Every weekday morning, novelist Keith Donohue walks to the Wheaton Metro station and boards a downtown train. Sitting out of the sun, he takes out his Moleskine notebook and fountain pen and starts to write. Forty minutes later, he gets off at Gallery Place and walks to his job as communications director at the National Archives. Most of the day he answers press queries, edits copy and goes tomeetings, but at lunchtime, while sitting on aMall bench or in a local sandwich shop, he brings out the notebook again. And in the evening, on the crowded Metro back to Wheaton, he writes as much as he can before getting home to evenings and weekends filled with family obligations.
Over the past 10 years, in slices of time stolen from daily life, Donohue, 49, has written a doctoral dissertation and two novels. He hit the literary scene like a Fourth of July firecracker with his first novel, The Stolen Child. Since its publication in May 2006, 100,000 copies of the book have been sold in the U.S. Most first novels are regarded as a success if 5,000 are sold. In addition, the book has been sold in 25 other countries—unheard of for a first novel—and is being read in places as far away as Taiwan and Indonesia. Amazon.com has bought the film rights in its first foray into moviemaking, and a screenplay is being written by Ron Nyswaner, Academy Award nominee for his screenplay for Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks.
Donohue’s writing regimen takes a lot of discipline. “You need to be OK with obsession,” he says. “The time that you spend at work or at home where you’re essentially procrastinating, that’s what I cut down. I don’t really need to stay up and watch Letterman. It will go on without me, but these projects won’t.”
The determination Donohue brings to his writing was evident in his character early in his life. His older sister, Sharon, says he could be “very focused and relentless.” As the middle child of seven children, Donohue learned quickly how to zone out distractions. His siblings remember him writing at the kitchen table surrounded by the maelstrom of a large family in a small house. The family lived in Pittsburgh until Donohue was in first grade and then moved to a sleepy little backwater in Charles County, Md.
Donohue’s brother Sean remembers that Donohue was “always interested in make-believe,” but Donohue says it wasn’t until the seventh grade that he really grasped the “romance of being a writer.” His teacher encouraged students to keep a journal and told them to write down anything they wanted. Donohue interpreted that to mean he could make up things. It was the first time, he says, that someone had given him permission to write stories.
He wrote with such success that he was able to put himself through college with creative writing scholarships. Studying at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh under Samuel Hazo, Pennsylvania’s current state poet, Donohue earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. By the time he graduated, he was married and had a daughter, Cara. Teaching jobs being in short supply, he earned his living managing a cigar store.
When the store went bust in 1984, Donohue went to Washington, D.C., looking for a government job and found himself answering mail for the National Endowment for the Arts. Within a couple of years, he was writing speeches for then-NEA head John Frohnmayer, and later for actress Jane Alexander, who was NEA chairperson for four years.
By the late 1980s, Donohue had separated from his first wife and was growing close to an NEA staffer whom he eventually married. Melanie Donohue remembers Keith urging her to take a journey across the U.S. that she’d always dreamed of. “You should quit and go now or you may never do it,” she says he told her. She took his advice and set off, and in every major city she visited—Chicago, Santa Fe, Las Vegas—beautifully written letters from him were waiting for her at the post office. After 2½ months, Melanie returned to Washington, unable to resist the long distance wooing. “I always say I married him for his letters.”
In the mid-1990s, the NEA was plunged into the middle of the so-called “culture wars.” Outraged by the works of some of the artists the NEA had funded (including Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs), U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 104th Congress slashed funding for the NEA by 40 percent. As Alexander and Donohue battled Congress side by side, she got to know him well. Even in the thick of the political fight, she could sense that “Keith’s mind was elsewhere somehow. He’d confided inme that he wanted to write a novel,” Alexander says. During a summer weekend in 2001, when Donohue and Melanie were staying with Alexander and her husband, theater director Ed Sherin, at their Nova Scotia house, Sherin gave Donohue some blunt advice. As Alexander remembers it: “My husband is a remarkably forceful man when he feels passionately about something, and he told Keith, ‘Just get off your ass and write it.’”
Hearing the echo of his own exhortation to Melanie to seize the day, Donohue took Sherin’s advice. He had already begun writing on the Metro while completing his Ph.D. in Irish literature at Catholic University, and he felt he had the discipline to tackle a novel in the same way.
