Portland-based writer Rene Denfeld knows what it means to be a child recovering from trauma. It is this powerful, first-hand experience that inspired her to write the suspenseful, empathic, and heartfelt novel, The Child Finder (Harper Collins, September 2017).
The Child Finder is Denfeld’s second novel. Her first was The Enchanted, a dark and fantastical yet tender tale told through the imaginative eyes of a death row inmate. Both novels are rooted in, and are continued explorations of, Denfeld’s own social justice work with sex trafficking victims and innocents in prison. She has also been a foster adoptive parent for twenty years, and is the proud parent of three children adopted from foster care.
Denfeld is a woman who is literally changing the world in more ways than one. She uses her voice to inspire, heal, and educate others; she uses her pen to share stories that are so often untold; and she uses her heart to give so much love.
What inspired the idea for your new novel, The Child Finder?
You know the old saying — write what you know. My novels are inspired by my own experiences. Most writers have day jobs, and I wanted to do something that felt meaningful for me, so I became a licensed investigator. I’ve worked hundreds of cases, including death row, and helping sex trafficking victims. For a time I was the Chief Investigator at a public defender’s office. I really love the work, and it is inspiring as a writer, too. I see and hear so many stories that are not often told. Plus, I’ve been a foster-adoptive parent now for twenty years. So I’ve formed my life around trauma: helping others heal and survive. There’s a reason for that, because I had a traumatic childhood myself. In helping others I am making sense of my own story, and rewriting the outcome.
The same is true of writing, I use it to make sense of the world, to tell the stories of the dispossessed. The Child Finder tells the story of an investigator looking for a missing child, and what that child is going through. I wanted to explore how we survive trauma, the importance of human connections, and how we find hope in even the most despairing places. Since life is also magical and poetic, it is a literary novel. The prose captures the immense joy and beauty that can be found even in struggle.
The main character, Naomi, is named the “Child Finder” because she investigates lost children cases. She is also a former foster child with a repressed traumatic past. As she works extensively to save the children, she is in actuality running away from herself. What does this internal conflict add to Naomi’s development as a character? What were the difficulties in writing a character so full of contradictions?
The complexities of the human spirit intrigue me. Sometimes we believe we are working towards one goal when in fact we are up to something else entirely. I think of these as shadow rooms in the homes of our souls. The question is how willing we are to explore those rooms, with the bright light of honesty.
The internal conflict is an essential part of Naomi’s character. She is using her life’s calling to avoid herself: she is finding others to avoid being found. I’m sure that has described me at times. I’ve used my work saving lives to give myself a sense of worth, and thus avoid dealing with my own issues. I think readers respond to such contradictions, because they mirror our own complexities. The challenge as a writer is to convey human complexity in compassionate ways. I have a lot of compassion for my characters. That helps guide the writing.
Within the novel, your characters constantly grapple with discerning reality from fantasy. One of the novel’s central questions is “are the stories we tell ourselves true or based on what we dream them to be?” What are your own thoughts on this question?
I’m fascinated by memory, dreams, and reality. People create entire lives out of dreams: the education, the career, the house, the marriage. Sometimes the dreams come true. Sometimes they explode into nightmare. The interesting part is how we create our own stories out of our dreams. Our memories are also shaped by our attitudes. An optimistic person makes a positive memory out of a hard time, a negative person can remember the one bad thing that happened in an otherwise glorious day, and heaven knows you’re going to hear about it.
I think sometimes we are afraid to face how much of our lives are dream creations. We fear that means we are making memories up. But it’s not making memories up to recognize the emotional drive of our lives and how that shapes our recall. We are not robots, programming our memory chips with banal facts of the day. We are emotional creatures, moving through life, sensing, feeling, reacting. Our minds are emotional centers, the hearts that live in our heads. So of course our dreams become our realities, and our realities can be stories we tell ourselves.
This novel is about people taking on new identities. For example, the lost girl calls herself The Snow Girl in order to mentally survive. The book states that the children who do the best are the ones who find a way to play, who create fantasy worlds in which to hide or sometimes pretend they are someone else. What research did you do about children recovering from trauma/captivity?
For my job as well as being a foster parent, I’ve had a ton of training on childhood abuse, molestation, trauma, neglect, and other issues. I have fancy certifications and all that. But in truth life experience has taught me far more than any class or conference. The man I considered my father is a registered predatory sex offender. It’s one reason I feel so comfortable working with traumatized children and adults. I’ve been there. The way I survived as a child was to escape into my imagination. I built entire worlds I lived inside during the abuse. The scenes in The Child Finder dealing with surviving such abuse were based on my own experiences, and those of my children. It was actually very healing to write. The prose seemed to flow, and felt poetic. I think those scenes are some of the best writing of my life.
I can’t help but think about how stories give us the luxury to separate ourselves from our own life, pretend we are someone else, and provide us a place to hide away for a little while. What are some of your favorite books/authors to read when you need space away from the world?
Isn’t that the beauty of books? They let us slip out of our own stories for a time, and into another. That’s the foundation of empathy. By immersing ourselves in the stories of others, we discover our essential humanity. I’m a voracious reader. Libraries saved my life as a child. They were my sanctuary, and inside books I found not only a new world, but values and hope. Oh, I can read a book a day, easily. Which is not easy on the budget, I can say! But I so love reading. I have certain authors I return to time and again. Jane Smiley, Margaret Atwood, Louse Erdrich, Ian Banks, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Earnest Gaines, Barbara Kingsolver — I could go on. I don’t think in terms of genre or establishment. I just read.
