When it comes to his recently published third novel, the prolific author and magazine editor, says he did not envision venturing to the world of this rather dark genre. “I didn’t pick it; I write the stories that come to me. Most people would probably call my stuff horror, but I say my stories are horror adjacent or just dark fiction.”
After all these years, Donahue says that his favorite aspect of writing his novels is getting to the third or fourth drafts. “This is when the story is done, the characters are real, and I can focus squarely on tightening up the writing.”
When he is not writing his novels, penning short fiction, or editing Suburban Life Magazine, Donahue and his wife, Donna, enjoy romping with their rambunctious dog, fostering kittens, and exploring nature by hiking in picturesque Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and beyond.
A disciplined author, Donahue writes every day and says the inspiration for his intricate novels finds him. “It always begins with the nugget of an idea,” he explains. “It’s like a snowball rolling downhill, starting small and gaining mass and speed over time.”
Read on for Donahue’s take on writing, life, and work philosophy, love for dogs and cats, and why it is never too late to pursue your dreams of becoming an author, regardless of your age.
You primarily write entertainment, feature stories, and business profiles. Is this why your books are in a totally different genre?
I write for my day job because it’s my day job, and I enjoy most of it. I get to explore the things that interest me through fiction.
What do you enjoy about editing Suburban Life Magazine and the other magazines for which you write and edit?
Publishing has changed a lot in the past 10 years — some ways good, some ways not so good. The thing I enjoy most about the job is the opportunity to interview many different people, from famous entertainers to everyday people who are just trying to make it to another day. The interviews I enjoy most are the ones in which someone shares something personal when the interview becomes more like a conversation. I’m genuinely fascinated by people — plus, meeting lots of different people helps to inform the characters I develop for my fictional stories.
Please talk about the fan reaction to this book, and your other books.
The overall reaction to Only Monsters Remain has been very good; people seem to like the blend of terror and tenderness I try to incorporate into all of my books.
What gets you bounding out of bed in the morning?
The opportunity to spend time with my wife and animals — a big dumb dog and three cats, plus however many kittens we may be fostering at that time.
Overall, what would you say your life philosophy is?
My life philosophy is, to walk gently. I do my best to be kind and I kind of live my life the way that my parents raised me. That’s really to be kind, to show people respect until they show that they don’t deserve it. Just advocate for yourself. Again, I would say it’s probably to walk gently wherever you can.
And what is your work philosophy?
In terms of writing, I don’t know if I have a general philosophy in writing. I really just like to write character-driven stories. As I said before, I’m fascinated by people and the decisions that they make. As much as we try to study the people who came before us, we still continue to make mistakes in our lives. Whether it’s personal mistakes or the mistakes we might make in our careers or otherwise. I just find that fascinating that the brain is so complex, and relationships are so complex, and I just love delving into those kinds of things.
Do you read horror books or other genres, horror movies, and any favorites of either one that you would recommend?
I do. I read pretty broadly. I do read a fair amount of horror, but I would say my favorite genre is probably literary fiction. I’ll read the occasional romance novel, I read poetry. I read kind of whatever story speaks to me. The stories that I tell I try to make them literary as much as I can, but they’re always going to have a horror or dark dent to them.
Halloween is one of my favorite times of the year. My wife and I will watch horror movies pretty much every day of the month. But it’s just not limited to this time of year. We mostly watch a lot of the classics, everything from the black and white Universal films too. I would say my favorite part of the genre for horror anyway is probably early 80s, early 80s horror before it got too camp-ish.
Does your wife, Donna, act as a general reader, proofreader, or critic? Is she involved in the books at all?
Yes. She’s probably not my first reader. I’ve been part of a writer’s group for about 10 years. They’re basically my operators. I would say she’s probably a beta reader, so once I get to a point, probably second or third draft, she dutifully reads just about everything, and she’s great. She always says that she’s not a good critic. She is. She’s a good reader herself just in terms of the stuff that she reads. Yeah, she’s been terrific.
How long have you been married?
We’ve been together for 33 years and we’ve been married for 24. We were high school sweethearts.
When and where do you write your novels? How do you keep the discipline to write every day?
I find the fact I write every day for work is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it helps us, keeps us sharp, and helps us talk to this kind of revolving door of new and interesting people, which is great and it’s helpful for forming your characters.
