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Sister Helen Prejean

Anti-death penalty advocate and author of Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean is the rock star of nuns. At least that is how I think of her. We met years ago through a personal connection and have been close friends ever since. When I first asked her about doing an interview for a book about writing and resistance, she answered: “Bring it on!” If you haven’t seen Helen give a talk (she’s on the road nonstop September through May), you might not quite fathom how in character her response was. This interview took place in her home, a modest apartment, in Mid-City, New Orleans, in April 2018. We sat in our usual chairs. She’d recently gotten over a bad case of pneumonia, which included a week in the hospital, but that didn’t prevent each of us from enjoying a Dixie beer.

NEW ORLEANS REVIEW

When we first met, I quickly realized you weren’t anything like what I was expecting from a typical nun. How has that helped you, and how has that hindered you over the years?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN

Partly it’s helped because no one expects a nun to have been to the death house—to know how politics and the criminal justice system work. It helps, too, when people say things like, “Hey, this is a nun who’s been in the fire.” But it’s also worked against me. When the book Dead Man Walking was coming out in 1993, there was the hurdle of how my being a nun was going to play out with a story about a murderer. Eighty percent of the population on average was for the death penalty—in Louisiana that was probably 90 percent. A lot of people likely expected me to be that classic nun—only all into Jesus and forgive your enemies stuff—and that I was going to be unable to dive into the horror of the crime and the victim’s family.

I had this great editor, Jason Epstein at Random House, who really helped me shape my story. The first thing he did was show me that it took too long in the first draft to acknowledge the terrible crimes that Pat Sonnier and his brother Eddie had done—killing two innocent teenage kids. Jason said, “Helen, they’ll say this is a nun full of platitudes—‘Jesus said to forgive’—and can’t really stand in the horror of this crime, and acknowledge it, and be outraged by it. And if you don’t put that in the first ten pages, nobody’s going to read this book.”

The other thing was that I made a big mistake in not reaching out for a long time to the victims’ families. I figured they were so upset and angry and would especially think that anybody against the death penalty is an enemy. And Jason, again, said, “Well, it was cowardice, wasn’t it? You were scared of them? Scared of the rejection, scared of the anger?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Put that in your book. Acknowledge your mistakes, and people will stay with you in the telling of the story because you’re showing your humanness. If you try to always spin things to come out good, they’re going to sense your dishonesty, and they’re not going to read your book.”

NOR

It makes me think of a piece of advice I once heard—that there should always be someone the reader can root for in a narrative. It circumvents the perennial question of having “likeable” characters. Do you think at a certain point in Dead Man Walking that the reader is rooting for you?

PREJEAN

I’ve never thought of the rooting question. What is this, a pig thing?

NOR

It’s helped me—when I feel like a character is too goody-goody or too unreliable—because as long as you’re rooting for the character, you want to see them get over whatever challenge they’re facing.

PREJEAN

That’s very interesting. Tim Robbins remarked once that I was “the nun who was in over her head,” and that is just what people thought, and rightly so, when they saw me getting into this. I knew nothing about the courts, the criminal justice system, how politics work—nothing.

NOR

The reader wants to see if you’re going to make it.

PREJEAN

True. And I didn’t have a clue what was going to happen as I got into it.

NOR

This year is the 25th anniversary of the publication of Dead Man Walking. What’s the state of capital punishment?

PREJEAN

The pattern of the death penalty is imminently clear, that the guidelines the Supreme Court set in the Gregg v. Georgia decision of 1976 are not holding. The guidelines are so mercurial and impossible—that the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for “the worst of the worst.” But guess what, if you leave it up to individual prosecutors to be the determiners of what “the worst of the worst” means, it’s no big surprise that the Deep South states that practiced slavery are the states with the highest rates for seeking the death penalty. There are six or seven counties of rabid prosecutors responsible for close to 50 percent of all people on death row in the U.S. You have someone like Bob Macy in Oklahoma, for example, who single-handedly was responsible for sending 54 people to death row.

