The sensational international success of "Room" made clear what admirers of Emma Donoghue's earlier work already knew: This gifted Irish-born, Canadian-resident writer can inhabit virtually any kind of fictional character and draw us into even the most unfamiliar world with her deep empathy and boundary-defying imagination. It was in part her personal experience of emigration, she suggests in the afterword to "Astray" (Little, Brown, $24.99), that sparked this new collection of stories about travels to and within the North American continent over four centuries. But there was more to it than that, as she discussed in a wide-ranging phone conversation from her home in London, Ontario.
You wrote these stories over a period of 15 years. What made you decide to publish them now?
I had written just one or two of these travel-related stories when I thought: If you juxtapose many different journeys, you can conjure up a multicolored past, even if within each story people are locked in their own little groupings. They would bring out something new in each other, and they would have a strong unifying theme. I think the reason people are often resistant to buying collections is because if the stories have nothing particular in common, you feel a bit lost. It helps if the book has been conceived as a book; a collection is really an art form in itself.
This collection of historical fiction follows "Room," a contemporary thriller, and throughout your career you've moved between novels set in the past, such as "Slammerkin" and "Life Mask," and present-day works like "Landing."
It never even occurred to me that was a border I had to worry about! I suppose with historical fiction, I have to stop rather more often and jot down little notes to myself like, "Were they using oil lamps or gas?" But even with contemporary fiction, I do that; I can't just sit down and write a novel set in 2012 without having to check a few things. When I was writing "Room," I wanted to know the names of Crayola crayons, and there was this guy on Wikipedia who had lovingly charted the history of each individual hue! You might not want to spend much time at a party with these people, but they're fantastic on the Internet.
There's an interesting sort of merging happening: I used to say that my historical novels were meatier and darker, my contemporary ones lighter and funnier, but then "Room" was meaty and dark, so perhaps my contemporary stuff is learning from my historical. I'm certainly trying to put in a bit more suspense these days, because it was so enjoyable with "Room" having people really care what happened on the next page.
I thought if any of my books was going to be a big bestseller, it would be that one -- not because I thought my writing was so great, but because I could tell that I had stumbled on a really, really good idea, which is the situation. Even though it's very freakish, it speaks to people in all sorts of ways; I've been amazed by how passionately and personally readers responded to that novel.
A lot of the power comes from the fact that it's narrated by a 5-year-old boy. Could you have written it before you had children of your own?
It certainly was a huge shortcut. I wrote "Room" very quickly, in about six months, because my head was absolutely full of these life-or-death questions about what you would give up for your child and how much you could bear -- not that I had a particularly bad experience, but every parent has been driven to the depths, when it's two in the morning and you're thinking: If this child cries again, I'm going to kill him! I recently marked up a copy of the book for my son; he's eight now, and I thought before I forgot I should highlight the bits I had borrowed from him when he was 5. So I went through it with a yellow marker, and there was yellow on every page!
So what comes next -- back to a contemporary setting?
I don't really have a program. I always have a number of future novels over on the right-hand side of my computer screen, and they're all hovering, trying to tempt me: "Come, write me now!"