In Stanville,”
your story in this week’s issue, you describe what life is like at a
women’s prison in California, both for a woman incarcerated there and
for a “free world” man who teaches G.E.D. classes for prisoners. What
led you to this material?

Six years ago, in 2012, I decided to try to learn everything I could
about California prisons. It was something I felt was necessary. I had
known a few people who went to prison. I had been thinking about the use
of prisons in our society’s structure for a long time, so this
exploration was, for me, a logical trajectory. I live close to the
criminal courts and the main city jail complex in Los Angeles. I was
encouraged by friends who were public defenders to watch arraignments,
if I wanted to get some sense of what was happening to those who were
caught up in the vast and complicated penal net of the state. I covertly
joined a tour with criminology students, which took me inside many
prisons up and down California. I similarly found a way to get into
Men’s Central Jail, here in Los Angeles. I met people serving time at a
large women’s prison through various channels, some of which I talked a
bit about in an earlier Q. A. A few of the people I met wanted mentoring on their writing projects,
and some I tried to assist in other ways. All of them became friends
and, in a way, mentors to me, who helped me to understand the conditions
of their lives and the world of prison.

At first, the book I was writing—“The Mars Room,”
from which “Stanville” was adapted—was told only from the points of view
of fictional characters who were serving time in prison. But going back
and forth, up and down the Central Valley, and seeing the way in which
these huge facilities do and don’t integrate into the landscape, I began
to feel it was necessary to add another dimension of the experience of
prison, one that could be transmitted only through the mind of someone
who was free to come and go from the place, like my character Gordon
Hauser, the teacher. As someone who was going in and out of prisons
myself, I was familiar with the procedures Gordon would undertake daily
as a component of his job, and what would be illegible to him, and what
might become legible but would probably never feel normal. These prisons
are surrounded by vast tracts of industrial agriculture, and the prisons
themselves are oftentimes situated on former farmland that was
decommissioned as a result of a multiyear statewide drought—all of
which is meticulously analyzed in Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s book “Golden
Gulag
.”
The teacher in “Stanville” doesn’t give the reader geography or labor
lessons, like those I got from reading Gilmore, but he can’t help but
see as he goes to and from work, just as I can’t help but see as I
drive up the Central Valley to visit people in prison; the landscape
gives clues.

Gordon comes off as both sympathetic and naïve. What do you think has
inspired him to take on this kind of work?

To me, he is sympathetic, but not because he’s virtuous. This is more
thoroughly developed in the novel than in this adaptation, but he’s a
kind of failure, in terms of what he wanted out of his life, and he’s
isolated and unhappy, and what he has, as a version of reality, is these
“subjects”—caged people—a dynamic that surely distorts his manner of
relating. Although he’s clever and not unsophisticated, he can’t truly
understand what they need, or even what their situations are. They live
in a world of rules and sub-rules that he doesn’t know. He knows that,
on occasion, he’s the butt of their jokes, but he’s also somewhat aware
of the power he has over them, in terms of his own acts of kindness. So
there’s a layer of complexity to him that makes me hesitant to agree
that he’s naïve.

He tells himself, and the reader, that the work he does, on certain
days, seems to have value; on other days, he hates it. He’s preoccupied
with people who have committed acts of bodily violence, and he dwells on
that violence. Moreover, he’s drawn slowly into a kind of dialogue with
Ted Kaczynski’s diaries, which, in the novel, begin to appear as
autonomous short chapters that follow Gordon’s chapters and add another
layer of ambiguity to his character.

Romy, the prisoner-student in Gordon’s class, is both drawn to him and
sly about the ways in which she can make use of him and his interest in
her. Do you think that, in her situation, she’s capable of forming a
genuine friendship?

The question points to something I try to address, if not to answer,
about the dynamic between Romy and Gordon, in terms of whether there is
any way for her to relate to him that doesn’t involve instrumental
calculation, even if there might also be something else (attraction,
fantasy, camaraderie, a common Bay Area background) going on, on both
sides. He has access to the world and she doesn’t, and she has a child
in the world whom she can no longer protect. The word “genuine” may not
apply. Like many in prison, Romy is desperate for outside help, needsmoney and other things to survive, and, for her, anyone who is free has
incredible resources that she doesn’t have.

One could equally ask, of a guy like Gordon, whether he himself is
capable of a genuine relationship with someone over whom he has such
power: he’s free to come and go, and she is locked up where he sees her.
What is the psychological, even libidinal, economy of that? It’s not
simple.

