Writers & Books: What kinds of writing or authors or topics inspired you to start writing?
Rene Denfeld: I grew up poor, and spent my time immersed in books. The public library was my sanctuary. From a young age I penned poems and wrote short stories. When I was in my early 20s I began by writing for small newspapers, and then moved into journalism. Like many writers, I’ve always had day jobs—mine have usually been in social services or social justice.
W&B: As you mention, you have worked as a journalist and you have also written three successful nonfiction books focusing on social issues. What inspired you to move into fiction? Did you first consider writing your own true story of working as a death row investigator?
RD: For several years I had been working with men and women on death row. I knew because of confidentiality I couldn’t write about them. I thought, “I’ll never be able to tell these stories.” Once the idea of the novel came to me, I realized that was the way to tell the story. I think fiction can tell a much deeper truth, anyhow. In fiction we can truly immerse ourselves in the lives of others.
W&B: Here at Writers & Books, we believe that too. Seventeen years ago, as our first Rochester Reads program in 2001, we selected the 1993 novel A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines. It seems we have come full circle a bit in this regard—at least in terms of topic. A Lesson Before Dying, although written in a very different style from The Enchanted, allows readers access to the thoughts and feelings of Jefferson, a young black man on death row—in that case through the insight of a reluctant schoolteacher charged with helping Jefferson transform from a “hog” to a “man” before his execution. Richard Wright’s canonical 1940 novel Native Son must be brought to bear here as well as it follows a man sentenced to death, Bigger Thomas, with the underlying contention that Bigger’s behavior was almost inevitable because of the systemic poverty and racism he lived within. Were you at all influenced by A Lesson Before Dying or Native Son, and if so, in what ways?
RD: When I first received the invitation for Rochester Reads, I looked up the previous books. I was delighted when I saw A Lesson Before Dying was on the list. I can vividly remember the first time I read it. I was in my late 20s and had recently adopted my first child from foster care. I was raised in a black family, and my children are black as well, and so racism and justice have always been important parts of my life. It was familiarity with these issues that eventually led me into the death penalty work.
While A Lesson Before Dying and The Enchanted are very different books, I’d like to think they have a lot in common—in particular a sense of place, a deep compassion for humanity, and the knowledge of how injustice shapes our lives. The same is true of Native Son. All are works that confront the impact of injustice on violence, and vice versa. In particular they examine the intersections between oppression and the death penalty.
W&B: You have spoken about one day leaving a prison hearing a voice that referred to it as an “enchanted place” and this narrative began there. Can you say more about that experience and what came next in the process of starting the novel?
RD: The death row prison where I work is like the one in the novel—an ancient stone fortress built in 1866. I was leaving the prison one day, hearing the bars slam shut behind me. It was a beautiful spring day. This voice spoke in my ear, so clear and real. He said, “This is an enchanted place.” It felt like it was an inmate I had never met. He was waiting for me to listen, so he could tell me his story.
I followed that voice right into the novel. The narrator became intensely real to me. I began taking my laptop with me everywhere I went. The narrator would pop up into the passenger seat of my car as I drove into the rural woods on a death row case I was working at the time, and put his scaly feet up on my dashboard. I would pull over to write down what he said. I remember his thin gray hair, the paper smock he wore; his long curling nails. His voice was so low, so rich.
It felt to me like all I had to do was listen, and write down the poetry that came out in that quiet voice. Part of fiction is like that—the poetry that comes out when we truly channel another person.
In case you are wondering, after I finished the novel I finished the case I was working on at the time. In that case I stopped the execution. I will never forget telling his mother he would not die.
W&B: You come from a rich background of writing nonfiction. How did you decide to structure The Enchanted using an omniscient first-person narrator who sees and hears, even feels, things that are both out of his possible realm of knowledge and outside of reality? Are you a reader of magic realism, by any chance?
RD: I’m a self-taught writer. I like to say I got my free MFA in the public library, where I studied at the feet of the masters. One of the benefits of being self-taught is I don’t know what rules I am breaking. When The Enchanted starting coming out in a first-person, present-tense omniscient narrator, I didn’t stop myself to say, hey, you can’t do that! I just went with it, and it worked.
For me, the magical parts of the novel are the narrator’s reality. He believes there are golden horses under the prison. He sees things and hears these enchanting visions. One thing I have learned from working on death row over the years is their reality is not mine. Being locked in a dungeon changes people, just as a life of trauma does. They might see or hear things I do not. The way I approach it is I think, maybe I am the one missing something.
Personally I didn’t think The Enchanted was magical realism, because there are factual interpretations of his visions. But the book did feel magical to me. I felt transported into another world while writing it.
W&B: When and how did you know that one character’s imagination would be crucial to the narrative? And perhaps the follow-up question is when did you know the narrator would be one of the death row inmates?
RD: I knew from the beginning that the narrator was on death row. But much of the novel was a sense of discovery for me, too. From the beginning I wanted to know what was going to happen to the lady. Would she find love? When the white-haired boy appeared I cried with worry, knowing from experience his life would be hard. I hoped he would find some sense of justice, too. Often I sat down to write with a sense of excitement, wanting to discover what was going to happen in this enchanted place.
