EMMA DONOGHUE talking about her book, with dinner at Grano (2035 Yonge), April 3, 6:30 pm. $100. 416-361-0032. See listing.
What would you do if you were a gifted writer of historical fiction, but a contemporary story of yours became one of the biggest bestsellers worldwide?
You'd slam out another modern tale, right?
Wrong. Not Emma Donoghue anyway. After she became famous for Room, about a woman who's held hostage and gives birth to her kidnapper's child, she immediately turned her back on contemporary fiction.
Her follow-up was Astray, a collection of short stories inspired by snippets she found in the historical record.
And her new release, Frog Music, also based on real people, is set in 1870s San Francisco, where well-known stripper and prostitute Blanche - who's had to give up her baby - befriends cross-dressing frog-catcher Jenny, who gets knocked off in the very first chapter.
Before Room sent her career into the stratosphere, real-life tidbits inspired a series of wildly entertaining novels: Slammerkin (2000), about an 18th-century street prostitute who, after she starts work at a linen shop, will kill - literally - to escape a confining middle-class existence; Life Mask (2004), tracking the scandalous relationship between two women, a famous sculptor and a celebrated actor; and The Sealed Letter (2008), recalling a tabloid-friendly divorce that had Britain in thrall in the 1860s.
"I love the tug that the facts exert on the fiction," says the ebullient Irish-born, London, Ontario-based author, taking off her hat and tossing her red hair as she slips into a seat at the bar across from the ROM. "It's like nailing fabric to a wall. There are these hard little facts and the stretchy, stretchy fiction, and there's a wonderful tension between the two."
Donoghue, who speaks in whole paragraphs, has a sharp-sounding voice, and conversations with her are always freewheeling. As we delve into Frog Music's sexual content, I'm hyper-aware that, this being March break, there are children in the room. How outrageous will the conversation get?
"The girl in Slammerkin is a 14-year-old child prostitute, brutalized, numb. She doesn't feel a single thing. It's a grim economic trade. But I didn't want to do a second novel that says prostitution sucks.
"Blanche is such a pleasure-seeker in terms of alcohol and friendships and ‘Whoops, where's my baby?,' so I made her a prostitute who likes sex, even rough sex, even borderline non-consensual sex, but who eventually says, ‘Fuck off, I won't do that.'"
I check to see whether anyone in the room is looking our way. No, so far so good. I risk going deeper, asking Donoghue about the sex scenes, which are sometimes bawdy, explicit, disturbing, always intense.
"I'm a very physically timid person, so when I get to write scenes in which my character is doing something physically extreme I get to live vicariously. I'm such a good girl. I don't drink alcohol - I don't like the taste - and I've never taken a mood-altering drug in my life, so to inhabit Blanche was fun on every level."
And Blanche, who's obviously deeply exploited by her pimp and madam, has no dreary moral epiphanies.
"I didn't want to force her to sober up and get all maternal. I didn't want it to be a conversion novel. So there's a reason that, when she's on the train with her baby, she says, ‘Mama's gonna still need fucking."
Donoghue's practically shouting now above the din of the restaurant, which makes me look with concern at the next table. I'm relieved to see the kids are chowing down on burgers and the parents are paying no attention.
Though Donoghue eagerly dove into Blanche's underworld, it was the cross-dresser aspect that first attracted her to the story. She's always been interested in outsiders, especially those who challenge gender conventions.
"I have a thing for cross-dressers, but a lot of cross-dressing stories are kind of glum." Donoghue puts on a pretend grim tone - "She passed as a bricklayer before being exposed" - then switches to her usual conversational mode.
"But this isn't a story about passing. Jenny's a known cross-dresser. She does it over and over again even though she keeps getting arrested. She wisecracks with the police, with the reporters, even in court, and she struck me as a uniquely cheeky, playful figure. Female masculinity, sure, but performed with such sparkle. She's the kind of person who would die young."
A research fanatic, Donoghue admits that sometimes you don't want too much source material; a surfeit of it threatened to overwhelm her when she was learning about The Sealed Letter's wealthy characters.
"Horace Walpole [a politician and historian in the Sealed Letter's era] left 40 volumes of correspondence, and I thought, ‘Oh god, Horace, I don't want to know. Let me make it up.' I remember vowing never to write about rich people again."
So Donoghue's happy to be writing this time out about the outlaws usually ignored by the historical record.
"Frog Music is about the scum of society who leave their mark only when they end up in trouble with the law. They don't appear in voter records, most didn't have birth certificates. So sources were difficult."
Not that she's ever let the facts stop the story from hurtling forward. Details about her settings are always precise, and Life Mask, which is set in England at the time of the French Revolution, can teach you a ton about how terrified the elites were about what was going on in Europe.
But she's a superb storyteller and her narratives always rip right along.
"You never want to feel like you've stopped the narrative to give a lecture. The whole thing grinds to a halt as you talk about how bad conditions were for silk workers. You can practically see the cut-and-paste marks."
Celebrities seldom parachute into her works even when they could plausibly appear. She loathes name-dropping.
"I hate it when historical fiction happens to feature every famous person who lived in the area. Jenny echoes Mark Twain's ideas - she was probably reading him - but I was determined not to have him swagger into the bar.
"I even left out somebody who was there, the photographer [Eadweard] Muybridge, who frequented prostitutes. I wrote a scene where he hires Blanche, but then I thought, ‘This is just history as gossip.'"
Donoghue was born the youngest of eight children into a loving family (nothing like Frog Music's reprobate McNamaras) in a very homogeneous Ireland. A visit to New York at age nine marked a crucial point in her personal development.
"I'd never met a divorced person or a black person. Divorce was the biggest shock. The experience had a strong influence on me, making me see that the world could contain many different ways of living.
"I didn't know I was a lesbian at nine, but I could tell it was exciting to be in a place where there were different ways women could live."
Donoghue now lives in London with her partner, Chris Roulston, and their two children. Central to Frog Music's story is Blanche's difficulty mothering her one-year-old, an experience Donoghue could relate to.
"Even though to many of us it comes easily - a child is put into your arms and you think [singing operatically], ‘Love' - it doesn't happen that easily for everybody."
She wanted to put Blanche in a situation where everything would incline her to send the baby away.
"[The baby] is inconvenient for the pimp boyfriend, it's inconvenient for her work, it's a drag, she's young, she's inexperienced, she wasn't planning this. I made the breastfeeding go wrong, like it did for me with my first-born.
"When lesbians write about motherhood, we're well placed to say it's an option, not the default, and there's no one way of living."
With every novel, Donoghue likes to do something new. For the first time, she's written a whodunit, weaving back and forth through time until we discover who killed Jenny.
"I needed to get the mystery elements right. Some literary writers think they can just throw in a mystery, but they're amateurs, and mystery readers are so savvy. They're quick to spot things, and you can't cheat.
"My academic friends said, ‘You'll be problematizing the very idea of a solution, no?'"
Donoghue rolls her eyes. "Oh, I'll be giving a solution," she says laughing. "Come on. I'm an old-fashioned girl."
Except when she's talking about fucking and just about everything else.
Photos by Mike Ford