Friday, February 10, 2012

Everything Is a Process

A few days ago I got a letter from Nanon Williams, one of the inmates in my book No Choirboy

[This is a photograph of Nanon during our interview. The reflection is due to a Plexiglas wall between us.] 

We’d been corresponding since 2005, when I interviewed him on Death Row in Texas. Having been imprisoned since 1992, when he was seventeen, Nanon had high hopes for a new trial. Since the time of his sentence, laws have changed regarding young people convicted of capital crimes, and forensics have become much more sophisticated. Indeed, while I was working on the book the state’s ballistics expert even admitted that he made a mistake. Nanon, though armed and present at the scene of the crime [a drug buy gone bad], did not kill the victim. Nanon, his friends, family, and lawyers were excited at the prospect that a trial would reverse “life without parole” to “life,” and that he would be released on bail. After months and months of waiting Nanon just learned that the judges refused to hear his appeal. Needless to say, he was devastated. 
And I don’t know how to help him. 

This got me thinking about the role nonfiction authors play in the lives of the people in our books. My books are pretty much primary sourced. Like Blanche DuBois I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers. Unlike Blanche, these strangers must be open, articulate, and truthful or there is no book.

My kids, for they are mostly young children and teenagers, are eager to show the world who they are. That includes their bad deeds and vulnerabilities. My obligation, as I see it, is to portray them accurately. It takes a great deal of editing and revising to bring a person’s voice to the page. The interviews can be disjointed, inconsistent, and sometimes somewhat incoherent. There’s no clear narrative, and the arcs are buried. What a listener hears is different from what a reader sees in print. For example, every teen I’ve talk to recently uses “like” in the beginning, middle, and end of almost every sentence. In olden times it was “cool,” and I think that’s coming back. I hope so because “cool” is more fun to pronounce. It’s like puckering up lips for a kiss. [By the way, Happy Valentine’s Day to all.] “Like, when I, like, saw him coming down the, like, street, I was worried that my weave, was not, like, right.” That’s extreme but you get the point. Leaving in a few “likes” here and there can give flavor to the narrative, but it shouldn’t overwhelm. “When I saw him coming down the street, I worried that my weave was not, like, right.” Cool! 

One way to safeguard accuracy after heavy editing is to go back to the source. My gang read late drafts to be sure what’s written is what's meant. If they are comfortable with the piece I feel pretty confident. By this point, though, I am totally in love with my gaggle of gabbers. They've been floating around in my head for months, sometimes years. Is it professional to become emotionally involved in these people's lives? I think not. Is it possible not to become emotionally involved in their lives? Yes, it's possible, but sometimes it's a struggle. 

What's our obligation to living subjects after the book is published? Usually my kids move on and continue their owns lives as I do mine. Some relationships evolve into friendships. Then there are a few people I feel compelled to help.

Which brings me back to Nanon. A marvelous self-published author in his own right, It’s a pleasure reading his letters as they are filled with poetic insights. Nanon told me that he was no choirboy before incarceration - that's where the title of the book comes from - and I do not want to romanticize him. But he has grown into a thoughtful, thinking man.

It’s time to think outside the box and do something to help Nanon. Ergo, this blog. Here’s an excerpt from his last letter:
Do you remember telling me about blogging or something like that with a group of writers? Well, Susan, I could use all the help I can get right now. A couple of hours ago, I learned that the judges ruling was reversed, my capital life sentence reinstated, and basically they plan on me dying in prison … a ruling from 12 years ago, despite all the new facts, and despite previous courts who ruled in my favor.
         My mom, well, she broke down. I pretended to be confident … I will fight, Susan. I will work harder… I will even work on a book to release every detail I can think of. I am not angry. I realize that I may die in prison, but I’ll never accept it. There’s a lot to do. Everything is a process.
Any ideas?


FShaik said...


Thank you for this excellent post. It was thoughtful and touching. I remember Nanon and I am sure my students will too. I'm sorry to hear that he won't get the opportunity to appeal. But the idea of process is so positive for him and for all writers.
-- Fatima

Deborah Heiligman said...

I've been thinking of Nanon and of you all morning since I read your post. I wish I knew what we could do to help. Remind me what state he is in? Maybe someone from that state can help. Was the Innocence Project involved at all?

Susan Kuklin said...

Thanks Fatima and Deborah for your comments and support. In answer to your question, Deb, Nanon is in Texas. The laws regarding the crimes he is accused of is complicated and, not being a lawyer, I don't want to put forth incorrect information. Nanon does have very good appeals lawyers who are doing whatever possible. How does one move a judge? Got me! My idea of "thinking outside the box" at this point is letting people know about Nanon's predicament. Support from the "outside" is emotionally encouraging and I think he needs that about now. What else? Airing his case on a TV Show such as 60 Minutes? Does anyone know somebody who knows somebody?

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Could the ACLU give you/him advice?

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Lots of publicity does seem to help in some "human interest" cases like this one. You can hear such stories in the news pretty often. I'm probably being impossibly naive, but although it's always best to have a personal contact with someone in a position to help, if you don't know such a person, could you send snail mail letters to specific people at 60 Minutes or NPR's This American Life along with your book? Just the fact that the book is heavier than the usual letter might make them notice the package and read Nanon's story. Maybe his friends could add their own letters to your packages too. It's possible, though probably unlikely, that the news media in Texas could cover this story as well.

Susan Kuklin said...

Thanks to you Gretchen and Roz and those who wrote privately for thinking "outside the box." With your permission I will print these comments and send them to Nanon. It will mean a great deal to him.

I believe the ACLU deals exclusively with First Amendment issues. I'm glad you mentioned it because there's a fascinating new book out by the President of ACLU, Susan Herman, called TAKING LIBERTIES. One more important and good nonfiction reads.

Sending copies of my - and perhaps Nanon's - book is certainly something to consider. Before doing anything his lawyers need to be informed. And as I mentioned, they are excellent attorneys.

This is Great! Keep'm coming. And thanks.