The prosecutor has two key decisions to make: first, to go for the death penalty or not; and second, if they go for the death penalty, will they allow the person to plea bargain and accept a life without parole sentencing in exchange for a guilty plea.

NOR

Most of the prosecutors don’t allow for a plea bargain?

PREJEAN

Some do, some don’t. It’s arbitrary. Denny LeBoeuf, one of the great human rights lawyers and a good friend of mine, represents people in Guantanamo. She heads up the ACLU John Adams Project, which puts millions of dollars into the defending of people accused and targeted from 9/11. She says the death penalty rests on the premise that we can entrust the government and the courts to set up criteria in some kind of predictable, reasonable, and lawful way to select and punish with death the “worst of the worst”—and do this according to norms of the Constitution. And nobody really knows what that meant.

NOR

So there are two trials—one for the guilty or not guilty determination, and the other for sentencing?

PREJEAN

Bifurcated trial, yes. Which is partly why the death penalty will always be more expensive than any other kind of trial. The sentencing trial can take double or triple the time because everything is open in looking into the life of the defendant, and what might be a mitigating circumstance.

The status of the victim also comes into play. Almost everybody wants the death penalty if you kill a policeman, but then not if you kill a fireman. Not if you kill a public health official. Not if you kill a teacher. So you begin to have this hierarchy or this meritocracy: what is the status of some victims, that their killing would automatically make their killer eligible for the death penalty, but not others? And you begin to realize how unrealistic this is. Or, for example, if someone kills a child. But you’ve got to define child, because when you have a law you always have to have a cutting-off point. So you can have parents come in before the judicial committee and say, “Our son was killed! He was killed, our son, he was the light of our eyes.” But he was 14 years old, and the law says that a child is 12 years old or younger. They respond, “But doesn’t his death call for the ultimate penalty?” And you begin to see how arbitrary the whole thing is, and you can’t apply it—or you make a mess of applying it.

This is nothing to say for the biggest mistake: the huge number of innocent people we’ve wrongfully convicted, put on death row, and then exonerate—162 and counting.

NOR

And that’s what your second book is about?

PREJEAN

The Death of Innocents, yes. That book is about how someone could be innocent and still be thrown into the death machine. For it, I had to learn a lot about the appeal courts. The reason, for instance, most people are on death row is because they didn’t get a really good, top-notch lawyer. If you don’t have a lawyer who raises a formal objection to so many things, you are in trouble. Dobie Gillis Williams, a black man accused of killing a white woman in her bathroom in a small Louisiana town, had an all-white jury. And there was no formal objection from his lawyer. When the case went up for appeal at the state level and then the federal, the thinking was that Dobie and his lawyer had discussed having an all-white jury—that it was okay and fair—therefore it was no longer an issue. Without that initial presence on the record—of a formal objection—well, that means the appeals court can’t hear that issue in the case.

NOR

Many states have, in fact, pulled back on the death penalty?

PREJEAN

The number of executions and death sentences is going down year by year. In 1998, for example, the number of death sentences handed down was 295. In 2017, that number was down to 39.

NOR

Do you see the Supreme Court changing the law of the land?

PREJEAN

It comes down to the individual justices, and all of them except Justice Clarence Thomas come from privilege. As Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice, pointed out, your life experiences have a lot to do with the way you interpret words. You have privileged white people, who went to privileged schools, interpreting words such as “equal justice under law” whereas those from humbler backgrounds, like Marshall, have an entirely different take on what those words mean. We now have Justice Neil Gorsuch, who will probably be pro-death penalty right down the line. He will use conservative interpretation of the Constitution to argue the death penalty is in there, the people want it, the Constitution allows it, and only state legislatures can change it and not the courts—that’s called judicial activism. Justice Antonin Scalia always argued that the only way to change the death penalty is through state legislatures, that is how we got the amendments to the Constitution, that is the way to change everything. But they cannot see in those words, by sentencing human beings to death—conscious, imaginative beings—that the death penalty is a form of cruelty. They do not acknowledge the cruelty of it because they’re blocked from feeling the pain of the condemned. All they can see is a legal argument. If you murder, you die. They don’t have any experience that can help them interpret those words differently—to see what it means to predetermine, step-by-step, killing an alive human being who anticipates death and dies a thousand times before they die.

