The Story Behind the Story: The Execution

6 Oct

The Story Behind the Story: The Execution.

This story is probably my favorite of all the stories I have written—not because of its content but because of the process used to write the story. A friend of mine from Alabama sent me a newspaper clipping of a lethal injection execution that happened in Arkansas. This would have been sometime in 1998-99. The condemned was carried into the execution chamber at Cummins where he was rigged for death by lethal injection. The technicians had left the room and the warden had read the final death warrant, when the whole shebang was interrupted by the United Sates Supreme Court. A temporary stay was issued so the court could give a last minute review of the condemned’s petition for stay of execution. The condemned was left on the gurney rigged to die during this time. Nearly forty-five minutes later, the Supremes denied the petition and the execution was completed.

This whole scenario fascinated me, but also presented several technical problems as a writer. First off, I knew there was a story here, but I did not want to tell the story of the condemned. Far too many readers would feel no sympathy for the condemned and would declare he had it coming. And perhaps they may be right. But being involved with the courts as much as I have—both good and bad—I knew that the ones who suffer most are not the perpetrators of the act but the families of the accused and the victims. I had also been reading a lot of Civil War material, and I was fascinated at how both sides believed they were doing God’s work, and how they both prayed to God for victory. To me, the story was in the outer chamber, where the families of the accused and the condemned would be sitting on cheap metal chairs, listening to the announcement with horror and salvation, and both falling to their knees to pray, separated by a narrow aisle, to the same God above asking for diabolically different results.

The problem was how to tell that story.

Every writer has a different process for creating stories. Sometimes I want to have the complete story in my head before I begin writing, but more often than not, I will begin the story and let it take me where it will. I still had no idea of how to write this story in a way that would allow me to reveal both sides of the people sitting in the waiting room, so I decided to write the story first from each point of view (POV).

So I wrote a draft from the POV of the family of the victim—the parents of the murdered girl, and from the POV of the parents of the condemned. While writing the second version, I realized there was a third version—the POV of the law enforcement officials who investigated and prosecuted the case.

Within my story collections I had a recurring character, Sheriff Wilson Underwood. My past involvement with the courts as a defense attorney and a prosecutor had allowed me to be a part of several investigations. I knew I could use my sheriff to investigate the case. If he botched the investigation, he would incur the wrath of both sides. The condemned family could hate him for abusing the process, and the family of the victim could hate him for botching the process. After all, the stay of execution would have been issued so the court could review the actions of the sheriff to determine if he had violated the rights of the condemned. My sheriff was the perfect lightning rod for the hatred and contempt of both sides of this equation, and as an integral part of the investigation and an elected official, he would have a legal obligation to be there to represent the citizens of his county.

As with all of my stories, they are usually a combination of many different vignettes of truth, folklore, and tales. I have a cousin, who shall remain nameless, who once served as a Criminal Investigator (CID) for the Greene County Sheriff’s Office. This cousin  was one of my Daddy’s favorites, and from all accounts was a pretty tough son-of-a-gun. I remembered one night being out at his house, and he was telling me of an investigation he had been involved in where a man had taken his girlfriend out on the river levee, murdered her and hid her body. The murderer had taken them out to the river, but then developed cold feet while leading the investigators around in circles, refusing to show them the girl’s body. My cousin laughed as he spoke of how he told every one else to stay at their cars while he took the prisoner out into the woods. My cousin told them to turn their radios up loud while he was gone. When he walked back out of the woods, the prisoner had shown him where the body was hidden.

I guess this story is as much a tribute to that cousin as it is anything. He never told me what happened in those woods, but I used my imagination and came up with a version I think my cousin would have loved.

So the story took shape and became a living, breathing creation. But one more thing happened long the way. In an earlier story, my sheriff’s daughter was slain when a faulty pistol he carried discharged at his house. The bullet went through a wall and killed his daughter.  This story, “The Sheriff of Jester County,” was published in Natural Bridge and was part of my original story collection. The story came before “The Execution” story, so a tremendous amount of exposition existed within my collection. But I needed this story to stand alone. So I had to figure out how much of this back-story to include.

I have always heard that a story takes on a life of its own when a character does something that completely surprises you–something you have never planned but happens as you are writing. Within this story, there is a scene where the father of the slain girl confronts the sheriff. He tells him he cannot believe that both of their daughters are dead, but that the sheriff and the worthless piece of shit that murdered his daughter were still alive. I had originally planned for the sheriff to react with anger, but as I was writing that line, I knew what my sheriff would do, because in his heart, he agreed with this man. That moment is one I will always relish as a writer, and is another reason why I have fallen in love with this story.

I was left with the challenge of how to end the story. Back in 1998, I had a dear uncle die. He was a devout Christian man, and someone I loved dearly and for whom I had the deepest respect. After receiving the news of his death, I traveled outside the city limits of Russellville that evening and sat along side the Illinois Bayou, watching the sun set, and the stars appear. And I wondered what happened when we died. Did we close our eyes simply to open them in a new dimension? Did we just go to sleep to awaken an eternity later in a new realm? Did we achieve all knowledge and truly become as a god ourselves? To me, being like a god would include all knowledge of physics, and astronomy and chemistry. I duplicated my own thought process that night to provide an ending for the story. Then of course, as my sheriff was leaving the premises, he would see the protestors who are always present at each execution.

Capital punishment is a hot political topic, and I wanted to write the story without ever revealing how I felt on the issue, but I also wanted to show the reality of the horror faced by both sides of the equation. The story was rejected by dozens of literary journals before being accepted by “Forge” which was at that point switching from a print to an online presence.

Years later I submitted the story for inclusion in a crime anthology to be published in the Untied Kingdom. I never for one moment believed I had a chance of being accepted, but the story seemed to perfectly fit the call for submissions, so I sent it, and I was later pleasantly surprised when the story was accepted. The editors, however, were not literary writers, but writers of crime genre stories, and their subsequent revisions of my story nearly forced me to withdraw from the project. I tried to convince myself that I had the benefit of all of the back-story, and they were simply trying to fill holes I did not see in the story. But I am also a Hemingway fan of the minimalist style of writing, and I don’t believe everything needs to be revealed. They agreed to several changes back to the original script, and although I still was not happy with the text, I had to decide whether allowing this project to go forward with my story would benefit my writing career more than my withdrawing because of artistic differences. I finally agreed, and the story became a part of the Crime After Crime anthology published in the United Kingdom and edited by Deb Hobz Wyatt. The book is listed for purchase on the Bookshelf page of my website:

They did a fantastic job with the anthology, and although I am still not happy with the edits and changes to the story, I have to admit I am glad I allowed the project to go forward with my work.

One of the parts of the story deleted from the anthology version was the scene where Delilah, the preacher’s wife, has the make-out session with the sheriff in the bathroom and tells him she is leaving her preacher husband because he is going back to Success and fucking the preacher’s daughter. For the anthology, I guess that was not needed. For my story collection, it is vital as it ties the preacher back to the girl he was with in the pasture at the opening of the title story of “God’s Naked Will.” This reveals more about the character of the preacher than anything, and is one of those salacious tidbits that requires a careful reader to notice.

For many reasons, I believe this story to be one where I grew the most as a writer, as I was faced with several technical challenges that I confronted and overcame, and I believe I was able to eventually tell exactly the story I wanted to tell. This story will always be one of my favorites.


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