TCR Talks with Rene Denfeld
BY FELICITY LANDA
The Butterfly Girl is Rene Denfeld’s second novel in the world of Naomi Cottle, a private investigator who is drawn to cases of missing children. Naomi’s knack for finding these children has earned her the name “The Child Finder,” but her need to pursue them stems from the one cold case in her own life: the missing sister she left behind when she herself escaped captivity as a child. When Naomi sets aside her work to finally find her sister, she meets Celia, a lonely homeless child abandoned to the streets. Celia is running from her abusive stepfather and hiding amongst butterflies, her imagined guardians and the only place she feels safe. Naomi and Celia continue to collide throughout a shocking series of events in Naomi’s search.
Denfeld’s own experience as a homeless teen has led to an incredible life of advocacy, from her career as a public defender helping victims of trafficking, to her life as a foster mother of twenty years. Denfeld is no stranger to the hardships of abandoned children, and she cares for her characters as fiercely as she cares for those off the page who turn to her for aid.
Denfeld has written a tense, page-turning, crime novel that leaves readers feeling connected to her characters and their stories in an intimate way. Naomi and Celia dig through their haunted pasts, even while they uncover the truth of the present. The Butterfly Girl is a book that lingers, alive with hope as much as it is streaked in sorrow. Denfeld and I spoke about the importance of how we fictionalize trauma, the way she discovers her stories, and the beautiful and inspiring life she has led that motivates her writing.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: The honesty with which you write about sexual trauma and childhood pain is beautiful and harrowing. I admire the way it’s extremely clear in your books that even though the pain is in novel form, it echoes a reality that exists all around us. You also mention in your interview with Psychology Today the importance of protecting the dignity of these children by not including anything graphic or modeling the abuse after any real people. How do you find the balance of staying behind that line, while reflecting the honesty and reality of abuse?
RENE DENFELD: Our culture rewards writers who exploit trauma, especially sexual violence. It is more acceptable to make rape into entertainment than to capture the gravity of the offense. Personally, I don’t like graphic work. A single, well-placed line can say more than paragraphs of explicit degradation.
Even fictional victims deserve respect and dignity. My approach is to imagine I am showing the fictional victim the pages of my work and asking how they feel about how I presented their trauma. I want them to feel respected, just like I would want my trauma to be respected. As writers, I think we have to be honest with ourselves about why we are writing about trauma. If you are using rape as a trope, if it is to advance your plot, then perhaps reconsider. Your story doesn’t need my pain to advance.
All too often writers reach for tropes to describe those who commit harm, too. Want a bad guy? Make him an ex-foster kid. Or say he grew up with a single mom. Or paint him as a brilliant sociopath. That’s a common trope that completely ignores rape culture and how such men are made. It may feel easier to write violence as happening outside ourselves, but by othering offenders we other victims too. I think it is more interesting to write about violence in terms of how and why it actually occurs. That means wrestling with some tough stuff. That means looking at our collective responsibility to each other.
TCR: There has been some debate going on recently about fictionalizing our own trauma, although we know many writers do this. Do you feel that fiction has been a form to express some of what you’ve been through? In doing so, have you been able to see your own experiences in a different way?
RD: I love that these conversations are happening. I am eager to learn more from others, too. I’ve written non-fiction essays about my trauma history, including essays about how my stepdad was a registered predatory sex offender. But I’ve found the most healing through writing fiction. Perhaps for me it is a way of controlling the story. Fiction can give us a power, and the power is in controlling the story. I think that is compelling. As victims we often feel powerless. But writing is a form of power, and for me, at least, fiction is very powerful. I get to create the story I want, with the outcome I want.
TCR: T. Kira Madden speaks about the idea of writing being more than just catharsis for trauma in her essay “Against Catharsis” in Lit Hub. She says, “Art is a superpower that allows creator and consumer to be in dialogue regardless of circumstance or logistics or miles, a shared experience, a third plane found when two people meet by seeing one another through the page.” I’m curious about your thoughts on writing as catharsis, and how that differs between writing essays about your life verses fiction that deals in similar plains.
RD: I grew up feeling I didn’t have a right to exist. Putting words on paper is an act of courage for me, because it says I have the right to exist. In our society we like to vanish people. We disappear them into prisons, into poverty, into foster care, into homelessness and addictions. We tell people like me that we are broken forever.
The power of creativity, too, has been seen as the property of the wealthy. But poor people have the right to create too. We have a right to whimsy, joy, magic, and the power of story. When we write our stories we are creating artifacts. We are creating testimonies that cannot be erased. A story can be a safe place for both writer and reader. It is a place to explore what haunts us. People find themselves in story. Everyone has a book they say saved their lives. So, it is a form of connection with others too.
