An Interview with

Rene Denfeld

on The Child Finder 

Rene Denfeld first caught our eye when her debut novel, The Enchanted, made the short list for our First Novel Prize. Now Denfeld is back in the spotlight with her riveting sophomore novel, The Child Finder, out this month. It's the story of an enigmatic private investigator, a kidnapped little girl, and the ways in which we all try to save ourselves. Our web editor Kristin Henley talked with Denfeld about tackling difficult subjects, bringing characters to life on the page, and her secret to writing a literary thriller.

You write about various types of trauma in The Child Finder—did you have reservations about taking on some of these topics? And do you have any advice for writers grappling with this subject matter?


The Child Finder addresses a lot of different kinds of trauma—abandonment, foster care, captivity, molestation, and severe abuse. I wanted to examine how we deal with trauma, including the ways we survive and recover. I felt guided by my own experiences. I experienced extreme trauma as a child. The man I considered my father is now a registered predatory sex offender, and I grew up in poverty and abuse. I have since focused my life on helping others. This includes my three children, adopted from foster care. I’ve been a therapeutic adoptive foster parent for twenty years. My day job is in indigent defense, where I have worked hundreds of cases as a licensed investigator. So my life has focused on trauma: how to survive it, how to help myself and others recover, which, for me, means loving people for their experiences including trauma, not despite trauma. I felt I could bring insights and voices to the subject of trauma that are not often heard.


As far as advice for writing about trauma, I think it is important to stay grounded in the character. Far too often writers treat violence as a plot device, or employ tropes of victims and offenders. As difficult as it is, we have to grapple with the truth: violence is committed by real people, in real life. If they are going to have a character who is, say, a victim of rape, they need to know why it happened, what the response would be (most rapes go unsolved), the impact of the trauma, and who the rapist is and why he rapes. Most rapists are men we know. Don’t avoid that reality by creating monster tropes. Confront the societal causes of violence. Confront the failures of law enforcement. Confront the way we allow men to hurt others. Write about trauma as it occurs, not in a world outside our own.


Can you talk about the use of fairytales in the book? Have you always been drawn to this form?


As a child my sanctuary was the local library. Every day after school I would run there, and stay until closing. The librarians were like my grandmas. I loved reading, and lost myself in books. I especially loved fairy tales and fables. I found them hopeful. In the fairy tales, even those held captive in terror, as I felt at the time, had a chance of rescue. Today as a writer I am still fascinated with the form. The best fairy tales are intoxicating mixtures of poetry, magic, and hope. Writing The Child Finder, I included actual fairy tales, both retellings of old ones and new ones the child character was making up. I revisited my favorite fairy tales when writing the novel. Because I grew up in an African-American neighborhood, our library had a large collection of African and African-American fables. The Cow Tail Switch was one of my favorites as a child, and I had it on my bedside the entire time I was writing The Child Finder.


I love that the novel is a blend of mystery/thriller and literary fiction (similar to Tana French). Did you have particular books or writers that you looked to as guides?


I believe the secret to good writing is good reading. I’m a voracious reader—I read everything! When I am reading I don’t think in terms of genre. I am just enjoying the transportation into another world. I believe that as writers we absorb so much of the craft from reading widely. I didn’t have any particular authors I looked to as guides for The Child Finder. I wanted to create something brand new, a story from my own heart.

I was really struck by the empathy you had for your characters and each of them felt nuanced. Can you tell us about your process for developing characters? Do you do character sketches or any other exercises outside of the novel to develop them?

My characters tend to feel fully developed before they start speaking on the page. I don’t do character outlines or anything like that, but power to those writers who do! We all have different techniques. My method is to try and connect with the character as a real person. I try to pick characters that I already “know,” meaning they could be from my own life. For instance, I was raised and live in a largely black family and community, so the African American characters could easily be my relatives or neighbors. The child victim could easily be myself or a foster child. The protagonist is modeled after my day job. The war veteran is like so many young men I’ve worked with who lost limbs in the war. The trappers and hunters are like the rural white folk I encounter in my day job. Of course they are never autobiographical. I create brand new characters. The character has to have autonomy and make their own decisions, and not feel directed by me. But I also make sure I know the lives of the characters and feel authentic writing them.

This is why I think it’s so important that we have writers from diverse backgrounds. I would be lost trying to write a novel, say, set in an ivy league school. I admire writers who can do that—I thought Jane Smiley’s novel Moo was fantastic, for example. I loved it. But for me that would be a struggle to write, because that is not my world and never has been. I’m glad for the diversity of writers out there. We need more of it.

You are a licensed investigator just like your protagonist, Naomi, as well as being a successful writer and parent. I hear a lot from writers about the struggle to balance a day job, writing career, and a personal life. Do you have any advice? 


I joke the secret to balancing a demanding day job and three kids and being a single mom! But honestly, it has been a challenge. One of my secrets is I let go of being super mom. I think women get a lot of pressure to be perfect moms and perfect people, and that not only doesn’t leave time for writing, it makes us nervous wrecks. When I am writing the dust bunnies collect under the furniture. The kids make their own suppers, and yes, that includes junk food. I learned to prioritize my writing, and pushed back against the notion that my kids always had to come first. Of course they come first in my heart. But they have also learned to respect that mothers have artistic lives, too. And that’s been really good for them. They are proud of my writing, and I am proud of how responsible they’ve become. If I have advice for other writers it is to not be afraid to prioritize your art. Also, remember that writing and publishing are two different things. Enjoy the process of writing, because publishing is a strange and unpredictable business.  


I won’t spoil the book for our readers, but there are some questions left hanging at the end of the novel. Are you thinking about writing another Child Finder novel (say yes, please!)?


In a word: yes. I love the protagonist. I don’t want her to leave my life, either!


And finally, what are you reading right now? What books are you excited about?


There are so many good books coming out. Josh Weil has a collection of short stories coming out, then there is Alice Anderson’s memoir Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away. Lidia Yuknavitch has The Misfit's Manifesto out soon, and I am excited to read Gayle Brandeis's memoir called The Art of Misdiagnosis. Also, Andrea Jarrell's I’m The One Who Got Away. For recent fiction The Heavenly Table by Donald Pollock blew me away.





photo by Gary Norman


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. Devoted to helping others, Rene works with sex trafficking victims and innocents in prison. Rene was the Chief Investigator at a public defender’s office and has worked hundreds of cases. In addition to her advocacy work, Rene has been a foster adoptive parent for twenty years. She will be awarded the Break The Silence Award at the 24th Annual Knock Out Abuse Gala in Washington, DC on November 2, 2017, in recognition for her advocacy and social justice work. 

The child of a difficult history herself, Rene is an accomplished speaker who loves connecting with others. Rene’s second novel, The Child Finder, explores themes of survival, resiliency, and redemption. Rene lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is the happy mom of three kids adopted from foster care.