Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Rene Denfeld who is the best-selling author of The Child Finder and The Enchanted. Her latest book, The Butterfly Girl, tackles the plight of homeless children, a marginalized population she’s familiar with after growing up homeless herself. An award-winning journalist and licensed private investigator, Rene was named Hero of the Year by The New York Times and won a Breaking the Silence Award in Washington DC for her advocacy for victims. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, the Modern Love column at The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, and The Philadelphia Inquirer despite her only receiving a ninth-grade education. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with her three children adopted from foster care.

Thanks, Rene, for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Rene Denfeld: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what your beautiful novel, The Butterfly Girl, is about? What inspired you to write it?

Rene: The Butterfly Girl is my third novel. My books have been described as thrillers written as poems. They’re very poetic. They’re also page-turners. The Butterfly Girl is very much this way. It’s a very exciting story. It centers on a twelve-year-old homeless girl who’s living on the streets of Portland, Oregon, while somebody is taking and killing the girls. Another character that appears is Naomi who is a young investigator who has come to the city to find someone else. Her path and the path of the twelve-year-old homeless girl named Celia collides in the story.

Zibby: Naomi was the protagonist in The Child Finder, your previous book. That’s right?

Rene: Exactly right. This can work as a companion or a sequel. You don’t have to read The Child Finder to read The Butterfly Girl, but you certainly can if you want.

Zibby: Now I want to. Why did you decide to keep writing about Naomi? What was it about her that made you want to keep featuring her? Was it just a vehicle to tell this story? Why this story? I know your past has collided in some ways with some of the characters. Tell me a little more about that.

Rene: It’s interesting. I finished The Child Finder. I realized right away I wanted to hear more of Naomi’s story. I felt like character wasn’t finished for me. I wasn’t sure what the story was after that. It took me a little bit of time before this particular story came to me. When Celia came up to me, when this character appeared, this twelve-year-old street kid, I thought, this is it. This is the next chapter of Naomi’s life. The story just came to me. It was in part because it was very much inspired by my own experiences. I’m pretty open about this. I had a very difficult childhood growing up. I grew up in a family with a lot of abuse, a lot of violence, a lot of crime. The man I considered my father is actually a registered predatory sex offender. He was also an armed robber and a pimp. You can imagine the kind of family I grew up in. By the time I was a young girl, I was actually living on the streets myself. It took me until this period in my life that I was really comfortable writing about it. My experiences as a homeless child really are directly inspiring the portions of this story that deal with Celia and her life on the streets.

Zibby: How did you get through that period of time? How did you go from pulling yourself out of a really difficult home environment, putting yourself out there on the street? Not that I have any idea what it’s like, but now that at least I’ve been in Celia’s head, I can have some perspective on what the day-to-day of that would look like and the courage it takes to have to do that, and then end up here as an amazing author. How did that journey happen?

Rene: I love that question because it’s so important. That’s part of the reason I write. I want to make it really clear. This is a very hopeful story. It’s a story not just about surviving. It’s a story about surviving even after really significant trauma. It’s something I can bring to people. We all experience trauma. We all have grief and loss and hardship. We live in this culture where we’re told, particularly if we have certain kinds of traumas happen to us like I did — I got all these messages growing up that I was broken and damaged. You get these messages. I really internalized it for a long time. The way I actually survived — my saving grace was the public library. Starting when I was little, I would run to the public library every day after school. I would surround myself with these walls of books. I escaped into story. I escaped into my imagination. That’s a really significant theme in this story too, was how the power of story — I think it’s true with most of us. We can all cite one or two books that really changed our lives. That’s what saved me, was the power of books and stories and this eternal hope I always had that things could be better.

Zibby: You’ve said that you taught yourself to write through reading all these books and reading the time. You have only a ninth-grade education. Yet here you are with these masterpieces that people at the most advanced MFA programs can’t come up with. You are a self-taught artist, really.