How do you create spaces to include play in your own life (both professionally and personally)?
That’s a great question! I maintain joy in my life. I’m actually a very lighthearted, laughing, joyous person, in spite, or maybe because, of all I’ve experienced. I find beauty in the moment. I absolutely relish walks. I walk twice a day. I’m lucky to live in a city area with a lot of abandoned industrial areas nearby. I’m enthralled with the way nature takes over: the madrone trees sprouting out of broken concrete foundation pads, hawks resting on broken rebar. I love it. Life can be so beautiful. Sometimes I get so delighted, and the dog and I chase the rabbits we find in the grass. I feel like a happy child then.
This is not a novel for the faint of heart. The unsettling world presented here is one of violence, abuse, and fear. Everyone is essentially trapped in one way or another. One element that stuck out to me was that the novel’s abusers were found out to have been abused themselves in the past. You have served as a Chief Investigator at a public defender’s office for years now. From your experiences, why do you think this cycle of abuse is so difficult to break out from?
Abuse creates abuse. Hurting people hurt others. Personally, I think that is a very optimistic truth to know, because then we realize we can prevent violence. There is so much we can do to reduce or stop childhood abuse. That we are not doing it is another issue. But it is much more hopeful than thinking all these people are bad seeds. Because that is so despairing, to think there is nothing we can do.
The main reason I think the cycles of abuse are so hard to break is we don’t do enough to break them. We need more interventions into troubled homes. We need to better fund foster parents like myself. We need to give abused children free therapy and help. We need to intervene with offenders before they get worse. We need to restructure our criminal justice system to focus on important crimes, like rape and sex abuse, instead of putting petty criminals, innocents and drug addicts in prison, which is what we have done with mass incarceration. Who goes to prison in our country has very little to do with actual guilt, and everything to do with poverty and racism. Despite all our posturing about caring about victims, we do very little in our society to help heal and support them.
Your character, Naomi, proves time and time again that she is a physically strong woman. The terminology surrounding Naomi’s self-defense routines especially was quite impressive and technical. Do you have a background in self-defense? Do you think that all people, females in particular, should have a fundamental knowledge of how to defend themselves?
I do have a background in self defense, boxing in particular. I’m not a big person, and learning to defend myself was transformative for me. I felt much stronger and less vulnerable. I think it can be very helpful, but I really caution at telling women they should learn self defense, because that puts the responsibility on victims and not on offenders. I think the focus should be on society teaching men not to hurt women, and society protecting minorities and women and children from systemic violence. Self defense can’t stop a bullet or police killing blacks, after all. It’s not the answer to systemic racism and injustice. However, I think getting strong for those who are physically capable of it is a good idea, if you are into that kind of thing. If not, power to you! We’re all different, and that’s a good thing. Life would be plenty boring otherwise.
Naomi and Jerome speak about having “callings” in life. Do you personally believe in “life purposes?” If so, what do you think yours is?
I feel I have a calling, but I’d hesitate to tell others what to believe. I think we do that too much already in our culture. I have observed that people who feel senses of purpose seem happier than others. I think that comes from a sense of self. Knowing what you are about and want out of life. A sense of purpose can be as simple as wanting to be a good person, or to master a subject. It doesn’t have to be fancy. I don’t believe there is a hierarchy in activism. The person who is devoted to being a good person might do more good in their life than the one who airs themselves as an expert.
In the last few pages, the voice shifts and for the first time, we hear from the little girl’s perspective. Why did you choose to end this way? Did you know what Madison’s voice would sound like when you began the novel, or did this come later during the writing process?
Madison’s voice was actually the first voice I heard when I started the novel, and I always knew it would end with her. I wanted the story to center firmly on Naomi and Madison. It was important that it begin and end with the women who survived — and thrived — after childhood abuse. Far too often abuse is written about in ways that diminish and reject those of us who have experienced it. I wanted to push back against the narratives that victims of molestation and sexual abuse are damaged forever, broken, or lacking in innocence. As the child finder says, I am just as innocent now as I was before. Maybe even more so.
The lost child case presented in this novel is not Naomi’s first investigation. Why did you choose to showcase this particular case to your readers? What compelled you to tell this story about Madison and Mr. B, and not another lost child’s tale?
There are some stories that are easy, and some that are hard. An easy story to tell might be the one where the lost child was found before they were molested, for instance. Happy ending all around, and no need to deal with the questions of recovery and what we as a society need to do to prevent such horrors. The easy story also avoids important questions, like why don’t we put more focus and care into missing child cases, or just why our society doesn’t prioritize crimes against children. Or the racism that The Child Finder touches upon, and how black children with disabilities don’t get diagnosed.
I’d much rather write the hard stories. I want to explore how crime happens as part of our culture, not outside it, and how the victims are among us — they are us — just as the offenders are created, not born. I also wanted the story set in the natural world, part of the landscape where we find beauty as well as challenge. I wanted to turn over the tropes about so many people, from foster parents to sex abuse victims, and to demonstrate the immense power we all have to change lives for the better. I wanted to show the power of love.
What is next for you?
Well, I’m fairly private about my writing in process. I’m still dedicated to my cases and my kids. I just learned that soon I will be honored with an award for my social justice work, which is very exciting. It’s a wonderful time in my life. I am enjoying the fruits of years of hard work in parenting and work. I am loving life. My advice for any struggling writers out there: keep it up. Find your passions and your joys, take risks, roll around in life and come up happy. The stories will come.
Author photo courtesy of Gary Norman.