Interview with RENE DENFELD
Rene has written for many esteemed publications including The New York Times Magazine, The Oregonian, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is a published author of three nonfiction books. Her first novel, THE ENCHANTED, was published by HarperCollins in March 2014. A finalist for the esteemed 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, THE ENCHANTED has been garnering outstanding acclaim, with rave reviews from Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and other publications. In addition to her writing career, Rene Denfeld is a death penalty investigator who works with men and women facing execution. Rene has extensive training and experience in subjects including FASD, drug effects and cognitive impairments. She is the happy mother of three children she adopted from state foster care.
THE MIDDLESTEINS by Jami Attenberg. It is brilliant.
What first sparked your interest in writing?
I've always been a voracious reader. Books were my childhood solace, the public library my sanctuary. As a child I often escaped into fantasy, until the line became blurred—I remember making little hashmarks on our family calendar for the days I expected the Indians to come and rescue me. I was in sixth grade when I had one of those miraculous, life-changing teachers. She sent one of my short stories into a junior scholastic magazine. It won first prize—a new typewriter. I remember how proud I was of that typewriter. I used it for many years.
What do you love the most about writing? The least?
I love the joy of being immersed in the story. I think it is much the same for writer as it is for reader—that state of suspended joy inside another world. The hard part is when the story doesn't come easily, or when the craftsman in you has to come out and give it a good tinkering.
Tell us a little about your writing process.
I believe in following the voice. The nice part of fiction is setting aside one's own ego and silly opinions, and letting the characters tell their own story. I just try to listen. A lot of fiction writing is being a good listener. When I have an idea I open a new word doc and I just start writing. I listen to what this character is telling me and I write it down. Later I go back as an editor and help the voice clean up. I consider myself the caretaker of the voice. My job as a writer is to facilitate the truth of others. What I have found is this allows me to really let go—that is how the poetry comes.
What are your passions?
Besides reading? I love my kids. I love parenting! I've done foster parenting as well as adopting my kids from foster care. I find parenting illuminating on so many levels—it gives me a lot to think about, as does my day job, which is working with men and women facing execution. I like being challenged, emotionally as well as intellectually. Life can be so achingly beautiful. It can be devastatingly painful, grievously harmful, and yet so beautiful. My greatest passion is just for life.
What inspires you?
Other human beings inspire me. Our failings, our humility, or innate goodness even when we do harm. I am endlessly inspired by humanity.
You can tell so much more truth with fiction. Alexi Zenter, the author of THE LOBSTER KING, says people read newspapers to find out the facts, but they read fiction to learn the truth. He's right.
Why magical realism? (Assuming you consider your work magical realism, which I think is debatable. If you don't, why not?)
I don't consider THE ENCHANTED magical realism. It is how the narrator sees reality. Who is to say he is wrong and another person is right? Our society has a very narrow construct of reality that is basically whatever the dominant culture endorses: you can believe in astrology or angels but not the walls talking; you can espouse heaven but not hell, and so forth. But for a person locked in a death row cell, that is not their reality. I believe the narrator of THE ENCHANTED conveys a much more authentic sense of what prison is truly like, because his reality reflects his true experiences. That includes the ability to find joy and magic and beauty even in the midst of horror and despair.
How was THE ENCHANTED born?
I was leaving the death row prison one day and happened to look up at the stone walls. I remember hearing a very quiet, distinctive, soft voice. He told me, "This is an enchanted place." I drove home, musing on that voice. He became a very real person to me. He would come and tell me his story, and I began writing it down. He would sit at the side of my desk, scaly skin, long nails. Sometimes he would just appear in my car while I was driving—usually into the deep woods for my work—and I would have to pull over and write down what he said.
What drew you to writing about prison life, and death row inmates in particular?
I think it was natural for me, because my day job is the same as the character called the lady in the novel. I've learned so much from the work, about the human capacity for redemption as well as harm. People go inside prisons and they disappear. Thousands up thousands, every year. We send them away and they vanish. They are our caste of invisibles. For all our obsession with crime and violence, we often don't stop to ask why.
Why do some people hurt others? How come some of us can overcome abusive childhoods, and others succumb to rage? What is the nature of forgiveness? Do we all have souls? I am intrigued by those questions.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Good reading makes for good writing. Read, and then read some more. Everything you need to know about writing is in the pages of good books. Then, find out what works for you. Is it a writing group? Is it being inspired by your friends or family? Reach out to other writers. I am only an email away—email@example.com—and most writers are very friendly and supportive of others. Mostly, believe in your own voice. Write to tell the truth.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?