Also, I’m a bit skeptical at the idea of catharsis. Experiences aren’t things that we can just get rid of. It’s not like getting food poisoning and vomiting and poof you get better. Instead of a catharsis model perhaps we need a greater understanding of how we process experiences, and how writing can play a role in that. Writing about something doesn’t make it go away. What it does is bring it closer, so we can learn from it.
TCR: In your essay in Crime Reads, you say, “Writing The Butterfly Girl felt radical. It shouldn’t feel radical to depict homeless children as existing, or mattering, but few books do. Instead kids like myself are used as plot devices, to be thrown away on the page as we are in real life.” Your books don’t feel as though they are written with an agenda, but they do feel radical in many ways. Do you see your writing as a form of advocacy? In what ways?
RD: It’s sad that it is radical to write homeless people as human beings, isn’t it? It shouldn’t be the case but it is. I was homeless myself. Rarely have I seen realistic depictions of homeless children in novels. I wanted to remedy that.
I think all books are political. If you have a book where everyone is white and racism doesn’t even exist, isn’t that erasure of the truth itself political? There are popular crime books set in these absolute fantasy worlds where police are never racist, false convictions don’t exist, mass incarceration is not a problem, and rape kits never go untested. I mean, what kind of crazy propaganda is that? I’ve worked as a licensed investigator for over ten years, including working death row exonerations, and I can vouch such books are political, too. They are just covert. They want us to believe the system is working.
TCR: You’ve written a fair amount about your experiences as a foster and adoptive mom. What do you want your readers to know about the foster care system, and what advice would you give to anyone considering fostering?
RD: I waited twenty years before writing about my kids, because I wanted them to be grown and give permission. I still try to not share personal details of their history. I run everything by them first. Those are their stories to tell. I choose to foster and adopt because it felt right to me. I am profoundly lucky. Being part of someone else’s healing journey is a big honor.
TCR: The character of Celia is so beautifully contrasted with Naomi, in their fierceness and deep love for their sisters. How did you go about crafting Celia as a counterpart to Naomi, who was already a fully developed character coming into this novel?
RD: I don’t sit down and plot out my characters. I feel my way into them. I get to know them. Both Naomi and Celia did everything they were supposed to and got punished for it. Celia did what girls are supposed to do. She told the truth about her stepdad. But only a tiny percentage of rape reports result in arrest, and of those, even fewer result in convictions. So, Celia ended up homeless, as I did. Naomi escaped, only to lose her sister for her courage. To me her story is symbolic for how women can be scapegoated for telling the truth.
A lot of books deal with trauma. But usually they stop with the arrest of the offender. I want to deal with the after. I want to show how we can heal and recover, and all the challenges of that. We all experience trauma in some form. Life can still be wondrous in the after.
TCR: The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl both have mystery and suspense built into the core of the story. When you wrote them, were you writing to an end that you already knew, or were you discovering the plot as you wrote?
RD: I always know the beginning, middle, and end. The rest of the story is a process of discovery. I find it very exciting. I love writing as much as I love reading. I get to be inside the story, watching it unfold.
TCR: What initially drew you to the symbol of butterflies? What do you interpret in Celia’s obsession and how the butterflies relate to her experiences?
RD: I survived trauma by escaping into a world of imagination. I think a lot of us do. We talk about resiliency, but I think we should talk about imagination. A person with an imagination has hope. They can imagine a different future. Imagination can bring us solace, comfort, and a vision of ourselves. We can tell a new story of who we are.
A homeless child is still, at heart, a child. When I lived on the streets I was still a child. Celia believes in butterflies. For her they represent a path through the darkness, the cocooning of trauma, and the metamorphosis to her future self. Celia wants to believe she can be beautiful too. I am here to tell her she already is. You are, and so I am.
TCR: Do you plan to return to Naomi’s world in the future? Or do you see yourself moving on to other projects?
RD: Right now I am writing something new. I can’t wait to share with you. It is inspired by my work with innocents and in prisons.
TCR: I’m looking forward to reading! What do you hope your readers are finding in the pages of your books, whether they can relate personally to your characters or not? Do you hope to inspire more advocates, raise awareness, or simply to connect on an emotional level to your readers and fans?
RD: I want to share the magic of story. I think readers and writers are part of a whole. Stories are nature’s honesty. They tell us that we are all equals in this world.
Felicity Landa holds an MFA from UC Riverside Palm Desert, and is a graduate of the Cal State Long Beach Creative Writing program, where she earned the Horn Scholarship for her fiction. Her work has appeared in Raising Mothers, The Sunlight Press, Capulet Mag, and elsewhere. She currently serves as a fiction editor for the online literary magazine Literary Mama and was previously nonfiction editor for The Coachella Review. To learn more please visit www.felicitylanda.com.
Related Post: Laurie Rockenbeck’s Book Review: The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld