June 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Sarah Crossan’s “Moonrise” | An Interview

Listen to Sarah Crossan reveal the story behind Moonrise, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.

In Sarah Crossan’s Moonrise (Bloomsbury, May 2018; Gr 10 Up), 17-year-old Joe Moon travels to Wakeling, TX, from New York City to visit his older brother Ed, who is sitting on death row in a federal prison. Joe hasn’t seen his brother in 10 years but fondly remembers the attention Ed gave him growing up in a home where money was tight and adults were often physically absent or emotionally unavailable. In this poetic exploration of the justice system, family ties, and forgiveness, Crossan delivers a poignant tale that will leave readers with much to consider.

In the foreword to Moonrise, you state that the book has been “brewing” for 20 years. Can you share that story with our readers?

When I was a teenager, a teacher showed my religious studies class a BBC documentary called Fourteen Days In May, about Edward Earl Johnson, a man on death row in Mississippi, accused of killing a police officer. The documentary follows the last 14 days of Johnson’s life, and by the end viewers see him say goodbye to his family, the prison guards, and even the camera crew. These images were devastating to me at the time and continued to haunt me. I always wondered what happened to Johnson’s family, how they coped with the loss, and the overarching impact of the death penalty on this new set of victims. In my creation of Joe Moon, the protagonist of Moonrise, I attempt to answer some of those questions.

The story is not about Ed’s guilt or innocence. You carefully walk the line between suggesting either in the story. Can you explain why?

I’m not sure the question of guilt or innocence is relevant to the morality of the death penalty as a form of justice. My question isn’t really, “Do some criminals deserve to die?” but rather, “Does anyone have the right to kill another human?”

The story effortlessly weaves in and out of time and voices to present a picture of this family and their lives. Did the structure inform the voices or the voices the structure?

I originally wrote the story with no flashbacks to the boys’ childhoods. But the book was clearly missing some major element when I completed it, and almost immediately it dawned on me why this was the case. I set to work constructing the past in a way that reflected what was happening in the present—it was a major edit—but I’m so glad it appears to weave effortlessly in and out of time.

Each of the various family members’ emotional journeys were so different and speak to how they were able to respond to and accept Ed and his fate as the impending execution date gets closer. The characterizations are stunning—and incredibly affecting. Did they come easily?

Some characters, Joe, Ed, and [a Wakeling waitress] Sue, came to me fully realized. Other characters took time to appear clearly or even to appear at all. The character who I found most interesting by the end was Aunt Karen—the complexity of her views are mirrored by my own doubts about how exactly one should deal with the worst of the worst offenders within a civilized society.

In addition to the members of Ed’s family, you capture the residents of this small Texas town so well—a town whose only business appears to be the prison—from those who exploit the people who arrive to visit an inmate to those who move there to be closer to an incarcerated friend or family member. Did research go into developing the setting?  

The research for the novel was extensive, including for the setting. I read around 40 books and saw innumerable documentaries so I could feel my way into the narrative, from the sweltering heat of many prisons to the impact of death chambers on local communities. But ultimately Wakeling is a fiction, an amalgamation of towns where maximum security prisons are housed. It isn’t a book that seeks to make a judgement about any individual involved in the justice system, but really to look at the system as a whole and ask if there’s a way everyone within it could be treated with greater compassion. I really believe most people are doing their best in life but that when we know better, we do better.

Listen to Sarah Crossan reveal the story behind Moonrise, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.

Curriculum Connections

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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