Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue, the best-selling author of Room, is on a journey to Texas on her tour for her new book Astray. So perhaps it is appropriate that her collection of short stories is obsessed with types of immigration and travel, some physical, some mental.
These stories of wandering characters, who travel to or within a North America still new, are all based on historical events or on real people who left footprints in the historical record that are little more than footnotes. After each story in Astray, Donoghue provides the reader with that footnote, the historical documentation that sparked her story.
Reading Astray is a bit like watching a magician create a wondrous illusion before you and then reveal a few enticing hints as to how she did it.
Reading Astray is a bit like watching a magician create a wondrous illusion before you and then reveal a few enticing hints as to how she did it. When I talked with Donoghue before her trip to Houston for the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series I asked why she felt it important to give away Astray’s historical inspirations. She explained the choice was more ethical than aesthetic.
“While I’m getting great pleasure out of sort of resurrecting these dead people, I in no way own their stories. I don’t want to set down these stories as if I have ownership of them. I really feel strongly that I want to get these lives back into the public domain of knowledge,” she explains and hopes other writers, readers, or historians might further explore these forgotten people whether that exploration takes the shape of biographies, online projects, or other fictive works.
And how does she find these lost lives to turn into the fodder for story?
“I always look for something that’s unexplained and puzzling which is never going to be explained to us by the sources, especially because a lot of these people are truly obscure, the nobodies of history. I don’t think we’re ever going to find a clear explanation, so fiction can move in wonderfully in a situation like that. . .I look for a fresh angle that fiction can bring,” she says.
Searching for Mavericks
When I next asked Donoghue what it is that attracts her to these “nobodies of histories” much more than the somebodies we all might remember from history class, she says it’s the oddities and freaks of the past that she looks to for her fiction, the people “with strange bodies, people with strange minds, people who break rules.”
Donoghue says it’s the oddities and freaks of the past that she looks to for her fiction, the people “with strange bodies, people with strange minds, people who break rules.”
For Donoghue it’s all the better if these “mavericks” are not representative of the rest of the world or era she’s depicting. As an example, she cites the story in Astray, “Last Supper at Brown’s,” her take on an obscure bit of Texas history of a slave who killed his master and ran away with the widow. In Donoghue’s imagining the wife was abused by her husband and longed for freedom as much as the slave.
Donoghue notes that these types of cases were extremely rare but the “marginal cases can illuminate the everyday.” She believes “sometimes by looking at the most strange outlining case you can glimpse something that is true.”
Throughout Astray, Donoghue keeps at least a century’s distance between the historical subjects of her stories and her readers. The one exception is the last story “What Remains,” a quiet, heartbreaking scene from the last years of the U.S-turned-Canadian artists Frances Loring and Florence Wyle. The story depicts Wyle’s struggle to reach through Loring’s dementia to reconnect with her by visiting one of Loring’s great sculptures. The women died within three weeks of each other in 1968.
I asked Donoghue if writing fiction about two artist who are much closer to us in time and who are still well known in their adopted country puts restraints on her story telling. She says that there has been warm responses to the story in Canada.
“I think people are generally thrilled if you pay the compliment of fiction to somebody they’ve known or cared about. Yes, it’s a bit more uncomfortable writing about the 20th century then say the seventeenth, but on the other hand there are great rewards because I think people are often deeply moved when you’re dealing with something a bit closer in time to their experience,” she explains.
Emma Donoghue the Character?
And what of her own life, I had to ask. Donoghue has written several essays on her experience as a Irish woman, immigrant, lesbian, and mother. In interviews she has been so open about her life to even reveal what qualities she and her partner, Chris Roulston, looked for in a sperm donor. So if a hundred years from now some writer not-yet-born wanted to write a story, novel, or play in which Donoghue was a character, would she approve?
“I would feel free. I couldn’t care less what they do a hundred years from now, and I’d be honored,” she says but doubts the possibility, as she judges her life not to be good inspiration for story. “It’s been a very fairly even, peaceful, and happy life, not the stuff of fiction at all. That’s the paradox, I’m drawn to these strange, dark, particular stories and that’s not the way I actually like to live. But [writers can] feel free. They can do what they like.”