Excerpt from “A Conversation with Rene Denfeld”
[Read the full interview by clicking on the link above]
Writers & Books: 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?
Rene Denfeld: 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: 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: 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: 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.