Sept. 8 2010 12:00 AM

Booker Prize nominee Emma Donoghue tells a tale of terror from a 5-year-old’s viewpoint

Canadian author Emma Donoghue has written one of the more unusual books you will ever read. A combination of sheer horror and a mother and son’s love, the book is written in the voice of 5-year old Jack, who has never known a world outside a locked shed where an abductor has held his “Ma” for seven years.

On Tuesday, the 40-year-old Donoghue was named one of the six authors shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, awarded to the best fiction from authors from the British Commonwealth and Ireland; the winner will be announced Oct. 12.

Donoghue kicks off her U.S. tour for “Room” Sept. 20 at Schuler Books & Music in the Eastwood Towne Center.

Did the grim topic of your book affect your psyche, or your family’s?

"Only at the very beginning, when I was tracking down all the real-life cases I could find — and, unfortunately, there are many — of children raised in appallingly confined ways: in basements, attics, henhouses, or just treated like dirt, starved and tortured in the prison that an ordinary house can become if the adults are cruel enough.

"It was necessary research — I was trying to figure out exactly what a kid would need to survive intact — but it made me cry. Once I was on to drafting ’Room’ itself I felt much better, because Jack’s story has as much joy as sorrow in it."

As you were developing the plot for your book, when and how did you decide to use Jack to tell the story?

"That came right at the start: That was the whole idea. I never questioned it, or even considered letting any adult share the narration. I knew that if I trusted Jack with it, I might make something magical."

Have you written anything else that has delved into the theme of survival or evil?

"My novel, ’Slammerkin,’ is about a young girl who ends up as a street prostitute in 1860s London. That, in many ways, is a much grimmer book, because there’s nothing innocent about Mary, its heroine: She’s a survivalof-the-fittest alley cat."

The juxtaposition of pure evil with pure innocence is an amazing feat. Was the captor easy or hard for you to portray? Did you ask yourself what would I do in this situation? How would I react?

"I decided early on not to make Old Nick interesting. Or rather, what’s interesting about him is how what a common. or garden variety of evil he represents, rather than the exotic fetishistic psychopaths we’re so familiar with from thrillers.

"I tried to make him like any domestic bully: He thinks he has the right to make the women and children in his life (literally) stay in their place.

"I did identify strongly with Ma, of course, but any time I wondered how I would cope in her situation, I had to conclude that I would let my child watch TV 24/7 while I retreated into a dream world based on what I could remember of 19th-century literature. I could imagine her strengths, her versatility and energy, but that doesn’t mean I manage to be like that. After writing ’Room,’ I feel like a very mediocre mother indeed."

Since your book is so unlike any other, were there any influences in movies, popular culture or books that you drew from?

"Oh, there are many books and movies that have influenced ’Room,’ from ’Robinson Crusoe’ and ’Gulliver’s Travels’ back in the early 18th-century to ’Finding Nemo’ today. I would say it’s particularly steeped in fairy tales."

Your pacing, twists and thrill content are exhaustive, surpassing most thrillers. Have you ever read thrillers?

"I read them, certainly, especially the ones that are strong on character: Barbara Vine, Elizabeth George and Kate Atkinson would be three of my favorites. But I’ve never before managed to write anything thriller-like, and it’s very exciting how it seizes readers."

Did the “room” exist only in your imagination or did you recreate it somewhat physically?

"I stood in sheds, certainly, but I also used a home-design website to come up with a floorplan, and worked out measurements for each piece of furniture. And yes, anytime I drive past Home Depot now and see the rows of new sheds I get the shivers!"

I think I may have read that you did recreate one escape plot with one of your children. Did you play any of the games with them?

"Much of ’Room’ is based on the ordinary details of my parenting experience, certainly: the songs, the stories, the jokey rhyming. I charted my son Finn’s language — he was 5 when I was writing ’Room’ — and put a few of his comments and wonderings directly into Jack’s dialogue. And he was more than willing to let me roll him up in the rug to try out the escape for my ’story about the bad guy who keeps the woman and the little boy locked in a shed,’ though he found it harder to get out than either of us had expected, so I had to go back and completely rework the scene."

Did a curious 6-year-old who knows you are a writer ever ask what are you working on? At what age will you let them read this book? Or what age do you think is appropriate to read this book?

"Actually, when I was writing ’Room,’ I thought it might end up as a young-adult novel, so I deliberately kept the language clean. I know 13-year-olds who have read it, and I think I would give it to a bright 10-year-old. They already know the world is full of terrors, and ’Room’ is about ordinariness triumphing over terror."

Emma Donoghue

p.m. Sept. 20 Schuler Books & Music Eastwood Towne Center 2820
Towne Centre Blvd., Lansing (517) 316-7495