By RENE DENFELD
A few weeks ago I was sitting front row at a stage in Edinburgh, Scotland. The lights were dimmed.
I was remembering a day several years before.
It had been a bright spring day, and I remembered walking out of the death row prison where I work, trying to save men from execution. My car keys were in my hand, rustling. I felt the fetid air lift off my skin.
I had passed under the high, stained gothic walls, the guards at the towers with guns resting idly on me. I could hear the prison doors slamming.
And I heard a soft voice, speaking clearly.
“This is an enchanted place,” he said.
I had known right away that this was not an inmate I had met. But he was there, on the dungeon of death row, waiting for me in a cell like the others I knew, and he would tell me a story.
So started the journey into my first novel.
I went home that night and the poetry began. I wrote and wrote. Over time the narrator became so real I could see him. He would perch next to me in his prison smock, his feet bare, his toenails and fingernails curled into talons from not being allowed scissors or sharp items of any kind. His hair was grey around a caved, toothless face. He looked at me with longing.
My narrator had been waiting for death for a long time. He knew so much about prisons, as I did, and all the terrible things that happen inside them. He knew the sadness that exists behind walls—not just for those in prison but for all of us, in cells of our own makings, filled with shame and remorse.
Everything he told me I already knew from my work and life, and yet so much of it I had not realized. It was as if he was speaking for the imprisoned in ways I could not.
I wrote down everything he told me, and if I often stopped to marvel, it was at the beauty in the pain that he described, and our ability to find joy in even the most horrific circumstances.
I began taking my laptop with me everywhere. I wrote in my car outside the prison. I wrote outside the trailers and tenements and the shacks of the families of my clients and witnesses. I wrote late at night, and early the next morning—I wrote whenever the muse appeared, and spoke to me in that tender voice.
I didn’t stop to think about what I was writing. I just knew I had to tell the story.
Most people have never heard of death penalty investigators. There are only a handful of us in each state.
When you read about another innocent man exonerated—and we have exonerated over 250 innocent people off death rows—it is a death penalty investigator like myself who has done the work. We like to joke that the attorneys step in after our hard work to take credit.
We are the ones who find the truth. We find the witnesses who vanished before trial. We dig up ancient records in dusty basements. We collect DNA swabs and submit them for testing. We pore over police reports, and reconstruct a crime. We visit our clients on death row, plumbing into their lives to find the clues we need to get a new trial.
Then, after years of work, if a new trial is granted, we turn our findings over to the attorneys, and move on to the next case. There is always another case.
Not all men on death row are innocent. Many are guilty. When guilt is clear, it then becomes my job is to understand why, in the hope a judge or jury might grant mercy. Success for those cases means my clients are released from death row to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
Such was the case with the narrator who came to me that spring day, as guilty as sin and as hopeful as a new child, to tell me about the enchanted, magical place he lived. Despite being on death row for many years, he had learned to escape through the wild yearnings of his own imagination.
I knew right away what this novel would be called. It would be called The Enchanted. Because life, I had found, despite my own travails, was enchanted indeed.
I wrote The Enchanted in a time of wild hope, a time of new beginnings, when everything I had experienced rose up in a glorious explosion of desire.
During the year I was writing the novel I saw dozens of plays. I had already written several non-fiction books, and many articles. But I credit the theater communities of Portland and Ashland for turning my craft into art, and making me a real writer.
Nowadays, when I mentor emerging writers, I tell them: go to theater.
There is so much a writer can learn from watching plays.
It was from theater I learned that the foundation of every story is voice. It doesn’t have to be spoken—in a novel you shouldn’t have too much dialogue—but it is that voice in a story, whether through movement and gesture or dance or word, that brings it to life.
I learned that all good writing is language, emotive, feeling, connecting, and it is the actors who embody it, just as characters do on the page. In both instances what is important is that the dialogue feel alive, spontaneous and yet potent. We breathe into each other—not just the characters, but us.
In good story we interact with the characters. Story is not inert. It is alive, interactive. The narrator of The Enchanted was a real person to me, and so now he is real to others. An effective story creates characters that walk among the living. No matter how many times we return to them there is something new to discover. Like a beloved child, friend or lover, they sit beside us in our hearts.
I learned that in novels, action happens on the page. In theater, the story happens on the stage. But here is the critical point: in both places the story only works when the audience forgets where they are. They must believe so fully in the story they are transported out of their chairs into another world.
I believe this beautiful forgetfulness happens through empathy. It is the humanity of others that moves us to tears, not sword fights or word fights, not clever language or a constructed argument.
