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Author Talk: February 2014

Question: To what extent—if any—is Judge Norcross based on you? Is the trial in THE HANGING JUDGE based at all on any case or cases you’ve presided over?

Michael Ponsor: The trial is based generally on my experience as a judge, and my experience presiding over a complete death penalty trial. Judge Norcross, however, is not me. He is less experienced than I am as a judge now, and than when I presided over my capital case. He is also, in many ways, a nicer person than I am.

What I’ve tried to convey is the sense of moral pressure, emotional pressure, and professional pressure that pervades a proceeding where you are deciding whether a person—a live person actually sitting in the same room with you, twenty or thirty feet away—should be deliberately killed. This environment, not particular details of any single case I’ve ever sat on, or specific traits of my own character as a person or a judge, is what I have tried to convey in the book. The consequences of this severe pressure are felt, of course, not only in the courthouse and the courtroom, but outside the formal proceeding in people’s personal lives, as well, and I have tried to get that across in crafting the story.

Q: Is fiction writing something you recently became interested in, or is it something you’ve always done in your free time?

MP: I’ve been writing fiction for forty years, including several novels or parts of novels. They say it takes ten thousand hours truly to master some skill, whether it is tennis or fiction writing. I have spent far more than ten thousand hours writing fiction, but I am still a long way away from mastering it. Writing does give me great pleasure, and I hope I have acquired some ability at it by now. I certainly enjoy it very much and intend to keep doing it.

Q: How did you first happen upon the case of Dominic Daley and James Halligan? Did you immediately see a parallel between the anti-Catholic bias they experienced two centuries ago and biases that are present in some modern courtrooms?

MP: The story of Dominic Daley and James Halligan is well known in western Massachusetts, and in 2006 I participated in commemorations of the two-hundredth anniversary of their tragic executions. The parallels between their case and modern-day death penalty cases immediately struck me.

Q: Legal work obviously includes a great deal of writing. Was all the writing you’ve done over the course of your career an asset in completing this novel? Did you have to “unlearn” any legal writing habits as you wrote THE HANGING JUDGE?

MP: My legal writing helped to some extent, but was a hindrance in other ways. The exercise of trying to write simply and clearly is shared by legal and fiction writing. A legal writing style, however, can come across as stilted or overly formal in fiction. More importantly, legal writing is not generally as well crafted as publishable fiction. I recently wrote an eighty-page opinion in an important piece of litigation before me. It took me about five full days to do it properly, which is a very long time for a trial judge. Given the pressures of a busy docket, we normally do not have that amount of time to devote to one decision. I was only able to do it on this occasion because I was technically “on vacation” and had the undistracted time. On the other hand, eighty pages of publishable fiction, say a novella, would require two or three months of concentrated effort at least, probably more, for the piece to be done even marginally well. As writing, fiction writing is far harder than legal writing, for me at least, but very often more enjoyable.

Q: It is fairly intuitive how you created such authentic characters and dialogue in the courtroom and judge’s chambers. But how did you achieve the same with gang members and their families?

MP: I was a criminal defense attorney myself, with some clients not much different from Moon Hudson, before I became a judge. Also, I have visited prisons and participated in many programs that have brought me into contact with many persons charged with crimes and with many convicted criminals. They are actually not that different from the rest of us. I have also spent hundreds of hours reading transcripts and listening to recordings of intercepted phone calls and drug deals where an agent or cooperator was wired, so I have a fair idea of how people talk in these situations.

Q: Did you find your feelings or attitude toward your characters changing as you wrote the novel? Were there any you liked more (or less) at the end than you did at the beginning?

MP: Norcross was the most difficult character to draw, paradoxically, because he is the most like me. I’m not sure why this is, but it was certainly true. Redpath was the character I came to like and respect the most, although I was fond of all the characters. The book has a couple of what I consider clowns, sort of in the Shakespearean sense, but other than Carlos, who barely appears, there are no real villains in the classic sense. Hannah Arendt apparently said that “the greatest evil is the evil that is committed by no one.” Here, the book presents the possibility of a great evil, an innocent man being killed, but the figures in the drama that threaten to commit this evil are mostly very nice, rather funky human beings. This for me is how life works.

Q: Given that capital punishment is such a controversial issue, can readers of all political persuasions enjoy THE HANGING JUDGE? Does the novel take any sort of “position” on the issue?

MP: The novel takes no position on the death penalty. It tries only to describe how the process really works, or at least how I have observed it to work. I do believe that it is not possible to have a system of capital punishment without from time to time executing someone who in fact did not commit the crime he or she is being executed for. Human beings, and human-made systems, are fallible. This fact has to be acknowledged in any discussion of capital punishment. Once that fact is recognized, it will then be possible to have an honest discussion about whether the death penalty is worth the cost. The resolution of that discussion is for Congress and the state legislatures, but it must be an honest discussion.