Guest Essay: Rene Denfeld on Translating Life into Fiction for "The Enchanted"
"Write about what you know," they say. Author Rene Denfeld, who has several nonfiction books to her name, took that advice to heart when writing her powerful debut novel, The Enchanted. Told from the perspective of a death row inmate, the story, in large part, is about the inmate in the next cell and the work of "the Lady," an investigator who is trying to help him avoid execution. Drawing upon her own experiences investigating death penalty cases, Denfeld brings us inside the prison walls, deep into death row, and beyond.
We asked her to tell us about how her own experience influenced her writing, particularly with "the Lady." Here's what she had to say.
He appeared angry with me, and I asked why. He turned haunted eyes towards me and said, "You brought the outside in."
For decades, he said, he had been trying to forget there was an outside. It was the only way to cope with being locked in a fetid prison cell. Now here I was, smelling of fresh air, with the bloom of winter sun on my cheeks, and he was furious.
I had reminded him of the greatest thing he had lost: hope.
In my job as a death penalty investigator, I spend a lot of time talking to men like this: men in prison cells, waiting for death.
My work is very much like that of the character of the lady in my first novel, The Enchanted. Attorneys hire me to investigate the lives of their clients--men and women facing execution.
Like the lady, I track down long-ago family members, and childhood friends. I find teachers based on pictures in ancient yearbooks. I dig up forgotten records in mildewed file rooms, and often locate witnesses starting with nothing more than a first name.
And most importantly, I spend time with the clients, making a safe place for them to tell me their secrets.
My job is painful and difficult, but I love it, because I get to learn the answers to the most critical question of all --"Why?"
Why are people the way they are? Why do people do such terrible things to each other? Why do some survive bad childhoods, while others succumb to rage and violence?
It fascinates me that for all our focus on crime--the movies, the novels, the television shows--we so seldom dig deep to find out why. We spend a lot of time in our culture telling each other what's wrong with people, but rarely do we stop, and just listen.
Like the lady, I find that most of the people I interview have been waiting a lifetime for someone to listen. Poverty, crime, and abuse have created vast swaths of the population who are silenced. They are our caste of invisibles, unseen and unheard.
Until, sometimes, their actions speak for them--and then it is too late.
For me, listening led to this novel. I listened to the voice of the narrator much as I have learned to listen to the voices of men on death row, their family members, and the families of their victims.
I feel honored to be entrusted with the truths of others, as real and painful and beautiful as they can be. Each secret told is a gift, the chance to truly understand another person.
I have been brought to my knees by the raw courage that can exist in victims and survivors. I've been humbled by the naked humanity of the penitent. Mostly, I've been astounded at the ability to find joy and hope and celebration even in the most despairing of circumstances.
Writing The Enchanted, there were times when I recognized myself in the lady. I also come from a difficult background. Like her, I've used my hardships to make room in my heart for others. But she made it clear that she was her own person, with her own story. She was not me--none of the characters are.
And yet, we share a comon humanity. We all have pain and sorrow. We all share the unquenchable human need to be heard, to be seen, and hopefully, accepted--to find a reason to let the outside in.