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Emma Donoghue: ‘It’s all about getting that balance of truth and magic right’

Emma Donoghue is the award-winning author of more than a dozen works of fiction, including Frog Music, Astray and Room.

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Emma Donoghue is the award-winning author of more than a dozen works of fiction, including Frog Music, Astray and Room, which she adapted into an award-winning film of the same name. Her most recent novel, The Wonder, was a finalist for last year's Scotiabank Giller Prize. Donoghue, who lives with her family in London, Ont., recently published her first book for young readers, The Lotterys Plus One.

Why did you write your new book?

I suspected I'd enjoy creating a lottery-winning, dumpster-diving, multiculti, two-dad, two-mom, seven-kid, five-pet Toronto family, and seeing what fun could be had with them. In The Lotterys Plus One, the first in a series, the unwanted "plus one" is a confused grandfather who – much to his irritation – has to suddenly move from rural Yukon into the Lotterys' chaotic Parkdale mansion. I wrote it not only for my kids but, in a sense, with them: There are borrowings from our home life on every page.

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What's a book every 10-year-old should read?

My daughter and I have been lapping up Esta Spalding's Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts. This tale of four sibs living in a car on a tropical island manages to tackle the grittiest of issues – neglectful parents, homelessness – with so much sparkle that readers will be amused, impressed and uplifted rather than scared. For middle-grade fiction, it's all about getting that balance of truth and magic right: Letting in a chilling breath of the sorrows and horrors of the world, but not so much that readers are left devastated.

Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time travel?

Whenever I read this column, I think those who pick mere invisibility are twits. I write historical fiction because it's the nearest thing, yet invented to a time machine that can take writer and readers on a thrilling, discomfiting ride. History isn't just about sensory novelty – the clash of swords! Layers of faintly urinous petticoats! – but radically different mindsets. I so enjoy that moment when I'm writing a scene in which readers will strongly identify with my point-of-view character right up until the moment she has a premodern opinion about, say, slavery, and they go, Whoa!

What scares you as a writer?

Sameness. If you told me I was contracted to write three novels in a row for adults set in the 2010s, I'd despair. Mixing it up, genre- and era- and setting- and audience-wise, has helped me ward off writer's block for the quarter-century I've been doing this. I sometimes feel panicky about deadlines – can I redraft the screenplay I'm adapting from someone else's memoir, while writing the next kids' book, on a plane to rehearsals of Room the play? – but hey, it beats boredom.

What's more important: The beginning of a book or the end?

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The end, because that's when the writer has to call a halt to the drama or laughs, play parent, make the tough decisions. This week, I received two e-mails from different devoted fans complaining about the ending of my last novel: They loved the book so much, they were distressed that it wound up in a way they found inexplicable. They knew I couldn't and wouldn't change it now; they just needed me to make sense of why. Nobody ever writes to me about the beginning, because it's only important in a technical way: the hook that pulls readers in and persuades them to risk their time and personal emotional investment. It's the ending that will leave them singing or satisfied or seething, so there's a terrible pressure on the writer to get that right.

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