You’ve probably heard of the “West Memphis Three,” but you may not have heard of author Damien Echols’ heartbreaking-yet-inspirational story. Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, visited UCA yesterday to discuss his newest book, “Life After Death,” a memoir that depicts his childhood and the 18 years he spent on death row.
Last night was Echols’ first return to Arkansas since his release in 2011. He gave a public reading to a sold out crowd, answered questions from students and faculty, and signed copies of his New York Times best-selling book.
Echols said his return to the state was “strangely relaxing.”
“I thought it would be stressful, but it’s not,” he said, although he admitted he would not have been ready to return any sooner than “three or four months ago.”
Echols candidly admitted during his visit that although he started writing at a young age, he sees himself as more of storyteller — and he has an amazing story to tell.
Despite his hardships and the serious subject matter of “Life After Death,” Echols maintained a sharp sense of humor that sparked instantaneous laughter from the audience at unexpected times. “For someone who had spent a huge portion of his life in confinement, he was charismatic, funny and an obvious intellectual,” said senior creative writing major Tre Sandlin.
Echols, who has a ninth-grade education, said that he learned to write by reading Stephen King novels and admitted that his writing is heavily influenced by King’s work. Davis noted the eloquence of her husband’s writing, pointing out that while he originally wrote everything in longhand, there were no mistakes or notes in the margins.
“Everything was perfectly done and the handwriting was beautiful throughout the whole manuscript,” Davis said.
“I thought it was fascinating just to see how articulate he was, despite his limited education,” said Taylor Hicks, a senior creative writing major. “It’s just further proof that reading and writing are invaluable to developing the mind and spirit.”
Echols called writing in prison an “odd thing” and noted that it was the small things he missed the most — the taste of pizza, the crunching of snow, and his grandmother’s Christmas tree. These little things served as his inspiration to write, to “engrave it in my brain, so that [the memories]didn’t fade away.” And even though most of his journal entries existed to hold onto his past, Echols said that he and Davis are now writing material that will help them focus on “moving forward.”
Other than traveling the world together, this dynamic duo has a few more projects lined up. Echols and Davis’ new book, which is slated for a June 2014 release, will contain 150 of their 5,000 letters that were written to each other during the 18 years he was in prison.
In addition, the couple is working on a screenplay based on their extraordinary romance. Echols is also currently working on another book based on his and Davis’ adventures in New York, where they first moved upon his release.
While every detail of Echols’ stories have the ability to hold his audience captive, the most inspiring message was that of his faith and spirituality, without which he claims he “probably would’ve died.”
If one were to truly walk a mile in Echols’ shoes, they would quickly discover seemingly inescapable anger. Echols, however, has chosen to remain positive and to believe in the good in people and the power of writing.
Echols’ visit would not have been possible without the dedication of associate writing professors Francie Bolter and John Vanderslice, who both served as sponsors for the event. Writing professor Lanette Grate also played a significant part in not only Echols’ visit, but in his release as well. Grate’s involvement with Echols dates back to 2004, when she and her students created UCA Demands Justice, a student panel which made UCA the first university in Arkansas to hold a public meeting to raise awareness about the case.
Below is a video about Echols’ visit that was produced by News 6: