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A Conversation with Elizabeth L. Silver

Read this illuminating Q&A with the author of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

The Execution of Noa P. SingletonElizabeth L. Silver’s first novel was The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, a tale of guilt, punishment, and the stories we tell ourselves to survive. Below, she answers questions about her writing past, present, and future.

Q. What is the central question your novel seeks to answer?

A. The central question in the novel is not “Who did it?” but rather “Is this punishment right?” Noa, a thirty-five-year-old female death row inmate unravels her story through a present-day prison appeal and intermittent flashbacks, persistently believing throughout that she should die for her actions. Meanwhile, Marlene, her victim’s mother, experiences a complicated evolution simultaneously, as her beliefs in punishment—both self-inflicted and externally imposed—overlap with Noa’s own.

Q. Why did you decide to write this novel?

A. In my third year of law school, I moved from Philadelphia to Austin and took a class in capital punishment. Part of the course included a clinic in which I worked on a clemency petition, visited death row, spoke with inmates, and met with victim family members with my supervising attorneys. At the end of the term, I 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. Surprisingly, only one person on the dais represented the voice of the victim, and she was the mother of a victim 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 bond ripe for exploration. It wasn’t about guilt or innocence necessarily, but was instead about the fragility, doubt, and unease in each of these people. I rushed home, and over the next few weeks before the bar exam, wrote the first and last chapters of the novel.

Q. What books were inspirational in the writing of this novel?

A. I’ve always been drawn to novels that explore dark psychological aspects of guilt and ultimately question the human desire for normalcy, such as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to talk about Kevin, Jennifer Egan’s the Keep, and Donna Tartt’s the secret History. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, although not consciously at first, played a tremendous role in my attempt at understanding motivation for criminal activity and the exploration that punishment plays in our society.

Q. How has your background as a lawyer influenced the novel?

A. I spent several years initially working in education, briefly experimenting with publishing, and only 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, I was seduced by the rich narrative of the legal system. My background as a lawyer gave me the story and the research for this novel and 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? 

A. 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. There is something intimate, almost voyeuristic about the first-person that works in certain stories, particularly those with unreliable narrators. It also 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?

A. I wanted to explore the underrepresented in fiction. In my tenure as a judicial clerk, I helped draft nearly two dozen opinions, and most of the random violent acts I reviewed were committed by men. Because it seemed to me as though women committed violent acts for very different reasons than men, I wanted to hone in on a woman’s experience in the criminal justice system. By examining how society approaches punishment from a less-commonly viewed perspective, I hoped to open a dialogue about the death penalty, restorative justice, and punishment as a whole.

Q. You portray the novel’s characters in an often unsympathetic light. Why?

A. I’d like to think that all the characters in the novel are actually sympathetic, despite their seemingly unsympathetic decisions, which, in turn, I hope 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 beautiful spectrums of guilt and responsibility.

Q. How do you choose your characters’ names?

A. Noa is an Israeli girl’s name I adore that my husband doesn’t. I tend to name characters with 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?

A. While I can’t remember the very first book I read, 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.

Q. Did you always want to be a writer?

A. Apart from the four years in high school when I formulated a rather elaborate plan with spreadsheets and pie charts as to how I would pursue a legitimate career as a Broadway musical theater actress, yes, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Of course, coming from a rather practical, professionally driven family, those aliterary desires often took shape in other bodies, and I frequently shifted from job to job as I continued writing every evening, hoping each day that it could take over full time.

Q. Where is your favorite place to write?

A. I’ve often written in coffeehouses 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.

Q. What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

A. I’d love for people to have been moved, entertained, and provoked, and I’d like for them to think about their own capacity for forgiveness. Mostly, though, I hope readers think about capital punishment, relation- ships between parents and children, and the power that guilt can have over our consciousness. Then, I hope they pick up a new book with paper and a spine and continue to read.

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