NOR

It’s the life experience of these justices that is crucial to their interpretation.

PREJEAN

Yes. Look at us—as writers we bring our life experience to the way we interpret words and articulate them. As well, people bring their life experience to the way they read. When you’re reading a book, what flashes in your imagination? What connections are made?

NOR

One sees what one wants to see.

PREJEAN

Not just “want to see,” but what you’ve had some experience in. Or not. Sometimes you draw a blank. Words just leave you cold.

NOR

What you have a bent to see, then.

PREJEAN

Yes. It’s almost like electrical connections with things way deeper than just a rationalized approach. Anybody who has experienced any form of abuse is going to be alert to words where somebody is dominating or using their power over somebody else. It can be very painful to read; we avoid reading some things that will evoke pain. So you have people who are very cushioned, from privileged experience, interpreting words, really that could set your soul on fire. And that is the anemic, protectionist interpretation of law that we have often gotten from privileged individuals. But we have to add that no matter what a justice’s past is, he or she can grow and develop through the debate that happens in the court.

Still, there is a clear pattern that when white people are killed, the death penalty is often sought. And yet when people of color are killed, it’s seldom sought. But you have these legalistic arguments that say it’s not up to a court to assess sociological patterning and statistics—

NOR

You can’t talk about the patterning and the facets of institutions that oppress?

PREJEAN

Nope, you can’t look at patterns—only individuals and their intentions.

NOR

That seems like the definition of anemic and narrow.

PREJEAN

And that’s what racism and prejudice does. You actually have people like Scalia who, when the first Affirmative Action cases came in, asked why we owed something to people of color just because of slavery. “Slavery’s long over” is what he argued. That classic argument.

NOR

Like what Kanye West said recently about African-American slaves: “They chose it! 400 years of slavery and they let it go on.” What’s it take to make a statement like “they chose it”?

PREJEAN

Scalia said things like, “My family is Italian, we came as immigrants but we overcame. My father became a professor. What we did, they can do.”

NOR

The pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality.

PREJEAN

That’s the sure sign of people speaking out of privilege. The capacity for compassion is limited. And the law codifies the prejudice and so does its application. Isn’t it odd that the worst of the worst almost always is when you kill a white person?

NOR

You’re not supposed to look at the pattern.

PREJEAN

That’s what real intelligence is—seeing patterns.

NOR

And synthesizing them.

PREJEAN

Then, if one is a moral being, asking oneself, “What does knowing this ask of me?” Like the response to widening inequality between rich and poor by the Poor People’s Campaign right now in the U.S.

A lot of people think intelligence is what you get on quiz programs—knowing trivia. But it’s really about seeing the pattern in things. That’s when you come into the spirit. There’s the spirit of the law, and there’s the legality of it, the empirical. It’s the same thing for teaching. Are you going to teach for testing, in order to see how the scores come statistically, and how your students ranked high or low? Or are you going to teach because you love the way teaching can open up creativity in others and unleash potential for change in the world? The bind that teachers are being put in all the time between spirit and the law, and the empirical justification of what they do and how their students score. It’s in everything. Do you become a writer because you desire to become famous and make a lot of money? Or do you become a writer because there’s something you discovered, this spark, this flash, that you want to share with other human beings knowing that they can enter into the words too?

NOR

That brings us to your forthcoming book, River of Fire, which you’ve described to me as your spiritual awakening that led you to Louisiana’s death row. But it also makes me think of your journey as a writer. You’ve mentioned your daily journal to me a number of times. Did your writing grow out of that? How exactly did your writing evolve?

PREJEAN

My journaling was triggered by an exhibit about John F. Kennedy here in New Orleans. They displayed postcards he had sent home as a boy from camp. For some reason those postcards fired up my soul. I got one of those three-ring binders—the blue horse binders—and started writing a journal.

