The lawyer in me just loved The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, a beguiling debut novel about the stories we tell ourselves to survive, the scars that never fade and the things we choose to call the truth. Noa P. Singleton speaks not a word in her own defense throughout a brief trial that ends with a jury finding her guilty of first-degree murder. Six months away from her execution date, she is visited by Marlene Dixon, a high-powered Philadelphia attorney who is also the heartbroken mother of the woman Noa was imprisoned for killing. She tells Noa that she has changed her mind about the death penalty and Noa’s sentence, and will do everything in her considerable power to convince the governor to commute the sentence to life in prison – if Noa will finally reveal what led her to commit her crime.
I loved that Elizabeth Silver somehow managed to make Noa a sympathetic character I rooted for throughout the novel. I was so happy when Elizabeth agreed to share some of her insights into Noa and the journey she takes. Enjoy!
What inspired you write The Execution of Noa P. Singleton?
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.
What is your favorite character trait of Noa?
What a great question. Noa is relentlessly loyal to her ideals, once she discovers what they are. She holds onto her faith of guilt and allows it to define every aspect of her life. Because of this, she is a loyal daughter, self-flagellant, and friend. She may not have many friends, nor have intimate relationships with many family members, but she will do anything for the people with whom she has connected, despite her callous exterior. This loyalty, of course, leads to her ruin, but it defines her as much as her name and her sentence.
Did you know how the book would end when you started writing it?
[SPOILER ALERT!] Yes, only generally speaking, I did know how the book would end when I started writing it. In fact, when I began writing it, there were essentially two plot points that I adhered to: (1) Noa would be guilty, at least of something, and (2) she would be executed. I wasn’t sure how I would ultimately get there, nor what the plot would be to end with that result. It was important to me, however, to create someone who isn’t wholly sympathetic or innocent in a particular crime so that we could focus on her nuanced character. Would it be possible to feel sympathy for someone who is an admitted killer? How would that make you feel about punishment? About capital punishment? In what ways are we complicit in crimes and in what ways are we guilty as human beings of inflicting pain? These were some of the questions I was interested in exploring in Noa’s story. In order for the novel to veer from the innocence cliché, there was no other outcome than for Noa to be guilty and executed.
Are you satisfied with the ending?
I am satisfied with the ending, even though I’m aware that it may not satisfy everyone. With this type of a story – a narrative dealing with such a polarizing topic – I could never satisfy everyone. I suspect that if I changed the ending, then it would frustrate perhaps readers who may have been satisfied with the way the characters and plot resolved as is. I wanted to create as realistic an ending as possible and have people thinking about the characters and the issues once the final page is read, even if it leaves them in an unsettled, uncomfortable place. Sometimes satisfaction is unsettling.
Did any crime thriller influence your book?
I can’t say that any particular crime novel or thriller influenced my book, however, I was greatly influenced by Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, and classics such as Dostoevsy’s Crime and Punishment while writing it. I’ve always been drawn to novels that explore dark psychological aspects of guilt and ultimately question the human desire for normalcy.
Who is your favorite author?
I fear I can’t pick a favorite and certainly do feel partial to certain authors at a certain time in my life. In terms of contemporary writers, I love Jennifer Egan, Lionel Shriver, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ben Fountain, Jonathan Franzen. As for the classics, I can never learn enough from reading Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Camus.
The Execution of Noa P. Singleton was an Amazon Best Book of the Year, Amazon Best Debut of the Month, a Kirkus Best Book of the Summer, Kansas City Star Best Book of the Year, Oprah “Ten Books to Pick up Now,” and selection for the Target Emerging Author Series. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, the MA program in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia in England, and Temple University Beasley School of Law, Elizabeth has taught English as a Second Language in Costa Rica, writing and literature at Drexel University and St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and worked as an attorney in California and Texas, where she was a judicial clerk for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Born and raised in New Orleans and Dallas, she currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter. Read more about Elizabeth Silver on her website, elizabethlsilver.com.