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Drunk on Ink Q & A with Rene Denfield and ‘The Child Finder’

Drunk on Ink is a blast interview series by Soniah Kamal author of  the novel Unmarriageable a parallel retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and set in contemporary Pakistan 

Rene Denfeld with her novel The Child Finder. Gilly MacMillan with her novel Odd Child Out. Melanie McGrath with Give Me the Child.

Rene Denfeld is the bestselling author of The Child Finder and The Enchanted. Her poetic novels have won numerous prestigious awards, including the French Prix, the ALA Medal for Excellence, a Carnegie listing and an IMPAC listing. Rene’s writing is influenced by her day job as a licensed investigator. For over a decade she has worked exonerating innocents and helping sex trafficking victims. She has been the Chief Investigator at a public defenders office. In addition to her justice work Rene has been a foster adoptive parent for over 20 years. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her four children from foster care, along with a Great Pyrenees rescue and three cats.

About The Child Finder

Three years ago, Madison Culver disappeared when her family was choosing a Christmas tree in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest. She would be eight-years-old now—if she has survived. Desperate to find their beloved daughter, certain someone took her, the Culvers turn to Naomi, a private investigator with an uncanny talent for locating the lost and missing. Known to the police and a select group of parents as “the Child Finder,” Naomi is their last hope. Naomi’s methodical search takes her deep into the icy, mysterious forest in the Pacific Northwest, and into her own fragmented past. She understands children like Madison because once upon a time, she was a lost girl, too.As Naomi relentlessly pursues and slowly uncovers the truth behind Madison’s disappearance, shards of a dark dream pierce the defenses that have protected her, reminding her of a terrible loss she feels but cannot remember. If she finds Madison, will Naomi ultimately unlock the secrets of her own life? Told in the alternating voices of Naomi and a deeply imaginative child, The Child Finder is a breathtaking, exquisitely rendered literary page-turner about redemption, the line between reality and memories and dreams, and the human capacity to survive.

SONIAH KAMAL: First author/book you read/fell in love with? Why?

RENE DENFIELD: That might have been The Cow Tail Switch and other fables. My earliest memories include running to the public library every day after kindergarten. I would build walls of books and lose myself in them, and not leave until closing. I came from a background of severe poverty and abuse—the man I considered my father is a registered predatory sex offender—so books were my sanctuary. As a young child I especially loved fairy tales and fables. Think about it. Where else can someone be imprisoned in dungeons, roasted in ovens and trapped by evil and still find a way to survive? Fairy tales are messages of hope for those trapped in trauma.

chai, coffee, water, wine?

Coffee, seltzer water, and until recently, wine. I started an alcohol free challenge and have to admit I feel a thousand times healthier without any drinking at all. As I’ve gotten older my body just doesn’t like it.

 A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading?

Don’t make me answer that! I just love so many books, and what saves one life may not save another. But some of the critical books for me have been The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston and The White Dawn by James Houston. Also Margaret Atwood’s work.

 Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?

When I was young I was very lucky to have a writing mentor who insisted I read all the classics. Then we’d have these amazing long talks about the books. There were a few I just couldn’t finish. Like Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce.  Sorry about that. Those conversations often turned into how and why some books become classics and some don’t, and all the influences of time and luck on writers. We had a lot of talks about sexism in literature and in reviewers. That mentor was Katherine Dunn. She “discovered” me when I was recently off the streets and was leaving poems I had typed up on a thrift store typewriter at bus stops around Portland. She found me and we became lifelong friends. I miss her so much.

Favorite quote from your book ?

“I don’t believe in resiliency. I believe in imagination.” That’s Naomi, from The Child Finder.

Favorite book to film? And why?

Hmmm. I don’t watch many movies or television. I just can’t relate to the barrier of the screen. Isn’t that funny? I love live theater, though. The smaller the theater the better. I like it when my knees touch the actors! One of my favorites is the re-telling of the Chinese fable, The White Snake, by Mary Zimmerman. It’s absolutely glorious.

Favorite Indie Book Store/s?

Here in Portland we are blessed with so many fabulous indies. I can’t possibly pick one!

The one think you wish you’d known about the writing life?

I always wanted to be a writer, growing up. But I thought people from my background couldn’t be writers. We desperately need more voices from marginalized and dispossessed backgrounds. Today I encourage aspiring writers to continue. You don’t need fancy degrees. I got my MFA free at the public library, where I studied at the feet of the masters.

Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?

