March 17, 2014

Rene Denfeld

Finding magic in the bleakest of places
Interview by

As a investigator who specializes in death penalty cases, Rene Denfeld had a wealth of real-life material to draw on when she wrote her first novel, The Enchanted, which is set on death row in a crumbling prison. A mute inmate narrates this mesmerizing story in which love and unimaginable horror coincide, making for a uniquely powerful page-turner.

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As a investigator who specializes in death penalty cases, Rene Denfeld had a wealth of real-life material to draw on when she wrote her first novel, The Enchanted, which is set on death row in a crumbling prison. A mute inmate narrates this mesmerizing story in which love and unimaginable horror coincide, making for a uniquely powerful page-turner.

What was your first spark of inspiration for this novel?
This novel was inspired by my work. I'm hired by the attorneys representing men and women facing execution. It's my job to investigate the life story of the client. I find their relatives, long-ago neighbors, teachers who taught them in grade school—anyone who can offer insight. I also spend time with the clients making them feel safe so they can tell me their secrets. It can be a very hard job full of pain and sadness, and yet it can be a wonderful job too as I get to learn why—why they became the way they did, why they did such terrible things. I feel honored that people tell me their truths—I think it is something we all hunger for, to be seen and understood. 

"I am often stunned by the courage in people, in their ability to transcend their circumstances—the prisons we all live inside, whether actual or in our fears." 

What initially drew you into your work as a death penalty investigator?
To tell the honest truth, I needed a job. I was a single mom to three kids I had adopted from foster care. I had met death penalty investigators before and was fascinated by their work. They seemed like the only people who really get to understand the roots of crime and violence. In 2008 I got licensed and quickly moved into the work in 2009. I love the job. 

What is a typical day on the job for you?
Every day is different. I spend a lot of time on the road tracking down long-ago witnesses. I drive deep in the woods, into failing timber towns. I visit tenements in the roughest areas of the country. I go into prisons, finding witnesses. I dig up ancient records in old courtrooms and hospitals. I also spend time on death row with the clients. Some days are very tough, such as when people confess to me the terrible things they have done or how they have been hurt by others. Other days can be absolutely beautiful. I am often stunned by the courage in people, in their ability to transcend their circumstances—the prisons we all live inside, whether actual or in our fears. 

What do you love most about the narrator of this book?
He has such a stunning, poetic grasp of language. He truly sees the enchantment in the world—the way life can be so magical, so beautiful, no matter where we are. 

What, if anything, surprised you the most while writing this novel?
I didn't know how joyful it would be, to be immersed inside this story. The characters seemed very real. I was rooting for the lady to find love, for the priest to become absolved, for the warden to continue in his goodness—and for the others to find their own redemption, no matter how, even in the execution chamber. 

The narrator has a very deep affinity for James Houston’s novel, The White Dawn. Do you have a favorite “comfort book” that you find yourself re-reading and re-discovering in a similar way?
I've loved books since I was a young child, when they became my solace and escape. And so there are lots of books like that! 

You’ve written three previous nonfiction books—how did you find the transition to writing fiction?
I love it. It is like discovering what you were always meant to do. There are so many layers of truth in fiction, so many other people—and their lives—to explore. 

What are you working on next?
I feel like I have many stories to tell, but I will have to keep as magically silent as the narrator of this story on the process.

Author photo courtesy of Gary Norman

Get the Book

The Enchanted

The Enchanted

By Rene Denfeld
Harper
ISBN 9780062285508

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