Book season has officially kicked off in Toronto. With Tuesday night’s fabulous Bookstravaganza, the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, Word on the Street, and the International Festival of Authors, we also have the always incredible (and incredibly free) Bram & Bluma Appel Salon programs at the Toronto Reference Library.
Several hundred fans came out on September 19th for an evening with Emma Donoghue, who is known as much for her vivid, meticulous historical fiction (Slammerkin, The Sealed Letter) as she is her 2010 blockbuster success Room , a contemporary novel told from the point of view of a precocious five year old whose whole, mostly happy, world, Room, is actually the prison he and his mother are kept in by her kidnapper and serial rapist. With her new historical fiction short story collection, Astray, arriving on shelves at the end of October, I was eager to hear what an author of such diverse genres and forms had to say.
The evening began with Emma Donoghue reading from “Man and Boy,” a story in Astray told from the point of view of Jumbo the Elephant‘s zookeeper. Emma is a fantastic reader and public speaker, it turns out. With her lilting Irish accent, gentled by her many years in Canada, she infused the zookeeper’s voice with warmth and animation, not overly “acting” the scene but instead bringing it to life in a lively, funny way. She expressed her delight that so many people had come to the event. She’s had readings early in her career, she confided in us, when three people have shown up: the publicist, the owner of the bookstore, who insists that way more people turned up for the author last week!, and the man selling coffee. Later in her career, when she’s back to such small crowds, she promises she’ll remember this one evening in Toronto when she was able to enjoy an evening with so many people.
From the reading, the evening segued into a conversation led by author, activist, and Now! Magazine editor Susan G. Cole. Ms. Cole kicked off the discussion by asking about Room’s success, moving from there to talk about Emma’s inspirations and processes in writing historical fiction, in the short story form, and in the themes that emerge in Astray, and then Emma took some questions from the audience. The evening ended with a book signing, and I’m pretty pleased to have an autographed copy of Room now!
Here are some of the highlights of the evening:
“Don’t listen to publishers.” Emma was more shocked that Slammerkin, the dark story of a young prostitute in Victorian England, did well than she was of Room’s success. Though she initially had trouble selling the idea to publishers, she pointed out that publishers don’t always know what will and won’t sell, so she writes what interests her and sorts the rest out later.
Neither creepy nor sappy. Emma has been approached by several moviemakers over the rights to produce Room as a film. She is interested in seeing it on the screen but is concerned that it will either be portrayed as a “creepy rape movie or a sappy ‘I love you, Mommy,’ movie.” She actually wrote the screenplay for a movie version after she finished the manuscript but before it was published because she wanted to be in a headspace for it that was unadulterated by other people’s views.
Coming at it sideways. The fourteen short stories in Astray were written over the course of fifteen years, as Emma came across scraps of history that interested her. Sometimes she is inspired by the caption under a portrait, or an entry in an encyclopedia, or a list of passengers on a ship. As a habit, she keeps her eyes open for new ideas and loves to explore museums wherever she goes. She likes coming at a story “sideways” and creating characters to fill in the gaps in historical incidents, bringing those incidents to life. “If I choose to write a short story,” she says, “it’s because I see an angle that’s different.” She loves the short story form for this kind of tale: short stories, she says, aren’t as much of an escape as a novel. You reach the end so quickly that they “slap you awake” and remind you that what you just read was a story.
“That’s clearly what you do as an adult: you publish a book.” Emma’s father, Denis Donoghue, is a respected literary critic. She was so used to seeing the name “Donoghue” on bookspines and watching her dad open up a box full of copies of his book that, as a child, it never really occurred to her that being a writer and getting published was difficult. She began writing when she was seven years old. As she grew up, she knew that she wanted to write but assumed she would have to have a “real job” to go along with her writing career. She is thrilled that she gets to be an author full time. After all, she says, “I don’t have any other skills!” Somehow, I think she’s selling herself short on that one.
On writing. Emma plans out her books quite well and has the skeleton of events in place before she writes a novel. Her goal in historical fiction? “How can I bring this dead person to life again?” She feels that her talent lies more in dialogue and less in plot generating (again, I think she sells herself short!). She finds historical fiction incredibly liberating because there are so many different directions to go in and stories to tell.
Serious journeys. As someone who has emigrated twice, once from Ireland to England and once from England to Canada, and who travels quite a lot, Emma explores the idea of journeys and migration in the stories in Astray. Some of the stories are journeys of hope and idealism and some are of desperation and bad circumstances. Some are outer and some are inner, and sometimes the journeying affects the person who didn’t go on the journey. The stories span 400 years of history, and Emma has included historical notes at the end of each one to help the reader understand what facts inspired her fictions. At first, she didn’t think anyone would be interested in this, but her editor reminded her that the public has a taste for reality now and will be interested in her notes.
Emma feels that she is always something of an outsider because of these emigrations, which she thinks is important to her craft:
“For a writer, it’s splendid to be unsettled in this way.”