NOR

So it wasn’t something you did as kid?

PREJEAN

No, I never did much writing as a kid. I’m a talker.

NOR

What year did you begin it?

PREJEAN

1963. The journal really began just as a way of clarifying my soul. I talk about it in River.

NOR

You’ve titled the book River of Fire. Why fire?

PREJEAN

They killed a man with fire one night. This line begins the book.

NOR

The electrocution of Pat Sonnier?

PREJEAN

Right, they pumped electricity into his body until he was dead. His killing was a legal act because he had killed. No religious leaders protested the killing that night. No people from churches were raising their voice. But I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. And what I saw set my soul on fire, a fire that burns in me still.

River of Fire is the account of how I came to be in the killing chamber that night, and the spiritual currents that brought me there. In the early morning hours of April 5th, 1984, I came out of that execution chamber and couldn’t believe all of this had happened. That the government had actually killed a citizen in the United States of America. After the execution, they put a coat around me—I felt chilled to the bone—put me in the car to take me home, and we had to stop the car because I had to throw up.

I had never witnessed a scripted, legal death. What I saw was a premeditated killing disguised as an act of justice.

NOR

You were a witness.

PREJEAN

It became clear to me, that night, that I had to tell the story. But I didn’t know what I was going to do exactly. I didn’t know I was going to write a book. At first I resisted writing a book.

I’m from Louisiana; we talk. So the first thing I did was start talking to anybody who would listen—one of the first times was to captive students in sociology at Loyola University.

NOR

Really?

PREJEAN

Giving talks in schools, community centers, churches—it’s where and how I learned to hone the story. I began to realize, and this was before the book, that I had to be able to really stand in outrage and talk about the victim’s family. That’s been a whole growth process. If you don’t stand with the victim’s family, then everything you’re trying to say about human rights, where you want to take people at the end of the journey, won’t work.

NOR

When and where did you first publish something about your experience?

PREJEAN

I began to write op-eds—one for the Pacific News Journal, a syndicate based in San Francisco. Then I got an invitation, from a Mr. Charles Singer in California, who had seen my writing, and he said, “You should do a book. I can get it published for you.” So I went, Wow, maybe I ought to write a book.

This brings Jason DeParle into the story. Have I ever spoken to you about him?

NOR

I don’t think so.

PREJEAN

Jason DeParle is a close friend. He had done his undergraduate in English and then he went to the Poynter Institute in St. Augustine in Florida, a six-week course in journalistic writing. After an internship at the New Republic, he had two offers for a job: one was with The Washington Post and one was with the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. And his mentor said, “Jason, go South and do honest work.” And he did.

So he comes to the Times-Picayune—this is in the 1980s when I’m at Hope House in an inner-city project, St. Thomas—and of course the first beat they give a rookie reporter is the crime beat. Executions are just beginning again, and Jason meets me. When Jason later left for The New York Times, he covered the stories here of the death penalty. Some have called him the conscience of The New York Times, because his whole mission has been to put human faces to policies. For I don’t know how many years, for example, he followed three single women and chronicled the story of their lives, going from welfare to work.

Anyway, when I got this offer from this man, Singer, in California, I called up Jason. You know, I’ve never told this story before—

NOR

I don’t remember you ever mentioning this.

PREJEAN

—about Jason’s role. He told me that if I wanted to get a book published, I should go through New York. Jason had a connection to Bill McKibben, who had written The End of Nature, and he had me send my writing to him, hoping that if he liked my work he’d recommend me to his agent.

NOR

What did you have to send him at this point, just op-eds?

PREJEAN

I had done a few, including one on Pope John Paul II’s visit to New Orleans for the Picayune . I remember a special punch at the end of my op-ed. You know how everyone shouts Viva il Papa!  to the Pope? Well, I had the Pope respond Viva le mamme!— a prophecy still a long way from fulfillment in my patriarchal Catholic church. It was Jim Amos, editor-in-chief at the Picayune, who first told me I have a distinctive voice. I didn’t know what a writer’s “voice” was.

