At 38, Echols is tall and lean with pale skin and black hair that falls just above his shoulders. He wears black pants and a black button-down shirt. He owns 10 pairs of black pants. He owns 10 of this same black button-down. He wears this every day, a new sort of uniform, not state-issued, but one that nonetheless eradicates the daily decision, What should I wear today? Tattoos in dark ink mark his forearms. He wears blue-tinted glasses that, when removed, reveal dark eyes — not brown, darker, as though all pupil. It's a striking feature. His voice, with a hint of the South, is that of a younger man, as if it's been preserved by underuse.
"You should make everything art," Echols tells me, "even down to the way you look. Art shouldn't be something you do, it should be something you are." He swirls his cappuccino. "It's hard. Life is hard. When you're having to think about paying the electric bill, or put together a bookcase, or clean out the cat-litter box, that doesn't seem very magic. That doesn't seem very creative. And it's easy to fall into that giving up, that giving in to whatever's necessary to survive, but I don't want to ever be like that."
He's sitting across from me in a small café in downtown Salem. His wife, Lorri Davis, sits next to him. Rattled in the aftermath of the shelving fiasco, he asked her to accompany him to this interview. "Please go with me," he said. She has. They are laughing now, both of them, even though it wasn't funny a few hours ago. Davis, 49, strawberry blonde and high of cheekbone, with good curves and an appealing gap between her two front teeth, has a girlish laugh and the classic beauty of a black-and-white Hollywood actress. "I'm just here so Damien can talk about his book," she says at the start of the interview. She sits a little to the side, playing Scrabble on her phone.
Echols talks of nesting with Davis, setting up their home. "We've been doing the best we can to fill it with really good, really positive energy, so it's already starting to feel like an extension of ourselves. There's nothing alien or bizarre or frightening." Think of the way you might talk of moving into a new place. Well, we're almost unpacked, there's a few things that are bizarre and frightening, but we're dealing with it. Is it defensiveness, a lingering urge to dispel the conception that he was involved with Satanic cults? Or does it speak to the wonder of someone who, for the first time in his adult life, has the chance to live in place that is not alien, bizarre, or frightening?
Davis wrote Echols in prison after she saw Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, the HBO documentary on the West Memphis Three (the first of three documentaries HBO made — nearly seven hours of film in all). Their correspondence started in early 1996. Davis, a landscape architect at a Manhattan firm, flew from her home in Brooklyn to Arkansas to meet Echols for the first time five months after the first letter. Echols was 21. She was 33. They were married in the prison a few days before Echols's 24th birthday. Their wedding day was the first time they touched.