W&B: And at what point in the process did it become imperative that the narrator be otherwise mute?
RD: It was important from the very beginning. I’ve worked with those who have what is called “selective mutism.” It is a mutism that is not caused by anything organic but can be the result of severe trauma. I felt it that was an important story to tell, how trauma can literally silence us.
W&B: There is a distinct sense of place in the novel—both in regard to behind the stone walls of the prison and in the lush but abject landscape that the death row investigator (“the lady”) explores in her efforts to stay her client’s execution. How did you work to balance each of these settings throughout the narrative?
RD: It was important that there was balance, because the blue forests come as both relief and a hope for the future—not just structurally but for the peace of mind of the reader as well as the narrator. I was lucky the novel fell into place in that sense.
W&B: The narrative in The Enchanted addresses so many social issues, from the death penalty to faith to interpersonal relationships. How much of the narrative stems from your own on-the-job experience? Did you need to do any research?
RD: This may be funny to others, but the only research I needed to do was into the character of the priest. I knew very little about the priesthood. The rest of the book—from executions to abuse and poverty, from the hunger to be seen to the redemptive power of love—are all things I have personal or work knowledge about, so those parts all came easily.
W&B: Early in the novel, the narrator says “A name has no meaning … unless you see the bodies attached.” One of the many interesting narrative choices that you made was not giving “the lady” and “the fallen priest” and “the warden” proper names (nor capital letters as designators). I have my own theories on why but I would like to know how you made that decision.
RD: At first I felt intuitively drawn to make some characters nameless and then give others names. Later I realized that everyone who is destined to die on the inside has a name. Striker, York, all the death row inmates, they all have names. It is those who will transcend to the outside who are nameless.
There was a reason for that. I spend a lot of time inside prisons. Every year we banish thousands of people to behind bars. We disappear them. And we’ve done that now to millions. We have created entire towns, entire worlds, behind prisons. We banish all those people from our lives.
But for the people behind bars, they are not erased. They are the reality. We are the ones who become nameless. So when I walk on death row, the men call me the lady. “Here comes the lady,” they say. I am part of a life they have lost. I am as mythical as a creature from another world.
So The Enchanted is in some ways a reversal of the usual way we look at prisoners. Since it is written from the perspective of a prisoner who is destined to die behind bars, it is the ones who live on the outside who are no longer truly real.
W&B: I read about a (real, not fictional) death row prisoner who was angry with you, saying, “You brought the outside in.” Tell us about that experience.
RD: One time I visited a man who had gone twenty-four years without a visitor. As I said, we vanish these people, in a sense, bury them alive. When I walked in, he literally shook. He had not seen an outsider in so long he had forgotten we existed. “Who are you?” he kept asking. “Who are you?”
There was another time I was visiting a man on death row. He had been there for decades. He seemed angry with me. I asked him why, and he said one of the most poignant things I have ever heard. “You brought the outside in,” he said. He could smell the outside air on my clothes. He could see in my eyes that I had walked past flowers and trees. I had done a terrible thing to this man. I had reminded him there was an outside world that was too painful for him to remember.
W&B: What have you seen in terms of race and class in regard to the demographics of the incarcerated population in the United States? How about the preponderance of inmates with mental illness or with histories of trauma and abuse, just as the investigator uncovers about her death row client in the novel?
RD: I have seen the profound impact of racism in our system, from who gets arrested to who goes to prison. The number of blacks in prisons is astonishing. Here in Oregon I think it is one in eight black men who are incarcerated. Think about that. It’s jaw dropping, and yet it is hidden, because most people do not visit prisons. We put prisons in places no one cares about, deserts and wastelands and out in the boonies. The majority of Americans do not have to confront the reality of just how many we have incarcerated, or the color of their skin.
But it’s important to distinguish we are talking about two separate topics, incarceration and violence. Most blacks in prisons are there for nonviolent offenses, like petty drug crimes. That’s incarceration.
I work with men and women who are facing execution, and most of them have done unspeakable crimes. That’s violence.
I see a lot of untreated mental illness, a lot of childhood abuse and neglect. Almost all of my clients have had histories of gut-wrenching abuse and neglect. Every single one of them could have been helped. Every single one of them was preventable.
That can be hard to hear. But I believe it’s important. It’s actually a hopeful message, that if we prevent child abuse, if we tackle poverty and illiteracy, if we give people hope, we can reduce violence. We can stop people from hurting each other. This is what I have learned in my work—what we do matters.
W&B: How has your own childhood, which you have referred to elsewhere as “rather tough” helped you in your writing, in your investigative work or in getting into the characters of this novel?
RD: I grew up in poverty and abuse, just like my clients, and the lady character. I consider it a gift that allows me to understand these men and their families. Visiting their families can feel like my own. Only now I am the adult I had wished I had known as a child, bringing help and understanding. My work has been tremendously healing for me.
