It’s easy to view “Astray,” the new story collection by Irish writer Emma Donoghue, as a retreat from her previous book, 2010’s “Room,” which has sold more than a million copies, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and made its author a literary star. Inspired by the case of Elisabeth Fritzl, an Austrian woman who was imprisoned in a cellar for more than two decades by her father, the novel tells the story of a 5-year-old boy who from birth has been held captive in a room with his mother.
“Room” marked a return to contemporary storytelling for Donoghue, who until its publication was best known for historical fiction and literary criticism. Charges that she had exploited a real-life tragedy rattled the author.
“The fact that people connected it to a particularly hideous contemporary crime … made me feel a little squeamish,” Donoghue said Monday from a hotel room in Houston, where she was promoting her new book on a tour that will bring her to the Miami Book Fair International on Friday.
Despite that reaction, Donoghue insists “Astray,” with its 14 stories set as early as 1639 and no later than 1967 and inspired by headlines that have long since faded from memory, is not an attempt to avoid a recurrence of nausea.
“I had written most of ‘Astray’ before ‘Room,’ so it’s not really that I sat down after ‘Room’ and decided to write ‘Astray’ as some kind of slide into the past,” she says. “I’ve always done both [contemporary and historical fiction]. So in a way, the real reason I published ‘Astray’ after ‘Room’ is that once you’ve had a bestseller, it’s a really good time to present your publishers with something which is less likely to sell well, because they will take it.”
Donoghue, who lives in Canada with her partner and their two children, is joking, of course. While it’s unlikely to reach the same place in the literary stratosphere as “Room,” “Astray” is a fine addition to the author’s bibliography, uniting history and imagination in stories braided by a common theme of external and internal displacement. Donoghue’s characters, many of them based on real people moving to or within the United States and Canada, find themselves in some form of transition. They are strangers in strange lands, and in some instances, even strangers in strange bodies. (One story, “Daddy’s Girl,” concerns the real-life Murray Hall, “an important man in New York, a pillar of the Democratic Party” and a married father who was discovered to be a woman upon his death in 1901.)
Throughout the book, Donoghue makes not only dramatic shifts in time and place, but also in voice. “The Lost Seed” is narrated by Richard Berry, a settler in 17th century Cape Cod who was ostracized from his colony for becoming too obsessed with the sex lives of its occupants. “The Gift” is told as a series of letters between a woman who gave her daughter up for adoption in 1877 and the New York Children’s Aid Society, which refused to return the child to her. And “Last Supper at Brown’s” recounts the 1864 murder of a Texas man at the hand of a slave, who reportedly was abetted by and escaped with the man’s wife. Donoghue says her decision to tell this last story in the voice of the slave tested her confidence as a writer.
“Occasionally, I felt a bit culturally unqualified,” Donoghue says. “It’s so much easier to write stuff that’s from your own background. I don’t mean just your own lifetime but your own ancestors. So you know, I feel totally comfortable writing about English or Irish people moving out to America, but I was much more nervous writing the story about the Texas slave. I absolutely wanted to include it. I thought it was a really important one, and I knew I had to write it in his dialect, but I was so nervous that I would get it wrong and that reviewers would mock me as this overambitious white girl taking on a task that she couldn’t possibly do well.”
Even though the stories in “Astray” are rooted in actual events, Donoghue says she didn’t feel bound to present her characters and their circumstances exactly as they are portrayed in the historical record.
“If you’re a historian, you have to try and make solid statements based on representative cases,” she says. “But if you’re a fiction writer, you can do the opposite. You can look for the exception to every rule, the weird cases that sort of illuminate the margins.”
As for those readers who discovered Donoghue through “Room” and who now expect her to deliver one blockbuster book after another, she says the odds of that happening are quite low.
“I think I hit on a really good idea, and I was very, very lucky with that book,” she says. “I couldn’t in any way try to reproduce the effect of ‘Room.’ It’s not like I’m some sort of reliably popular fiction writer who could make a brand of herself. My work is all over the place. I get a fan letter at least once a week asking me to write a sequel to ‘Room,’ and I always say no. There’s no way I would try to milk the cash cow. So all I can do is keep writing my oddball stories and hope that some people like them.”