Welcome to my new interview series featuring some of the brightest and most hard-working women I know. My goal for this series is to collect stories from women in all levels of their career. The hope is that their journey and their advice will trigger something in you, and help you take the jump you need to achieve your personal level of success. Whether they are freelancers, founders of their own business, corporate employees, or students, this #LadiesWhoHustle series will showcase their unique talents and help you unveil yours.
This lady needs no introduction. If you've spent any time chatting with me in the past few years, you know she is my absolute favourite author! So, I am more than pleased to introduce my next #LadiesWhoHustle interviewee, René Denfeld.
Bestselling author of The Child Finder and The Enchanted, by day, René works as an investigator, helping others. She was once the Chief Investigator at the public defenders office. René is also a longtime foster mom - over 20 years! - and has three amazing kids she adopted through foster care. Based in Portland, Oregon, she spends her time with her kids, a Great Pyrenees named Snow and three cats.
Author, death row investigator, and foster mom.
Why do you do what you do?
I love my life! I've been an investigator for over a decade and have worked hundreds of cases. I've helped exonerate innocents, helped sex trafficking victims, done asylum cases and more. I've also been a therapeutic foster mom for over twenty years. I went into both because I wanted to help people. I know it is possible to not only survive trauma, but thrive. As I tell my kids, I love them not despite what happened to them, but including it. My justice work and parenting has inspired three novels - the third comes out next year. I love the poetry of writing, feeling I am in touch with the magic and mystery and hope of life.
What inspired you to start writing after having such a different type of career as a death row investigator?
I was leaving the death row prison one day when I heard a very distinctive, quiet voice. He said "this is an enchanted place." That voice led directly into my first novel, The Enchanted. It went on to win fancy awards and all that, but I wrote it to tell the stories of people I feel whose stories are often ignored. People with histories like mine. I had previously written poetry and short stories, but kept those mostly to myself. Writing my first novel felt like an explosion, like all this poetry came rushing out on to the page. I felt like I had found something I was meant to do.
What has been your biggest career win so far?
Wow, that's a great question! And a tough one. I love getting leaders from readers. I have to say winning the French Prix meant a lot too, and who would say no to a trip to France, complete with wining and dining? Not me!
For my justice work, my greatest career win has to be exonerating several innocents, including a child I got out of prison. That poor boy had missed almost a year of school, and was in jail for something he didn't do. It felt good to get him out, but like all exonerations it also came with sadness, for all the damage that was done to his psyche, and the knowledge of all those left behind.
Of all the things I've done I'd say the most satisfying, and redemptive, has been fostering and raising my kids. I am truly a very lucky mom.
What about your biggest career struggle?
Bitterness. I think bitterness is a natural human emotion - it's part of the human condition. But for me at least bitterness is the enemy of art and hope. There's been times I've struggled with bitterness. I've been bitter at what our country does to people, at our confused, conflicted and often inhumane values. It's hard to keep up energy and hope in the face of atrocity and despair. But it's important, because bitterness can be paralyzing, and I think bitterness keeps us from connecting to the humanity of others and ourselves. For me bitterness is a battle I fight, and I tell bitterness I will win, because life is full of wonder and beauty, even in the struggle.
What advice would you give to those looking to have a career as an author?
Plan on a day job. Seriously. Very, very few writers ever sustain themselves on writing alone. The vast majority of writers have day jobs. Teaching is common, but consider other day jobs that will feed your soul and give you a sense of purpose. I coach aspiring writers that it's not enough to want to be a writer, you have to have stories to tell. It's the life you lead when not writing that will give you those stories.
Take us through the process of writing a book.
First, I make myself a pot of coffee.... :) I think each book is different, at least mine are. My first novel I wrote outside prisons, at breaks at work, and often stayed up all night writing. The second novel came in a rush. I'm not much on outlining, but I do have a sense of where the story is going to end in my head. The voice is the most important part. Is it alive? Lyrical? Magical? Once I have that I know I can revise and it will probably still all work out. I think the most important part is to just keep working at it. It's surprising how much progress you can make within an hour of writing every day.
My favourite part? Those times when I am so absorbed in the miracle of writing I get lost in the story. My kids can come in the room, wave their hands in my face and I am just...gone.
What's your favourite genre to read?
I read voraciously and I read widely. Good reading make for good writing! I love fiction, memoir, nonfiction, you name it. I even read children's books. I just love to read.
When do you feel the most confident?
That's a wonderful question. I have to say when I am writing. The act of creation is awe-inspiring and I feel connected to something far greater than myself.
What career aspirations do you have that you still haven't fulfilled?
I would like to do more work on a policy level fighting mass incarceration and other injustices.
What happened that made you realize that you've 'made it' in your chosen career as an author?
You know, I don't feel I have made it. That's a curious questions to me and I wonder what that would feel like. If someone does feel it, is it a relief, or does it impact their drive? I'd love to know, if anyone wants to reach out and tell me. I'm genuinely curious, as I've heard the phrase before and wondered.
How do you relax?
I work out for stress relief. If I don't go to the gym my kids remind me! They like when mom comes home in a great mood and wants to make cookies or buy pizza, lol. I also love long walks and try to take one long walk every day. I love connecting with nature, even in the city. I love the active meditation of walking.
I find The Enchanted is so well written and fully immerses you in the story. What gave you the inspiration to write this story? Did you know you were writing such a captivating piece during the process?
I felt The Enchanted was very much the story of my work and life. I was telling all the truths I had experienced, and yet never seen anyone else tell in a novel. It felt like such magic to write. It was truly transporting and transformative!
You've won many awards for both The Enchanted and The Child Finder, congratulations! How do you celebrate those wins?
Usually I ask the kids, "who wants to go out to dinner?". Then we go stuff ourselves on sushi or burgers or pasta or whatever we are in the mood for. Awards are wonderful, but I want to caution aspiring writers that many fantastic books are missed in the awards process. It's not indicative of the quality of the book, so please don't let it impact your own work!
Being an author, you must hear so much feedback on your novel. How do you deal with the good and the bad?
I don't read bad reviews. The book is already written and can't be changed, so what's the point? And I don't read bad reviews for the same reason I don't write them: there's enough poison in the world. Writers pour their hearts and souls into books. Why go trampling on them? If you don't like a book, let someone else enjoy it.
As for the positive feedback, I really appreciate it. Thank you to all the amazing readers who reach out to me. It means a lot.
I'm really looking forward to your new book, The Butterfly Museum. Can you give us some insights into it?
The Butterfly Museum tells the story of a 12-year-old street girl, Celia, who survives being homeless thanks to her beliefs in the power of butterflies. It's a deeply magical, hopeful, poetic story - and it's a page turner too. For Naomi fans, she's there! The novel was inspired by my own history. I was homeless as a child.
Get in touch with René:
Facebook: Rene Denfeld Author
Know anyone that would be great to feature in the #LadiesWhoHustle series? Connect with me on Instagram to nominate them - or yourself!