Interview: Danya Kukafka, author, Notes on an Execution – “The crime genre is becoming more victim-focused” - Hindustan Times

Interview: Danya Kukafka, author, Notes on an Execution – “The crime genre is becoming more victim-focused”

ByShireen Quadri
Jul 07, 2023 11:49 PM IST

On using multiple perspectives to explore trauma and delve into the mind of a condemned serial killer as he awaits execution

Danya Kukafka’s second novel, Notes on an Execution revolves around Ansel Packer, a murderer on death row. Emotionally detached from his past crimes, he focuses on an escape plan hatched with prison guard Shawna Billings, and on writing a manifesto about the nature of good and evil. Through the perspectives of Packer, Lavender (his mother), Saffron ‘Saffy’ Singh (a police chief with a troubled past), and Hazel Fisk (twin sister of Packer’s ex-wife), it navigates different timelines and exposes the consequences of trauma and the allure of true crime as entertainment. Kukafka, who is also a literary agent with Trellis Literary Management, critiques the public’s fascination with serial killers and explores the theme of redemption and the inherent capacity for good even within the darkest souls.

Author Danya Kukafka (Courtesy the subject)
Author Danya Kukafka (Courtesy the subject)

Notes on an Execution subverts the traditional expectations of a novel about a serial killer by focusing on the women impacted by his actions instead of the killer himself. Did you want to interrogate the cultural preoccupation with the figure of the serial killer?

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Yes and no — this was the result of many years of thinking, writing, and wondering about the myth of the American serial killer. I spent so long as a consumer of these stories, that when I sat down to write the novel, I found I kept digging deeper and deeper, trying to reach some larger answer about why we love bad men, and why we glorify them. At the bottom of this hole, I only found more questions, and through the women I was able to ask them in the way I wanted, giving them power and a voice in a narrative from which they are usually erased. 

The novel is written in a non-linear fashion, alternating between the day of Ansel Packer’s execution and his life story. What led you to use this structure, and what effect were you hoping to achieve?

This structure came after a long conversation with my literary agent — I didn’t always have the 12-hour countdown! Initially, the novel was told half from Ansel’s perspective, detailing his entire life from birth to death, and half from Blue (a character who barely appears in the story now). There was only one scene set in the prison, but my agent liked it, and she paired that feedback with the question: what about the women? This is how I landed on the time structure and my three female narrators. 

320pp; Orion Books Ltd (Courtesy the author)
320pp; Orion Books Ltd (Courtesy the author)

Why did you choose to structure the novel around three women whose lives were derailed by Ansel Packer? 

These three women — Lavender, Hazel, and Saffy — experience Ansel and the story of the serial killer alongside the real, messy, complicated stories of their own actual lives. I wanted to examine the long tentacles of toxic masculinity and violence, how men like Ansel hurt many more people than the victims they murder. 

Ansel functions as the story’s conceptual negative space. How did you go about creating such a complex character, and what does he represent in terms of the breakdown of society and justice?

Ansel represents the typical serial killer. He has an amalgamation of traits we often find in the ongoing legend — he’s moderately handsome, moderately smart, able to exist and function in society to a certain extent. I chose these traits purposely, because I wanted to show that actually, he’s not all that special. He’s just a man who decides to kill women, and he does not necessarily deserve our attention for this. That said, the book also asks the reader to consider Ansel’s humanity, his pain, his fear. This is the ultimate dichotomy of the novel, and the part that made it so interesting and complex for me as a writer.

Lavender, Hazel, and Saffron are complex and multifaceted. How did you create them? Did you have broader themes such as trauma, abuse, the nature of evil, and the criminal justice system in mind while writing them?

I like to think of characters like real people — the longer you spend with them, the better you know them. I spent years with each of these women, delving deep into their back stories and their minds. It was only after, when I looked up from the page, that I was really able to tie all these thematic concepts together. I find that’s usually the case! I start with the person, and the purpose comes after. 

Do you see Lavender’s backstory and her relationship with Ansel contribute to the novel’s exploration of tragedy and the choices we make?

Lavender’s choices drive the story to a certain extent. She has to ask herself throughout what would have happened if she’d made them differently — but that’s the thing about choice, and the multiverse, a concept that all the characters consider on a certain level. There is only one reality we can comprehend, and that’s the one we live. Also, I wanted to make it clear through the juxtaposition between Saffy and Ansel that Ansel’s choices are his own. They have similar childhoods, similar traumas, abandonments and devastations, but Saffy grows differently. She does not kill anyone. 

What role do you think empathy plays in the novel? Did the use of the second-person perspective allow you to implicate readers? How does this narrative technique contribute to the overall impact of the novel?

For me, this whole novel was an experiment in empathy. The second-person pulled me closer to Ansel’s mind, and then complexities and implications of that. How can we consider a person’s humanity, without redeeming or forgiving them? What could justice possibly look like, in this case? 

What challenges or surprises did you encounter while writing this novel? What was the most rewarding aspect of bringing this story to life?

It took me many years to come to the structure of this novel, to really sink my teeth into writing it. The most satisfying moment was definitely putting the pieces together, discovering my three women and how they spoke to each other over the course of the book. It felt like the most satisfying puzzle. 

Why do you think the figure of the serial killer and the genre of true crime itself has become so popular? What are your thoughts on the current state of the genre?

I like to think that the genre is changing — that it’s becoming more victim-focussed, that as a culture we’re starting to ask more difficult questions. I think we’re fascinated by violence; this is human instinct. The true crime genre is just starting to wrap its mind around the complexities beneath this inclination.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers who want to tackle difficult or controversial topics in their writing?

Take your time. I think it’s rare that a novelist goes into a writing process knowing exactly what they want to say, and how to say it. It’s a process of excavation, a slow digging. 

How do you think your novel adds to the ongoing conversation about capital punishment in the United States?

I hope it makes readers around the world question and examine the atrocities of the American criminal justice system. 

How has your experience as a literary agent influenced your approach to writing and publishing your own works, and what insights have you gained into the industry from both perspectives?

My work as an agent keeps me reading, always. I’m constantly engaged with the work of other writers I admire, and ultimately the lesson has been the same over the many years I’ve worked and written in this industry: the process is the point. Just keep going. 

Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing: Select Short Stories by Women Writers.

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