Following on the heels of 2010’s gripping international best-seller Room, Emma Donoghue straddles genres once again to produce Astray, a seamless collection of 14 tales populated by far-flung wanderers in search of true meaning. Donoghue, an Irish emigrant now residing in Canada and known for her brilliant historical fiction, discusses the allure of the aimless, the short story process, how history molds her themes and how “Room” still gets mistakenly compared to several gruesome kidnapping cases of the past. With delightful amity and a cheery brogue, Donoghue chatted with Kirkus about what fuels the continued mastery of her craft.
Check out other recent short story collections on today's list.
What fascinates you about roaming and circumstances where one finds themselves astray like so many of the characters in your new story collection?
I think travel, and the ease of travel, is one of the things that has changed with 20th-century technology. For Irish emigrants like me, the relatively cheap jet travel allows people not to irrevocably lose our homeland status. It intrigues me as something that prompts enormous life changes.
Short story writing is such an exacting literary form. Do your stories ever turn out differently than you initially intended when you began writing them?
Yes, they do! I wrote many more than the 14 stories in the collection, and I planned more as well. It’s easy enough to spot an interesting historical element to expand upon. I like my stories to be like mininovels. I didn’t start writing my stories until I knew they would turn out to be something interesting. Some stories fizzle out in the writing, and I had to discard those. You never quite know what’s going to happen. For instance, one of the stories is narrated from the voice of a slave, and I thought there was no way, as a white Irish emigrant, that I could take on such a task in a longer form, but in a single short story, I was able to.
Do you see aspects of yourself in any of your characters?
Yes, historical fiction does have autobiographical tendencies. With “Slammerkin,” I used my mother as the dressmaker character who gets her throat slashed! There are many moments where I put friends in for the characters. With more contemporary material, [readers] assume the narrator is actually you, so several readers would tell me, “You must be the most loving, compassionate mother,” assuming the mother in Room was me. But it’s just a character and not how I would actually behave.
Did you do much research for the historical pieces in the book?
I did lots. It was like researching 14 little novels; you still have to get the details right. You can’t scale down your research because you never know what details you are going to find. I wrote the stories slowly, over many years. I love conjuring up a time and a place that I never knew about before I began writing the stories. I like doing research where you’re just snapping short details. It’s amazing—you can find tiny little incidents that can suggest the period and mood of the entire story. As a writer, you have to keep thinking: would my narrator care about this, or think about that?
What’s the biggest misconception about you that the literary community makes?
Well, there’s one very specific one: Sometimes Room gets compared to the Austrian Fritzl case, where a father locked his daughter in the basement for years and had many, many children by her. Or it gets compared to the Jaycee Dugard case. But Room is really a fable. Occasionally, readers think they know what your book is about before they read it.
Has Room set the bar higher for you as a novelist?
Probably not in terms of sales. It’s like with your kids: You don’t measure them by how much money they make; you want them to find success with whatever they are doing.
What’s next for Emma Donoghue?
I’m at work on a novel about a murder that takes place in San Francisco in 1876; it’s my first thriller. I’ve been fascinated by it for decades. There have been suspenseful elements in some of my books, but this is my first thriller, and I’m actually quite far along with it.