Denfeld Debut Weaves Tenderness Amidst the Vile – 2014
An exclusive Authorlink interview with Rene Denfeld,
Death row in a crumbling, outdated prison would hardly seem like an enchanted place, but in Rene Denfeld’s debut novel, that is what it becomes. The corrupt guards, the violent boss prisoners, the fallen priest and the lady are all filtered through the eyes and mind of a mute condemned inmate.
|“Most of my work is listening. And being open to hearing the truth of a person. ” |
AUTHORLINK: What was the first element that came to you about this story. What followed from that?
DENFELD: I was leaving the prison one day, where I had been visiting a client on the row. It was a beautiful, sparkling spring day. I happened to turn around and looked up at the tall stonewalls, and I heard this very quiet voice speak to me. It said, “This is an enchanted place.”
I followed that voice into this novel. At first it was slow going. I had to make just the right place for the narrator to visit. But then it came faster, and finally, the writing came in a flood. I felt the narrator was telling me this story. I just had to listen—as I listen in my work, when I am interviewing men on the row, or their families, or the families of their victims. Most of my work is listening. And being open to hearing the truth of a person.
AUTHORLINK: How did you come up with the fantasy elements – the golden horses, the little men with hammers, the flibber-gibbets?
DENFELD: They evolved very naturally out of the mental state of the narrator. He’s been in a dungeon cell for decades. His only escape has been books—wonderful, magical books. He has used the language he has learned to escape the confines of his bars. I have no idea what recess of my mind they may have come out of, though I recognize certain elements. For instance, I grew up quite poor, and we had rats in our house when I was little. The scratching in the walls sounded just like little men in there, dragging tools and building things.
|“I’m still a death penalty investigator, actually!”|
AUTHORLINK: You were a death penalty investigator – like the lady- how did you use your own experiences in the story?
DENFELD: I’m still a death penalty investigator, actually! I have two major trials coming up, so boy, I am one tired lady. I have a lot in common with the lady. Our work is virtually the same. I find those relatives, like Auntie Beth in the woods. As a matter of fact I just returned from a similar trip into the deep woods of Oregon. I also uncover those old records, buried and forgotten in dusty basements and attics. And I spend time with the clients, helping them share their secrets. I truly love the work. I feel honored that people share their stories with me, and I get to learn the truth of a person and their crime.
The lady and I also share coming from hard childhoods. We both had mothers who had impairments that kept them from being able to parent. We both try to use our difficulties to help other people. All that said, the lady and I are also much different people. I was really rooting for her to find love and acceptance.
|“None of us can ever know the full truth of each other, though I think we can try . . .”|
AUTHORLINK: One of the prisoners locked in his cell is the POV character. We’re in his head and know how he feels and thinks when he is physically in the scene. But it’s also as if we are seeing through his eyes during the story of the lady and the fallen priest, the lady investigating York’s case, what goes on in the yard and with the white-haired boy. How did you come by that technique?
DENFELD: At first I was curious at how that developed. And then I thought, this narrator is telling me about the enchanted place he lives. He hears so much from listening to the guards—and let me tell you, it is amazing how much inmates learn about us from overhearing gossip. As he says, the stones tell him so much. None of us can ever know the full truth of each other, though I think we can try, and we can imagine ourselves in their place. In telling his story, the narrator discovers the power of empathy.
AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people will gain from your story?
DENFELD: I hope above all they will see the celebration of the joy and magic in life, no matter where we are in life. I think we all live in prisons of one kind or another. They can be prisons of shame, of regret, of remorse. The characters in the novel are all trying to escape those prisons. They are trying to find redemption.
|“I love writing fiction. I think it allows a deeper, more complex set of truths.”|
AUTHORLINK: You’ve had a distinguished writing career before your debut novel. What impressed you the most about the difference in writing and publishing fiction from what you’ve done before?
DENFELD: I love writing fiction. I think it allows a deeper, more complex set of truths. I love being able to set aside my opinions and tell the stories of others. There is a character called the warden, for instance. He supports the death penalty. He is also a good, kind man. Fiction allows for us to see each other as humans. It builds bridges across political divides.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
DENFELD: I feel I have a lot of stories to tell. I am hopeful to continue to write fiction. It is such a pleasure to be immersed inside a story—for writer as well as reader!
|About Rene Denfeld:|
Though this is her first novel, Denfeld has authored three earlier internally bestselling books, including All God’s Children: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families. She has also written for The New York Times Magazine and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her three children adopted from foster care.
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.
This post was written by Diane Slocum