W&B: There is a shared humanity between all of the novel’s characters, which is clear to readers. Even characters like Striker are sympathetic when they ultimately meet their demise. Do you find this to be true in your real-life experience of death row?
RD: Yes, absolutely. Everyone has a soul. I think we can honor that while still honoring the terrible harm people can cause each other. In fact I would suggest that it is by honoring the humanity of the perpetrator we can honor the victims, by addressing the causes of crime—and preventing such horror from happening again. It’s easy to say “Lock them up and throw away the key.” But maybe the key is in prevention, and prevention is learning about why people end up hurting each other. We are all living in prisons, in a sense—bars of shame or remorse, loneliness or regret. Much of the novel is about that shared experience.
W&B: There are established and supported studies that show that the U.S. incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country. Can you speak about your views of the current prison system in the U.S. having worked inside of it and written about it?
RD: There are reasons we have mass incarceration. One reason is prison labor. Prisoners have become a key part of our economy. Did you know one in three wild-land firefighters is an inmate? Inmates sew the clothes sold in stores, the uniforms for fast food workers. They raise the crops we eat. And they get paid pennies a day. So there are economic reasons driving the mass incarceration. A lot of big businesses have profit tied up in incarceration.
Prisons have also replaced blue-collar labor. The guards at prisons are the men and women who used to work timber, or auto. Basically, prisons are a key employer as well as provider of cheap labor. If we are serious about dismantling mass incarceration we actually have a number of economic issues to face, including replacing the jobs currently done by inmates and prison staff.
Another factor—and this is a sensitive one—is what it means to punish. We keep increasing sentencing in our country. It’s hard for many Americans to believe that in other countries a person might serve ten years for murder, and the focus will be on treatment. We see that as softness on crime. We’ve embraced cynicism and a huge, deep distrust in humanity. This is especially true of all the children we imprison. I’ve seen children as young as fourteen years old be sent away to prison for life.
The cycle of abuse and punishment are closely tied. A society that leaves children alone to be hurt is the same one that takes the end product and locks him in a cage. People are disposable in our country, and I have to wonder what that does to our hearts and souls.
W&B: How do you feel about the popularity of fictional prison experiences in television shows such as Oz, Orange is the New Black, or Prison Break? Are you a fan, or a detractor?
RD: To be honest I don’t watch those shows. I witness so much sadness in my work the last thing I want to do is watch a television show about it. I worry they are making prisons into entertainment. But I could be wrong about that. I am old enough to embrace being wrong. I have teenagers, so there are plenty of experts in my life! (laughs)
W&B: Do you see significant differences between prisons or death rows for men and women?
RD: Absolutely, and I am glad you asked. Prisons for women are much nicer. They historically have focused on redemption, and have more programs for parenting, education and their future.
Prisons for men tend be more brutal. Historically they have been focused on punishment, even torture.
Each prison is different. I have been in huge super max prisons that house thousands in metal boxes where they never see the light of day. Those boxes are like so many coffins, lined in endless rows. I have been in old prisons where inmates work vast fields in visions that are so similar to slave times it takes your breath away. There really isn’t any consistency. As I write about in The Enchanted, there also isn’t much oversight. There is no transparency. What happens in prisons often goes unseen. This has allowed terrible corruption.
W&B: How does your work as a death row investigator affect your writing, or even how you see the world? Or are those the same?
RD: I have been blessed to do my work. It has helped me see the beauty in the pain. More than anything I get to witness how humans will fight to transcend their lives, finding joy and magic in the most despairing circumstances. I have witnessed moments of profound redemption. There is poetry in life. There is beauty.
W&B: The flip side of that is in what ways has writing this book changed your work on death row?
RD: There were many times while writing this novel I had revelations. For instance I wrote a section on how prison changes one’s perception of time and I thought, how true that is, because I have had prisoners share that with me. So in the end The Enchanted helped me understand my job, why I do it, and what it means to me.
W&B: Has this experience changed how you see death?
RD: No. Death is still tremendously frightening to me. It’s just more real, sad to say.
W&B: The novel, although it addresses a contentious issue in our society, is not in the least political. Was that difficult for you?
RD: I’m glad you ask that, because I don’t want people to think The Enchanted is a political tract. I didn’t want to write some diatribe against the death penalty. I’ve worked with enough victims to honor why people support the death penalty. If it was one of my children who got murdered—yes, I can imagine how I would feel. The desire for revenge is natural. We need to get beyond pointing fingers and work toward solutions.
W&B: You said in an earlier interview that you do believe people can change. Presumably that relates to those convicted of violent crime. How do you hope that readers, or even society, might be changed by reading this novel?
RD: Everyone can change. I hope that readers gain understanding of what prisons are like, insight into the men on death row, and maybe insight into their own dark corners. I believe we all need to be seen and heard, and, if we are lucky, to be loved. That is the redemption we seek.
W&B: Thank you, Rene. We are very much looking forward to your visit to Rochester.
And I am looking forward to visiting Rochester, and all the amazing conversations we will have!