In any case, I sent my writing to Bill McKibben. I still remember what he said in his letter in reply, “I have not seen such quiet writing since Orwell.”

NOR

Quiet writing?

PREJEAN

I understand now a bit better what that meant. I wasn’t punching the writing with adverbs or adjectives, or trying to make it sensational, with drum-rolls of building up the emotions. I was just taking people there with simple Anglo-Saxon words—the Hemingway pared-downed formula.

Bill put me in touch with his agent, Gloria Loomis, and I sent her the stuff I’d sent him. And she said to me, “Yes.”

You hear of people’s huge challenges trying to get literary agents—for me, it happened right away. But I think I was part of something bigger. Executions in the U.S. are hidden from the public, just 12 witnesses behind prison walls. No one was ever going to see the government killings up close unless eyewitnesses would bring people inside the killing chamber.

NOR

The agent recognized the need for a witness to bring the public close?

PREJEAN

She saw the writing and said that I was bringing readers into both sides of the suffering—to the condemned and his family as well as to the grief of the murder victims’ families. And that is really a summary of the book, going back and forth to both sides. Gloria told me, “I want you to write three chapters which don’t have to be in order, a table of contents, and a two-page proposal. I have a publisher in mind.”

That took me nine months to do, because we were doing long marches. In May 1990, we were doing a march from death row in Florida to The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta where we entered the city carrying 90 coffins—the number of people who had been executed thus far. It was the only way the media would give us any coverage. Lord, we were on the road for two weeks. I was so tired at the end of that march I fainted, and I thought there’s gotta be another way.

I finally got the materials to Gloria. She walked right down the street and put them into Jason Epstein’s hands at Random House. He wrote me a letter asking if I’d come up to New York to talk about the possibility of publishing a book.

Mama said to me, “Honey, you can’t go to New York without a suit.” So, my good Southern mama gets me a nice suit to wear to meet my New York editor. She was on the phone big-time to all her friends. [Laughter.]

NOR

What year was that?

PREJEAN

It was ‘90. I had no comprehension of Random House, thought it was a little bitty publishing company. And then I’m in the elevator at Random House, going to Epstein’s office on the eleventh floor, and all these different floors are coming up—children’s books, adult fiction—and I realize the whole building is Random House!

I meet Jason and we sit at this table overlooking the Hudson River, absolutely beautiful. And we talk about writing and the death penalty, and I come out of there thinking that was the best dang-gone conversation I’ve ever had with anybody about the death penalty.

Later, Jason DeParle told me that any writer in North America would kneel on crushed glass—

NOR

—to even have a telephone conversation with Jason Epstein.

PREJEAN

Yes. And for two years we worked on the book. He had a very inquiring mind and really wanted to dig into the death penalty. He was a very hands-on editor, who taught me so much about writing. For example, I talked about going into the death house—that my fingertips were cold and I had a cold band around my stomach that was tightening. He said, “Choose the stomach or the fingertips? Don’t say both, give one impression that you’re scared, then move on.” I still remember his little metaphor: If you’re walking along a path and a pebble falls on your head, you’ll remember it. If pebbles keep hitting you on the head, you’ll soon feel nothing.” One impression, and move on.

I gobbled it all up. He said afterwards, in an interview, “I never had a writer who did everything I told her to do!”

When it was time for the book to come out, he stood in front of all the sales and marketing people, held up the book and said, “See this book? It may very well change how we think about capital punishment, like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring changed how we think about the environment.”

They got me out on this book tour where I’m in Los Angeles at six in the morning doing a radio interview. The Today Show. All of it. And NPR covered everything, letting me tell the whole story. Twice. People were talking about pulling over to the side of the road to listen—once people get in the current of this story, they see the many fascinating elements in it.

My little boat began to ride this very big wave. And my spiritual task has been to be faithful to what I’ve seen and the people I have accompanied to their deaths (six of them), to tell the story in as pure a way as I can. It’s not about me, it’s about getting this reality close to the people. And that night, outside the execution chamber, I was thinking as much about the American people as I was about anything, and that people have good hearts. That people are not wedded to killing criminals. They just have been made to be afraid; they don’t have any information about how it’s done. And most never think much about it at all.

NOR

Dead Man Walking wasn’t about you, but River of Fire is all about you. What made you turn the limelight on yourself?

PREJEAN

What makes you think the light is lime?

NOR

Maybe it should be yellow!

PREJEAN

But seriously…over the years people wanted to know what led me to the death chamber.

Susan Sarandon always said that when you look at a film the one who undergoes the most change is the hero of that film. Before we started filming Dead Man Walking, she said to Sean Penn, “This film is going to make your career. You’re the one who’s undergoing the most change—not me—it’s going to be you.”

You see how a book honestly written can transform a reader. I take the reader with me through every step. Meeting with people on death row, who have done unspeakable crimes, I get to witness the goodness in them, the humanness in them. They’re more than the worst thing they have ever done. That’s a shining miracle of life that a lot of people don’t get to see because they don’t really have any experience. They just write people off, “Oh, this person’s a killer, a murderer. These people are evil to the very core.”

On the one side, I got brought right into the secret of what life is about, that every human being has in them a spark, this transcendence to be more than we’ve ever been. And then I watched people go to their deaths with great courage that I don’t know I could muster.

On the other side, I’ve been able over the years to meet victims’ families, who have been thrown into this crucible of suffering nobody can imagine, and some of them come out whole. I have had the incredible experience of being with these people who get out from under what could have been a life of hatred and anger, and being consumed for the rest of their lives, but in this miracle of grace, they crawl out and they’re transformed. They remain and even increase in their capacity to love other human beings, and to trust life and give themselves over to it. I’m on my knees in front of these people. I get to be the storyteller for them, and hold them up. All of this has been part of my experience. River of Fire came because more and more people asked me, “How’d you get into this? I mean, you was a nun?” And the media in the beginning would ask me all the time, “What’s a nun doing on death row?”

NOR

Right, the dissonance between “nun” and “death row.”

PREJEAN

They’d say, “Shouldn’t you be with children, teaching in a classroom?”

NOR

That’s where you begin the story of River of Fire, as a teacher in a classroom?

PREJEAN

It begins with joining the convent in the late 1950s, before the Second Vatican Council.

Then, it moves to how Vatican II changed things. It was the first time the windows of the church opened to the modern world— acknowledging that there are good things happening in science, good things happening in technology, good things happening in people. Pope John XXIII who opened the council said that the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights was going to be the road that all of us can take into the future. Human rights gives us a path to stand on with people. A lot of times the conversation is, for instance, “Well, you’re a nun, you have faith. But a lot of people don’t have your faith. So what?” But then we’re able to talk about human rights. One of my first teachers on the death penalty was right here in New Orleans—Bill Quigley, who’s been at Loyola for years. Then I met Denny LaBoeuf, then folks at the ACLU and Amnesty International. And it was a whole other way of approaching the world, that inalienable dignity of human life. The church back then had a compromised stance on the death penalty, upholding the right of the state to take human life.

NOR

What’s the church’s stance now?

PREJEAN

Last year, Pope Francis made a clear declaration that the death penalty is against the Gospel of Jesus. But you can’t just have top leadership making statements and think all the soil gets tilled. It’s a whole journey of conversion that has to happen in the people. NOR: How do nuns fit in exactly?

PREJEAN

Nuns have always been like free agents for the Gospel within the church. Of course, you want to get along with your bishop and give him respect. But unlike diocesan priests, most religious orders of women are not directly under a bishop’s authority but under Papal authority in Rome. (We like it that way.) In the past, there were some bad scenes in which some bishops interfered drastically with the internal life of women’s congregations.

The first religious orders were cloistered places. Families sometimes would send women into the nunnery, because they figured they couldn’t get them married or something. To be a nun was to be behind nunnery walls where you’d pray for the world. This is based on a concept that the world is full of sin, and you will do penance for the world, and you will pray for the world but you will be separated from the world.

