Author Emma Donoghue says writing short stories is sort of like falling in love. "It's almost like sexual chemistry. You can't fake it. You can get together with the material and hope that something comes of it, but it cannot be forced," she tells us.
Donoghue, who is coming to Houston as part of the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series on November 12, goes on, "I realize that even though I may have done weeks of research on a story, sometimes it's just time to put it away. What's crucial to me is to make each story riveting on its own, and not just offer people slabs of information."
It seems the critics and public both agree that the short stories in Donoghue's latest collection, Astray, are riveting. Astray has been doing something that short-story collections rarely do: getting lots of critical praise and selling lots of copies. Its success has surprised even Donoghue. "I never imagined that a book of short stories would be getting me big fat reviews in USA Today and People," she tells us. "Short-story writers usually have a bit of an inferiority complex because our books don't sell as well, but this one has just been so warmly received."
Astray is an especially apt title, because the tales focus on people who have gone wide of the normal path. Each of the stories was inspired by historical facts and set in North America. "Daddy's Girl"centers on Murray Hall, a male New York politician revealed to be a woman at his death in 1901. "Snowblind" recounts the exploits of two gold-mining partners in the Klondike during the 1890s (think Brokeback Mountain).
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And then there's "Last Supper at Brown's," which follows a slave who conspires with his [master's wife] to murder his master in Texas in 1864. Donoghue ran across the story in her research. "This was literally just a footnote about an unidentified clipping about how a slave and his mistress killed the master and ran away. I was just bowled over. There are quite a few accounts of owners killing slaves, but I hadn't seen one where the slave runs off with the [owner's wife]. It's sort of every racist's worst dream. I knew I had to write about them."
She goes on, "I was also intrigued to read about the couple's history after they ran off. It was not the great love story of the century. It was an alliance between these two people. Of course, she wasn't posh. We often think of the wives of the slave owners as Scarlett O'Hara types, but a lot of them were getting their hands dirty. The gender and race politics of that story was fascinating. Each of them was in such danger from the other; each of them could have told on the other. I can't quite believe they got away with it."
Hari Kunzru will be joining Donoghue onstage, reading from his newest release, Gods Without Men. 7:30 p.m. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information, visit Inprint's Web site or call 713-521-2026. $5.
Houston residents, you can win an autographed copy of Astray and two tickets to the Emma Donoghue / Hari Kunzru reading in the Houston Press/Inprint contest. The fine print: By entering this contest, you will be automatically opted into the Houston Press Events Email Newsletter list and receive weekly updates on local arts and culture events.