The ‘other side’ of Death Row: A conversation with the author Rene Denfeld

Rene Denfeld
Rene Denfeld

Rene Denfeld is an internationally bestselling author, journalist, and death penalty investigator living in Portland, Oregon. Rene has a reputation for showing ‘the other side of the story’ of complex issues and during our transatlantic discussion, TheIntelligentReview was provided with an interesting insight into the minds and lives of convicted death row inmates.

Can you tell us about you new book?

Certainly! It’s my first novel. The title is The Enchanted. I’d written several non-fiction books and done a fair amount of journalism before. I had written for the New York Times Magazine, for instance…

I actually found myself a single mother of three kids I had adopted from foster care in about 2007. I realised I needed to get a day job. So I ended up going into a field; I became a death penalty investigator and just fell in love with the work.

I never expected to write anything about my job because everything’s confidential and privileged, so I can’t talk about my cases specifically. And I did that for several years, and I actually was leaving the prison one day where they house the death row here – if you can kind of imagine this big stone fortress – and I turned and I looked at the stone walls and I heard this very quiet, very distinctive voice tell me: “This is an enchanted place”. And I just followed that voice right into this novel.

I wasn’t expecting to write a novel, but once I got started I just fell in love with the process. I think I found that writing fiction, perhaps ironically, allowed me to tell a kind of a deeper, more complex set of truths than I’ve discovered in my non-fiction work.

You did mention there that you hold a position as a death penalty investigator. What does that role actually involve?

It’s absolutely fascinating work. The attorneys who represent men and women who are facing execution hire me. Either the person might be going to trial and might get the death penalty at trial, or else they’re already on death row and they’re going through their appeals.

They hire me to find out the truth; the truth of what happened, the truth of who this person is Why did they do this terrible thing, if they in fact did it?

I consider myself as having the best job of all because they hire me to find out the truth; the truth of what happened, the truth of who this person is. Why did they do this terrible thing, if they in fact did it?

I conduct these very in depth investigations into the backgrounds of these people. I go and find long-lost relatives and childhood friends and people that tell me, that help me understand who this person is and why this happened. The attorneys generally hope that I’m going to find something that will cause the judge or jury to extend mercy to the person.

There’s a character in the novel who’s called the Lady who is a death penalty investigator and my job is very much what she does in the novel. She goes out, she’s finding these old relatives and these people that illuminate to her who this person is.

Your experience of working with men on death row – I’m assuming it’s all men, is it?

No, women are on death row in the States… I have had female clients that were facing trial. I have not had a female client who has already been executed. But, yes, we do work with women too.

I’m assuming that your experience has clearly influenced this book, and some of the descriptions of what happens behind prison walls and how the prison hierarchy works are quite dark. How much of this book is fact and how much is fiction?

That’s an excellent question. When I was writing the novel, I can’t tell you how many times I would have these moments of recognition and I would think to myself – I felt very much that the narrator was telling me the story and I was telling the narrator’s truth and his view of reality. And the narrator’s view of reality is quite fantastical at times.

Some of the darker and more difficult things that occur in the novel are sadly really representative of our system and things that do occur.

But there were so many times I was writing it and I would have these A-ha! Moments and I thought “that’s exactly what I’ve seen”, that I recognised so much of what my experience had been of prisons in the novel.

The subject, for instance, of corruption; in the novel there’s a corrupt guard named Conroy. And there’s another character, it’s very sad, he’s a young boy who has been sentenced as an adult and he unfortunately falls prey to the corruption in this prison. And sadly that’s something I’ve seen quite a bit. It happens. Some of the darker and more difficult things that occur in the novel are sadly really representative of our system and things that do occur.

What have you learnt the most from spending time around people facing the death penalty?

Wow, what a lovely question. That really goes to the heart, I think, of what the novel is about. I’ve had so many of my own expectations where it’s kind of upended what I would have assumed about these people.

