May 15 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 honour 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
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 realise they had
other choices, there were other possibilities, other lives they
could have lived. They discover all this too late.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)