Rene: Thank you. I’ve joked I got my free MFA at the public library. For people out there that want to be writers, I really encourage them. I think the world needs our stories too. It’s wonderful if you can get an MFA, but you don’t need to. The world needs stories from all sorts of people. What I did is I read a lot. I read voraciously and I write a lot. I was actually really lucky to grow up going to the library. The library’s one place you can go if you’re homeless. When I was on the streets, I spent a lot of time in the public library. Reading that much and escaping into books gave me a very poetic way of looking at the world. It really changed how I saw the world. It gave me a lot of hope.

Zibby: Did you have something like Celia’s butterflies that helped you get out of the actual present and into a better place while you coped with it?

Rene: I did, actually. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit. I escaped into a world of fantasy myself. I would imagine that the families in the books were my families. I had all these amazing different fantasies I lived in. I liked to imagine that Native Americans were going to come save me. I had these very elaborate daydreams that were more like books I was telling myself, novels I was telling myself, where different people would come rescue me. That allowed me to hold onto hope that things could change and that I could get off the streets. Eventually I was able to.

Zibby: How?

Rene: When I turned sixteen, I was able to get a work permit. I got my first job actually in a fast food restaurant. I rented a dirt-cheap apartment, which I have to say is not an avenue that’s really available anymore for people to escape poverty and homelessness. I remember it was a tiny, little studio apartment filled with cockroaches. One of the first things I went out and did is I went to a thrift store. I bought a used typewriter for just a couple dollars. I vividly remember it was missing the R key. I’d go write this letter with a pen. When I first got off the streets, I would sit around in this little studio apartment writing poems. I would leave them at bus stops for other street kids. I always dreamed of being a writer. It was such a hope that I had that I could take my experiences and things I went through and help other people with it.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about — not to keep talking about the homeless girl angle of this book because there was so much more. I will get into that in just a second. In terms of how kids end up on the streets and how to help not have to have that happen, is there anything that we can do to help? Having lived through it, what can people really do?

Rene: There’s a lot we can do. I’m a big fan of believing that there’s not a hierarchy in activism. We all have this capacity to help other people. What you’re doing is helping people. You’re getting books out to readers. You’re probably saving people’s lives. You won’t even meet these people. Volunteering in schools, intervening in the lives of people, for instance, checking in on the troubled family down the street, volunteering in homeless shelters, making sure politicians are addressing the issue, there’s so many things we can do. A lot of people really care about this issue. It can seem daunting. What I encourage is taking those little steps. Those little things really add up. I know that my life was really changed for the better just by little things. There was an elderly librarian when I was on the streets. She befriended me. She always used to say hi to me. She would do things like keep food behind her desk and hand me a can of nuts when I came into the library. It meant the world to me. When you’re homeless, people just look through you. Being a child on the streets, it meant so much that there were people that reached out to me that showed me that they cared.

Zibby: Let’s talk a little about hope also, which you have in the book a lot and you just referenced. Diane tells Jerome, who is Naomi’s husband — Diane is a friend that they’re staying with. Naomi is trying to find her sister, which is one of the main plot points of this book. When Diane says, “I hope it’s all going to work out for her,” Jerome replies, “Hope is enough.” Do you think that hope is enough to get people through their past? Was it enough to get Naomi and Celia through? Is it always possible to have hope?

Rene: That’s such a good question. It’s kind of a trick answer. In a way, hope is enough. The question is how do we give each other hope? It’s really important because hope is the gift that we can give each other. How do we do that? Giving someone hope might mean giving them an employment opportunity. It might mean making sure that they have safe housing. More than anything for a lot of us, it means being recognized. It means being seen and heard. That’s probably the biggest gift we can give each other, is this sense of, “You matter. What happens to you matters to me.” Even in just little, daily interactions, that’s so critical. Most of us, what we really want is to feel that we matter. There’s so many ways that we can really give that sense to each other. I think hope is all you need, but embracing that doesn’t mean that we just throw people out in the cold and say, “Hey, go find some hope all by yourself.” No, it’s a community effort to give each other that gift.

