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Author Emma Donoghue poses for portraits at her home in London, Ontario.Dave Chidley for The Globe and Mail

Emma Donoghue knew she was courting trouble when she set about writing a novel inspired by the notorious case of Austrian monster Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his own daughter in a basement dungeon for 24 years and impregnated her with at least seven children, three of whom never saw the light of day until their release two years ago.

Doubts about her motives did not subside with news of a publishers' bidding war that ultimately earned the Irish-born Canadian novelist a seven-figure advance for the novel that became Room, a story told in the voice of a five-year-old boy born and raised in a windowless cell 11 feet square.

"I find literary fiction only gets into that kind of trouble once there's money involved," Donoghue, 41, said on the line from her home in London, Ont., recently. "If you're a starving artist nobody impugns your motives."

But the publication of Room in Britain earlier this summer put an end to accusations of exploitation. Donoghue's sensitive and restrained treatment of a horrific situation has earned widespread praise as well as the veteran author's first nomination to the long list of novels competing for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. And true to her publisher's hopes, Room is currently fighting its way past a fading Twilight on British bestseller lists.

As the author of six previous novels, most notably Slammerkin, a drama set in the 18th century, Donoghue took care to diminish the worst expectations her seventh effort aroused. "I really didn't want it to have any of that true-crime, voyeuristic thriller feel," Donoghue said. "I think people are often a little scared of the subject matter but when they read even a few pages they realize that's not what I'm up to at all."

Comparisons with the Fritzl case and any number of similar horrors reveals a checklist of realities Donoghue pointedly omitted from Room. Jack, the young narrator, is never beaten or sexually abused. The cell he shares with Ma, kidnapped at age 19 by a shadowy figure known only as "Old Nick," is well ventilated, and the food is adequate. Even Old Nick's regular night visits occur offstage, their sinister purpose known to Jack only by the creaking of the bed he hears while hidden in a nearby wardrobe.

"In a way he's got everything except for freedom," the author says. "I wanted to make it a much more pure study of confinement and freedom rather than some house of extra horrors."

The North American publication of Room coincides with the success this summer of Still Missing by first-time Canadian author Chevy Stevens, which works a similar premise - a kidnapped woman confined in a purpose-built cell and repeatedly abused - to far more graphic effect. The difference is the miraculous presence in Room of Jack, who accepts his confinement as naturally as his mother's love.

"I knew that I would be making the story of Room itself almost bearable, that for every horror I would be piling on Jack I would be giving him this amazing compensation of his mother's love and his mother's imagination," Donoghue says. "In a way I didn't see it as a kidnapping story at all. I saw it as a child's story and as a coming of age story. It's just an unusual situation."

At times it is even funny. "But it's not that I'm trying to make evil palatable," Donoghue adds. "I want to carefully seduce the reader into going to some emotional extremes. I'm saying to my readers, 'Come with me somewhere very dark and we'll find a path through it.' I wanted to find that knife edge where readers are deeply uncomfortable and yet charmed as well by Ma and Jack."

Born and raised in Ireland as the daughter of a prominent literary critic, Donoghue emigrated to Canada in 1998 to be with her partner, University of Western Ontario professor Chris Roulston, and subsequently produced two young Canadians - an experience she says primed her well for a book about the "sacrificial narrative of parenthood."

"How much would you give up for your children? What lengths would you go to? What extraordinary improvisations would you come up with to try and protect them from evil?" she asks. The Fritzl case inspired her by dramatizing to an extreme degree the alternately life-saving and suffocating emotions of every parent-child relationship. "Really, everything in Room is based on the everyday experiences of parenthood," Donoghue says.

The author adds to the complexity of the scenario by allowing the pair to escape their prison and devoting the last half of the book to their struggle to adapt to a normal life. "I thought the book would be much more interestingly ambiguous if I made it half inside, half outside," she says. As delighted as Jack is by the outside world - an experience that mirrors that of five-year-old Felix Fritzl - he mourns the loss of security and the undivided attention of Ma.

"It's not at all that I'm saying Room is nicer than the outside world, but I don't want it to be that Room is just a prison and the outside world is somehow heaven," Donoghue says. "Jack has to experience many new fears in order to buy the new pleasures."

As do his readers, with gratifying results.