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Elizabeth H. Winthrop Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Elizabeth H. Winthrop

Elizabeth H. Winthrop

An interview with Elizabeth H. Winthrop

Elizabeth H. Winthrop, author of The Mercy Seat, discusses race, racism, and injustice in the Jim Crow era South.

What drew you to write about the Jim Crow South? How and why did you choose this specific time and region of the country?

I lived in Savannah, Georgia for ten years before moving to Massachusetts, and during that time I took a lot of roadtrips through the south, which became familiar and close to my heart. There's something timeless and frank about the landscape that haunts me, and I knew, when I moved back north, that I wanted to set a novel in that world, if only to spend time there in my imagination since I was no longer there in person.

I didn't know exactly what sort of novel I wanted to write, nor when or where it would take place, until I heard a Radio Diaries podcast about Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair. I started researching and came across the photograph of a crowd gathered outside a jail where an execution was set to take place. I was struck not only by the fact of the gathering, which disturbed me, but by the faces of the people who had gathered, and I began to wonder who they all were. I started thinking of the particular event the photograph captured in human rather than abstract terms, as individuals with families and history and memories. I still wasn't thinking about "story," yet, but then I read about the botched execution of Willie Francis in 1946, and the prison trustee who was assigned to chauffeur him to the chair. Something about that detail really got to me. I started thinking about who that trustee was, what it might feel like to be out in the world after years in jail, how he might feel to be "complicit" in this execution. And so I started writing a story from the prison trusee's point of view, in the character of Lane.

The narrative unfolds from the perspectives of multiple characters over the course of one night. Did you conceive of the story as one piece or did you work through it one character at a time? How did you choose which voices to include, (and which to leave out)?

I conceived of the book as a series of short stories all centering around the event of an execution. I knew that one story would be from the point of view of the trustee (Lane), that one would be from the point of view of the convict's mentor/priest (Father Hannigan), and that one would be from the point of view of the prosecuting DA (Polly). I began with Lane, but the more of his story I wrote, the more difficult I found it to make a complete and satisying story about him with this execution looming in the background. And if this was the case for one story, I realized that it would ring completely false for there to be eight or nine complete and independent "stories" in orbit around this mega event. And so I decided instead to tell a single story through several voices, all of whom experience the evening of the execution in different ways.

I thought a lot about whether or not to include Willie. I was afraid to go there, because I didn't feel I had the right. I wasn't sure I'd be able to get into the head of a young black man who is imminently to die. But then I thought, if the whole narrative is swirling around a single execution, it would be a gaping hole not to include the perspective from the person at the epicenter.

The bonds between parents and particularly their sons figure heavily in the story. These bonds are tested by war, injustice, and racist violence. What was it about this connection that you wanted to explore?

The bond between parent and child has always been a subject I've been drawn to in my work. It's been said that having a child is like having your heart live outside of your body, and in the end, though it's the thing you want to do most, there's very little you can do to protect it.

All of these parents are desperate, agonized, nearly paralyzed in the face of their overwhelming love for their offspring, who in all three cases are under threat from something their parents are helpless to protect them from. They may be very different people under very different circumstances— Dale is a racist white man whose son has been killed in the war, Frank is a black man whose innocent son is to be executed, and Polly is a well-off white lawyer whose son is under threat by Klansmen— and yet in all cases the underlying bond is the same. That's what I wanted to explore—the universality and strength of that parental bond.

Though it is set in the 1940s, The Mercy Seat deals with issues very much at the center of an ongoing national conversation. Is there something this story can tell us about the world we live in today?

While the initial catalyst to write The Mercy Seat was the existence of a traveling electric chair, the closer I got to the material and the more research I did, the more interested I became in exploring the surrounding issues of justice, race, and capital punishment, particularly as I was writing about a historical legacy that on certain levels hasn't actually changed all that much.

Racism deeply infected both society and the justice system during the time in which the events of The Mercy Seat take place. The Jim Crow laws that governed society were a codified system of racial apartheid throughout the American south. Anti-miscegenation laws outlawed not only interracial marriage but intimate relationships of any kind across racial lines.