Zibby: I love that. Very well said. Your trick answer worked out, for me at least. In the book, you mention things like that Celia had never had a real shower before, that she used a yogurt container in her home before, and that the one time she goes to a hotel with the shower — it’s like my daughter’s — It was a disaster. She actually had to eat the plaster chunks that fell from her bedroom wall when she was hungry. What do you think the impact is of growing up without these things that so many take for granted, particularly in a society where we — this isn’t a third-world country. Everybody takes these things for granted. What about when you don’t have them? What are the consequences?

Rene: There are so many different consequences. I grew up in that kind of poverty when I was little, which is how I understand and relate to it. I finally got my school records, for instance. I was severely underweight because we didn’t have enough to eat. I literally went hungry as a child. When you’re really that poor, things like — I don’t want to be too graphic. If you get a bad case of head lice and you can’t afford the medicine to fix it, you can’t afford to buy new clothes, that sort of thing, there’s a lot of people that live in that kind of poverty in our country. One thing that I see is now we’re starting to recognize that we’re having this epidemic of homelessness. What we don’t really recognize is a lot of those homeless people are children. To be that poor is to be seen and not seen. I know for me growing up that poor, it gave me a profound appreciation for what I have. I go through every day filled with gratitude just to be out in the world. I love going for long walks. I appreciate that I can buy these nice sneakers and comfortable clothes and to be out in the world and experience the beauty of it. The world is beautiful. We all have a right to that. Even people that come from trauma and sadness and grief have a right to experience the beauty of the world. If you’ve really had a lot of hardship, you maybe get a little more tuned in to how precious it is.

Zibby: The one upside of hard times, yes. Everything else seems better.

Rene: Exactly, in comparison. When I’m parenting my kids, we have a family saying. When we’re going through hard times, I say, “Nobody killed any puppies today.” It’s our code word for, “You know what? Life could be a lot harder than this.” It gives you a real sense of what hardship really is.

Zibby: You wrote about in your Modern Love piece, how you had adopted your first foster child. Now you’ve adopted several. It talked about you adopting several children. You wrote, “As far as I knew, I was capable of getting pregnant. I just didn’t want to. There were half a million in foster care in need of an adoptive parent, and I wanted children so this made perfect sense to me.” You said that it didn’t necessarily make sense to some of your friends at the time. To you, it was crystal clear. Then you said, “The first months of motherhood hit me like a lead-filled gunnysack,” which was the best way to put that. That’s so unique and awesome. Talk to me a little about your decision. Were you married at the time? How old were you? When did you decide you were ready to do this and you just went for it?

Rene: I got off the streets when I was sixteen and ended up working a variety of service jobs, trying to be a writer while I worked at fast food restaurants, that sort of thing. One of the virtues to it is actually, you grow up fast. By the time I was in my early twenties, I realized I wanted to be a parent. I did feel really called to kids in the foster care system. I really felt like I wanted to parent kids from backgrounds like mine. Like you said, it made perfect sense to me. It was so funny because I had made friends at that point. It didn’t make perfect sense to them at all. I got a lot of questions like, “Don’t you want kids of your own?” I thought, these are going to be my own kids. I was in my twenties. I was unmarried at the time. I was working as a freelance journalist and a writer. I ended up going into public defense work. I decided to do it. Ideals are one thing. Then reality is another. I’m sure everybody that’s been a first-time parent can relate to that feeling. I remember when I got my first child, my daughter — all my kids came to me from foster care. They were all considered very difficult to place. They all came with some significant challenges. I remember sitting on the edge of my bed holding my daughter thinking, what have I got myself into? and being so overwhelmed and yet committed and yet excited and horrified and stressed and such a huge mixture of emotions. It was so intense.

Zibby: I would argue that secretly most parents have sat there on the bed with a screaming baby and thought, what have I got myself into? I cannot reverse this decision in any way. Now what?

Rene: Exactly. Now you’re committed. Now what?

Zibby: Then the baby smiles and you’re like, “Aw, okay.” It’s enough.

