About The Author
Elizabeth L Silver grew up in New Orleans and Dallas and currently lives in Los Angeles. She holds both an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and a Juris Doctor from Temple University Beasley School of Law. She has taught writing and literature at several universities in Philadelphia and worked as a Judicial Clerk for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Her writing has appeared in a number of literary magazines, including short-story journal Glimmer Train.
Her first novel is The Execution of Noa P Singleton a legal thriller highlighting the moral issues behind America's use of the death penalty.
Noa is a young woman who has been looked up in the Pennsylvania Institute for Women for nearly ten years. In six months, she is due to be executed for the murder of Sarah Dixon.
She has long since resigned herself to this fate, so she is unmoved by the arrival of an eager young lawyer from England, determined to secure her release. Indeed, she is particularly suspicious of the motives of his benefactor, the mother of Sarah Dixon and whose heartfelt testimony was a major factor in her conviction.
Why is Marlene Dixon now keen to see Noa set free? Will anyone ever know the truth about how Sarah died? And will Noa survive beyond what inmates called X-Day?
In this exclusive interview with Foyles, Elizabeth talks about how her legal background helped (and hindered) in the writing of the novel, what drives attorneys who campaign against the death penalty and the psychological state of someone who has been waiting for years to be executed.
Questions & Answers
Were any aspects of Noa's case based on real-life examples?
The details of Noa's case were not based on any real-life examples, however, the procedure and structure of the appeal was based on a version of criminal procedure to which I had been exposed. While in law school, I worked as a student attorney on a clemency petition for an inmate on death row in Texas. Following that, I spent two years working for an appellate judge, drafting legal opinions (judgments). As a result, I read loads of trial transcripts and soaked up many of the common legal issues raised on appeal (for example, Miranda rights, juror bias, unclear causes of death) and issues from trial, including the cornucopia of jury duty excuses; yet no actual facts from any cases found their way into Noa and Marlene's worlds.
Are there any skills you learned from your legal career that you've found particularly useful when writing?
I think my legal career was both a blessing and a curse to my writing. Many of my writing friends questioned my decision to go to law school, worrying that it would occupy too much real estate in the day and also destroy my creative voice. On the one hand, it did take me away from longer writing days and retrained a portion of my writing style in complete antithesis of what I'd spent so many years developing. On the other hand, I spent three years learning the law, and from a purely academic perspective, was seduced by the rich narrative of the system. It gave me the story and the research for this novel, for which I'm forever grateful, and a new outlook on persuasive storytelling that I'm not sure I would have gained on my own.
How did you go about understanding the psychological state of someone who has lived as Noa has, imprisoned and sentenced to death, for so long?
Although Noa is imprisoned and in isolation for 23 hours each day, I think that her psychological self-imprisonment is far more extensive than her physical imprisonment. So, although I've never been incarcerated, it is ultimately that psychological sense of self-imprisonment that we all feel at some point in our lives, which, for Noa, is manifested physically in her death row experience, and for others, is manifested in more mundane daily activities. How people confront, abandon, or refuse to accept that portion of their psychology fascinates me.
I also think that isolation is a significant factor in attempting to understand someone who has lived for so many years awaiting execution. Isolation is a universal experience, whether self-imposed or not, whether psychological or physical, whether internal or external. It is more the conceit of isolation than imprisonment that I think fuels Noa, and this is a psychological state to which we can all relate.
The narrative switches between the months leading up to Noa's execution date and the events that led to her arrest and trial, with the truth of the cases slowly revealed. Did you plan in advance exactly how you were going to put readers in the picture?
Not exactly - at least not at first. This is the first project I've written where I knew the end when I knew the beginning. The first two chapters I scribbled were Noa's prologue and Marlene's final letter, but I had absolutely no idea how I was going to create a story in between the two. Because the novel is nonlinear, I actually wrote it in fragments, ultimately piecing together the memories as I went along. Only once I created the tangential sections did I have to figure out how to connect them.
Noa's case is taken on by Oliver, an idealistic young English lawyer. In your experience, do anti-death penalty attorneys take on such cases more for personal profile or more altruistic reasons?
I was fortunate to study this field of law under some of the most impressive and intelligent anti-death penalty attorneys working in the United States, so I can only speak from wide-eyed optimism and observation, but I believe that no attorney goes into this area of the law for personal profile, and certainly not for the money. It is too fraught with disappointment, failure, loss, frustration, and minimal pay, so the only reason I can see attorneys devoting their lives to the pursuit is for individual purpose, a potent moral compass, sense of justice, intellectual development, and ultimately, the ardent belief that capital punishment should be abolished.
Noa is a bright but clearly damaged young woman, unwilling to endear herself to anyone. The mother of her victim is uncompromising and manipulative. Do you hope this lack of easy empathy with the main players make readers step back and think about the reality of capital punishment?
Absolutely. Both Noa and Marlene, the victim's mother, are at once offenders and victims in their own right, whose collective choices and struggles have created these seemingly diffident shells. 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. I think you put it perfectly in your question, though, in terms of a lack of easy empathy. It's not that these characters are not empathetic or even sympathetic, but that they do not make those emotions easily accessible for readers. They have experienced a tragic shade of life, and for that, they are both endearing and frustrating at the same time. 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. I hoped to blur the lines of what is right and what is wrong, and challenge readers to step back and think about capital punishment by virtue of this unclear divide.
Thirty-two American states retain the death penalty, although many have bills for abolition being considered or have moratoria in place. Do you foresee complete abolition in America at any stage?
Well, I certainly hope so. At the very least, I hope that this novel will open a dialogue and question readers' beliefs and notions on the death penalty. While some states have recently voted to abolish it, others (including the very progressive California) have voted to uphold the practice. The recent California vote was much closer than it has been in the past, so perhaps we are getting closer to abolition there. What is clear, though, is that although a majority of states do still have the death penalty on the books, the statistics of executions are decreasing, which I think reflects a growing discomfort with the practice.
Can you tell us anything about what you'll be writing next?
It'ss so wonderful to be asked that question, thank you. Right now, I'm working on a handful of short pieces - essays and short stories, which I'm enjoying immensely. The seeds of a new novel are starting to plant in the form of a family drama set in New York, but I think that's about all I can say right now.