Book Talk: Oregon writer finds beauty, redemption on death row

Thu May 15, 2014 5:06am EDT

(Reuters) - Non-fiction writer Rene Denfeld draws on her work as a death penalty investigator in her first novel, "The Enchanted", the story of a prisoner who invents a horrible, liberating beauty deep underground.

Although he doesn't even have a window in his cell, the first-person narrator imagines life on the outside, especially that of a character known as "the lady" who works to redeem death-row prisoners, much as Denfeld does in real life.

In the end all of the characters in "The Enchanted" turn out to be prisoners in one way or another. Perhaps the freest of all is the walled-in narrator, whose disturbed fantasy life leads to a poetic sort of justice.

As a licensed investigator since 2008 Denfeld has interviewed prisoners, on and off death row, and traveled to "the worst parts of the country and the worst streets and homes" to find friends, relatives and teachers who might help her clients avoid or overturn a death sentence.

"The Enchanted" comes after Denfeld's non-fiction books including "The New Victorians", about victimism in the women's movement, and female aggression and violence in "Kill the Body, the Head Will Fall".

Denfeld, from Portland, Oregon, lived on the streets when she was 15, sang in local punk bands, worked as a bartender and journalist, has done amateur boxing and is a mother to three children she adopted from foster care.

Denfeld spoke to Reuters by phone from her home in Portland, about her new book, released in March by HarperCollins.

Q: I learned a lot about prisons from "The Enchanted", much of it disturbing. But it is also a very poetic book. How did you achieve a blend of lyrical and didactic?

A: I wasn't expecting to write a novel, the story came about. I had written non-fiction books and started doing this work as an investigator. The work existed in this magic, special place because I knew I couldn't write about it in a non-fiction way, because it is confidential and privileged. By using the narrator's voice I was able to tell the truth of his prison and of these people, and to do it in a way that captured his particular love of language and this gorgeous poetry flowed out of him. It wasn't that I set out to blend the two, but it happened in a way that felt very authentic.

Q: Is the novel now feeding back into your work as an investigator in some way?

A: I think the novel helped me crystallise and understand the things I witness; it helped me clarify where my own heart was in my work and the nature of my work and I feel blessed to do this work, it gives me a lot of insight. People honor me with their stories and their truth, I get to bear witness to a lot of things.

Q: Can you describe your transition to fiction?

A: What happened was I was leaving the prison in Oregon that has a death row. It's like an ancient stone fortress. It was a beautiful day, and I was walking out to my car after visiting a client on the row. I heard a voice tell me: "This is an enchanted place." And I very slowly followed the voice into the novel. I felt the narrator was telling me the story and I had to transcribe it. The transition felt so completely natural to me. I felt the act of telling fiction allowed me to tell a deeper and more complex set of truths than I've been able to tell in non-fiction. I was able to set aside my ego and opinions and thoughts and tell the story.

Q: Do you hope to inspire prison reform with the novel?

A: The entire time I was writing the novel I didn't tell anyone I was doing it. I didn't give a thought to anyone reading it. I didn't actually give any thought to that. It wasn't meant to be an advocacy book, it was meant to tell the truth of the narrator. The issue of the corrupt guard and what he does to the character called the white-haired boy, that happens and that is the truth.

Q: Is the prison in the novel based on a particular prison? You describe something called the Dugdemona Cage where death row inmates are chained for visits with lawyers and investigators. Does that exist?

A: The narrator is based on all the clients I've had and the prison is based on all the prisons and jails I've visited. One thing that is common is the cage that was described. It's a cage that looks like something out of "Silence of the Lambs".

Q: Why are some characters named and others are not?

A: The men on the row are all named, most of the inmates are named, but the people that work outside, the lady, the warden, the priest, they are largely unnamed. For the narrator, they are like mythical creatures. They live lives that he can only imagine. The usual construct in our society is that prisoners are nameless, but inside a prison that's their world and the people outside are the nameless ones. I've noticed we tend to make these people invisible. Thousands of people go into these places and effectively disappear.

Q: Books are a salvation for the narrator. Have you seen that really happen to prisoners?

A: A lot of people are illiterate when they go in. It's not until they do a terrible thing that they start learning to read. It's heartbreaking because through books they realize they had other choices, there were other possibilities, other lives they could have lived. They discover all this too late.

(Editing by Michael Roddy)