Since my dear, dear friend Leslie Lytle and I shared a wonderful writing group for years, it’s no surprise to me that her first book, Execution’s Doorstep, delivers stories of real-life innocents on death row with grace and wisdom. That Leslie is also a poet is apparent in every sentence of this moving and compelling book. – Meg
Sometimes looking back on my life it seems as though I have always been a writer, and yet, at the same time, I never thought of myself as a writer, or in any case, never felt comfortable with telling people that, for fear of being labeled a fraud. On the few occasions, when I answered the question what do you do with, “I’m a writer,” the person who asked would glare at me suspiciously and demand, “How many books have you written?”
I was an early and avaricious reader and, as a child, horse crazy. By the time I was in the fourth grade I’d read every horse story in the children’s section of the library, and my mother led me over to the adult section and turned me over to the librarian, with the instruction, “horses—anything to do with horses.” After years of begging, my parents finally bought my sisters and I a pony to share, and within a years time we each had a pony of our own. I wrote my first story when I was eleven. More than a dozen pages, typed by a friend of my mother, “Lady Robin” told my pony’s life story from her point of view. That same year, I wrote and received a Historical Society Award for a first-person narrative speaking as Harriet Tubman rescuing slaves by the safe-house network of the underground railroad. Apparently I enjoyed being someone else.
At the time, though, that “someone else” did not envision herself as a writer. I wanted to be a veterinarian and my high school curriculum was geared toward that end. My senior year, I co-edited a small collection of haiku written by fellow students. I wrote some poetry in high school and tinkered with a few story ideas in my journal, but was single-minded in my intentions to be a vet, with a large animal practice (i.e. horses). But by the spring of 1970, the third quarter of my first year of college, my vision had shifted dramatically.
My instinct quickly keened to injustice, and the atrocities of the Viet Nam War and myriad social ills plaguing our society plunged me into political activism. At Akron University, with the National Guard on campus, the atmosphere was one of turmoil, fear, and outrage. (Akron University is just miles from Kent State where four student protesters were killed.) Studying to become a veterinarian seemed like a frivolous pursuit. Also, I had spent the summer before traveling with our vet, and he advised me that unless I focused on small animals, I would never be accepted into the Ohio State School of Veterinary Medicine because, at 105 pounds, I was too small. I began taking classes in philosophy, psychology, and literature. I kept a journal and wrote poetry, a lot of poetry. By the spring of 1973, I had amassed almost enough credits to get a degree in English and a teaching certificate, except I had no desire to teach. My activism had given way to disillusion. I had no sense of direction, unless one regards idealism as a place. I wanted to live in the country, live off ‘the fat of the land,’ and write. An honorable mention award from a college literary magazine further fired my idealism, instilling in me a false hope that being a poet was a legitimate lucrative vocation.
Over spring break in 1973, I went to Florida where I met a Tennessee farm boy. We married that summer. Eventually we bought a small farm and had two sons. I gardened, milked goats, made cheese, wrote poetry, and helped my husband with the crops and commercial poultry operation. Our dreams did not match. I wanted to be Henrietta David Thoreau, and he wanted to be John Deer Corporation. After twenty years of marriage we divorced. Over the course of that time, I had begun publishing poems in literary magazines and writing an occasional short story. My guilt load was (and still is) tremendous. I spent a huge amount of time writing, and the financial compensation was practically nihil. Confession: I am a write-aholic.
A friend read a story I wrote and persuaded me to turn it into a novel. That novel traveled the circuit of editors and agents desks, but never found a publisher. Two other unpublished novels followed, both of which managed to beg some interest, but not a home. Meanwhile, I had received scholarships to a number of writers’ conferences throughout the 1990s, both for poetry and fiction, and in 2000, I received a scholarship to the Squaw Valley Fiction Writers Workshop. I had written a draft of a fourth novel and attended the Squaw conference seeking advice and maybe a lead on an agent.
Instead, I found a writers’ group back in Tennessee. At Squaw I met Meg and Mac Clayton. They lived in Nashville, and together with another writer, Brenda Vantrease, they met weekly to critique one another’s work. They were looking for a fourth. I signed on.
Every Tuesday, I drove 180 miles round trip to offer my humble suggestions and comments on Meg, Mac, and Brenda’s works in progress and to hear their critiques of mine. Sometimes driving home, I cried a little, but at the same time, ideas for rewrites and fixes swarmed in my mind like excited bees during those drives home.
I learned more in the two years I met with Meg, Mac, and Brenda than in the entire forty years of solitary writing that preceded that time. When Meg and Mac moved to California, the group dissolved. Brenda and I tried for a while to keep it going, but a fruitful, functioning writers group needs three or four participants and, also, the right chemistry—clearly the four of us had that. Meg has just published her second novel; Brenda has published two novels, with a third to be released next year; and Mac has an agent.
As for me, the novel I work-shopped with the group found an agent and came precariously close to finding a publisher. My agent, Sorche Fairbank, believed in my ability as a writer, and commented that non-fiction was the in-road to book publishing for many would-be published authors—had I given writing non-fiction any thought, Sorche asked? In fact, I had been toying with writing a collection of narratives telling the stories of individuals found guilty of crimes they did not commit and who were subsequently sentenced to death. Since my divorce, I had returned to the activism of my youth, and taken a seat on the board of directors of the Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace. Through that affiliation, I became intrigued by the wrong-mindedness of capital punishment, especially the wrongful conviction phenomenon.
It took me four years to write Execution’s Doorstep: True Stories of the Innocent and Near Damned, and those four years took me in to a world I never knew existed—a world of dungeon-like prisons, of conscienceless and corrupt prosecutors and law enforcement officials, and of courageous men who suffered unthinkable injustice. On a number of occasions, government agencies denied me access to legal documents, and when it came time to find a publisher, my agent encountered hostility as well. There were those who did not want these stories to be told.
The University Press of New England took up the challenge. Execution’s Doorstep was released the first week of September. My life has changed forever in a way I never expected. I wrote some nonfiction prior to Execution’s Doorstep, articles for agriculture publications, for a local newspaper, and for the journal of CCJP. Last June, I was appointed the organizations executive director. I cobble together a living in that role, and as staff writer for the Sewanee, Tennessee newspaper. I’m eager to bury myself in another “big” book project—fiction or nonfiction. Regardless, the process is the same—you step out of your life and into the life of someone else and tell their story. Yes, and I love it! – Leslie Lytle