Arts & Entertainment

Bona Alum Donald Then Discusses His Fifth and Sixth Novels

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Donald Then, a '74 alum of St. Bonaventure University, discusses his two newest novels.
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“Let me tell you something, Mr. Then. You will find in this life there is no justice.”

Those were words Donald Then’s Russian professor at St. Bonaventure University, Bohdan Tomkiw, told him more than once back in the early 1970s. And those are words that stuck with Then.

In fact, Then incorporated them into his sixth novel, Netta’s Journal.

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Then, whose novel is due to be published at the end of February, gave some background on his title character Netta: “She grew up in Krakow, and her father was adamant that she learn languages, but he would always say to her, ‘There is no justice.’ ”

Netta’s Journal revolves around a young man and a young woman who had been raised by the same nanny, Netta. When they were young, they had been in love; then they drifted apart. As Netta is dying, she tells them she wrote a journal about her own life and challenges them to find it. As they take on her challenge, they find their love reignited.

Then added that he also incorporated experiences from his travels in France and England into Netta’s Journal. For example, when he and his wife and daughter went on a cruise on the Seine in Paris, he recalled seeing a beautiful woman walk along the river. Inspired by the City of Love, Then said he “threw her a kiss and dammit if she didn’t throw a kiss back at me.” In Netta’s Journal, Then uses that experience as the means for Netta’s brother meeting his wife, to whom he is married for 60 years.

“You write better when you write about things you know. I try to transfer all the things I’ve met along the way and transfer them to characters,” he said. “One of things I want to get across is I try to take real-life things and transfer them to characters to make it more believable.”

Then, an Air Force veteran, has enjoyed a variety of experiences. The 1974 St. Bonaventure University journalism graduate and Hellinger Award winner, once owned his own newspaper, The Sunday Challenger, which he said won hundreds of awards. He also had been a marketing officer for a Fortune 1000 company and had been on the radio in the mornings for 10 years.

Now retired, Then likes to spend his time writing novels. His fifth novel, As Sure as the Sun Rises, came out earlier this year and is a love story set during the Vietnam War. That fifth novel had its origins as the book a main character is writing in Then's first novel, That Tender Light

“The problem when you write a book is the fact that it’s very difficult to finish the novel,” he said. “Everybody I talk to says they would love to write but very few people say they finished it.”

He recalled advice he received from the late Tom Clancy, an insurance agent turned best-selling author: “Finish the damn book.”

Then continues to take Clancy's advice seriously. “You can always go back and revise. That’s what I do. I make sure I finish the book and then I go back and edit and tighten and edit and tighten and edit and tighten.”

He added he is inspired by the precise writing of Hemingway. In his spare time he substitute teaches at schools in his town of residence, Hebron, Kentucky, and he likes to discuss Hemingway and Fitzgerald with the students.

“I’m well read. I know a lot of history, and I like to impart that if I can to help people,” he said. “That’s what life’s all about.”

Then diffuses his knowledge of different subjects into his books. He makes a habit of using history and quotes from well-known authors such as T.S. Eliot.

“In any serious adult novel by me, each part has a quote that starts that section and somewhere in that section one of the characters will use that quote or the guts of that quote in dialogue,” he said. “That‘s a trademark I like to use.”

Then also incorporates his journalism training from St. Bonaventure into his work. 

“If this were a journalism class, [the first sentences of Netta’s Journal] is my lede,” he said. “I just told you in six lines what that story is about. I just wanted you to know that I haven’t forgotten my roots of journalism and how to write and report.”

In fact, Then recently posted on the St. Bonaventure University School of Journalism and Mass Communication Facebook page that he is looking for an intern to help him with research for his seventh novel. He said the research he does to make his books historically accurate takes the most amount of his time. When he is writing, if he finds he needs research on a detail but does not want to interrupt his train of thought, he will highlight it in red.

“You want to make the streets right; you want to make the food they ate proper; you want to make all these things proper so when someone reads it they don’t say, ‘That’s phony,' " he said. “If you haven’t lived it, you have to rely on secondary and tertiary sources to make your story believable, but you have to flip them to fit your dialogue.”

Then likes a challenge. Each of his books is in a different genre and features a different voice. For example, Netta’s Journal is in a Southern tone. He has written a children’s book called Spencer Mouse’s First Great Adventure. He also wrote a mystery novel, The Heart By Which We Live.

“I think that if you’re a writer you can write in any genre,” he said. “I told my wife this morning maybe I’ll write a western. I just want to prove to myself I can. That’s what I do. I have a lot of fun writing.”

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