It is the nakedness of others, and their beautifully flawed humanity, that lets down our own defenses. That is when we abandon ourselves to the story.
More than anything, I learned that the foundation of all good story is magic.
It is magic that makes story come alive. It is magic that gives us joy when the story has, unwittingly, taken us to a place where we are once again children alit on a path of discovery, and you can hear that collective gasp of wonder across the rows.
Yes, life is enchanted, indeed.
For a year I wrote, and saw plays, and I worked my cases. I won one case, and he will walk off the row. I lost another. He will be executed soon. That is the cost of risk. Sometimes you lose. I would say the same is true of love and life, too.
It was the most magical year of my life. I’d like to think that magic touched the page, and filled my novel.
When I was done with the book I sent it to my agent. What followed seemed like a blur. There was a big sale, publication, and all the good stuff novelists hope for: attention, accolades, reviews, sales, and awards.
Two years after publication The Enchanted has been translated into six languages, and is still growing strong. I am often asked to appear at universities and at events to talk about mass incarceration, the death penalty, and the causes of violence—and the power of love to redeem us all.
But nothing meant more to me than when my agent told me a playwright named Joanna Treves wanted to adapt The Enchanted for the stage, to be performed by a young company called Pharmacy, out of the UK. The play would premier in Edinburgh during the 2016 festival.
I was over the moon.
As the theater premier came closer, the company shared photos from rehearsals in the UK: delicate puppets made for the production. A stark set of wire cages. Photos of the actors: seemingly so young and fresh-faced.
I marveled at how someone across an ocean could listen to a radio show—the playwright had heard me speak on the BBC when I was in London for the paperback release—read a book, and then write an adaption. Just like that, art can transform and transcend and walk off the page and onto the stage.
My life was coming full circle.
Landing in Edinburgh, I picked up a theater guide. There were dozens of plays happening during the festival. That and the wild free-for-all of the festival gave me pause. Edinburgh during the festival is bit like a hippie fair on steroids. Doubts began to creep in.
Oh well, I thought. Maybe this is not meant to be my moment. I reconciled it in my heart. Appropriate expectations, I have discovered, are the heart of happiness.
I spent a few exciting days exploring Edinburgh while waiting for opening night. I wore out my new sneakers canvassing the cobbled stone streets, exploring castles and gardens. Unable to sleep, I walked the streets at dawn to find that is when the bars close in Scotland, and I sat with drunk, happy revelers as they sang to the sunrise over the salt-speckled city streets.
I met a theater friend, Cate Garrison, outside the theater on opening night. I was shaking from nerves.
“Are you scared?” she asked me, and I realized I was. I was terrified. What would happen to the most important work of my life? What if they butchered it? I could do with a good effort. I could not do with a mockery.
We were let inside. It was a small theater. There were rows of seats, a modest stage. I relaxed. This was home.
I sat down as the lights dimmed. I remembered plays that I had seen while writing the novel. They flashed in my mind: weeping at The White Snake in Ashland. Gorgeous oratory in a swimming pool in play called Penelope. The Brother/ Sisters plays, Ithaca, The Lost Boys, A Noble Failure, The Black Lizard, Mother Teresa is Dead, The Whipping Man, The Huntsman, The Aliens, Clybourne Park, Body of an American, And So It Goes …
Dozens of plays appeared in my mind, and I smiled at each memory, and how so often after seeing those plays I would go home and write, in one long delicious loop of inspired creation.
In the darkness of the waiting theater I felt a connection that traced all the way from the stone prison to here, from that frail, soft-voice inmate who appeared in the most magical moments of my life to tell me wonders of his world, and how hope never dies. I knew then he was telling the truth.
The lights rose.
A man was on the stage, embodying the delicacy of the soon to die. He stood before me, frail.
And he intoned in words I had heard before, as if all others had come to life and everything would move forward:
“This is an enchanted place.”
An hour later the lights rose again. There were tears on my cheeks—tears of joy and release. My friend Cate was sobbing with happiness.
The last words of the production echoed sublimely in my mind.
This is an enchanted place. It is an enchanted world.
Rene Denfeld is the bestselling author of The Enchanted (Harper 2014), winner of the French Prix, ALA Medal for Excellence, a Carnegie listing, and many other literary honors. She is a death penalty investigator, and active in prison reform. Her next novel, The Child Finder, will be published in the fall of 2017. She lives in North Portland with her three children, all adopted from foster care.