Naseem Rakha is an award-winning broadcast journalist whose stories have been heard on NPR. Her debut novel The Crying Tree reaches into the heart of a family nearly torn apart when a mother decides to forgive the man who murdered her son.
Acclaimed as dramatic, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting, The Crying Tree has also won praise from Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, who says: “For anyone who has ever wondered how forgiveness is possible, even when the pain is overwhelming, wonder no more. The Crying Tree takes you on a journey you won’t soon forget.”
I “met” Naseem through the online community of writers at Backspace where I have joined in the general excitement as her debut novel begins to make its appearance on the Best Seller charts. I’m so pleased that she has agreed to share some of the steps along her road to success with readers of Birth of a Novel.
SHAREN FORD: What inspired you to write The Crying Tree?
NASEEM RAKHA: In 1996, I was assigned to cover Oregon’s first execution in more than thirty years. Condemned killer, Douglas Write, had forgone his appeals saying he wanted to die for his crimes, which included killing three homeless men and a child. The night of the execution I was at the prison, standing outside as the “procedure” began. On the other side of the fence, I could hear a rowdy group of partiers celebrating the event, and I knew whatever story I wrote for the following day’s news, would never cover the depth of the issues at hand: justice, pain, loss, grief, and the unspecific and unrecognized emotions of all those touched by the man’s crimes, and his subsequent punishment. That night, as I listened to the people outside the gate break into a cheer as the execution began, I promised myself that I would learn more about this thing we call justice, and that one day I would tell that larger story.
That promise led to years of research and interviews. I spoke with inmates, crime victims, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. I spoke with Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, and three exonerated death row inmates. Then one day I had the good fortune to meet Aba Gayle, a sixty-something woman who had just returned from visiting a “friend” of hers on San Quentin’s death row. That friend, she said, was the man who brutally stabbed her daughter to death twenty years before.
I was stunned by her story of forgiveness, and by the time I left her small home I knew I had found a way to tell the story I had been seeking since the night of Douglas Write’s execution.
In June, 2004 I began writing The Crying Tree, a work of fiction that examines two premises – what if the mother of a condemned killer forgives the man for killing her child? And what if the man who must conduct the execution of the killer, does not want to do his job? I completed The Crying Tree in November, 2007, and found an agent (Laney Katz Becker, Folio Literary Management) in December of that year. Five months later, she sold the novel at auction to Broadway Books of Random House.
FORD: When you decided to write a novel, did you find your background in journalism helpful, or was the transition to fiction difficult?
RAKHA: First off, I was not a print journalist – I was in broadcast, and more specifically, I was a broadcast journalist for public radio. There is a big difference between writing for the radio, and writing for a newspaper, and much of that lies in the word story. The majority of newspaper articles tend to convey a straightforward plot – who, what, where, when and why – in a clinical fashion, devoid of emotional content. This isn’t always true, and a good investigative piece can read like a good piece of fiction, but for the most part journalists tend to train themselves to focus on just the most overt setting details and character traits, and thus miss the nuance that brings life and heart to a story.
While radio can also be quite elemental and dry, it is by its auditory nature more of a “story-telling” medium. That is why I was drawn to it, and why programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, or This American Life, have so many listeners. People love to be drawn into a story, and radio gives journalists potent tools for doing just that.
As a broadcast journalist, I learned how to convey setting, character, conflict and emotion through sound and narrator voice. I learned the importance of the subtle detail, the nuance in move and expression that told more than words conveyed. I learned to listen for the pattern in speech, the subtle gestures that flavor dialogue, the rhythm of words. I learned how to interview people, to research, to focus my questions, and thereby focus my plot line. And best of all, I learned to write in any setting, at anytime no matter what was going on around me. All of these skills served me well as I switched from writing fact to writing fiction.
FORD: You obviously researched the execution process and the Death Row experience extensively. Was this hard to do?
RAKHA: I would not describe the process as hard. Fascinating, yes. Gut wrenching, sometimes. Confusing, mind-boggling, emotionally charged, and even aggravating, of course, but not hard. For me hard comes when I have to do something I’m neither motivated or interested in.