No. I am sorry to say. I/We have to remember there is the writing, the art, and then there is publishing, which is a business. The two often don’t see eye to eye.

Dog, Cat, Or?

Dogs!! I love dogs and especially love our Great Pyrenees name Snow. But my kids also love cats so we have those too. We have a tiny three legged killer cat called Keila, and she rules the house. She is the boss of us all. Then we have a white fluffy cat named Cora, and my new teenage daughter brought a cute kitten with her named Shadow.

Ideal vacation?

A cottage on the Oregon coast. Love it.

Favorite book cover?

Any book I love.

Favorite song?

Lovely Day by Bill Withers. That’s our family song.

Favorite painting/art?

I admire the hell out of Henk Pander. He’s an amazing painter, just brilliant.

Any Lit Festival anecdote you want a share? A great meeting with a fan? An epiphany?

I did a charity event recently for a housing program for the homeless. A man approached me, and said he was a long-lost cousin. He had saved—all these years—a glass dish and some plants from my beloved grandparent’s home for me. I had no idea he even existed. After the event he and his wife came to visit, and now I have roses from my dear grandmother’s garden planted in my garden. It’s so beautiful, how books and stories can bring the lost to each other.

Recommend a Small Press and/or Literary Journal?

Love Forest Avenue Press and Hawthorne Books!

Favorite Jane Austen novel and film adaptation?

I’m a big fan of Persuasion, for the beauty of the writing. I’m afraid I’ve never seen any of the film adaptions. I’m not a big movie goer and would much rather read the book!

Last impulse book buy and why?

I was in an airport and picked up a bestselling book. I won’t say the title or author because I didn’t like it, and I know we are all tender people. I don’t believe in criticizing other writers. It’s far better to lift up those we admire. In that vein, I highly recommend some upcoming books: The Lost Night by Andrea Bartz, The Dream Peddler by Martine Fournier Watson, and A Double Life by Flynn Berry.


Soniah Kamal is an award winning novelist, essayist and public speaker.  Soniah’s novel Unmarriageable is a Financial Times Readers’ Best Book of 2019, a People’s Magazine Pick, a Library Reads Pick, an NPR Code Switch Summer Read Pick, a 2019 Book All Georgians Should Read, a 2020 Georgia Author of the Year for Literary Fiction nominee and more. Her novel An Isolated Incident was shortlisted for the Townsend Prize for Fiction and the KLF French Fiction Prize. Soniah’s TEDx talk is about second chances and she has delivered numerous keynotes addreses. ‘We are the Ink’, her address at a U.S. Citizenship Oath Ceremony, talks about immigrants and the real American Dreams, her keynote at the Jane Austen Festival is about universality across time and cultures and she’s given keynotes at Writers Conferences. Soniah’s work has appeared in critically acclaimed anthologies and publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Georgia Review, The Bitter Southerner, Catapult, The Normal School, Apartment Therapy and more.
She’s on twitter and instagram @soniahkamal

More Drunk on Ink Interviews:

Mike Chen: Here and Now and Then, a novel

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson A Rather Haunted Life, biography

Colleen Oakley: Before I Go, a novel

Emily Midorikawa: A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, biography

Shabnam Samuel: A Fractured Life, memoir

Elise Hooper: The Other Alcott, a novel

Anne Boyd Rioux: Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, non fiction

Devoney Looser: The Making of Jane Austen, non fiction

Kristen Miller ZohnThe Currency of Taste- Gibbons Georgian Silver, coffee table book

Vanessa HuaA River of Stars, novel

Chaitli SenThe Pathless Sky, novel

Sonya HuberPain Woman Take Your Keys, memoir

Kathy Wilson FlorenceThree of Cups, a novel

Sara Luce LookCharis Books and More, independent book store

S J SinduMarriage of a Thousand Lies, a novel

Rosalie Morales KearnsKingdom of Men, a novel

Saadia FaruqiMeet Yasmin, children’s literature

Rene DenfeldThe Child Finder, a novel

Jamie BrennerThe Husband Hour, a novel

Sara MarchantThe Driveway has Two Sides, memoir

Kirsten Imani KasaiThe House of Erzulie, a novel

Thrity UmrigarThe Secrets Between Us, novel

John Kessel, Pride and Prometheus, novel

Lisa Romeo, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss

Rachel May, An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery

Rebecca Entel, Fingerprints of Previous Owners, novel

Jamie Sumner, Unbound: Finding from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood

Falguni Kothari, My Last Love Story, novel

Tanaz BathenaA Girl Like That, YA novel



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