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Keith Donohue’s first novel, The Stolen Child, portrays a world in which the magical and the mundane intersect, a world in which, in an instant, a human boy is kidnapped by changelings and one of their number takes his place. The transformation of Donohue—a former speechwriter for the National Endowment for the Arts—into a celebrated author seems almost as magical.
“I think I took an unusual route to get to publication,” says Donohue, 47. “I don’t have an MFA. I didn’t write short stories and publish them in literary journals. When I had time to write the book, I wrote the book.”
That process took about three years—during which the Wheaton, Md., resident held down a full-time job and, with his wife, raised the three of their four children who still live at home. “I did the first draft in about eight months. Then I started looking for an agent,” Donohue says. “After I found the right person to represent the novel, we worked a little bit on it…then he sent it out, and it was accepted by Nan Talese.”
Yes, that Nan Talese: publisher of Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan, among other literati. And even the mighty Talese had to outbid other takers.
No wonder: The Stolen Child, inspired by the changeling poem by William Butler Yeats, has leapt nimbly over the fantasy-genre barrier to charm such reviewers as the Washington Post Book World (“a luminous and thrilling novel about our humanity”), Kirkus Reviews (“Take that, Bilbo Baggins!”), and The Last Unicorn novelist Peter S. Beagle (“one of the most touching and absorbing novels I have read in years”). According to Donohue, the book has sold 37,500 copies in North America, and Amazon.com has purchased the film option.
The book boasts two narrators, who tell its story in alternating chapters. One, Aniday, is a hobgoblin: a childlike creature who was once a 7-year-old boy named Henry Day but now lives in a hidden warren with others of his kind. The other narrator is a doppelgänger—one of the band of “terrestrial and underground devils”—who has assumed Henry’s identity. The ageless Aniday clings to the shredded memories of his humanity, while the aging “Henry Day”—who has grown to become a composer, husband, and father—struggles with the secrets of his own origins and his desire to reveal himself through his art.
Although the novel’s tension arises from the convergence of these two beings, it touches on myriad themes: the “otherness” of being an artist, the battle between technology and nature, the meaning of childhood versus adulthood. “I wanted to have two narrators, and I wanted to have one remain a child while the other progressed through time—aged, matured—and play those two perspectives off each other,” Donohue says.
The Stolen Child is also the title of the imposter Henry Day’s symphony, the tale of his own remembered past: He tries to write “fast enough to capture the sounds in [his] head,” to “regenerate [it] constantly from the desire to confess, seeking to craft a texture that would allow [him] to explain.” But suggest that Donohue might have fallen prey to a similar madness as he worked, and he demurs.
“You do kind of get into that waking dream state where your imaginative life is, in a way, distinct from the life you walk around with every day,” he says. “I’ve always had that ability to daydream and to realize that it doesn’t often have a literal relationship to what I do every day.”
What he is doing these days, besides toiling in an anonymous federal job, is working on his next book. And what’s it about? “It’s about magic and things unseen,” he says, warily, then laughs. “I don’t want to talk it away.” —Pamela Murray Winters