Making It

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By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, March 11, 2007

Keith Donohue had always dreamed of being a writer and even gave it a shot in his 20s, but life intervened -- marriage and kids, work and graduate school -- until suddenly he was older than 40 and still hadn't published a book.

Then came September 11, 2001. "The tragedy caused a lot of people to examine our own lives," Keith says. "I'd always wanted to be a novelist. And I'd just never done it." Keith, who was working in communications at a small arts foundation and had a teenager and three young children, decided: "I'm either going to do what I've always dreamed of doing, or put it aside."

He did it, writing The Stolen Child, published last May and described by newspaper critics as a "captivating tale" and "a luminous and thrilling novel about our humanity." With the help of early positive reviews on Amazon.com, the book became an Amazon and New York Times extended bestseller, and has been published in 25 countries. "To this day, I'm astonished," Keith says.

Keith's earlier experiences helped prepare him to fulfill his longtime ambition. The Wheaton resident had been a speechwriter for the National Endowment for the Arts, which, he says, taught him to write fast. Completing a PhD dissertation while working and raising kids taught him to write long, he says, and to write whenever he could: "I got into the habit of writing all the time. I write on the subway to and from work. I write a lot at lunch . . . almost any spare moment that I can."

So, taking a little notebook and a pen with him on the subway, Keith started with inspiration -- from the W.B. Yeats poem "The Stolen Child" and the musical version by the Waterboys -- and a structural puzzle: two narrators with the same name who are telling their story at the same time.

Keith finished the book, a modern-day tale about a changeling and the boy he replaces, in nine months. Then he spent another two years, during which the small arts foundation failed (he now works at the National Historical Publications and Records Commission), looking for an agent. The agent, Peter Steinberg, helped Keith polish the book, then sold it to Doubleday for what Keith describes as a "low six-figure deal." Amazon.com bought the movie option, and the paperback will come out in May. Meanwhile, Keith has started a second novel, this one involving the concept of angels.

The money he has made from the book isn't enough to allow Keith, 47, whose wife is a science editor and whose kids range in age from 7 to 24, to quit his job. But it has paid off the debts that accrued when he was out of work, and life as a novelist could mean greater flexibility, he says. "At this stage, it's more about the potential for what happens next: What's the next book going to do, or what's the paperback going to do? Could I go teach writing? It opens up possibilities."

Keith's novel-writing success this time around has as much to do with commitment as talent, he says. "I think the difference for me between my first try and my second try decades later was realizing that you have to sort of commit your whole self to the process. You have to throw yourself into it, give it a little soul. Otherwise, it's a technical matter."

Have you made a breakthrough in a creative field? E-mail changb@washpost.com.


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