Donohue began unraveling a tale inspired by the William Butler Yeats poem, “The Stolen Child.”
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand.
Drawing on the unspoiled landscapes of his southern Maryland childhood, Donohue’s The Stolen Child is the haunting story of a 7-year-old boy kidnapped by a gang of wild, ageless children or “changelings.” The story is told in two interwoven voices, one of the child stolen from his family; the other of the boy who replaces him.
Donohue wrote snippets of the novel in the brief crannies of his working day and then went home to his growing family in Wheaton. Even Melanie had no idea what he was up to. A year later, she and Donohue were visiting Alexander and Sherin again, this time in Maine, and Melanie was amazed when Donohue dropped a manila envelope on a coffee table and announced, “I’ve written it.”
Melanie admits she often doesn’t know what her husband is thinking.“He spends a lot of time inside his mind,” she says. But once in the know, Melanie, a science editor, became his first and most valued reader.
Over the next two years, as 30 agents turned down the manuscript, Donohue was discouraged but stubborn. “My faith in the novel kept me going,” he says, “as well as a general sense that finding an agent can be the most difficult part of the process.” Finally, in June 2004, he got the call he’d been waiting for. Peter Steinberg, a New York literary agent, had discovered the novel in his agency’s slush pile. “I nearly passed because the original first chapter wasn’t compelling,” Steinberg says. “But as soon as I read the first lines of Chapter 2, I was totally hooked.”
Those two sentences—“Don’t call me a fairy. We don’t like to be called fairies any more”—became the opening lines of the published version of The Stolen Child.
After Donohue and Steinberg worked on the manuscript, the agent sold the novel to publisher Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. The Stolen Child became a hit almost immediately. The Washington Post’s Book World praised it as “a luminous and thrilling book,” and the Detroit Free Press called it “an unsettling and gorgeously written tale.” On the strength of the book’s sales, Donohue landed a seven-figure deal with Shaye Areheart Books, a division of Random House, for his next two novels.
Melanie says her husband rarely gets sentimental about objects, but he was particularly attached to the fountain pen he used to write The Stolen Child. One day, as the family arrived home from an outing, their dog, Selkie, greeted them with ink around her mouth.The precious fountain pen was in chewed-up pieces on the floor. “I’ve never seen Keith so furious,” Melanie says. “He almost never blows up, but I thought the dog was going to die, I really did.”
Donohue found another fountain pen to write his second novel, Angels of Destruction. The book, about a 9-year-old girl who may or may not be an angel, is slated to be published in March 2009. Steinberg doesn’t see Donohue falling victim to the second novel curse—a big first success followed by a flop. “I’m not worried at all—the book’s too good,” Steinberg says.
Donohue is philosophical about his accomplishment. Of the enthusiastic reception for The Stolen Child, he says, “It felt like it was happening to someone else.” Those who know Donohue say his literary success hasn’t changed him. His mentor at Duquesne University, Samuel Hazo, says, “There are people you meet in life who have a cruising speed. They don’t speed up in good times and they don’t slow down in bad times. Keith knows how ephemeral fame is.” Nor is Steinberg surprised that Donohue has not been changed by his good fortune, saying, “When success comes to people who aren’t 22 years old, they take it in stride.”
Donohue lives in Wheaton with Melanie, daughters Rose, 14, and Eilis, 11, and son Owen, 8. They’re still in the same foursquare, red-brick house with a yard full of azaleas and a thriving Japanese maple. He still writes on the Metro—his third novel now—on the way to and from work. His time at home is full of softball practices and piano recitals and birthday parties.
The family still has only one computer, tucked away in a narrow room, wedged between piles of books and board games and dress-up clothes. It’s hard for Donohue to use it when he’s home because his children have stories of their own to write.
If Donohue were ever to give up working full time, able to write whenever he wanted, he would miss the structure of his current schedule. With a straight face, he says, “I’d probably need another room in the house, a place to go, and it would probably help if you could rig it so it vibrated, and strangers came in and out, and a voice told you the name of the next station.”
Fiona J. Mackintosh, a freelance writer in Wheaton, is writing a nonfiction book about a 19th century Tahitian Princess.