That was not the case while researching the issues central to The Crying Tree. After covering the execution in 1996, I was drawn to the topic of crime and punishment, and felt inspired to know the deeper stories that lay on both sides of our prison walls. For me, the research experience might have been somewhat akin to what an explorer feels when delving into uncharted territory. I was curious, enthusiastic, and more than anything, filled with an enormous desire to accurately portray what I was learning.
FORD: You address two particularly thought-provoking issues in The Crying Tree: the death penalty and forgiveness. The death penalty is, of course, extremely controversial, and some might find it almost incomprehensible that a parent could forgive a child’s murderer. What has been the reaction from your readers?
RAKHA: The reactions to The Crying Tree have been staggering. Almost every day I receive letters from people who tell me how much the book meant to them. Some of these people have gone through terrible tragedy, or have friends who are struggling with significant loss. They see hope in The Crying Tree, and want to talk about it with others. Other readers are drawn into the book for different reasons, and come out finding themselves moved to reconsider their beliefs about crime and punishment. These people express their thanks for writing a book that touches their heart and compels them to talk about their experience with others.
This reaction is all any author could hope for. My goals in writing The Crying Tree were that it not be a polemic, and that no matter what an individual’s beliefs, they could have empathy for the characters’ decisions. I also wanted to write a book that would appeal to men and women of all ages and backgrounds. Based on the feedback I’ve received, I think I have accomplished those goals.
FORD: A writer’s work is inevitably informed by her own experiences. You are the mother of a son. How did that affect your ability to write about the murder of a child? And what helps you to persevere, even when writing becomes emotionally challenging?
RAKHA: I am the mother of a child who is gifted with wit, perception, honesty and a great deal of love. I am the mother of a child who has taught me about myself and my own capacity to love more deeply than I knew I could. And I am the author of a book about a mother who looses her gifted, loving son. Why would I write that? Why would I even let my mind go there? There is no greater terror to a parent then the mere suggestion that we could lose a child. Yet, it happens all the time, and when it happens, isolation, pain, hate, and even shame are common consequences.
When I met my friend Aba Gayle, the woman who forgave the killer of her eighteen-year-old daughter, my son was three years old. I did not understand how Aba Gayle survived her loss, let alone came to befriend the man who deliberately caused it. It was unfathomable to me, and I was compelled to learn how such a thing can happen.
Yes, writing the book was emotionally challenging, but not as much as you might think. I was not putting my mind in dark places without reason. I had purpose, and that was to discover how people not only survive great loss, but come out more whole.
Some think writing about difficult subjects must be a drain. I find it expansive and life giving. It sets me free to fly into dimensions that I had not seen before and it teaches me to be more than I was before I put my mind and hands to work.
FORD: You have cited music, especially Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”, as an inspiration for The Crying Tree. How do you go about using music to spur your creativity? Do you listen to a particular piece before you begin to write, or have it playing as background while you work?
RAKHA: Most of the time while writing, I have music playing in the background. It both soothes, and helps me better visualize scenes and character. Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is a good example. Long before I knew many specifics about The Crying Tree, I knew its end. Or, at least I knew what feeling I wanted to leave my readers with which was the same feeling I would have whenever I listened to the closing moments of Appalachian Spring. Invariably, those last few minutes would give me a sense of both melancholy – a day was ending, things were closing down, getting dark – and hope as one by one stars would begin to flicker in a limitless night sky.
Many other scenes relied on different music. I created a playlist of some of that music and it is available on my web site www.naseemrakha.com
FORD: You’re currently involved in all the promotional activities surrounding the launch of a debut novel. How much of your time does that take and is there any left over for writing? If so, have you begun work on another book?
RAKHA: My book came out in July. Prior to that I was promoting the book. Since then, I have been promoting the book. Some of the work is fun, some, not so much. All of it takes time. Loads of it. I am on the road right now. I am on the road in a beautiful part of the country (the Washington Coast) and have been on the road in beautiful parts of the country since July. I have met wonderful people, have heard incredible stories, and developed new networks with authors and booksellers. I have been asked to blog and write articles for newsletters, journals, magazines and papers. I have been interviewed, and asked to give presentations, and sit at tables signing books.
I am happy to do these things because I believe in The Crying Tree, and its power to reach people.
As far as writing another book. I am doing that – although much more slowly than the first.