Damien Echols | Interview outtakes
"I'm often plagued by thoughts that people will think of me only as either someone on Death Row or someone who used to be on Death Row," writes Damien Echols in his new best-selling memoir, Life After Death. As one of the famous West Memphis Three, finally released from prison last year after being falsely accused of murder in 1994, it's a very real concern. But as his gripping book reveals, Echols is so much more: author and reader, scholar and rebel, husband and father, as well as someone who eschews all labels. I recently spoke with Echols, who now lives in Salem, Massachusetts, about writing, religion and his life behind bars and beyond. Here's more from our conversation.
When did you start writing?
When I was probably twelve years old. In the beginning it was this really horrible poetry, but I've always loved writing. It's like scratching an itch deep inside of you that you can't really get to any other way. I began writing what eventually became Life After Death probably seven years ago. I had no idea that one day it was going to end up on the New York Times bestseller list; I was just sort of doing it. In prison, you can't focus on that day in the future when you may get out. As hard as it is, you have to make some sort of life for yourself in the present day. For me, that's what writing did—it gave me structure. I would sit down every single day and do it.
Did you have an editor help you structure Life After Death? It's interesting how the narrative jumps around, from childhood to prison to high school, etcetera.
A little bit but, for the most part, that was me. [My editor] would go through and make sure everything was correct grammatically, but it's mostly my writing style. On a daily basis in prison, I didn't really think about things in a linear way. One day I would sit down and write about Christmas of 1986 in my grandmother's house, focusing on it so intensely that I could feel it again, because you don't have anything in [prison] you want to feel, you don't have anything you want to remember. It's all horrible stuff. The next day I might get up and write about some horrendously brutal thing that the guards had done just because I wanted to purge myself of it, to get it out in some sort of cathartic way… It's a prison writing style. That's the way you think when you're in prison: You skip back and forth a lot in time.
It seems like you were a pretty nostalgic person even before entering prison.
Oh definitely. It seems I spend at least half my life always looking back over my shoulder at whatever has come before.
You emphasize in the book that there are many different sides to you. Especially when it comes to religion, you've explored many traditions.
I think a lot of times in life people are looking for labels to identity themselves. We want to belong to something because it gives us a sense of security or comfort. I guess I had all those things stripped away from me while I was in prison. And I saw that once you do start letting go of all that, it's not as scary as you think. So for me what it became about wasn't labels but what works, whether it was techniques from different pagan traditions, Buddhism, Catholicism, energy work… I took the most vital parts of various traditions and blended them together.
Who has most influenced your writing style?
I literally learned to write from reading Stephen King novels. As crazy as that sounds, I started reading his books when I was 10 or 11 years old and read them over and over. I read them so many times, some of them while I was prison, that the characters started feeling like old friends to me. The only thing I can compare it to is listening to music and hearing a beat. With a really good writer, you feel a beat to what they're saying. Stephen King and I may write about completely different things but whenever I sat down, I started writing to the beat I heard in his books.
Is it frustrating when critics say "This is actually so good, a ghostwriter must have done it"? [as happened in a recent New York Times review]
Yeah, it is. It's really frustrating to hear that. In a way, it's kind of insulting because they're saying, "Surely you couldn't have done this." That was one of the things we were adamant about from the beginning. When we started shopping the manuscript around to publishers, we always said "No ghost writers. None." I didn't want anyone messing with my work. It's like having another painter come in and paint over your artwork.
Have you enjoyed the crazy pace you've had lately—with your book tour and documentary [West of Memphis] and everything else—or has it been a little overwhelming?
There have been times where I've been enjoyed it, but it has also been really overwhelming. One thing I'm looking forward to the most is being able to settle down for a little while, after things calm a bit, and establish some sort of routine.
After you've had a little time to catch your breath, do you have a vision of the next project you want to take on? Do you want to keep writing?
Eventually what I want to do, where my passion lies, is with mediation and energy work. I want to open a small mediation center here in Salem where I can share with people the things that I had to learn while in prison, the things that saved my life.