If I have a favourite kind of personal essay, this sharp, beautifully composed, heartfelt piece exemplifies it. Thanks to Rene Denfeld for the rec. “The Man in the Mirror” by Alison Kinney comes highly recommended. So glad I read it.
“Red Ink is a quarterly series curated and hosted by Michele Filgate, hosted at powerHouse Arena. This dynamic series focuses on women writers, past and present. The name Red Ink brings to mind vitality, blood, correcting history, and making a mark on the world.
The following is an edited transcript from November’s panel, “Silence,” which featured Rene Denfeld, Alisson Wood, T Kira Madden, Gayle Brandeis, and Alexis Okeowo.”
I always admire the speakers at the Red Ink panels, which are generally excerpted for LitHub. This one is particular good. Since I write mostly about the aftermath of trauma, and am writing about it currently in a novel where a character (like one of Rene’s!) has selective mutism, I was particularly riveted. So might you be.
Every Time We Put Pen to Paper, It is an Act of Protest
I am so lucky today to be joined in conversation with Rene Denfeld, the Portland, OR, author of the acclaimed novel The Enchanted.
Here is an excerpt:
“This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do.
I see every cinder block, every hallway and doorway.
I see the doorways that lead to the secret stairs and the stairs that take you into stone towers and the towers that take you to windows and the windows that open to wide, clean air. I see the chamber where the cloudy medical vines snake across the floor, empty and waiting for the warden’s finger to press the red buttons. I see the secret basement warrens where rusted cans hide the urns of the dead and the urns spill their ashes across the floor until the floods come off the river to wash the ashes outside to feed the soil under the grasses, which wave to the sky. I see the soft-tufted night birds as they drop from the heavens. I see the golden horses as they run deep under the earth, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs. I see where the small men hide with their tiny hammers, and how the flibber-gibbets dance while the oven slowly ticks.
The most wonderful enchanted things happen here – the most enchanted things you can imagine. I want to tell you while I still have time, before they close the black curtain and I take my final bow.”
Rene Denfeld is the author of The Enchanted (Harper), a novel which has generated much acclaim, including winning a prestigious French Prix award, an ALA Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and a Texas Lariat Award. It was a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan prize and longlisted for a Carnegie Medal. Rene’s previous work includes four nonfiction books and numerous articles and essays, including work for the New York Times. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her three children, all adopted from foster care. By day she works with men and women facing execution—the inspiration behind The Enchanted.
Your book answers the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Do you find a different answer to that when you are dealing with your neighbourhood grocer, your teenaged son, an inmate on death row?
That’s a great question. We find out is to open ourselves to others, to let them tell us what being human means to them—to see them and hear them and honor their truth. I believe people worry that to recognize the humanity in people like death row inmates would somehow minimize their crimes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Seeing the humanity in others allows us to fully grasp the horror of their acts, the terrible things they have done, to other human souls.
How did you come to be a death penalty investigator?
I met death penalty investigators while researching my third non-fiction book, which was about a street youth murder. I became fascinated with their work, because it seemed like a chance to really learn the truth of a crime. The truth of why people do terrible things to each other. For all our focus on crime, we seldom stop to ask why. But how can we prevent crime if we do not understand it?
I come from a country without a death penalty, and where its absence is not a controversy. Have your thoughts about crime and punishment changed/deepened as a result of your work?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve worked around a lot of victims and their families. Such unimaginable grief—I completely respect why people want revenge. It’s a normal human emotion. We need to start from a place of honouring each other’s feelings before we can dig deeper into why crime happens, and what our response should be to it. Are we trying to punish? Are we trying to keep people safe? What are we doing to prevent such awful things from happening again?
Have you found friendship with any of the inmates? Have we lost men or women you became close with?
I am not their friend. My job is to learn the truth of them, and what they did—sometimes, in fact, to find out if they actually did it. There have been 251 innocent people exonerated off death rows, and it is usually due to the work of investigators like myself. I wouldn’t be able to do the work if I saw myself as a friend. However, that doesn’t mean that I do not feel and hear and see them, in all their guilt or pain or remorse. Or horror. My heart is big enough to hold their truths, as awful as those truths might be. I have not lost a client. So far, I have been successful in preventing an execution in all my cases, along with other team members.
I once wrote a long poem from the perspective of Ted Bundy’s mother as he was on execution row (“allergy” from Body Rain). I thought how awful it would be to have a son convicted of such heinous crimes. You work with families of men (women?) on death row. What can you tell us about their lives and sorrows?
Most my work is actually with the families, neighbours, friends and others who knew the client. I visit them just as I visit the client, and learn about his life. How he grew up. Most the people I have worked with come from backgrounds of horrific abuse. In my experience, mothers of the accused carry terrible burdens of guilt, shame and remorse. They might be victims themselves, of rape, trafficking, and starvation-level poverty. In The Enchanted, the investigator discovers a background of awful abuse in the client. That is very much like my work.
Tell us about the book you wrote before The Enchanted.
The last non-fiction book I wrote was a book called Ask Me Why I Hurt, and co-authored with Randy Christensen. It is Randy’s story. He is this amazing doctor who took an old blue Winnebago and turned it into a mobile hospital on wheels, and drives around Arizona taking free health care to the homeless.
Was there a propelling event that made you know you could go in the direction of fiction after publishing books of non-fiction? That began The Enchanted?
I believe you can tell a deeper, more complex truth in fiction. You can tell multiple truths, from multiple perspectives. People read newspapers for the facts. They read fiction for the truth.
I’ve told this story before, but I was leaving the death row prison one day. It was a bright, sunny day, and I happened to look over my shoulder. I saw the stone walls, the towers. And I heard this very quiet, distinctive voice. He told me, “This is an enchanted place.” I followed that voice into the novel. I had no idea what he would say, but I listened. For me, writing that novel was the same as my work. I became very quiet, very open, and I just listened for his truth. That was when the poetry came rushing out.
Can you tell us a little about your writing schedule and habits?
I work full time, and have three kids. I write when I can. When I have a story to tell, I am very motivated, and will find time. I often take my laptop with me when I am driving places, or going to an event. It’s amazing how much you can get done in an hour.
York The Lady, the priest. Any one of them might seem the logical choice for a protagonist. Why did you choose differently? How did you find your central character, and did you know he would be omnipotent?
I have no idea. It was always the narrator’s story. I didn’t realize it as I wrote, but it is a very unique approach: a first person present tense omniscient narrator who doesn’t play a lead role in the story. I have no idea how I pulled it off. I think he did it for me.
Can you tell us about how horses became an image motif through the text?
They flowed out of the story, out of the narrator’s mind. They came rushing into the book, all golden and hard and beautiful. And there they were. To me, they capture his ability to find joy and magic and hope in life, no matter how despairing. Part of his heart races with them—out of the prison, out of his enchanted place.
I read The Enchanted soon after it came out and was grateful to have formed my opinions of it before it began to win awards and garner widespread acclaim. What is it like to ride the wave of this praise?
You know, I didn’t tell anyone I was writing it. Not even my kids. I didn’t think about anyone ever reading it. It truly was an act of pure expression, an outburst of everything in my heart and soul. To have to get published felt like a surprise, and then to get the acclaim. Well—it’s bowled me over. I know I am very lucky. There are so many incredible books that don’t get the attention they deserve.
Have your children read The Enchanted? What do they think of having a mama who is a well-known writer?
They haven’t read it. I’d feel funny asking them to. They are very proud of me, though, just as I am immensely proud of them. I adopted my kids from foster care, and they have given me far more than I have given them. They truly were the best decision I ever made. I love them to pieces.