Interviewed by Heather F.
Keith Donohue is the author of the wonderful book, The Stolen Child, a wonderful fairy tale for adults. I know from personal experience; it is a great book. I'll let him tell you more about it.
HF: For those poor unfortunate souls who may not have heard of it, could you briefly describe The Stolen Child?
KD: The Stolen Child is about the nexus between memory and identity. The novel begins with the abduction of Henry Day, a seven-year-old boy, in 1949 from the woods near his home in Western Pennsylvania. He is stolen by the fairy changelings, who replace him with one of their own, an exact replica who takes over his life. The new Henry insinuates himself into the Day family, grows up, marries, and fathers a child – whom he also fears may be stolen away. The original Henry is renamed Aniday by the changelings, and he is stuck at age 7 for the next 30 years, desperate to remember who he once was and how he can escape into the human world again.
HF: How much of The Stolen Child has a basis in the changeling myth and how much was created by you?
KD: Sarah Hrdy’s book Mother Nature has a short section on the socio-cultural anthropological roots of the changeling legend which—along with a kind of street knowledge of the folklore—formed the basis for my use of the legend. The rest is complete invention on my part, including importing the story to the 20th century United States. I was primarily interested in the changeling folklore as a way of structuring The Stolen Child with two narrators sharing the same name, one who steals the life intended for the other, and one who stays 7 years old throughout. The device allowed me to explore the question of the confrontation between the adult self with the child. What would you say if you met your 7 year old self?
HF: Have you always been interested in myths and legends?
KD: From the beginning we’re raised on fairy tales and folklore and myth—ways of explaining the world or keeping a sense of enchantment in our lives. I had a fairly conventional interest in myths and legends until I read Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds which subverts the whole of Irish folklore for the purposes of both comedy and the novel. I’m much more interested in subversion of the old stories as a way of reintroducing their magic into the modern world.
HF: I was intrigued by the parallel between the disappearance of the woodlands and the disappearance of myth in The Stolen Child. Was that planned, or something born out of the creative process?
KD: All part of the grand scheme going into the book. I set it in the latter half of the 20th century to talk, in part, about the connection between the disappearance of the natural world and myth, for they are inextricably linked. As we encroach upon nature to put up housing developments, we strip away some of its power. Together with the fact that parents are more fearful in allowing their children out alone to explore the woods independently, we have lost a degree of spiritual connection with the woodlands. Once upon a time, you could wander and discover your own Walden Pond, and in so doing, you were free to imagine the forces behind the trees and birds and so on. You could see the hand of God or Mother Nature or whomever in the forest, but as we lose the wilderness, we bankrupt that aspect of our imaginations.
HF: I saw something on the internet about the possibility of a movie? Is this true and how soon will we be able to see Henry Day’s story on the big screen?
KD: 20th Century Fox owns the film option and, as I understand it, a screenplay has been drafted, but beyond that, I know very little about the next steps in the process. It is in development, I guess you’d say, and they may be looking for a director and actors, but I’m not sure how soon it might be till Henry Day appears on the big screen. I hope it all works out and would be very interested in how they adapt the book into a film.
HF: Who, or what, inspires you? Do you have a muse?
KD: Other artists who take risks and chances to make something new.
HF: Do you read a lot? Do you read mostly contemporary books, classics, or a mix?
KD: If you want to write, you better read first, and I try to read a little something new every day. A mix of the classics and contemporary works, but all new to me, although occasionally I’ll re-read a favorite like Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. I just re-read all of Flann O’Brien in order to write an introduction for the Everyman’s edition of his novels which is coming out this fall in Britain and next year in the USA.
HF: What are some of your favorite recent reads?
KD: Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip which will be out in July. Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is particularly devastating. Murakami’s new book. Colum McCann’s Zoli. I’ve also been dipping into Fantagraphic’s reprint of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat Sunday comic. Stunning and brilliant story about a cat, a mouse, and a brick. The art is surreal and charming and the language (langwidge) pure joy.
HF: Tell us about your writing habits.
KD: I write on the subway, in airports, at lunch – any place where I can cobble together a decent stretch of time. Usually in long-hand at first, and then the translation into type becomes a second draft. Structural revisions I can obsess over almost anywhere, and I take a printout with me everywhere I go and peck away at the sentences. With a full-time job, it is catch as catch can.
HF: Could you tell us about your path to publication? Was it an easy process for you or did you experience a few stumbles along the way?
KD: In 1981, I finished my first novel, sent it to an agent, and he sent back a nice long letter telling me no, but to send him my next book. It only took another 20 years to drum up the courage to try again. (Well, to be serious, I tried my hand at short stories and wrote quite a bit as a speechwriter for about 14 years, still…)
The Stolen Child went through a cycle of rejection with agents – about 10 read and turned down all or part of the manuscript – and I was fortunate to finally have my agent discover the book on the slush pile and see its potential. But that took about two years from the time I finished the book until finding an agent. A pretty hard stumble.
HF: What do you do when you're not writing?
KD: My children fill my days and evenings, and my job the other 40 hours. A night of poker once in awhile. Reading. The reality is that even though the actual writing takes up a small portion of time, I’m thinking about the story – or at least open to it – much of the waking hours and it will infect dreams as well.
HF: What can your fans look forward to next?
KD: I’ve finished a draft of a novel that I’m calling “Angels of Destruction” which is about a mother whose daughter has been missing for 10 years. It is inspired, in part, by Emily Dickinson’s line: “Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul.” So, it is about hope and faith in things unseen. The whole question of why we believe in what we cannot empirically prove is rich fodder for any number of novels. There are also a number of characters in it who say they are angels.
Many thanks to Keith Donohue. You can visit his website here.