Rene Denfeld is the author of the acclaimed novels The Child Finder and The Enchanted, as well as essays in publications such as The New York Times. She is also a chief investigator at a public defender’s office, working with sex-trafficking victims and innocents in prison. The Child Finder‘s protagonist Naomi, an investigator with unique insight into the business of finding lost children, searches for Madison Culver, an eight-year-old missing for three years. In Naomi’s relentless pursuit of the truth, the missing pieces of her past start to surface. Will this search end in the reunion of Madison with her parents and the unlocking of Naomi’s secrets? Alison Lee talked to Denfeld about how her writing is inspired by her work and home life.
Alison Lee: The Child Finder is an investigator much like yourself. How heavily did you draw on your personal experience to write the book?
Rene Denfeld: Both my novels were inspired by my day job as a death row investigator. Most writers have day jobs; it was important to me to find a day job that filled my passion for helping others. In over ten years, I’ve worked hundreds of cases as the chief investigator at a public defender’s office. I’ve done a lot of death row work, including exonerations. To date, investigators like myself have exonerated over 250 innocent people who were on death row. I’ve also worked with women and children who were trafficked, including many rape victims, and have worked on political asylum cases. I love my job.
As a writer, it is so fulfilling to have people share their stories with me. I am blessed. Two of my books were inspired by real-life cases. Of course, the characters I create are new. As a novelist, I want to create characters with their own autonomy and flaws. While the subject matter is usually serious, my novels are uplifting and optimistic because that has been the impact of the work on my soul. It has been redemptive for me too.
AL: You’ve written five books, covering everything from feminism to the subculture of street kids to a novel which, according to the publisher, “combines the empathy and lyricism of Alice Sebold with the dark, imaginative power of Stephen King.” How did you decide to cover topics that are so different in nature?
RD: I’ll be honest—I don’t recommend my early nonfiction. There should have been a law against me writing books in my twenties! Seriously, I was an asshole. I lacked compassion, and that is a real sin for a writer. It took me time to admit my own truth and vulnerability. When I write fiction, I feel connected to the joy and beauty of life. For me, there is a deeper level of truth in fiction, a complexity and wisdom—and a kindness too that was certainly lacking in my earliest books. As women, we are just as complicated and diverse in our interests and tastes as anyone else. Look at someone like Margaret Atwood, who writes everything from poetry to essays to novels, and on such a dazzling variety of issues.
AL: You’ve also written essays in The New York Times Modern Love column and The Washington Post about how you came to be a mother to your three children. Tell us more about your journey to adoption. What in your past, do you think, led you to be an adoptive mother?
RD: I often say adopting my kids from foster care is the best choice I ever made. As far as I knew, I could have gotten pregnant, but I had no interest, and I knew there were children who needed homes. So, my decision made perfect sense to me. My own childhood history definitely influenced the choice. I wasn’t scared by the kind of histories my children came to me with because those were my histories too. I wasn’t going to erase their black heritage because I was raised in a black family, in a black community, and that is my home culture. I wasn’t interested in rescuing anyone or playing the savior—I know my children are just as worthy and deserving of love as any other child. We have half a million children in foster care in this country and tons of biases against fostering or adopting them. A lot of it is racism and classism. People don’t want to confront the fact that the problem is not the children. The problem is our society and all the ways we fail families that end up with kids in care, including mass incarceration, lack of treatment for mental health issues, deportation, biases against gay teens, and more. Instead of confronting how we are all complicit in these horrors, people want to stigmatize foster kids. I refuse to do that.
The hardest part of my journey as a foster-adoptive mother has never been my kids. It has been all the biases, including, sadly, from other mothers. I think we have a long way to go in honoring each other’s choices, whether we choose not to be parents, or whether we choose to parent in particular ways. The idea that some kinds of parenting—and children—are superior to each other by virtue of biology or breast milk or cloth diapers or how they were birthed or any other measurements of status, really has to go. Even the way we use language around mothering implies so much judgment. For instance, I’d like to get rid of the term “natural childbirth.” As if other forms of childbirth are unnatural. Or “real” mothers. The last time I checked I wasn’t imaginary!
AL: You’ve described your childhood as one of poverty and molestation. How did you overcome a tragic past to be who you are today? How do you think your experiences have shaped who you are as a writer and mother?
RD: I’m open about my past, which includes a stepfather who is a registered predatory sex offender, as well as terrible poverty and abuse. Those experiences definitely shaped me because I let them shape me. I don’t think we can run from the past. I’m more interested in running through it. I want to make it my own. I am not ashamed of who I am. I am not damaged. I am not broken. I am not worth less. I am just as innocent as I ever was—perhaps even more.
I find it interesting our culture doesn’t teach people how to handle trauma, even though trauma is part of all of our lives, from the grief of death to being hurt by others. We all experience trauma. I don’t think there is a hierarchy to it. We can be more hurt by events that would seem milder to others, even noncriminal, than those that seem more overt. I was always more wounded by my mother’s complicity in my abuse than the abuse itself. Isn’t that interesting? As far as how I survived, it is in the way I counsel my children and other survivors: get mad. Get really mad. It’s only by acknowledging the rage that we can begin to survive, in my experience. That hot flame tells us we deserve to live. That rage can be the candle that lights your way in the darkness to others. That rage will soften into warmth and love.
AL: I find that The Child Finder‘s themes of survival, resilience, and redemption are a common thread in all your books. Do you think you’ll continue to explore these themes in future novels?
RD: I hope so!
AL: You work full-time, write novels, and you have three children—how do you find that elusive balance of work, family, and leisure?
RD: Coffee! Ha. Sometimes that is all that gets me through. But seriously, I do plenty of self-care. I think it’s okay to prioritize what we need to help us get through. For me, it is going to the gym every day and taking at least one long walk outside with the dog. I need to connect with nature. I’m also pretty chill when it comes to expectations around the home front. Right now, other than my three kids, I have a houseful because I’m fostering. Over the years, I’ve learned to let stuff go. So what if it’s a little messy. Or a lot messy. So what if grades aren’t perfect or a kid is struggling a bit with getting their chores done. Life is too short to stress. Every day I try to focus on what’s really important, and I think that when we do that, we find there is always plenty of time for what we truly need.
AL: What are you working on now?
RD: I try to not jinx my novels in process, but (knock wood) I am writing! I am also still doing my casework and recently exonerated someone who spent many years in prison as an innocent man. I’m also hopeful to do some remodeling to my house to allow me to take in more children. I so love kids, especially teens, and there is such a need for foster homes, especially for LGBTQ youth. Wish me luck!