Emma Donoghue Talks About Literary Stardom, Writing and Living in Canada

We look forward to welcoming Dublin born, award-winning writer, Emma Donoghue to Listowel Writers’ Week on Friday 31 May at 1pm at The Arms Hotel, for an interview and reading.  Emma gained a first-class honours degree from UCD and a PhD from Cambridge, and is a novelist, playwright and literary historian.   Probably best known for Room (2011), her award winning novel inspired by the Austrian Fritzl case, she is now back with Astray; a collection of short stories about emigrants, drifters, slaves and taboo-breakers, scrabbling to survive on the margins of society in the New World.   Astray transports the reader from puritan Massachusetts to revolutionary New Jersey, from antebellum Louisiana to a 1960s Toronto highway, lighting up four centuries of wanderings that have profound echoes in the present.

Using the “fiction-springboarding-from-fact method” that she developed for her collection The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002), but focusing on North America and the theme of life-changing journeys, Astray, she admits, is an oddly autobiographical book.  Having emigrated twice, Emma has a stake in these storylines. She explains that the working title of the collection was Strays (a genealogical term for people who end up far from home), but that sounded a bit too much like “mangy puppies”, so she finally settled on Astray, “which has wonderful connotations of being a bit ‘astray in the head’, as we say in Ireland.”

Emma took some time out to be interviewed for our Blog last week.

JG.  After a steady, productive literary career from the age of twenty-three, you were suddenly catapulted into the limelight with your novel ROOM. Describe what that was like.

ED.  For a couple of years it made things very hectic; exciting, in many ways, but also frustrating because publicity ateemma-donoghue[1] up my writing time. I’m often asked if ROOM changed my life: I’d have to say no.  For twenty years I’ve been in the gloriously fortunate position of writing whatever I like and earning a living from it. ROOM didn’t change that.  It just won me lots of new readers, which is wonderful; the same old landscape, but extra sunshine.

JG.  Apart from ROOM, you’re probably best known for your historical fiction. Would you say historical fiction is your preferred form?

ED.  No, I enjoy telling stories from a variety of times in a variety of ways. And in fact contemporary fiction lets me be funnier.

JG.  Your latest book, Astray, is a collection of short stories based on actual events and set in the early days of the New World. Its characters are all misfits of some description. Where do you get your inspiration from to write about certain characters?

ED.  Astray draws not only on wonderful primary sources such as newspaper articles, diaries and letters (to give justAstray one example – the loving, bickering correspondence of Jane and Henry Johnson, emigrants from Antrim to Quebec in 1849) but, just as importantly, on the secondary research of multitudes of historians.  Keeping the past alive is always a collaborative business, and oddly enough the Internet – which we thought would be all about modernity – has proved to be a great boon to antiquarianism.

JG.  You are also a playwright. The Talk of the Town, which premiered in Dublin last year, was inspired by Maeve Brennan, (the tragic Irish short story writer and journalist who descended into madness in New York). What inspired you to write about her?

ED.  Brennan’s short stories and journalism are immensely powerful and evocative of her two contrasting worlds, Ireland and Manhattan; it was the immense but restrained emotion in her prose that made me long to put her on stage.

JG.  Does your reading affect what you write?

ED.  Yes, but not immediately.  I’d say I’m as shaped by what I read at the age of nine as by what I read this morning.

JG.  What are you reading at the moment?

ED.  Pamela Greenberg’s translation of the Psalms; Frank McGuinness’s play The Match Box; Zadie Smith’s NW.

JG.  Do you always start a story at the beginning or do you work backwards?

ED.  I start by planning the whole thing; if that sounds like a cold word, let’s call it ‘dreaming up’ the story.  I need to know what’ll happen on the last page before I write the first, so I can figure out how to get there. My easiest gift is for dialogue, I’d say, and I’m not a natural plotter, so I need to mull over my storylines a great deal to spot the gaps and longueurs and get rid of them.

JG.  You were born in Dublin and live in Canada.  What would you say you like most about living in Canada?

ED.  Civility.  It’s a notoriously polite place, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

To book Emma Donoghue’s event, please click here Emma Donoghue