The Atlantic's June short story

June 17, 1999

  Thomas McNeely

"Sheep," the short story in this month's Atlantic, is Thomas McNeely's first publication. He found the material for the story -- about Lloyd, a shepherd arrested for serial murder -- while working at a nonprofit legal resource center in Texas, assisting lawyers with habeas corpus appeals of death-row defendants. As the lawyers often had to build a case without much time before a client's execution date (McNeely's first major case, in fact, went through the entire federal court system in thirty-nine hours), the job provided an extreme sort of stress. McNeely's colleagues each dealt with the psychological and ethical stress in their own ways: some went to the executions, some avoided them. McNeely's response was to synthesize the information -- or, in his own words, "to amalgamate the different voices of actual death-row inmates that I had heard into something fictional, something that could carry a narrative." After reading "Sheep," one might say that McNeely has heeded the advice of Henry James, who advised writers to "be one of those upon whom nothing is lost."