What The Enchanted author learned from working with prisoners

Rene Denfeld shares the inspiration behind her debut novel and why she thinks even people who have done “unforgivable things” need to be seen for who they truly are.

Author Rene Denfeld

Photo, Gary Norman.


Q: What was the inspiration behind The Enchanted?  

A: I was leaving the prison where I visit my clients on death row one day. It’s a huge stone fortress, and as I looked up at the walls, I heard a very quiet, distinct voice. It said, “This is an enchanted place.” I spent months listening very closely to that voice, and following it into the novel. It was an absolute joy to immerse myself in this story.

Q: You work as a fact investigator in death penalty cases; what does that mean exactly?

A: I’ve been a licensed investigator since 2008. I am hired by attorneys who represent men and women facing the death penalty, or already on death row. My job is to find out what happened — and why. I locate long-ago family members, witnesses, and friends. I unearth old records and documents. I help people share their sad and painful memories. Often this evidence is then presented in court, to help the judge and jury better understand the client. I consider it the best job in the world — to get to learn why.

Q: How far did you go incorporating fact into your fiction?

A: Much of the information in The Enchanted is familiar to me — for instance, corruption in prisons. But the voice and the vision of the book is definitely the narrator, and he has his own perceptions about the enchanted place he lives.

Q: The book is a story of redemption, hope and love told via an intriguing blend of reality and fantasy. Was that your intention from the beginning?

A: Yes. It was important to me that the narrator tell his story, as he sees it, including the magical visions he sees that help him escape from the horror of his life.

One thing I’ve learned in my work — and life — is people can find joy and hope even in the most despairing circumstances. We all want to be seen, heard, and hopefully, maybe even loved. Even if we struggle with terrible traumas, or have done unforgiveable things, we still want and need to be seen. The sadness for me is often this need is never met. The beauty is that it can be.

Q: Why did you want to stay away from straight reality or straight fantasy?

A: For me, the novel represents the narrator’s reality, and how people can escape from horrible circumstances through the power of story, hope and imagination. The narrator finds a path out of his internal and external horror through the books in the prison library. In my mind, this is his reality.

Q: You told the story mainly from the point of view of a death row inmate; why?

A: I wish I had a better answer than it was what occurred to me! But it is also a voice we very seldom hear in literature — or least we seldom hear in a human, nuanced form.

Q: The main character (who remains nameless till the end of the book) has committed a crime so terrible even other inmates regard him with awe, yet he evokes empathy in the warden, who provides him with books to read. Why is that?

A: I like the warden character. Too often wardens in literature are portrayed as ruthless, simple-minded bad guys. But the truth is there are good people who work in prisons, just like anyplace else. The warden is someone who has very clear-cut ideas about the death penalty — he supports it — and yet he also has empathy for the men under his watch. He is capable of kindness precisely because he is not ambivalent.

Q: Why does the main character fantasize? Is it merely his means of coping or is there more to it?

A: I think the narrator fantasizes not just as an escape, but because too late in life he has discovered the power of imagination. Through his imagination, he is able to empathize with others, and see the world in a hopeful, powerful way. Had be been able to do this when younger, perhaps his life would have ended differently.

Q: Speaking of unnamed, why did you leave the characters mostly nameless?

A: The three main characters — the lady, the fallen priest, and the warden — are all unnamed. The men on the row are named, as are the deep woods characters. I felt this represented the narrator’s reality. For him, the lady, the priest and the warden are almost mythically powerful creatures.

Q: In many ways, this is a story of what we can see in others, what we allow others to see in us, and what we allow ourselves to see in the world around us — those brief, tiny glimpses of beauty and truth in the midst of ugliness. Would you agree and what does that mean for the story and these characters?

A: I do agree! So much of life is what we let ourselves see and be seen. When the characters in this story actively work to see the world in a hopeful way — and when they let themselves be seen by each other — they find acceptance and redemption.

Q: How does that impact the idea that the main character can both see little but glimpses outside of his cell and yet is also all-seeing?

A: It is interesting how much of our lives are impacted by what we believe but have never seen. That is the foundation of all faith — not just religious faith, but faith in life, the future and each other.

Q: Was the lady always going to have the background she has and is that why she is able to work with prisoners so well?

A: That’s an interesting question, since the lady’s background was one where I wrestled, unlike the others, who were always clear to me. I knew she was going to have a difficult background. It allows her to understand her clients. It took some time to understand exactly what that background was going to be. I was glad when the story took me to a place I understood and felt reflected her honestly. As a side note, it is a background I am familiar with, as I have worked with families where the parents have mental impairments, like her mother.

Q: Would you say that for the characters salvation lies within others or within themselves?

A: Both. I believe people desperately need each other, to give meaning to life. The best way to find redemption is to give it.

Q: What is the meaning of the title of the book?

A: That life can be — is — enchanting.

Q: Why was it important to you to tell this particular story? What did you want to know, as it were?

A: This story has personal resonance for me, as like many I have struggled with the desire to be seen and known, and the fears I am not deserving of it. I grew up quite poor and had a difficult childhood myself. Like the lady, I have struggled with wanting acceptance.

Q: What was the most difficult aspect of writing this novel? And the easiest?

The most difficult at first was trusting the voice. I had to rid myself of my own insecurities and fears, and just listen. The voice was very quiet at first and only came out briefly. Over time it became easier, and then I was inside the story — constantly. I took my laptop with me everywhere and wrote when I could.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I am trying to work on my second novel. And I still have my death penalty cases.

Q: What are your favourite books/authors and why?

A: I am so lucky to live in Portland, Oregon, where so many wonderful writers live, like Ursula Le Guin, Amanda Choplin, Katherine Dunn and Cheryl Strayed. As for favourites, I am a voracious reader and love an incredible variety of works.

Read the book review of The Enchanted.

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