If there is an author worthy of your "day one" purchase of a new novel, it's Keith Donohue. Donohue is the author of three extraordinary books, all of them fascinating stories that explore the many facets of mystery and wonder. The first two, the acclaimed The Stolen Child (2006) and Angels of Destruction (2009), dealt with childhood, promises, and legends that capture our imaginations. The third, Centuries of June (2011), is a story of multiple lifetimes, revisited in a single incident. While the story is set in more adult surroundings, with firm building blocks of love and betrayal in place, it is still a magical and mysterious visitation worth your time.
Keith Donohue possesses a Ph.D. in English from The Catholic University of America (his B.A. and M.A. were acquired from Duquesne University). He had been employed with the National Endowments for the Arts, where he wrote speeches for the chairpersons, John Frohnmayer and Jane Alexander. He now works full-time as Director of Communications for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission of The US National Archives, located in Washington, D.C.
In addition to his very busy and fully immersive schedule, he still manages to find the time to contribute reviews, articles, and the occasional short story (like "Cat in a Box," found at Bethesda Magazine online) to several prestigious publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other important cultural magazines and newspapers. I found it amazing that Donohue would take the time out from such a busy schedule to provide answers to a series of questions that not only explore the novels he has written, but to also talk about the challenges of being a writer.
Writing is a grand calling. I believe that you are born to tell your stories, and barring that, then you are born to do something else. When did you realize that you were born to be a writer?
When I was a boy of seven or eight, I was supposed to be home for dinner when my father’s car appeared in the driveway. Usually, I was out playing somewhere, never saw the car on time, and was invariably late for dinner. The first time I came in with a made-up story explaining my tardiness, I got a few raised eyebrows. The second time, my story got a laugh. From then on, the family kind of expected some wild story, and I was hooked. There were some great teachers along the way, encouraging this sort of delinquency, and by eighth grade, I wanted to do nothing else.
How you would classify writing? Is it often frustrating, or is it an easy process for you?
Process is the key word, I think. It’s not really a matter of difficulty, but getting in the right frame of mind to enter into the process. Concentration, flow. Revision, on the other hand, is trickier. There are different problems and challenges in getting things right, but when it is going well, there’s nothing better than putting down the bones and giving them a good rattle.
Do you remember your first submissions of The Stolen Child? Were publishers accepting of it?
It took me two years to find an agent for The Stolen Child. I had finished a draft and then started sending query letter after query letter. Sometimes the agent would not answer at all. Sometimes they sent a form letter. Occasionally, a short letter of apology. You have to kiss a lot of frogs.
My agent submitted it to a bunch of publishers, and only a few came back wanting the book. Given the nature of the novel, some editors didn’t see its potential. Thank goodness for Nan Talese, who accepted the book and did a great job with the editing, mostly through Coates Bateman, who worked there at the time. A good editor—and my agent, Peter Steinberg, also made a number of editorial suggestions—is always aware that it is the writer’s book and will make suggestions that serve as a springboard for another round of creativity in the revision.
Do you have longer versions of any, or all, of your stories that add to them?
No, I never removed any large sections from the books. My trouble is the opposite, having enough to say.
It is said that the inspiration for The Stolen Child came from the Yeats poem. Can you give us a few words on that? How did the actual storyline of The Stolen Child come to you?
I had read Yeats’s “The Stolen Child” in college and had heard it put to music in a wonderful song by The Waterboys, so it kind of floated around in my subconscious for years. I loved the sound of it, and the notion in the poem that the natural world is so appealing to a child, but would also mean leaving home and family behind — a kind of pull at establishing identity. Then I read about the changeling legend in a book called Mother Nature. So I had that stuff stored away, and when I wanted to try to write a story with a double narrator, then combining those threads seemed natural. It always seems to be the way for me, juxtaposing disparate elements into something new.
I felt as I read the story that as the town grew, the places for the changelings to live had diminished. This led to their dispersal. And being dispersed, and in some places isolated, how would their reintroduction into civilization ever happen again? It actually felt extremely sad, as if there was something else intertwined in those thoughts. Were there?
One of the other threads that interested me was the loss of enchantment in the modern world, particularly when opportunities for a child to go out into wild and natural settings are reduced by the encroachment of housing developments (not to mention the fact that a lot of kids nowadays simply stay indoors to play). When you are out in the woods, you have that sense of wonder and enchantment, where things like faeries and dragons might be around the next corner. Myth is much more difficult to pull off, and I wrote The Stolen Child, in part, to re-enchant that setting.
I believe the story of The Stolen Child to be one of dealing with the loss of childhood, and watching all of our memories of it change to dust as time moves forward. Am I close?
Every reader brings experience to the book and, in a sense, completes the story. Lots of people see that “loss of childhood” as part of it, so they are right. The quote from Louise Gluck at the beginning is perhaps the closest I can come to a declarative sentence: “We look at the world once/In childhood. The rest is memory.”
Aniday never really seemed to resolve his abduction, transformation, and his increasing separation from his parents and family. Is there a model for the character? For any of the characters?
All of the characters are made up, an amalgamation of autobiography, memory, observation, and invention. There’s a bit of so-and-so in some of the characters, but they aren’t modeled on any particular people.
Are there intentional metaphors and allegories inside the story of The Stolen Child?
Wilhelm Worringer wrote a book called Abstraction and Empathy that plays a part in my decision to make Henry Day a musician and Aniday a kind of writer. I was drawn by the life of Glenn Gould, the pianist, who played with a furious abstraction (and great artistry) and by the more naturalistic aspects of Yeats. But these are my own conceits and hardly necessary to enjoying the book.
The Angels of Destruction is a story of lost and found. From the lost daughter (Erica) to the found girl (Norah) who both wrap around the sad life of Margaret in different ways, this story explores ambiguity in many ways. There's the mysteriously threatening and unknowable man who taunts Erica. There's the question of Norah's origins, her miracles, and her many solutions to sad people (Sean, Margaret) and their pressing issues. None of these ever really become discerned by the reader nor openly answered. But still the end of the story brings immense satisfaction with a kind of “draw your own conclusion.” Do you have clear ideas of what is happening in this story, or did it progress exactly as it's written? If you have less ambiguous answers, any that you care to share?
All of the answers are in the novel. Margaret says a little prayer before she opens the door to Norah and it is answered in a way she could not expect. Sean has his own prayers and hopes. I’m a firm believer in leaving interpretation up to the reader, perhaps too much so.
I have to ask. Is Norah an angel?
If an angel is an answered prayer, yes. Just perhaps not the kind you were expecting. (They never are.) I wasn’t trying to write a touched-by-a-little-angel story. The question of why people believe in things unseen was far more interesting to me. Why people hope.
Like The Stolen Child, what were the influences that led to the creation of this story?
Paul Klee’s paintings of angels. The Patty Hearst story. “A Mind of Winter” by Wallace Stevens. Robert Oppenheimer’s statement when the first atomic bomb went off. The massive loss of jobs in Western Pennsylvania during the years the book is set. New Mexico and the desert light. Many threads.
Centuries of June revolves around a central character who upon awakening falls and hurts himself. During a time, he is visited by a series of women who recount their stories to him (and the reader). I admit to struggling with the story, not in its writing, but in its intents. Could you help me to ease my inability to gain an insight to the story? Or am I struggling too hard?
Centuries of June is about a man who gets a bump on the head and winds up being visited by his former loves from his former lives, all of whom have a grudge, sometimes held for centuries. He gets this one night in which to try to learn from the past so as not to repeat it, only to realize at the end that we lose all memory of the past just before we are born again. If you read that last chapter, you’ll see that the whole thing has been told by a baby just before it is born. You may be struggling too hard, or maybe I struggled too hard to write a comic story about how we never seem to learn about life and love no matter how many chances we have.
I'm always amazed at the ability of a writer to put together a fantastic story. And I'm sure it's a laborious process that doesn't just involve sitting down and letting the ideas flow outward. Can you give us a “day in the life” of Keith Donohue as he writes?
Every part of the process is different. Lots of time goes by when I’m just thinking of the next story to tell, usually when I’m revising the work-in-progress. As far as the daily writing, I do it when I can, odd moments snatched at lunch or on the subway or a park bench. I try to write a whole “scene” at a time, leaving myself a problem to gnaw on during those many hours when I’m not writing. Usually, I come up with a way of dealing with that textual problem by the next day, and I’m off to the races again. Revising is harder, as I’ve said. I get stuck more often trying to solve a problem I’ve unintentionally created. It might be laborious, but it’s a lot easier than manual labor.
As a writer, do you re-write much of the story as you read through them before their final submissions?
The very first draft is written by hand in a notebook, and then I type up the results, editing along the way, and so on. If I am stuck, sometimes I go back to the beginning and read it through to find out where to go, but usually, I proceed to the end and have a manuscript. Then I change the font and the spacing and print that out and revise it. You’d be surprised what you find. Then I give it to my wife, to my agent, and they have ideas, and the whole thing goes through another round or two or three of revision before it is ready to be submitted. And then the editor gets involved, and off we go again to the Land of Revision. At some point, someone puts an end to all that nonsense, and the damned thing gets printed.
I'm sure that you have been writing a new story. And I believe that I speak for all Keith Donohue fans that it is highly anticipated. Can you give us any kind of hint as to what is in store for us?
Nearly finished with a kind of Gothic tale about a boy whose drawings come to life. A scary story, I hope.
I enjoy the fact that you're easily accessible via Facebook, where you have created a page, post regularly, and actually answer back fans. What makes that a necessity for you?
Writing is such a solitary endeavor that I like to hear from readers and spy on what interests them. It’s endlessly fascinating, sometimes to the detriment of getting work done, but I procrastinate...
Thanks, Keith for not only your books, but for the books you have yet to write. I also want to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to entertain our quest to understand Keith Donohue better.
"As I let go of the past, the past let go of me" — Keith Donohue, The Stolen Child