In Sarah Crossan’s Moonrise, a teenager named Joe travels to Texas to visit his brother Ed, who is on death row for murdering a police officer. Ed maintains his innocence and Joe has to decide whether to trust him or not. What follows is a nuanced and heartbreaking story about loss, injustice, and poverty. Crossan, an Irish author living in the U.K., came through America on a recent book tour and we had the pleasure of sitting down with her to talk about this powerful verse novel.
Bookish: This book is inspired by the documentary Fourteen Days in May, which you saw when you were 15. It tells the story of American prisoner Edward Earl Johnson’s final days before he was executed. What made you wait to write this story, and when did you finally realize you were ready to write it?
Sarah Crossan: After watching Fourteen Days in May, I wondered what happened to Edward Earl Johnson’s family after he was executed. The death penalty creates many victims, not just Johnson but his loved ones as well. I knew I wanted to write a story about the other victims that are created through certain criminal justice systems but I didn’t have the character. I had to wait for that to come.
There were quite a few things feeding into my interest in writing this story: the media’s discussion of the criminal justice system (especially in the U.S.), shows like Making a Murderer, and my experiences teaching seventh graders in the U.S. about the death penalty. But what really solidified my desire to write this book was reading an absolutely fabulous book called Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, who works for the Equal Justice Initiative trying to help people get off death row.
Bookish: Moonrise is told in verse, but you also write prose. What about Joe’s story made you want to tell it through poetry?
SC: I did write 87,000 words in prose, but there was some heart of the story missing. It was very anti-death penalty, which was my goal, but there seemed to be some manipulation of the reader going on. I finished it and I didn’t think it was quite right. To fix it, at first I did that cheeky thing of just trying to cut up the prose, but the poetry that resulted was terrible. I threw away 87,000 words and started again.
The only way for me to really connect to the story was to understand what I was trying to discover for myself in the book. For me, the book is about how to say goodbye to someone that you love. It’s something we do all the time. People leave us and we don’t want them to leave us, or we leave people and we don’t want to go. Our lives are spent saying goodbye to people. When I realized that this is what the book was about, I was emotionally prepared to connect to it. Once I did that, verse felt like the true form. I was able to cut out all of the stuff that I didn’t need and make it about feelings, not just the action and the narrative.
Bookish: Joe and Ed reunite after years apart and have to rebuild their bond over the course of a few short weeks, while balancing savoring mundane everyday moments with each other and making time to talk about what comes next. How did you go about crafting their relationship?
SC: I started with the interplay between past and present. I’d use a present-day scene and have that connect in Joe’s mind to a scene from their childhood. Every scene that we have in the present is reflected in a scene from the past.
I also wanted to show their connection through Joe’s ability to stay and to be there with Ed. I think that love is revealed in the mundane. To stand watching a sunrise is beautiful and romantic, but is that the moment we feel most connected with people? I don’t think so. I don’t think love is found in big moments, it’s found in getting up every day and being there. It’s in the mundane, the difficult, the routine.
Bookish: Ed maintains his innocence throughout the book and Joe chooses to believe him. As the reader, we’re given the same choice. Why did you decide to leave his innocence open to interpretation?
SC: Mainly because I don’t think it matters if someone is innocent or guilty. You need to make your choice about whether you believe in the death penalty or not regardless of that. I’m hopeful that readers will have doubts about Ed’s innocence and won’t believe him as readily as Joe does. Then they can ask themselves hard questions about what they believe should be done. Should the state be given the power to take away a life? What gives us the right to execute someone?
Imagine how the world would react and how people would treat you if you were defined by the thing you are most ashamed of. It’s so easy to take away a person’s humanity by just describing the crime, but once you fill in the rest of the story you create a human. In the book I say, “We aren’t the worst things we did or the worst things that happened to us. We’re other stuff too… We’re the good, the bad, and the stupid.” For me, that’s the crux of it: How can we judge people on the worst thing they’ve ever done and ignore all of the other mitigating factors? There are always two perspectives. If you can walk in someone’s shoes, you can understand them and have more compassion.
Bookish: Running is often connected to avoiding your fears, but people who run consistently say that it actually helps you clear your mind and work out the problems in your head. Is that something you thought about when making Joe a runner?
SC: It is. I thought he was running towards acceptance, towards being okay. Initially when we see his runs in Texas, he’s running to clear his mind and to be in the present of hearing his own breath and feeling his own body. As the book goes on, it isn’t an escape. He runs to the prison, he runs to see the warden, he runs to confront.
Bookish: Poverty is a central theme in the novel, specifically how it can be a different kind of prison. Is that something you knew you wanted to incorporate early on or did it develop as you got deeper into the story?
SC: All of my books are about poverty. I can’t think of a character in any of my books who is wealthy or even middle class because that’s not my background. I’m from a very working class background and experienced poverty as a child. Poverty is a prison within itself. In the book, it leads Ed to where he is and Joe to where he is. Joe doesn’t see himself as a victim but he doesn’t believe that he can be great and he doesn’t believe he’s entitled to anything good. Poverty doesn’t let you believe that you can be anything you want. You grow up with a can’t attitude: I can’t do this.
When I’m writing, I have two voices in my head. One saying “You can do this!” and the other saying “Who do you think you are?” I think if you don’t come from a background of lacking, you don’t have that voice. I was recently doing an event with Louise O’Neill, and I was asked why I always say that I never thought I’d be a writer. I answered that when I grew up I thought “Why me?” I went to this sort of crappy school, I didn’t do very well in school, there were no books in my house. But Louise’s answer was that she grew up thinking “Why not me?” I can’t imagine growing up with that built into your mentality.
