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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Susan’sThird WIP

Friends — I’d imagine Susan’s work might pose questions for you — please send them in — Marc

Part III

No Choirboy opens with a quote by Bryan Stevenson: “Are you the sum total of your worst act?” My job was to answer that question. 

            The biggest challenge was how to portray the three inmates who make up the first three chapters of the book, fairly and realistically. Roy had been on death row for six years and was now in a maximum security prison in Alabama. Mark was given a life sentence, not the death penalty, because he was fourteen at the time of his crime. Nanon was still on death row in Texas.  All the crimes centered around murders.

             In order to write in the first person, I had to get into the inmates’ skin, into their bones, so that I could understand who they are as human beings. Throughout long, emotional, revealing interviews, and our subsequent letters to add to or clarify various facts, I became very close with the inmates. I really liked these guys. I worried about them. And I couldn’t stop talking about them. At times my husband had to remind me that they were in prison for very serious crimes. These were no choirboys. The challenge was to show who they were as human beings, warts and all, and how they changed. I decided not to make moral judgments.   

            The most logical way to do this was simply let the inmates speak for themselves. It became their story told in their voice. I included their childhoods, arrests, trials and lives behind bars. The inmates were candid and articulate. They talked about the violence in their past and in their present. They explained how reading during long periods in isolation changed their lives for the better.   

            For the most part, they did not talk about the actual crime.

            The second big challenge: how to deal with their crimes. I hope I resolved this by beginning each chapter with a careful description of the crimes. Right off, the reader knows about the worst act. And, it was my way to show respect to the victims.

            A conflict arose. So that I would not compromise the appeals, the crimes are written in my voice, with the help of trial transcripts and interviews with the lawyers. [I talk about this in my Author’s Notes at the end of the book.] At various points I interrupt the narrative, in italics, to include descriptions, phone conversations, and emails with lawyers and family members. These additions opened up the story, still keeping legalese to a minimum. This is the first time I’ve put so much of me in a book.   And I loved writing this way! It freed me as an author. 




  1. “Are you the sum total of your worst act?” It’s not the only question for these fellows on death row, and I doubt that it’s the most relevant question, but it’s a good question, satisfied at its own cleverness and easy to answer: Of course you aren’t! But — so what? Your worst act may not be your sum total, but if your worst act (or at least the one for which you’ve been convicted) is murder, rape, kidnap, etc., or some combination thereof, then your worst act might still be enough.

    Not that I’m a fan of the death penalty, which is unfairly applied and ought to be scrapped for all sorts of reasons. It’s just that these pieces that attempt to show the sensitive sides of murderers rub me the wrong way.