.’
Although no publication date is set, Emma’s next foray into fiction also has an historical base – it’s a crime novel set in 1870s San Francisco.
Astray, by Emma Donoghue, is published by Picador. Interview originally published in Good Reading, www.goodreadingmagazine.com.au The crime novel set in 1870s San Francisco referred to in this interview is Emma’s 2014 novel, Frog Music.