Emma Donoghue on Astray


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First aired on As It Happens (12/11/12)

Emma Donoghue gained international recognition for her 2010 novel Room, which won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her latest book is a collection of short fiction entitled Astray. The 14 stories it contains range widely both in time and place, from Texas to London, England, and from the 1600s to the 1900s. In a recent interview with As It Happens, Donoghue talked about the inspiration for the stories and how her own experiences come into play when she's writing.


Asked what brings these diverse stories together, Donoghue identifies travel as a common theme. "I would say everyone in this book has either made a significant, life-changing journey or in some cases their lives have been shaped by somebody else's journey," she explained. She cited a story featuring a teenage girl in New York City, set in 1901. "She discovers that her father, who has just died, is female! And so her whole life is rocked by the fact that her father, in crossing over from Ireland or maybe Scotland to America, also crossed the gender line. So I would say this book is really about travel in the most serious sense -- emigration, migration, long journeys and adventures, basically."

The journeys described in the book aren't always undertaken wholeheartedly. The ambivalence is understandable, according to the Irish-born writer. "You know, plenty of people headed off to Canada or America on the basis of government information, propaganda campaigns. Often you'd go off with a brochure in hand and you'd turn up and it wouldn't be like that at all," she said. She went on to say that some emigrants never adapted to their new life. "So I think there are just as many complicated and unhappy stories of immigration as there are of the classic sort of 'making good in the new world' kind of story."

Donoghue's own experience of emigration came "under sort of cushy circumstances." She moved from Ireland to England, where she did a PhD, before coming to Canada. "But you still go through the disconcerting experiences of being an outsider, even if you arrive under good circumstances and you're living in a place where they speak the same language as you grew up with," she said. "It's almost more disconcerting because you think at first glance, oh, yes, this is an English-speaking country , just like I grew up in, this is fine. And then you're knocked off balance by those little words that aren't quite the same as those of the locals, or all those cultural habits that are again not quite the same."

Though Donoghue draws from her own experiences and imagination in her writing, the stories in Astray were all based on actual historical incidents, which she gleaned from a newspaper or archive. In the book, she includes detailed notes on each story's source. "I feel, ethically, you know, these long dead, forgotten people, I want them to be known," she said. "Also I wanted to highlight the contribution that scholars make to historical fiction like mine."

Even though the stories are set in the past, Donoghue sees a modern aspect to them. They often deal with an involuntary journey and thus "correspond to all the refugees and emigrants of economic need today," she said. "Because even though we talk a lot about travel as a leisure activity, travel today is often done out of climate change, out of desperate need, or with soldiers and guns coming after you."

The final story, "What Remains", is based on the life of two women sculptors living just outside Toronto. Rather than focus on their heyday, Donoghue chose to write about the pair when they were in decline, and living in a nursing home. Though choosing a point of view is important when she's writing, "choosing the moment to visit these lives" is also crucial, she said. "The great thing about a short story is that it doesn't have to trawl through someone's whole life, it can come in glancingly from the side."

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