A few months ago, I reviewed Angela Pisel’s recent novel With Love From the Inside and declared it absolutely outstanding. The novel chronicles the final days of Grace Bradshaw’s life, who, convicted of murdering her infant son, has spent seventeen years in prison and is awaiting execution on Death Row in a South Carolina detention center.
When Grace receives her execution date, February 15 at 12:01 a.m., she becomes increasingly desperate to get in touch with her estranged daughter Sophie, who she hasn’t seen in eleven long years. For Grace, having her daughter know the truth of what happened all those years ago becomes her sole reason preventing her from dwelling in the terrible realization that she doesn’t have much time left. We navigate the past through Grace’s eyes in a journal she writes for Sophie, knowing that this is the last will and testament she is leaving behind for her daughter. With Love From the Inside is a novel that denounces the overwhelming flaws of our country’s prison system, but it’s also a journey of renewed hope and vindication.
In an email interview, Angela Pisel expanded on her inspiration for writing With Love From the Inside and how her characters went from a journey of complete despair, to finding each other again.
I want to begin by asking you about the ending. When you started writing the novel, did you already have in mind how you were going to end the story?
I did have the ending in mind, but I didn’t end the novel in the way I originally thought I would. I argued with myself over the ending many times!
Why write a novel with the main character on Death Row?
My obsession with TV trials led me to start researching women on death row. What are these women like? What choices did they make that led them to live the rest of their remaining days with an expiration date? Do they look different than you and me? I didn’t find what I thought I’d find. Since 1976, one hundred and fifty-six people have been released from death row after their convictions have been overturned; most of them spending decades on death row before being released. I began to wonder if any of the women on death row currently were innocent. How could they endure? Could they forgive? How could they move on after so much was taken from them?
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Grace, even when we feel that she could be guilty. Did you want readers to connect with her as a mother and maybe even as a possible casualty of our prison system?
Grace has accepted that she is on death row and will most likely be executed for a crime she says she didn’t commit. Her only goal is to reconnect with her daughter, whom she hasn’t seen in eleven years, and make sure her daughter knows the truth, and understands how much her mother loves her. Grace spends her remaining days writing in a journal to her daughter while trying to pass on the life lessons that can only come from a mother. I think it is easy for us as a society to “judge” prisoners and expect them to be “bad” people. I think it was important to put the spotlight on prisoners as people who have children who are missing them.
Sophie’s childhood was destroyed with her mother’s conviction. How did losing her mother and later her father, affect her view of family and relationships?
When Sophie’s father was alive, he filtered everything that Sophie knew about her mother’s conviction and death sentence. He kept the hope alive that her mother would be exonerated and return home to both of them. After he died of a heart attack, Sophie begins to listen to the voices around her that told her that her mother was guilty. She decided to start her life over once she began college.
No one knew she was the girl who had a mother on death row. Consequently, she let those around her only get so close, and she kept her relationships superficial. Her own husband didn’t know her secret. She didn’t think she could be a good mother, or that she deserved the life she had with her husband. All those secrets began to quickly crumble once she begins to discover that her mother could have possibly been telling her the truth.
Which character was the most challenging for you to write?
Grace was a challenging character to write because, obviously, I’ve never spent time on death row. I did extensive research, and wrote all fifty-seven women on death row at the time letters, asking them questions like, “What is the hardest time of your day?” and “How do you maintain relationships with your children?” I needed the readers to experience what daily life is like for these women including the strip searches, and the hours spent in isolation.
As readers turn the last page of With Love From the Inside, what would you like them to take away from it, or to reflect on?
I hope that the reader will want to hug their mother or daughter a little tighter, and hold them a little longer. I was ambivalent about the death penalty before I wrote this novel. Since researching the facts, I’ve formed an opinion that this is a punishment that needs to be re-examined. We, as a society, have executed innocent people. And that to me is not okay. In the end, this novel is about finding hope and forgiveness even in the worst of circumstances.
What future projects are in store for Angela Pisel?
I recently signed with Putnam to write my second novel. Another Word for Honor is the story of an American surgical resident who kidnaps a young Afghan girl to protect her from an honor killing. I’m very excited about this novel and the issue that it sheds light upon.