“Example” is filled with the sort of details that turn a horror story into an exploration of darkness on many levels. I found it particularly interesting how you knit the thematic elements together, from Hector’s smoking, to Miranda’s gift of the wrong sort of chips, to Ellis’s subtle, authoritative menace. How did you prepare for this story? Did you research any particular elements?
I performed no formal research for the story, but have gathered the ambience over a lifetime, which includes some brief visits to Sing Sing Prison decades ago. Hector’s smoking, and his reason for it, follows some logic once shared with me, by a lifer. What I note about restricted access to cigarettes in prisons—some entire states—is also true, though I posit a near future where the tobacco industry has succeeded in getting the government to pay for prisoner allotment as a “humanitarian” measure, which is of course really about making money. It is all about making money.
The story is set near enough in the future that the premise is disturbingly believable. Tell us about what inspired this exploration of a justice system gone horrifically, compassionately, wrong.
I am well familiar with the phenomenon of death penalty proponents who hate it when a convict is proven innocent because they see the penalty itself as an absolute good that needs to be nurtured, like a beloved pet, regardless of the facts of any individual case. The way the system works now, even when somebody is freed because of exonerating evidence, the state still has every incentive to deny the facts and call the conviction justified, regardless.
Hell, our President famously thinks that the Central Park Five should have been executed, even though we now know them to have to been innocent. This is something you say when your key concern is not preserving justice, but preserving the execution.
It is ridiculously difficult for somebody sentenced to death to get a conviction overturned in the face of new evidence. Nobody wants to accept the new evidence. The prospect of an execution is too juicy. I am familiar with one case from Florida where a man and woman were sentenced to death based on the testimony of a violent felon whose path crossed theirs, who said that he saw them commit the deed. Not long after, they were in separate prisons waiting for their times to be up, he was in prison himself for another murder, and he wrote the judge and prosecutor of their case, to assert that he had lied and that he had committed the killing. Decades later, they were still rotting in cells. It was only after the husband was executed, giving the state its blood, that her sentence was commuted.
Race is a prominent player in this story even though it has very few speaking lines. In this future you’ve created, do you think Hector would have still been executed if he were Latinx?
In the world of the story, absolutely. Again, the story posits that it is now illegal to overturn a death penalty, regardless of evidence. What I describe herein, the intractability of the authorities in the face of almost certain innocence, has happened to white people, brown people, black people. But Hector’s question is not quite whether he would still be executed; it is whether doing this to him regardless of his proven innocence would be more difficult for Ellis, emotionally, if he was white. He knows the answer before hearing it, and so do I.
“Ellis flashed a smile, and what hurt Hector most was that it was not a cruel smile, nor a superior one. It was a smile of fraternity, to go along with the sharing of a confidence.” Much as characters such as Dolores Umbridge, Ellis is a character that is easy to hate even when he is not being hateful. Why do you suppose that is?
Villains are people who think they’re right and pity you for not being able to see their case, even as they slit your throat.
If you could cast the characters in “Example” for a video production, who would you have play each role?
Oh, somebody please do this.
Dream casting. Michael Peña or Luis Guzmán as Hector. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Miranda. The temptation is to cast somebody who exudes sleaze as Ellis, and there are any number of actors who you know you’re supposed to hate as soon as you see them, to play the self-satisfied, smug figure of authority, but you want to know something? What would be most effective is casting somebody who is known as being the figure on the side of justice, here playing somebody who likes to think of himself that way, and who can still project the vibe despite being entirely wrong. I nominate Christopher Meloni. (But if you want to really blow the audience’s mind, get Tom Hanks.)
Spread the word!