Poverty isn’t written about all that much. Too often you’re told that your story isn’t relevant because it isn’t through the window of a white middle class person. I love that this is no longer the narrative people want to hear. People want to hear the truth, and we’re finally seeing a more diverse range of authors, specifically authors of color, have their books published and have their voices being heard.
That said, I completely understand the privilege I have as a straight person from a white family that valued education in a country where the education was free. Even in the book, Ed is white, but it’s much, much more likely for someone who is black to end up on death row for killing a white police officer. But that isn’t my story to tell.
Bookish: False or coerced confessions are more common than many people realize but they seem to be getting more media attention recently, thanks to popular shows like Making a Murderer. Why was this an element you wanted to include in Ed’s story?
SC: Most people think this part of the book is the least believable, but it happens all of the time, especially with serious crime. In almost half the cases of people who are on death row, there is a confession signed under duress without a lawyer present. Ed’s experience is very close to Edward Earl Johnson’s story from Fourteen Days in May. He was an 18-year-old boy who wrote a false confession. He was taken out in a car in the middle of the night and told by a police officer to sign the confession or he’d be shot. What is an 18-year-old without a lawyer or parent present going to do except sign the confession?
Bookish: Throughout the novel, readers are presented with the idea that most people are doing the best they can with what they’re given, for better or worse. There are also two moments when two different characters (Joe’s mom and the prison warden) seek forgiveness and absolution, but neither is granted it. How do you see those two themes working together in the book?
SC: It can be unpacked in so many ways. Those two people, the warden and the boys’ mother, are not entitled to forgiveness. Maybe the warden at some point will give up his job or feel enlightened enough to speak out against what he’s doing. He hasn’t had that moment of awakening yet, so he isn’t deserving of forgiveness. The mother and warden aren’t in that place yet. The only reason they would be offered forgiveness is if it were in Joe’s best interest because I think that’s where forgiveness comes from. It’s in one’s own interest to be forgiving because it only eats you up if you have anger towards people. The widow of the police officer who was killed doesn’t want the death penalty for Ed. She sees no nourishment in having another victim. She understands that for her own wellbeing she needs to be forgiving, not for Ed but for herself.
On the other hand there’s a different character, Joe’s Aunt Karen, who has a moment of awakening and is entitled to be heard. One of the characters in the book says, “When you know better, you do better.” Karen knew better and began to do better.
Bookish: Facing injustice can feel intimidating. It’s seemingly impossible to know where to start when an entire system is corrupt. Are there any resources you recommend for readers wanting to educate themselves about these problems and get involved in finding solutions?
SC: I’d definitely start with looking up Bryan Stevenson, both his book Just Mercy and his work with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). There are so many online resources, but I’d recommend starting with EJI. Stevenson believes that to truly stop injustices you have to understand how wealth and poverty affect the justice system and EJI specifically focuses on economic injustice.
Reader beware, spoilers ahead
Bookish: Ed’s execution date looms over the entire story like a black cloud. The reader and characters never for a moment forget that it’s there. What were the challenges of writing characters who are constantly aware of mortality, both their own and the mortality of someone they care for?
SC: The challenge in writing it was trying to make it realistic and not to dramatize it. When you’re in that situation I think you try and normalize it because people still need to eat and sleep and survive.
There’s a chapter in the book called “Time Travel Me” where Joe wishes he had said “I love you,” but he couldn’t because those aren’t words that were said often in his family. To have chapters where the characters express everything they want to say to each other wouldn’t feel realistic. We don’t do that as people; I don’t think we ever have the courage to do that. The words get stuck in our throats and it’s when the person is gone that we wish we had been able to speak. That was the other challenge: not writing the things that I wanted my characters to say because I knew that they wouldn’t say them, especially if they were from this particular background where feelings are kept under wraps.
Bookish: What do you hope readers take away from this book after they finish it?
SC: I hope it raises questions and that people can have conversations. I’ve had readers who have left the book and still been quite staunchly in favor of the death penalty, which is surprising to me.
It’s also a book about what we do with the time we have left and how we sometimes squander that time. It was a book that made me think about my child and my family. It made me want to enjoy small moments rather than waiting for big ones because you don’t know when that person may be taken from you or you may be taken. That sounds tragic, but there are little losses that we experience all the time. My brother recently moved to Canada and now I don’t see him as often. How much do I wish I had always said yes when he asked to see me?
Bookish: As readers, we hope and pray for a happy ending for the characters we care about, but life isn’t always made up of happy endings. Why did you choose to have the book end the way it did?
SC: I don’t think the book was ever going to end any other way and that’s because of Fourteen Days in May and how that impacted me. I needed the reader to understand the consequences of this particular part of the criminal justice system. The reality is that people get executed all the time and a whole new set of victims are created.
I needed the ending to be realistic. Wanting the reader to feel a certain way would be manipulation, but I did want the reader to experience the story as I experienced watching this documentary at 15 years old. It’s devastating and I want it to be. I want readers to be confronted with that.
Sarah Crossan is the author of Apple and Rain and The Weight of Water, both of which have been short-listed for the Carnegie Medal. She is also the author of the novels Moonrise, Breathe, Resist, and the 2016 Carnegie Medal winner One, as well as We Come Apart, co-authored with Brian Conaghan. She grew up in Ireland and England, has taught English in the United States, and now lives in Hertfordshire, England.