Also, if I have a long day and a painful day of talking to people and writing stories and stuff like that, the last thing I want to do is sit down to write a story, even if it’s a story I really want to write. I tend to work on it every day. To me a lot of writing is actually not writing; it’s just thinking about stuff and having conversations with characters and all that kind of stuff.
Every morning I’ll go for a walk with my dog and we’ll walk for about 40 minutes, and during that time, that’s what I use to really think about where the story is going, what holes I have to fill, things like that. Then I’ll just come back, and I’ll just jot everything down in a notebook and that becomes my roadmap for when I have like a formal writing session. Usually, that’s Sunday mornings are probably the time that I have carved out.
I used to start at probably 10:30 at night and write until 3:00 in the morning. This was in my 20s and 30s. Back then I could do that for a week in a row and I’d be fine. Now, if it gets to 11:00 and I’m still awake, my sleep is much more important now. I would say I’m much more disciplined now. When I’m sitting down to write on a Sunday morning, I can do a lot of damage in two to three hours.
Tell me about all three of your novels.
The first one, this one was published in November 2020. It’s called Burn, Beautiful Soul. It’s about a demon king who lives beneath the soil in a place that you would think of as a place like hell. The place where he lives is called Our Fiery Home and basically, he lords over this place and he’s about as bad as you think a demon might be. It gets to a point where he realizes I’m kind of sick of all this stuff. Yes, I am doing all this stuff; I’m lording over all these terrible things, but I want more out of this. He’s into things like poetry and he has these strange memories of beautiful natural places and he longs to be part of them again. He basically ascends from his subterranean kingdom, and he comes to earth. This is in the late 90s and he ends up in Nebraska.
Based on the state of the world, he appears as this nine-foot-tall coal-black demon with horns and hooves and a snake-like tail, things like that. But based on the state of the world people just accept him, for the most part. He winds up getting a job as a copywriter for an ad agency. He becomes entrenched in people’s lives. I should say that not everyone accepts him. Pretty soon there’s conflict both in the human world as well as below because when he left, he left a vacuum. There are other demons who are willing to come in and fill that vacuum. Some people see it as a horror comedy, which I suppose it is. Other people see satire. It’s interesting to see what people come away with it once they finish reading it.
Please tell me about your second book.
The title for the second book, Crawl on Your Belly All the Days of Your Life, was actually pulled from a bible verse. It was about when the serpent was in the Garden and tempted Eve that was the curse that got bestowed upon the serpent that it would crawl on its belly and eat dirt for all the rest of its days. It’s probably the most personal book that I’ve ever written. It’s not exactly autobiography but it does address some of the challenges that I’ve had in my life over the past 15-20 years.
The main character is a guy named Sid and he loves snakes. That sort of ties back to the title. The book starts off when he winds up going to the funeral for the father of his former paramour who has died. He decides to show up at the funeral even though the affair ended really badly. Then his whole life just explodes. It’s very dark, it’s fun, it’s romantic; it’s a bit of everything.
Sounds like it would make a good movie. All of your books sound like they have movie potential. Have you ever tried to pitch to a movie or streaming company?
I have not. I would love to do a play at some point. I love plays. This is going to sound stupid but going the whole movie route… I have friends who have gotten agents to bring their work or try to bring their works to the big screen, but I really like the personal aspect of theater. I would love to do that. I haven’t lifted a finger to do that but someday I would love to do that.
How would you describe the new book?
Only Monsters Remain is a fun one. It started off as something much different. I’m not sure if you’ve read Elizabeth Strout. She’s the author of Olive Kitteridge, I think it won the Pulitzer many years ago. It’s a beautiful book, and basically, the novel is about the town where she lives. It’s Crosby, Maine and the main character in that story is Olive Kitteridge. It’s a beautiful book.
I had a similar idea for this book where it was going to be basically all the characters that you might meet in a funeral home. In that case, the funeral home would be kind of the Olive Kitteridge character. I got to a point in the novel where it was basically a bunch of short stories with all these different characters tied together revolving around the funeral home. But I got to a point where I wrote this one character named Jillian Futch. She was a mortician’s apprentice. When I got to her I was like ‘Wow, I really want to know more about her.’ And so, at that point, the whole book changed, and it became something much different, and it became more… Initially it was just kind of a dark book and this one became just horror sci-fi.