We have some terrible, terrible poverty – and yet so many people are capable of kind of transcending it and finding joy and beauty and magic in life

One thing I’ve learned is how people can really transcend even these most despairing of circumstances. Something I just see over and over again in my work that absolutely astounds me is how these men and women, and the families and the communities they come from – they often come from just horrific backgrounds of the worst kind of poverty you see here in the States, and we have some terrible, terrible poverty – and yet so many people are capable of kind of transcending it and finding joy and beauty and magic in life. That’s something I’ve seen repeatedly…

A lot of these men go into prison illiterate, and it’s often in prison where they learn how to read. So many times I’ve seen a man who might have grey in his sideburns who is suddenly learning to read and the magic of stories and books opens up to him and he discovers this whole other world, and it lets him escape the bars of his cell through books. That’s one thing that I’ve really been astounded by is that these men are not always what you would expect. They’re often very human people. They’re very flawed. They’ve often done monstrous, terrible things to others, and yet there is a humanity in them that I can connect with. That’s felt very much like a blessing to me.

This is your first fiction book, and previously you have written three non-fiction books, including The New Victorians. That looked at why the traditional approaches to feminism at that time were off-putting to many younger women. You talk about how it led many of them to refuse to identify as feminists, as it were. Now, nearly twenty years later, do you think “feminism” is still a dirty word?

You know, it’s interesting because at the time that book came out it was quite controversial. I remember actually I was in London that year and it created a bit of a stir in England as well… It was very controversial at the time but I think now, after twenty years, people recognise that feminism, unfortunately, did lose a lot of women who would identify as feminists. A lot of women I think still to this day would identify with the basic tenets of feminism – equality, equal pay, those sort of issues – but find a lot of the more ideological aspects off-putting. So I think that’s definitely, absolutely still the case. I’m not sure if that quite answers your question.

It’s interesting, I wrote that book in my early twenties and so I was much more hot-tempered at the time (laughs).

So do you think that the movement’s sort of moving in the right direction now, or do you think it’s going backwards?

I think it’s an interesting issue. In the States, a lot of the older feminist organisations such as NOW (the National Organisation for Women) have become very minor characters politically. They don’t have strong feminist organisations that have a lot of political clout anymore. I don’t know how much of that is because we have such a significant number of women who are actually in power.

The landscape has changed dramatically in the last twenty or so years. The number of women graduating, for instance, from law schools and medical schools is more than the number of men. So, I think we’ve had a real shift. That being said, I think there are so many opportunities where feminism could be representing really critical issues facing women and unfortunately it just doesn’t happen. I could talk about it more but I think that it’s often become a very academic movement and not necessarily a political one in the United States anymore.

And lastly, where do you hope that your work takes you in the future?

Well I just absolutely love writing fiction. It was such a joy to be immersed in this book and, as compared to non-fiction like The New Victorians, one thing I loved about it was being able to set aside all of my own opinions and thoughts and kind of tell the truth of these characters. There are characters in the novel who have a much different truth than I do. For instance there’s the Warden, who believes in the death penalty but is still essentially a good person.

So I’m hopeful to continue to write fiction. I think that there are a lot more stories about people to tell, and I’ve been humbled by my life experiences and by working as a death penalty investigator. I’m hopeful to be able to use fiction to tell the stories of the kind of people that I work with and meet; the stories of their lives. If I’m lucky I think I will hopefully continue to do that, and I also still do the work as a death penalty investigator. I have, actually, two major trials coming up here, so that keeps me busy as well.

The Enchanted, published by Orion/Weidenfeld & Nicolson is out now.

This article was originally published on partner site The Intelligent Review in May 2014 before being transferred over to The New Idealist site in July 2015.

Comments (Transferred from The Intelligent Review site)

Mirjam Cole
May 3, 2014 at 7:13 pm

The Enchanted is a beautiful book that offers a unique insight into the darker parts of American society. Beautifully written but difficult to read, it has much to say about evil and it’s causes, yet shines with humanity and redemption. It packs a powerful emotional punch. This book is not an easy read but it is important one. It deserves a space in every readers bookshelf.

The Enchanted Book Jacket

1 Response

  1. Surely in this day and age we should be looking to achieve unity amongst people at many levels. Does movements such as feminism not divide by highlighting archaic divisions?

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