A Conversation with Elizabeth L. Silver
THE EXECUTION OF NOA P. SINGLETON
Crown; On Sale: June 11, 2013
Q. Why did you decide to write this novel?
In my third year of law school, I took a course in capital punishment, where I learned about the death penalty from some of the country’s top anti-death penalty attorneys in Austin, Texas. Through the course, I took part in a clinic in which I worked on a clemency petition, visited death row, interviewed inmates and met with a handful of victim family members with my supervising attorneys. I also attended a symposium at the Texas State Capitol where a priest (who presided over 100 executions in Texas), several lawyers, journalists, filmmakers, and a solitary victim’s rights advocate spoke about the problems with the death penalty as it related to a potentially wrongful execution, each attacking it for his and her own reasons. Only one person on the dais represented the voice of the victim, surprisingly, and she was the mother of a victim ten years later still struggling with her position. While listening to each person express a different perspective on the issue, the complicated relationship between a mourning parent trying to forgive and an admittedly guilty inmate struck me as an intricate and conflicted bond ripe for exploration. It wasn’t about guilt or innocence necessarily, but instead about the fragility, doubt, and unease in each of these people. Instantly, my new project was borne, although at that point, I wasn’t sure the body it would occupy or the story that would carry it along. I rushed home, and over the next few weeks before the bar exam, wrote the first and last chapters of the novel.
Q. How long did it take you to write it?
I started writing the novel in April of 2008 and it sold in May of 2012 and wasn’t truly finished until October 2012, and it will be published in June 2013. I’ve been writing since college, so every project prior to this one aided in some way to the four plus years spent on this novel.
Q. Where did you write it?
I wrote the novel primarily in Austin, Texas, with short stints at writer retreats in Woodstock, New York and the Loire Valley, France. I’ve moved around a bit in my adult life, so I look at Noa as my Texas project, as it dictated the entirety of my tenure there, which in a sense, seems rather fitting for the subject matter. I moved to Los Angeles in February 2012 and spent the first six months of my life in California working with my editor and agent on substantial revisions.
Q. How has your background as a lawyer influenced the novel?
I spent several years initially working in education, shortly experimenting with copywriting and publishing, and stumbled into law as the final day-job that I thought might be able to coexist with writing. I spent three years learning the law, and from a purely academic perspective, was seduced by the rich narrative of the legal system. So, on the one hand, my background as a lawyer gave me the story and the research for this novel. On the other hand, when I began writing, I suffered from the all-too-common first novel syndrome of overwriting, particularly in descriptions of rain and snow and dust and tears; as a result, my background as a lawyer probably also helped my writing more generally by paring it down to what is necessary on the page.
Q. How do you decide which narrative point of view to write from?
I feel as though the first person perspective, in a sense, is a liberating impediment. I enjoy first person narratives as a reader and feel much more at home in that voice as a writer, which probably began back in creative writing graduate school when one of my teachers recommended I try a new tactic. Prior to my first workshop, I had only written in the third person, and in those earlier attempts, the language and characters turned into horribly contrived stories that I wouldn’t dare push on another’s eyes. There is something intimate, almost voyeuristic about the first person that works in certain stories, particularly those with unreliable narrators. Certainly, the trope can fall prey to gimmicks and also has its constraints; for example, a first person narration in this novel made it particularly difficult to tell the story when one of the two central characters is behind bars for half the novel and the other tells hers via the epistolary device of a letter. Nevertheless, it provided a construct for me through which I could more honestly inhabit the characters and story than if I were to tell it from a distance.
Q. Why was it important for you to write a book about a young woman’s experiences in prison?
I suppose that I wanted to explore the under-represented in fiction, particularly when it comes to the motivation behind criminal activity. Because I found that women committed violent acts for very different reasons than did men, I hoped to hone in the woman’s role in the criminal justice system to highlight how we as a society approach punishment. In my short tenure as a judicial clerk, I helped draft nearly two dozen opinions, and most of the violent acts I reviewed were indeed strapped from the hands of men. It was important to me to subvert the cliché of the death row inmate with a bright, middle-class woman who you and I would likely know from high school or the local gym or a friend’s cocktail party, and by doing so, question our approach to criminal justice and our potential for acceptance and forgiveness.
Q. You portray the novel’s characters in an often unsympathetic light. Why?
I’d like to think that all the characters in the novel are actually sympathetic, despite their seemingly unsympathetic decisions, which in turn portrays a more realistic human experience. We all make decisions based on raw emotion, be it revenge, love, or insecurity. Sometimes those decisions are simply misguided and sometimes they appear to be unsympathetic, but ultimately they reflect characters who are fallible and imperfect and mortal. Both Noa and Marlene are agonizingly conflicted by their pasts and must learn to live with the consequences of their choices, and to me, this is not a question of sympathy, but rather of humanity in its nuanced spectrum of guilt and responsibility.
Q. How do you choose your characters’ names?
Noa is an Israeli girl’s name I adore that my husband doesn’t. I tend to name my characters names I’d love to use in real life on future children, but can’t in order to retain marital equilibrium. And in truth, Noa is my first baby, so I suppose it all worked out.
Q. What is the first book you remember reading?
I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember the very first book I read, but I do remember the first book that made me cry, which was Charlotte’s Web. I have a distinct memory of finishing the book, climbing out of bed in the middle of the night, and walking into my parents’ room, waking them up with unshakeable pride to tell them I finished it and that I just had to discuss it with them at that moment. In my mind it was three or four in the morning (although it was probably more like 9pm) and a work night, but luckily, they obliged.
Q. Where is your favorite place to write?
I often write in coffee houses in the various cities in which I’ve lived. I also get quite a great amount of work accomplished at writer retreats and on airplanes. Sadly, I don’t have my own office at home yet, and too many distractions present themselves there, so I’m still awaiting a room of my own.
Q. Do you have a guilty pleasure read?
I suppose I’m very guarded with my reading time and don’t have any guilty pleasures in the book department (at least none that I’m willing to share just yet). That’s not to say I don’t have enough guilty pleasures of my own. I have often been found by the supermarket checkout lines reading my fair share of entertainment magazines with glossy photos of Downton Abbey stars on the front.
Q. What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I’d love for people to have been moved, I’d like for them to think about their own capacity for empathy and forgiveness, but mostly, I’d like them to think about capital punishment, relationships between parents and children, and the power that guilt possesses over our consciousness. Then, I hope they pick up a new book with paper and a spine and continue to read.