When I entered the Sisters of St. Joseph before Vatican II, it was an entirely different world than today’s. We were in habits, and lay people couldn’t set foot into the convent. We couldn’t have meals with people, even with the teachers we taught with at a school; nuns had a separate dining room. When Vatican II came, our sisters studied those documents and within an incredibly short time, we had changed our constitution—no more blind obedience to a superior.

What became most important was that each individual, in consultation with the community, could sort out where the spirit leads her. Which is what gave me the freedom to get into my death penalty mission. I had that freedom within the sisterhood to do it—and they supported me. People have always seemed intrigued by a nun’s life. That’s in part what led me to write River.

NOR

I read an interview you once gave where someone asked, “Sister Helen, you’ve written a bestseller, been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, have had a movie made about you . . . what do you regard as your biggest accomplishment?”

PREJEAN

Those words, like achievement or accomplishment, have no meaning for me. I don’t even know how to answer that question.

NOR

I know how you answered it.

PREJEAN

How?

NOR

You said, Being with people. Just to be there.

PREJEAN

Yes, just being present. I mean it’s the secret of life right now, to really be able to be present, and let the moment flower, and be what it’s going to be.

NOR

Like we’re having a moment now.

PREJEAN

Right.

NOR

Do you also find that “moment” while you’re writing?

PREJEAN

Absolutely when I’m writing.

NOR

You have to be super present.

PREJEAN

Presence is an elusive thing. There’s a lot said in the spiritual life about the presence of God. You start exploring presence, though, and all of a sudden you fall into a hole, into mystery.

NOR

What does in “the presence of God” mean to you?

PREJEAN

St. John says, “Where there’s love, there’s God.” And so what’s love? Well, that openness that there’s a commitment. Like now. We’re going to have this afternoon; we give ourselves over to it and see what flowers from it. It’s a hopefulness, that you’re going to be with somebody you love, and if you’re really with somebody you love…it’s going to produce something good, you’re going to write something good that’s going to refer to something bigger than both of us. And you trust that.

NOR

When you’re gone someday, do you trust that others will continue the work you do?

PREJEAN

There are plenty of people in the United States doing this work right now. Lawyers, activists, citizens—all awake to injustice. I don’t ever have concerns about how things go on. You do your bit. You do it fully. You turn it over. That’s in the Bhagavad Gita: You do a thing not seeking its fruit. You do it for its own integrity and because it’s the right thing to do, what you’ve got to do. And you leave the fruit up to whatever it’s going to be. It was the same thing with publishing a book; I didn’t have a clue. I just put the story out there.

NOR

And the new book—River of Fire—the title is a bit of a paradox, the tension between water and fire. When I looked up the phrase, I found a biblical passage from Daniel’s description of heaven.

PREJEAN

You’re kidding! Look at you, quoting scripture to me. [Laughter.]

Let me see the paper there.

[Reading aloud.] “Until thrones were set up, and the ancient of days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool.”

I know that part.

“His throne was ablaze with flames, its wheels were a burning fire. A river of fire was flowing and coming out from before Him; thousands upon thousands were attending Him, myriads upon myriads were standing before Him; the court sat, and the books were opened.”

I’ll be danged.

NOR

It’s the ending that strikes me: “and the books were opened.” In the beginning was the word, and the word was God. Now, this is literally a bookend. At the end of time, there are going to be books.

PREJEAN

“And the books were opened.”

NOR

So beware, when the book comes out next year…someone will find that bible excerpt.

PREJEAN

Well, people dig into all kinds of stuff.

NOR

They’re gonna dig.

PREJEAN

Downright helpful, Mr. Yakich. Didn’t realize I had a biblical scholar on my hands.

NOR

I try.

PREJEAN

Naw. Don’t try. I don’t believe in try. You do it or you don’t, and you let the chips fall where they will.

 

 

 

Mark Yakich is editor of New Orleans Review. His next book, Spiritual Exercises, is forthcoming with Penguin in July 2019.

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