Rene: I think that’s a real common part of parenting, that universal experience of, oh, my gosh, what did I do? It’s been over twenty years now. I have adopted three kids from foster care. I’ve fostered other kids. My most recent foster kid was a teenager. They were actually getting ready to drive her to a homeless shelter because there was no place to take her. Hand’s down, it’s been the best choice I ever made. It’s been a wonderful journey. I love my kids so much. They’re awesome kids. If you let me, I’d sit here and brag about my babies. It’s been a way for me to take the pain I experienced and turn it into something positive. It’s been just as good for me, maybe even more, than it’s been for my kids.

Zibby: You talked in the article also about how the best therapy, you think, for kids is just the permanence and the love that you show them more so than all the advanced services and this, that, or the other thing. You wrote about it so beautifully with your son. It took him so long. Then finally he said “I love you” when he finally realized deep down you weren’t going anywhere. I was crying. It’s beautiful. Is that still how you power through? How do you get through these really challenge parenting moments? How do you stay calm and patient and persevere and all those good things that I feel like I lack?

Rene: It’s been a learning curve for me too. For me to give up on my kids would’ve meant giving up on myself. A lot of my parenting journey has been, I can’t give up on them because then I would be telling myself that I don’t deserve to be saved either. We all deserve to be saved. We all deserve love in a family. There was such a deep commitment on my part, to be honest. I knew I couldn’t give up. I couldn’t give up on them. To give up on them would be to give up on myself. Particularly, my oldest son came to me with a great deal of rage and anger problems. It wasn’t a matter of just having some bad weeks or months. We had bad years. It took years. Now he is this very happy, successful, wonderful young adult. He’s doing great in his life. It’s a beautiful thing to see. With writing, the same thing happens. It’s learning to love the process. I stopped thinking about the end goal as much, but I’ve learned to love the process. It’s the process that can really bring us a lot of satisfaction.

Zibby: What’s the writing process like for you? Do you go to the public library still? Do you write there? Do you write at home? What do you do?

Rene: I write at home. Actually, I’ve got an old, antique, roll-top desk. It’s my magic portal to another world. I love writing. When I’m writing, I fall down this delicious rabbit hole. I’m just as excited as any reader to find out what’s going to happen. It’s being in the best of both worlds. I’m creating the story and yet I’m part of the story. I absolutely love it. One thing I do is — I’m a single mom. I have four kids. I usually always had three to four children at a time. I have my adopted kids and then foster kids. I really prioritize it. I let the chores go. I remember hearing Margaret Atwood speak. A reporter had asked her, “You’re a mother and a writer. Who does the chores?” Margaret Atwood said, “Look under the couch.”

Zibby: Pick your battles.

Rene: Pick your battles. That’s my attitude too. You have to prioritize your art sometimes. It’s been good for my kids to know that Mom’s writing is important to her.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. Here you are, you’re one of the most generous, beautiful people, that you could take this horrendous childhood experience, this trauma, and turn it into something so positive, and not only give back to readers with your work, but to now take the foster kids in and adopt children. You’re this endless fountain of hope. Why do think that’s the direction you went in? You could have turned out — I’m sure you’ve thought about this yourself. Anyone in your situation who was not particularly, I would argue, well-parented — I don’t know anything about your mom. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you might not have had parents who were reading all the parenting literature and all of that. Yet look at how you turned out. You turned out amazingly well. Do parents even make a difference? You could come out of thin air. How does it happen, do you think?

Rene: I think it’s partially luck, to be honest. When I was homeless and on the streets, I was very close to other street kids. You get to know other people. Most of those people are gone. Most people in my situation end up losing themselves to addictions, to self-harm. There’s a lot of terrible things that could happen. In a sense, it’s luck. It’s luck that I discovered books. I’m a huge supporter of libraries. People talk about resiliency. I like to think of it as imagination. Everything that we can do to give children a sense of resiliency, of imagination, or hope is incredibly important. The other thing that I was lucky to do was stumbling into helping other people. That’s what we can also do. We can take our trauma and turn it outwards and say, I’m going to use this as a strength and embrace it. It’s hard in our culture too. We live in a culture that really shames people who are victims. It’s been a challenge for me as well to push back against that shame.