Please tell me more.
Somehow, I got to a point where there’s basically a horde of tentacled monsters from a different dimension that basically attack Earth and basically plunge the Earth into an apocalypse. And it’s all about how Jillian and the fellow survivors in Rhode Island, basically they deal with this new world in which they’re living. Jillian was great because she’s very introverted. She’s been hurt by people. But she still longs to have a relationship with humans. Most of the people that are still alive in this apocalypse, there are not too many good people left. She still tries to do good things and she’s still looking for those connections, which she finds in the apocalypse. Some are human and some are not. It was a fascinating story for me. Hopefully, it works.
You have interviewed many celebrities in the past dozen or more years, can you share stories about a few of them and why they are among your favorites?
My favorites have included Terry Gross, Jeff Daniels, M. Night Shyamalan, Michael Chabon, Leslie Odom Jr., Mark Howe, Michael Connelly, Paige Davis, and Josh Groban.
You mentioned some of my favorite people in the celebrity stories. Can you elaborate on one or two of your celebrity interviews? Let’s start with Terry Gross.
So, it was so intimidating going into an interview with her with someone who is so incredibly prepared with everyone that she speaks to. And what I liked about her is that eventually it just became a conversation. It was great. I’m sure I asked her plenty of stupid questions, which is what you kind of have to do sometimes as a reporter. But she was just great.
One of my favorites was actually Josh Groban, who I honestly didn’t know what to expect from the interview. I can’t say that I’m not in love with his music or anything like that I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the interview. He was just so much fun He’s really funny, very down to earth and he was in a movie called CoffeeTown, in which he plays a villain, which totally is against his type for him. He did it so well, and there’s a scene in the movie that just cracked me up. It’s kind of a parody of a scene in a movie from the 80s called Rad. There are these two people doing kind of a bike dance of all things. I brought that up and he started singing the song from that movie that’s called Send Me an Angel. He was just really fun to talk to.
What does fostering kittens entail?
It’s awesome. Donna and I don’t have children, so we have a lot of animals. We have a big dog and three cats. Around 2015, a friend of my wife’s sister came to us and asked if we could foster a pregnant cat. We wanted to help so we had the kittens born in our house and we got to see them grow up. We formed relationships with these kittens and have been doing it ever since. I think we’ve done about 50 or so at this point. I’d say before 10 years ago I never would have described myself as a cat person. I love all animals. But like having been this close to cats and having the opportunity to be with them, hang out with them, they’re just so fun. And kittens especially, they’re mischievous and fun and you just get to see them grow up and discover new things and discover themselves and it’s just been a blast. We work with the foster company called Forgotten Cats in Wilmington, Delaware, to find good homes for them. They’re very good about vetting where the kittens go just so they know that they’re going into a good situation.
What advice would you give to somebody who’s been wanting to write a novel or a book in any genre, whether they’re 20 or 75, and haven’t taken the plunge?
I would say the best advice is probably advice you’re going to get from anybody. To read a lot and write a lot. Michael Chabon is a great writer and one of the things that he said, which I totally agree with, is that first drafts are obligatory. This means that you basically just have to do the first draft to get it out of the way so you can make the second, third, and fourth better. Just do it and worry about making it good later. I think a lot of people they see this daunting task as it’s going to be no good or it’s not going to be groundbreaking or whatever. They put all this pressure on themselves and that prevents them from taking that step.
I’d also say that if you ultimately want to bring this out into the world, if you want to write so people read it, I would say make yourself comfortable with criticism. Because the world of book reviews can be pretty cruel at times. You have to develop a thick skin in that regard.
Do you have any other tips to share?
For me, one of the most helpful things was joining a writer’s group. I’ve been part of a writer’s group for about 10 years now and it did help, it helped a lot of things. It helped in terms of craft, in terms of just getting better with sentence structure, grammar, everything, all that stuff. I’ve basically become friends with a lot of people, and it’s given me kind of a built-in network. And again, that’s really helped me become more comfortable with criticism.
What kind of dog do you have and what’s his name?
He’s a Boxer mix named Baxter. He’s awesome!
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