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Hassett Reading features Dublin-born writer of “Room” and new novel about fasting girl

The Hassett Reading at Canisius College has over the years attracted the highest level of Irish and Irish-American writers to discuss their craft in Buffalo.

This year, the series adds prolific Dublin-born author Emma Donoghue to a list that already includes Seamus Heaney, Colm Toibin, Alice McDermott, Sebastian Barry, Paul Muldoon, Eavon Boland, Eamon Grennan and William Kennedy.

Donoghue, who will speak starting at 7 p.m. Oct. 4 in the Montante Cultural Center, 2001 Main St., is the author of the best-seller “Room,” and wrote the Academy Award-nominated screenplay based on her novel. Her new book, “The Wonder,” is the story of a 19th century Irish girl who claims not to eat but to be sustained by spiritual “manna from heaven.”

Donoghue has said “Room” was inspired by the case of Josef Fritzl, who kept his daughter locked in a basement of their Austrian home from 1984 to 2008. Most of her fiction contains a kernel of truth, a jumping-off point for her marvelous imagination.

In an email interview, Donoghue talked about her research process.

“I spend a few days online sussing out a historical incident when I first hear about it and get the notion that there might be something in it that fiction (or drama, or film) could illuminate. Then 10 years might go by – or 20, in the case of “The Wonder’ – before I find the time to write it, but all through that time, I’ll be gathering ideas and often reading source material.

“Once I’m officially working on that project, I read for months before I start drafting, but during that reading period I’m shaping the plot too, so you could call it planning as much as research.

“Then at any point in the writing where I wonder how life was back then, I do more research; sometimes halfway through a sentence I’ll have to look up what birds lived there just then, for instance. As you can probably tell, I love the research; it’s more passive, so much easier than the writing, and feels like time travel.”

Donoghue has praised the process of distilling her novel “Room” into a screenplay, and said doing that work “was a fascinating test case for me about the pros and cons of fiction and film. Books have room for so much detail and commentary; films can cover less, but so vividly and naturalistically. The novel tells us more of what’s going on in Jack’s head, but the film gives him a body.”

Donoghue grew up in Dublin, earned a Ph.D. in English in Cambridge and moved to Canada in 1998, settling in London. Ont. Having lived in three countries so far, she said the only nostalgia is for “Childhood, which is a country none of us can ever get back to ...”

Although this will be her first significant visit to Buffalo, Donoghue has been to Niagara Falls several times and set a short story there, “Fall,” about Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over the Horseshoe Falls in a barrel, in 1901. This, she said, “always gives me a deep tie to a place.”

Mick Cochrane, a professor in the English Department who is coordinator of the series, said the Hassett Reading “has become an important annual event in the life of the college and the Buffalo Irish-American community, a celebration of story and language, an ongoing conversation about love and work, family and politics, identity and community.”

Donoghue, he said, “is perfect to carry on that distinguished tradition because she writes the kind of books embraced and loved by not just by literature professors but also by ordinary readers. In our challenging times, she reminds us all of the enduring, redemptive strength of love and power of the imagination.”


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