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Emma Donoghue on pinning down success in the publishing industry

Posted on 11 September 2012 by Alice

Published in The National, September 11th, 2012.

The veteran Irish writer Emma Donoghue shot to fame when her novel Room was first long-listed, and then short-listed,

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for the Man Booker prize in 2010. One year after the instant success of this dark, poignant novel, based on the story of Joseph Fritzl – who kept members of his family locked in a cellar for decades – Donoghue released The Sealed Letter in the UK and Ireland. Previously published in the US and Canada, but not in the UK, The Sealed Letter followed the success of Room and immediately rose to best-seller status.

Today, Donoghue is following up on the success of both Room and The Sealed Letter with the release of a collection of short stories in Astray. Each of the 14 stories that make up Astray feature fictionalised characters, although they draw inspiration and fact from history. The characters range from a counterfeiter to a dishwasher, and include a prostitute, a mercenary, an elephant and a corpse. One follows a gang of counterfeiters who attempted to dig up Abraham Lincoln’s recently dead body and hold it to ransom. The stories are all based in the US or Canada and focus on characters about to emigrate to these countries. This includes the story of Jumbo the Elephant, who famously refused to go to the US by stubbornly declining to get into the shipping crate.

Researching the stories was as much work as researching an entire book, as Donoghue says it took her a decade to complete the collection.

“With short stories, I really like them to be a totally different world, so I deliberately

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write them slowly, just one or two at a time, so that each of them will transport the reader to a very different place and a different atmosphere,” she says. “It’s not one of those collections that I wanted to be homogenous.”

The writer, who is based in Canada, wrote 22 works of fiction, non-fiction and stage-plays before Room denoted her a “breakthrough” writer. Being given this title, however, hasn’t necessarily changed the way she writes.

“One nice thing about the effect of Room is that some of my books have come back into print again after a long time, so it’s really satisfying to feel that you can get a whole new audience,” she says. “Room has been kind of a wave that has lifted all my books. I don’t think it’s actually better written than my other books. I think it has a bigger idea in it, and I was incredibly lucky to happen across an idea that would seize and grip so many people.”

Donoghue has written across a variety of genres, from contemporary fiction, historical fiction and stage and screenplays to short stories and radio dramas. Her stage play The Talk of the Town is currently in rehearsal and is due to open at the Dublin Theatre Festival next month. The play is about the Irish writer Maeve Brennan who worked at The New Yorker magazine in the 1950s and was a “very glamorous and troubled figure”.

“It’s really good when a big success happens when you’re already a veteran writer, because you fully enjoy it; you savour the way selling seems so easy compared with previous books that have been much harder to sell. You treasure the difference, but you also know that this is not how the literary life is; the literary life is mostly a question of a lot of work and only minor success and very quiet publication days when nobody calls you.”

The research for Donoghue’s works of historical fiction is something that appeals to her as a writer. However, the research for Astray amounted to enough for 14 books and was “not very efficient” for a collection of short stories, she admits.

“It would be way easier to just make up stories rather than using incidents that have happened, but I just find the effect of the real so stimulating.

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It’s like a tiny sprinkle of salt that makes an egg taste good,” she said.

The Room Effect

It’s not unusual for prize-winning authors’ work – and also short-listed writers’ work – to pick up momentum after a high-profile listing. Donoghue attributes the success of releasing The Sealed Letter in the UK and Ireland to “The Room Effect” which refers to how the success of her breakthrough novel elevated the status of her previous works.
The Room Effect can be attributed to the Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing, who tried to publish two novels in 1984 under a pseudonym to highlight the difficulties new authors face. The two books, written under the pseudonym Jane Somers, were declined by Lessing’s own UK publisher and found only moderate success through a different publisher. After the books were consolidated and sold under her real name, Lessing’s works published successfully, highlighting how TheRoom Effect works; something she was happy to be interviewed about at the time.
Hitting best-seller status doesn’t necessarily ensure that previous works will ever see the light of day, however. After the acclaimed literary success of J D Salinger’sCatcher in the Rye, he only published one other story before passing away. A host of his works can be viewed at the Princeton Library and remain unpublished.

Astray will be released in Canada (HarperCollins) today, in the UK/Ireland/Commonwealth (Picador) on October 25 and in the US (Little, Brown) on October 30.

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