Zibby: In the context of all of this, can you tell me a little more about selling these books? You sold your book. You became an author. Was that the most amazing feeling ever? Were you over the moon? Tell me about that shift in your life to becoming a published author.

Rene: It was amazing. When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t tell anybody I was doing it. In fact, I didn’t even tell my kids I was writing my first novel. They thought I was playing around on Facebook. When I wrote my first novel, it felt like such a magical secret thing. Maybe I also had a fear that nothing would become of it. When I actually sold it — I got an agent who told me he thought it was astonishing. It sold to a big publishing house. Honestly, at first it felt all very unreal. Then it happened. It came out. It got a lot of rave reviews and won fancy awards. It was really redemptive for me. One lesson it really brought home is people relate to stories that feel honest and true to them. They relate to my books not just because they deal with trauma and bad things happening. They relate to my stories because they can tell that I genuinely survived these things. My books offer a roadmap to a better future. They deal with things in a realistic way. They also are imbued with that hope. I’m very intensely grateful. I’m just so grateful. I get to write books. I get to be a mom. I get to love people. I get to share stories with readers. There’s nothing better than that.

Zibby: That is amazing. Are you writing anything new? Do you have another novel in you that’s on its way or anything?

Rene: I tend to be top-secret about things I’m working on. I’m always afraid of jinxing the story. All my books came to me as voices, which sounds kind of woo-woo. The Butterfly Girl came to me when I was walking down a city street. I heard this girl, a little, twelve-year-old girl talking to me. She was telling me how she was homeless. She believed that butterflies were going to come save her. That’s how this character Celia was born. Of course I realize intellectually that is inspired by my own experiences, but these characters always come to me as real people. The story manifests from that point. I’m always waiting to hear the next voice, the next story. It feels like such a privilege when I do and I get to escape back into the magic, the magic of a story.

Zibby: Thank you so much for sharing this experience with listeners and with me and for all of your stories. Wow, what a role model you are. No matter what your past, to be so giving and grateful and have this, I can tell, sense of yourself, it’s just amazing.

Rene: Thank you so much. I really appreciate this and appreciate what you do. I do think that stories and books, they’re powerful magic. The more that we can spread the word about books, the more that we can share these stories with each other, particularly in times where people feel sometimes helpless and stressed — life is difficult. Books are this way that, actually, we’re all having this conversation with each other. When I’m writing a book, I think of it as a private conversation between me and the reader. The story is this soft place for us to fall. It’s a gentle and welcoming place where we can all have this conversation and this connection with each other. What you’re doing is so immensely important. I’m very grateful for it.

Zibby: Thank you. That’s really nice of you to say. Thank you. I love it. I agree with you. That’s my whole mission. Books have done so much for me. To give the person the right book at the right time to help them through whatever they’re going through, that’s the best thing I could ever do.

Rene: Isn’t it? It is. It’s not exaggeration to it’s lifesaving because it is. You never know who you’re reaching and how you’re helping them. That’s a beautiful, magical thing too, to think that there’s people out there that are listening to this show and you don’t know how you’ve touched them, but you have.

Zibby: I hope people are listening. Is anybody out there? I hope someone’s out there.

Rene: Hello?

Zibby: If not, I’ve had a great time chatting with you.

Rene: Thank you. I also really welcome — I love hearing from readers too. If people read the novel, The Butterfly Girl, and want to reach out to me and tell me about their own experiences, that is something that is one of the most special parts of being a writer. I get those emails or those messages. It’s so wonderful to think a reader some place in a state far away —

Zibby: — How should they contact you?

Rene: I’m on social media. They can go on Facebook or Twitter or whatever they’re doing. Hit the little message button. I love hearing from people.

Zibby: What is your Instagram in case somebody’s scrolling right now? Do you remember what you are?

Rene: It’s @RDenfeld.

Zibby: @RDenefeld, R-D-E-N-F-E-L-D. Watch out. Somebody direct message Rene so that she can know that somebody has listened to the end of this episode. If not, I’m going to shoot myself or something. Thank you, Rene. Thanks for coming on the show. I hope you have a great day.

Rene: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye.

Rene: Bye.