Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Susan Kuklin on Working with Convicted Murderers

I felt that Susan’s Response to "Anon" deserved a full column, not just a "comment."

Anon raises interesting and difficult questions – as I hope I had.  I can understand how a book that shows the “sensitive side” of people who commit heinous crimes might be hard to take.  In my view, in order to have an intelligent discussion about the death penalty, murder, and violence, one needs to see all sides of the people involved. 

         I must admit, I was somewhat nervous about writing this book. I did not want to romanticize bad deeds.  What I wanted to do was understand how bad stuff happens. I knew, coming in to the prison, what my subjects had done, the specific crimes they had commited. Clearly, interviewing them was going to test my professionalism. Could I be objective? Would I bring bias to the table? Will I believe them? What happens if I begin to feel compassion for theses guys? Would I end up writing the poor-“sensitive”-misbegotten- boy story?  That’s what was going through my mind each time I walked through a prison gate.

            The three inmates in the book – Roy, Mark, and Nanon – made my work less difficult than I expected it to be. All three were articulate, introspective, complicated, and often surprisingly objective. They did not paint a particularly rosy picture about who they were or who they are – ergo, the title, No Choirboy.

            By the time it came down to actually writing the book, I had tons of materials:  transcripts about the cases, taped interviews, lawyers’ commentaries, and letters – lots of personal letters. Some of this supplementary information is incorporated into the body of the text. 

            Usually, I feel very protective of the people in my books.  I don’t mind criticism about my writing, but hate to hear anything bad said about my subjects. This time, I was determined not to protect anyone. I let the inmates speak for themselves, sink or swim. By this point, I felt as if I knew them well. I cared about them a great deal. Yes, I did. Nevertheless, they had each commited a “worst act,” and that wasn’t going to go away.

            I made it a point to open each chapter with a description of the crime. First, out of respect for the victims, and second, because that was the reason these men ended up where they were. Often the narrative is interrupted with information to clarify the crime, the law, or the trial. By doing this, the reader is able to examine the dichotomy of human behavior. Are they the sum total of their worst acts? Are we? 

 Might I add that my interviews with the inmates make up half the book.  No Choirboy also includes talks with the siblings of a teen murdered victim, the family of a young man who was executed for a crime he committed when he was a teenager, and an appellate lawyer who represents some of inmates featured in the book.  I hope this approach will get people thinking and launch interesting conversations.