September 10, 2013

Featured Author Finds ‘Life After Death"

Damien Echols discusses his new book and life on death row

Damien Echols, author of Life After Death, shared his incredible story with the Wentworth community on September 12 (photos from the event can be found below and on the Wentworth Flickr page).  Echols, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr, were teenagers when they were arrested in 1993 for the murders of three eight-year-old boys in Arkansas. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison, while Echols was sentenced to death.

Over the next 20 years, the case of the West Memphis Three, as they came to be known, received worldwide support as more evidence emerged pointing to their innocence. The case became the subject of a series of documentaries, and garnered the attention of several celebrities, including Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder, all championing for a new trial. In August 2011, the West Memphis Three were released, Echols emerging from prison after 18 years on death row. Ahead of his appearance, Echols spoke with Wentworth about the book and how he drew inspiration in his writing.

Wentworth Institute of Technology: Tell us about your writing process and when you initially started writing.

Damien Echols: I started writing when I was about 12 years old. I wrote short stories, horrendous pieces of poetry, that sort of thing, and I just grew to love it more and more as I got older. I’ve tried just about every art form from painting to collage, but it just doesn't’t seem to scratch that itch the way writing does.

During the trial [the prosecution] took a bunch of stuff I had written and took it out of context, twisting to make it look like I was saying things that I wasn't. That scars you psychologically. For several years, while I was in prison, I could not make myself write. Then after about three years I decided that I didn't want them to take away something that I loved and gave me so much enjoyment in my life. So I forced myself to sit down and write again, and I wrote about 85 percent of Life After Death while I was on death row. I finished the last 15 percent when I got out.

WIT: When you were writing fiction, did you find that people had trouble separating you and your own ideals from the characters or scenarios you were creating on paper?

DE: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s similar to a movie and seeing an actor that we know well, say Tom Cruise. A lot of people have trouble separating Tom Cruise from the character in the movie. I think it’s the same when people look at your writing. You could be writing from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl and people will ascribe all of those thoughts to you personally, even though you clearly do not have the same thought processes.

WIT: When you sat down to write about yourself, how hard was it to jump from imagined characters to real people and situations?

DE:  To be honest, it wasn't hard at all. Non-fiction writing is easier for me. I think there’s something to exercising different writing skills and pushing yourself beyond boundaries, but at the same time I have realized my extreme weaknesses and stay away from those things. I am horrible at fiction writing. I’m also horrible at dialogue, so you never see a back and forth conversation in my work.

There’s something about non-fiction that just flows. And I think a lot. By the time I pick up a pen and actually start to write something, for me, 90 percent of the writing process is over. At least 90 percent goes on in my head before I ever pick up a pen. My Life After Death editor said, “I can’t believe there’s nothing marked down on these pages,” because there was nothing scratched out or rewritten. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say before I said it.

WIT: What did you read while in prison?

DE: I tried to read everything imaginable. I tried to exhaust different topics because I never even graduated high school – I dropped out of high school in ninth grade and that’s still more education than anyone else in my family. We never had books in the house growing up. I decided in prison that I wanted to have the same frame of reference that other people had. My wife, for instance, lived in New York for 10 years and she went to college in England, and I wanted to know the same things that people in her world knew. So I started reading everything –Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens; college textbooks about sociology, psychology, and art history.

WIT: So you’re constantly trying to satisfy a yearning for knowledge, particularly through your reading habits?

DE: It’s knowledge of a very specific kind. I look around and see that people have bought into a world of mediocrity and all my life I just felt that there must be something better and more magical than this. Then I realized if you want something better than this, you have to make it yourself. And I always want to figure out ways to make life more magical and reading helps with that tremendously.

WIT: Which authors influence you?

DE: Stephen King is the single biggest influence on my writing. I didn't think anyone would notice because we write about such different things, but then I started reading reviews of my first book, Almost Home, and I saw a woman write that she heard King’s voice in my writing. To me, that was the highest compliment. 

WIT: So much has changed in technology since the mid-1990s – what technology was available to you while you were incarcerated? What are you using now and is there anything you refuse to use?

DE: There was no technology in prison. The closest thing was television that got the network channels. Before I got out of prison in 2011, I had not seen a computer since 1986, and back then it was a glorified typewriter for rich people. You just typed something in and it would take a half hour to print out. But I had never seen the Internet or a cell phone before I got out of prison. Even to this day, I write everything longhand. I have a computer, but it’s basically a machine to look at videos. The only thing I really use is Twitter. I started it to help promote Life After Death, but I’ve grown to really enjoy it.

WIT: When you look at a room of college students, what do you like to relate to them?

DE: They have the ability to create the life that they want to create; they don’t have to accept the life that’s handed to them or be passive when it comes to the reality in which they exist. They can make the world the way that they want it to be.

WIT: Do you ever take a “why me?” stance when you look back and feel bad for yourself?

DE: I mostly look forward and I try to take in what I have now, and how each step that I take in life will lead to the next one. People will ask how I let go over anger or bitterness, and that’s what it comes down to, just moving forward. Anyone can look back at their past and find reasons to be angry, but you don’t have to do that. You can just as easily move forward and move toward something you want. 

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