Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Elizabeth Silver talks about The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, death row, motherhood, and surprises in writing


A woman languishes on death row. The mother of the woman she allegedly killed, an attorney,  comes to her with a proposition. She'll do everything in her power to commute the death sentence to life in prison if she can only know why her daughter was killed.

You have to read this, right? Elizabeth  Silver is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, Amazon Best Debut of the Month, a Kirkus Best Book of the Summer, Kansas City Star Best Book of the Year, Oprah “Ten Books to Pick up Now,” and selection for the Target Emerging Author Series. Optioned for film by ImageMovers Production Company (Robert Zemeckis), the novel will be translated into Polish, French, Japanese, Russian, and Korean.

 I'm thrilled to have Elizabeth here. Thank you, Elizabeth! 

 I'm always interested how a novel sparked? A college dropout on death row for murder--where did that come from? How did The Execution of Noa P. Singleton come into being?

After years of writing fiction and toying with a variety of day jobs in writing-related fields, I switched directions, and in my late-twenties, attended law school. I entered my third year of law school and 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.  The course included a clinic component 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 several lawyers, journalists, filmmakers, and a solitary victim’s rights advocate spoke about the problems with the death penalty as it related to one potentially wrongful execution.  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. I also knew that I wanted my protagonist to be intelligent, self-educated, and someone with whom readers may be able to relate, despite her residence and status.  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 months before the bar exam, wrote the first and last chapters of the novel.

A lot of this extraordinary novel occurs in prison. Did you do research? What was that like? Did anything surprise you and turn the plot of the novel in a way you didn't expect?

Most of my research came from my law school classes and my very first job as a lawyer. Right after the bar exam, my first professional lawyer gig was as a judicial clerk for a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest criminal court in Texas. All death penalty cases skip over the intermediate courts and go directly to this court. My first assignment as a clerk was to draft a death penalty opinion (the decision) for my judge. I spent the next two years drafting over two dozens opinions for the court, several of which were death penalty cases. I reviewed trial transcripts, researched the law, and on my lunch breaks and free time, wandered into local courtrooms to watch live trials. Meanwhile, I was writing the novel at night. As a result, once the clerkship was over, there was little I had to research. It was minutiae, like ensuring that the details were accurate: for example, the proper color of the jumpsuits for Pennsylvania's death row and the size of the cell and the state-to-state population, which changed from the point I began the book to the point it was sold and the point it was published.

As for the turning plot, oh yes, so much surprised me. I had never written a story like this and hadn't a clue how it was going to proceed. I knew two things when I started: whether Noa was guilty and whether she was going to be executed. What I didn't know was how or why and this was the thrill of the writing. As a result, every plot turn, every development surprised me along the way. I was nearly finished with the first draft before I had any sort of motivation for Noa to even commit a crime because I became so fascinated with her childhood, which ultimately helped bring her actions full circle.

I deeply admired the structure of the novel. Did you plan it out before you wrote, or did you just follow the characters?

Thank you so much. I did plan the structure of the novel after those first few chapters, but only loosely. It wasn't until round two of edits with my editor that I wrote a timeline for each character and discovered massive plot and character flaws that were likely there because I was sticking to that original structure. Early on, I planned the book in six parts to represent the six months leading up to "X-Day," Noa's date of execution. I also planned for Marlene to write a letter to her dead daughter between each section. Apart from that very simple structure, though, I just followed the characters and allowed them to fall into place as time progressed (and regressed). It was also important to be introduced to both characters from their present state: prison for Noa and freedom and power for Marlene, and then to watch as they overlap and at times switch positions psychologically and emotionally. By the time we are nearing the end, we will have very different visions of these women based on their histories, despite the fact that they are in precisely the same place in the present day.

You also write screenplays. Do you find you have to get into a whole different mindset to do that, or does it just come naturally for you?  Is one easier for you than the other?

I'm not sure anything comes naturally. I  do love writing scripts of any form as well as fiction and I find it easier than fiction, in part because I know I might just be providing a blueprint for another team to use to tell the story. Scripts will have a director whose vision the story will ultimately become, actors who interpret your lines, cinematographers, soundtracks, costumes, settings, props, etc. With fiction, you get to play all of those parts for as long or as short as you crave. These are entirely distinct ways of approaching creativity and storytelling, and inherently require a different mindset and skill set.  I have great respect for storytellers of any kind, and often the most difficult step is determining what medium the story fits. So many films should be stage plays and so many novels should have been written as short stories, and the list could go on. As for the mind of screenwriting, all I can say is that I simply enjoy it. When I feel stuck with my fiction, I know I can find great pleasure in writing a script, particularly because I love dialogue, but also because there is some liberation in the constraint scripts require. I'm a rule-lover. I like making lists and crossing things off of them.

What's obsessing you now and why?

My five-month old baby girl. She's simultaneously digging into my writing time and creating it, tightening my energy and multiplying it. On a more literary note, I'm also obsessed with everything written by Emily Rapp. Read her essays and memoir, if you can. They're devastating and beautiful and incandescent. I'm also obsessed with short stories, particularly Karen Russell and can't believe I waited until now to finally read her. Do you have a favorite collection I should add to my ever-growing night table queue?

What question didn't I ask that I should have? 

Yikes, this is a bit like writing your own letter of recommendation, I fear. That was always so difficult for me. Thank goodness I'm not applying for any more graduate school. Thank you so much for having me on your incredible blog. It's been a tremendous honor getting to talk with you and get to know you. These questions were so much fun.

No comments: