You were a press witness to an execution, which led you down this path to eventually write WE’LL FLY AWAY. What effect did this experience have on you?
I’ve always been against the death penalty, but it was more of an academic position up until that point. As a journalist, I was supposed to be objective—to report the facts. But the indignity and injustice of what happened in the room was a turning point. Seeing a man mouth his last words to family—to ask forgiveness from his victim’s children—from behind soundproof glass, strapped to a gurney, made me question how any of us can be objective in the face of horror. I knew that night that I wouldn’t be a reporter for much longer. I wanted to do more. A few months later, I was enrolled in graduate school to study theology, which was also (even though I didn’t know it at the time) the beginning of a long path toward writing fiction.
How did your theological background influence the writing of this book?
My knee-jerk response to this question is: not at all! Most of that, however, comes with my own experiences with the theological shallowness of many popular “religious” novels. But in all honesty, my theological worldview influences everything I write. Specifically, in We’ll Fly Away
, I wanted to engage with the idea that nobody is beyond redemption—nobody is unforgivable. This is an easy thing to say, but it is easily tested when you’re talking about the women and men on death row. Yes, they’ve done terrible and horrendous things. But to think they are somehow stuck or defined by that one terrible moment is . . . well, it’s something I will never believe. Sister Helen Prejean graciously let me use a quote for the book’s epigraph, and I think it says it best: “It’s easy to forgive the innocent. It’s the guilty who test our morality.”
“None of us are ever finished,” inspired by Sister Helen’s quote, is a key line from the book. If we are not defined by our choices or our actions, then how would you say we define ourselves and our place in the world?
So much of the conversation around capital punishment comes, in my mind, with a baked-in idea of how justice works. It’s very binary, very black and white. There are good people (those who are not in prison) and bad people (those who are), and instead of seeing “good” and “bad” as a sliding scale, something that can shift wildly from moment to moment across our lives, we instead choose to throw people away. In that mindset, there is no way a person can ever change, never mind giving them actual opportunities to grow or transform or learn. We define ourselves, then, by allowing ourselves the room to make mistakes. The room to grow and change. Does this mean a person shouldn’t pay for their crimes? Of course not. But I’d suggest that forcing a person to live with their head under an axe, dehumanizing them at every single opportunity, and on top of all that, telling them they have to be the same “evil” person for the rest of their life, is about as barbaric as it gets.
During your years of processing the execution, you wrote letters to death row inmates. Can you explain the role that letter writing has for the imprisoned, such as Luke, versus those on the outside?
I started corresponding with inmates about ten years ago and the experience has been transformational. I can’t speak to how it affects the men I write, but many of them are very lonely, shockingly isolated, and are looking for any sort of human connection. Writing letters is inherently intimate. It requires work and time. It shows our mistakes, our messiness, and the process of writing down your thoughts often leads to unexpected insights into your own life. But that’s secondary, honestly. For me, writing letters is a real way to affect change, even on a one-to-one basis. It’s a way to be a constant presence. A way to say: I’m not going anywhere, no matter what. Most of the time, we’re only talking about the weather, sports, or books. Ordinary topics that, I think, help the men feel a sense of normalcy, even if only for a brief moment.
You also did a lot of research on capital punishment. What are a few books that you’d recommend for a teen looking to explore the subject more?
The first book I ever read on the subject was Dead Man Walking
, by Sister Helen Prejean. I was a senior in high school and, if I’m being honest, had no idea what the book was about—but the title spoke to me in a way that I didn’t quite understand. The rawness of the writing, as well as the subject, convicted me. From there, I’ve read a number of great books over the years. Just Mercy
by Bryan Stevenson is heartbreaking and, thankfully, a bestseller at the moment. The Executioner’s Song
by Norman Mailer is dense and, at times, unwieldy, but another must-read. And then, while not about capital punishment per se, I’d add both The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess
by Michelle Alexander and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
by Matthew Desmond, because both books get at the heart of the conversation.
A lot of the imagery from the book seems to evoke a predator vs. prey focus– from Luke’s wrestling matches to Toby’s abusive relationship with his dad. The characters seem to constantly seek various ways of escape, whether physically or psychologically. Do you see We’ll Fly Away as a story about the fight for survival?
Survival is key to the book. It’s one of the reasons I wanted Luke to be a wrestler. So much about wrestling is about how much you’re willing to endure. How far you can push yourself. Will you keep going when the other person stops? It’s also the reason Toby and Luke’s friendship is so meaningful. They have survived together. They’ve seen each other in their best and worst moments. There’s strength in that kind of survival. But, speaking from my own experience, that sort of hard living also brings about fractures that stretch across every part of your life—fractures you never see until something snaps and suddenly you are struggling to pay the power bill or put food on the table. People who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds know this dance all too well. It means there’s always a heightened sense of urgency to everything in your life. That everything is held loosely. That at any point, your entire life could become a series of reactions that can spin you out of control quicker than you ever thought possible. That’s the world Luke and Toby live in and I think it’s the reality for many, many teenagers.
We'll Fly Away is now on shelves!
ADDITIONAL PRAISE FOR WE'LL FLY AWAY :
"Bryan Bliss has written an empathetic and stirring novel about what it means to fight for the outcasts, the forgotten, and even the hated
, reminding us that we all have worth. That we are all valuable."—Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking
“A smart, rugged, all-too-true story of friendship under fire.
Believable characters and page-turning tension.”—Chris Crutcher, author of Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes