Last month, From Left to Write members read and discussed The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver. Our members had a chance to interview the author about her debut novel and its fascinating characters. We promise to be (mostly) spoiler free. If you haven’t read it yet, you should definitely add it to your list.
From Cindy Fey of We All Fall Down: Why would Noa allow Marlene to treat her so harshly at their first meeting?
Elizabeth: Noa has been going along with her life in desperation and guilt for what happened with Persephone, so she never quite feels worthy of proper treatment. She has surrounded herself with people she can treat almost like Marlene treats her, so when she comes face to face with Marlene, there is a sense of respect, a sense of awe, a sense of equal matching of wits and strength. Additionally, at that first meeting between Marlene and Noa, Noa is somewhat in shock that Marlene has information on her and on her father and is taken aback by what she learns. However, she also looks at a woman like Marlene as a powerful mother-figure she could have had, perhaps as a woman she could have become had choice not been made earlier in her life. She doesn’t quite allow Marlene to walk all over her, and she fights back, establishing this combative relationship between the two from the start. In many senses, it’s an internal conflict between finding her match and also feeling like she deserves poor treatment throughout her life because of Persephone.
From Amy Brown of Oh What a Life: What is your opinion on the death penalty? Where did you get the idea for your book?
Elizabeth: I spent two and a half years working in criminal law, where I worked on several death-penalty cases from different sides (as an advocate against the death penalty and also from a neutral perspective for an appellate judge, whose role it was to affirm or reverse trial decisions). I hoped to explore both sides of the death-penalty debate from the eyes of an admittedly guilty inmate and a mourning parent trying to forgive.
In my third year of law school, I 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. Through the course, I took part in a clinic 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 a priest (who presided over 100 executions in Texas), several lawyers, journalists, filmmakers, and a solitary victims’ rights advocate spoke about the problems with the death penalty as it related to a potentially wrongful execution, each attacking it for his and her own reasons. 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. As I listened 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 was instead about the fragility, doubt, and unease in each of these people. Instantly, my new project was born, 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 weeks before the bar exam, wrote the first and last chapters of the novel.
Then, following the bar exam, my first job out of law school was as a judicial clerk for one of the judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, where, for two years (the first as a clerk, the second as a research attorney), I drafted legal opinions with the assistance of my judge. The very first assignment handed to me was to draft the early version of a death-penalty opinion, which was a direct appeal from the trial court. Over the course of my tenure at the court, I worked on a handful of death-penalty cases.
Between my work as a student attorney for the capital punishment clinic at the University of Texas at Austin as an advocate and from a neutral perspective from an assistant judicial role, I was lucky enough to view the issue from multiple standpoints. I’m hoping people will form their own opinions after reading the novel or open a dialogue about the issue. I wanted to present both sides of the issue so that discussions can begin, and I fear that if the author’s viewpoint is known or even soapboxy (from whichever side), it might be impossible for open debate. I hope this answers your question!
From Janaki of More Than Four Sides: Both Noa and Caleb are Hebrew names, and this quote from Chapter 21: “ . . . my very own Genesis, my Tanakh, my personal Book of Mormon, my trusty Koran.” How did your background or religious upbringing play a part in your book’s themes?
Elizabeth: I both intentionally and unintentionally stayed away from religion in this novel, despite the fact that Noa mentions it a handful of times, if that makes any sense. She is not defined by religion, nor is anyone in the novel. The characters are not fueled by religious faith or piety but instead by an inner religion of guilt, responsibility (or lack thereof), and a sometimes thwarted moral compass.
My Jewish background may have played a role in the choice of Noa’s name, as it is a Hebrew name and one of my lifelong favorite women’s names, but that is probably all. Noa, in the quote you’ve provided, does make a nod to religion, but refuses to own any one of them. She doesn’t feel as though she merits any religion, any faith, any higher power, and is resigned to her corporeal and very mortal existence on earth. The minute Noa or Marlene becomes too religious, then the book becomes about a different issue, a different search for meaning, a different path, as opposed to characters’ own shared religion of guilt, which is ultimately what brings them together.
I think on a practical scale, if I added religion into the book, it would also overcomplicate matters and add another issue to the mix that might muddy the narrative. These characters do not lead religious lives, and Noa’s religion is her guilt (which, in some people’s opinion, could certainly be based on religion), but not one in particular.
From Left to Write: It seems as if unreliable narrators have become popular recently. Why did you choose to create Noa as such?
Elizabeth: I began writing Noa over five years ago before the seeming popularity of unreliable narrators, so I can’t really speak as to why they have become so prevalent in recent years. I didn’t necessarily choose to create Noa as an unreliable narrator because I had hoped to play around with the form. Rather, because this is the story of a woman who is on death row, who has been accused, tried, and convicted of murder, her voice came alive in that style. She is telling her story firsthand, and given her parameters and her identity as an incarcerated murderer, there is no way she could possibly be viewed as reliable. Once the story begins from inside prison walls, the natural reader/audience inclination is not to believe everything she is saying. She is skeptical of the world and the world is skeptical of her. Her identity, her personality, her past are on trial for the readership, so to speak, so that instantly puts her reliability in question.
FL2W: Last but not least, what would you want for your last meal?
Elizabeth: Funny enough, this is the first time I’ve been asked this question, despite the fact that I’ve unconsciously posed it for readers. I would probably have steak, wine (if permitted, which it probably would not be), and mixed vegetables.