Rene Denfeld has walked amongst society’s most deviant members. But the conversations she has exchanged through iron bars and doors offer her unique insights into the minds of the condemned and those charged with guarding them.
“I was leaving the death-row prison one day and heard a voice telling me, ‘This is an enchanted place.’ I followed the voice right into the novel,” she said.
Her latest book, The Enchanted, is the next selection in the Western Reads book series. A book club event, facilitated by Carole Stinson, Executive Director, Development Programs at Western, will be held at 7 p.m. May 25 in Somerville House, Room 3320. Register at the Western Reads website.
A writer for the past 20 years, Denfeld has written for the New York Times Magazine, Oregonian and Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as published four non-fiction books. This is her first foray into fiction, but Denfeld feels she has hit her stride.
“I’ve found what I was meant to do. Writing The Enchanted was one of the most wondrous experiences of my life. It was transformative,” she said. “You can tell a far greater truth in fiction, because you are telling the truth of people. Readers can learn more through fiction, because they are relating directly to other people. All true learning comes from attachment. It is when we empathize that we truly open our hearts to others, and let new truth in.”
The book’s narrator describes his world through magical imagery, as he awaits execution while locked in an ancient prison. He escapes into fantasy in order to cope with the conditions of death row, as well as what he has done. However, the book is not meant to be an indictment of the death penalty or to be political in any way, Denfeld stressed.
“I am fascinated with how people can find beauty and joy and magic even in the midst of terrible struggle,” she explained. “It’s interesting that in other countries most the focus on The Enchanted is the literary quality of the prose. In The States, the discussion more often focuses on the death penalty. For me, the novel is about larger questions of crime and violence, and not just about the death penalty. It is also about the beauty of the writing.”
Like her character ‘The Lady,’ Denfeld spends her days as a death penalty investigator who works with men and women facing execution. It is through this experience she has been able to explore: Why people do terrible things? Are monsters made? What is it like to know you are damaged? What is it like to live on death row, or in prison? What is the world inside prison like?
“I spend years getting to know these men and their families. I am gifted by their truth. I get to learn all about their backgrounds and why they are the way they are. I think that’s important,” she said. “How can we prevent crime if we don’t understand it? We can acknowledge the truth of someone and the reality of the terrible thing they have done. In fact, I’d say we do crime a disservice when we stop seeing it as real.”
As The Lady digs deep into the past of one of the men on death row, she finds secrets that are all too familiar; so has Denfeld in her own work.
“I’ve worked as a death penalty investigator for several years. It’s my day job, but also my passion. Like The Lady, I have a difficult background. I understand these people and their families. But there are also a lot of ways I am different from the lady. I wanted to make sure she was a completely different person. I think that is important when writing fiction – you have to be able to create characters that are completely real and different and outside yourself.
“And by contrasting the lady and the inmates, I was eager to explore why some people like me survive horrific childhood abuse and end up thriving, while others succumb to rage and hopelessness.”
Denfeld has seen firsthand the beauty and freedom that redemption can offer.
“Yes, I have seen redemption. I don’t believe it should be confused with forgiveness, and it certainly isn’t about minimizing guilt,” she explained. “Redemption happens when humanity is recognized – even the monsters inside us. We all desperately want to be seen and heard, and that is the gift we can give each other.”
While tackling a politically loaded and emotional topic, Denfeld hopes the reader is able to find a way to connect and find humanity in the imaginary faces lining the cells of death row.
“I really wanted to tell the truth about these people, their lives and backgrounds, and the truths about prisons and the people who work inside them,” she said. “I hope they (readers) connect with the story, and find something in it that they relate to. I hope they find life as magical as the narrator, and as hopeful as the lady. I hope they come away feeling enriched.”