Racism was pervasive in the justice system, not least in terms of rape, the crime for which the character of Willie Jones was wrongfully convicted. Until 1977, when the Supreme Court ruled death for rape as a cruel and unusual punishment, rape was a capital offense in eighteen states, sixteen of them in the South. Of those men put to death for rape, nine out of ten were black. The state of Louisiana, where the novel takes place, executed fourteen alleged rapists between 1930 and 1967, all of them black. Members of the community often took matters into their own hands in the form of lynching. These often occurred as a result not of a "crime," but of a breach of "racial etiquette;" one fifteen year old black teenage boy, for instance, was lynched for sending a love letter to a white girl.

These facts and figures disturbed me. I started work on The Mercy Seat around the time the the Black Lives Matter movement started to call international attention to the systemic racism prevalent in the US, as specifically evidenced by a long string of instances of unwarranted violence by white police against young black men. Eric Garner was killed in July, 2014, Michael Brown in August, 2014, Tamir Rice in November, 2014. In 2015, Walter Scott and Freddy Gray were both killed in April. Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed within days of each other in July of 2016, and in April of 2017, Jordan Edwards was killed at age 15. These murders brought to light again the racism that, despite the repeal of Jim Crow laws and despite the Civil Rights movement, is still woven tightly into the fabric of this country.

In The Mercy Seat, capital punishment unmistakably sits at the intersection of race and justice, and this, too, is still a fact of American life…

The death penalty was making national headlines as I worked on The Mercy Seat. While I was editing the section of the novel in which Willie Jones is put into the chair, the state of Arkansas rushed to attempt to execute eight men in eleven days. The rush to execute was because the state's supply of Midazolam, one of the three drugs administered during a lethal injection execution, was set to expire at the end of the month (April 2017). Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee, both black men accused of raping and murdering white women, were sentenced to death despite questionable evidence, poor legal representation, and without being given the chance to have decisive DNA evidence tested. Johnson was given a stay of execution; Lee was killed on April 21.

Three of the other Arkansas executions demonstrated how flawed the death penalty can still be today. Jack Jones and Marcell Williams were executed back to back on April 24, and according to witnesses, in each instance prison officials struggled to find a vein, and both men displayed movement long after an efficacious dose of Midazolam should have rendered them still. On April 27, Kenneth Williams lurched, coughed, convulsed and jerked for minutes after the Midazolam was administered. As I followed the events in Arkansas, I learned of other botched executions, such as that of Clayton Lockett, whose lethal injection in 2014 was so poorly executed that he ultimately died of a heart attack in a pool of his own blood, and most recently, in November 2017, the attempted execution of Alva Campbell, was called off after authorities failed to find an adequate vein.

In writing The Mercy Seat, I did not seek to add to a national discussion, but it evolved in such a way and in such a climate that it organically engaged with the national discussion, in terms of race, justice, and capital punishment. Racism is not only a historical fact; it is our legacy as a society and it cannot be separated. Capital punishment is no less humane now than it was at any point in history, whether by hanging, electrocution, lethal injection, or firing squad.

Are there other novelists who deal with the antebellum, Jim Crow, or contemporary South in ways you admire?

Harper Lee and William Faulkner. To Kill and Mockingbird is just such an engaging read, and I find it particularly interesting to see events unfold from the perspective of a child with limited understanding of the depth of the injustice around her. Faulkner's effortlessness in inhabiting the minds of characters regardless of age, race, or sex enables him to demonstrate the pain of misunderstanding and miscommunication. He shows us so effectively different individuals' singular perceptions of the same events.

Margaret Wrinkle does the same in Wash; she lets us see through the eyes of a white slave owner, the slave he breeds, and that slave's lover. What I so appreciate about Wrinkle's work is how she takes a circumstance rooted in historical reality and infuses the characters with such humanity that the literary interpretation takes on a depth and complexity far more nuanced than any historical account could provide.

Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones deals with the contemporary south in ways that I greatly admire. It is not "about" the south, but if it did not take place there, it would not be the novel that it is. The setting defines the lives of the characters, both in terms of the impending hurricane whose advent provides the novel's organizational structure, but more importantly in terms of their circumstances: who they are and how they think and what they come from.

What would you hope a reader takes away from The Mercy Seat?

Reading, for me, is a very personal experience, and I imagine that different readers will experience The Mercy Seat in different ways. What I do hope is that they will be moved, in some way. I want the book to make them think, but more than that I want it to make them feel, to come away feeling as if they have lived through this night with the characters.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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