This question and the one above it both require a kind of speculation
into the interiors of two fictional characters, and maybe this is a good
place to state that I don’t believe that any fictional characters, no
matter how memorable, how lifelike, can be talked about, even by their
author, as if they were real people, with actual psychological thickness
and a reality beyond the edges of the book. Fictional characters can, on
occasion, seem profound, but they are almost like figures on a ground,
in the sense that all anyone can know about them is what is put there to
be seen. For instance, we can imagine all kinds of things about Manet’s
barmaid from the context, historically, sociologically, of the scene he
paints of her, and we might even try to imagine what she is thinking
about, but Manet cannot, by definition, be an expert on the vicissitudes
of the barmaid’s emotions, because she does not exist outside of his
painting.

In the novel, we learn a lot more about Romy and her past. Did you base
her character or her story on any of the real women you met in prison?

I did not. I don’t think I could sustain a first-person fictional voice
over the stretch and reach of a novel if that voice were based on some
people I met. I wouldn’t have the kind of mastery and depth of feeling I
would need to pull it off. The novel is an account of a type of life, a
kind of loss, that I understand intimately. Romy is from my
neighborhood, grew up knowing the people I knew, roamed a specific world
in San Francisco in a certain time that I know because it was my world,
and one I reconjured, and lived in again, as I wrote this book. I don’t
think I could have written her any other way.

The people I met in prison—I felt that their stories were their own.
That said, there are myriad essential details that I would not have
known if the people I met in prison hadn’t told me about them. To
highlight a single fact as an example: they really do sew sandbags on
death row. When I learned that detail, I felt sure that I was getting a
glimpse of the dark and greasy boiler room of global capital, the hole
in the heart of the American spirit. Sandbags! Every time I see one on
the side of a highway, I get a chill. And I think of my friends in
prison.

It’s easy, as a reader, to share Gordon’s initial assumptions—that
women who are lifers in prison or on death row are unlikely to be
educated, to have basic math skills, to have read the classics of
American literature. Romy challenges those expectations. Does that
debunking reflect something of your own experience with prisoners?

The majority of the people Gordon works with don’t have much formal
education, just as the majority of people who go to prison in California
don’t have much formal education. Romy made it through high school, but
that’s it. There was a period of time, before she went to prison, when
she checked books out of a library to read, but that urge could be seen
as in opposition to her education, or even in spite of it—which reflects
my experience not of prisoners but of people I grew up with.

Gordon can’t help but assume that she’s working at a lower level since
she’s ended up on his roster of students who want to study for the
G.E.D, and so he gets her these books that most people read in, say,
sixth grade, which she and her cellmate laugh about. And, yes, that’s
almost exactly something that my friend Theresa Martinez, who was in
prison for more than two decades, would laugh about, because she loves
to read and read a lot of books in SHU, where she spent a pile of time.

About my own experience with people in prison, unlike Gordon, I’m not
assessing people’s math and literacy skills; I’m just talking to them.
And I’m interested in the ways that prison makes people smart. So it’s
irrelevant to me whether or not people can spell or have read the
classics of literature, unless they want to acquire education and want
me to help with that. People in prison have learned to endure extreme
circumstances and to outsmart the dizzying mechanisms that are designed
to control them and strip them of whatever made them who they were when
they were free—in the course of which they acquire rarified knowledge
and skills, and that’s the education I notice. One thing that seems
clear to me, and I believe is probably pretty apparent in my novel, too,
is that intelligence in prison is collective. It is shared among people
who have to survive, individually and together. The skills and
techniques they come up with to do that are never just one person’s idea
but are developed by an entire “humanity,” if you will.

Gordon goes to some length to try to justify—for himself—the crimes
that his students have committed, or at least to understand them within
a sociological context, instead of judging from a position of privilege.
He never finds out the nature of Romy’s crime. Do you think he would
feel differently about her if he did? Is this something that you
yourself have struggled with, in getting to know people who were serving
life sentences?

I am not actually sure what it would mean in this case to justify, if
the term is used literally—“to declare to be innocent, or blameless.”
These people Gordon is thinking about have already been declared
“guilty” and lost everything for what they did. He is not trying to make
them innocent. I think he only tries not to judge, partly because he is
aware that it is mostly very poor people who go to prison, and he knows
better than to succumb to ideology about personal responsibility and
“bad choices.” He can objectively see that harm has been committed, and
that new harm is added, for the “guilty,” which, when you see the
reality of prison, starts to seem a lot less like justice—whatever
justice is—and a lot more like revenge. He is struggling to assemble a
position toward other people, a manner of regarding them that doesn’t
define them by the way or ways in which they messed up. It sounds noble,
but Gordon is also snooping, which is not noble. He doesn’t find out the
nature of Romy’s crime, but, perhaps, once he’s broken the seal by
typing her name into Google, he is no longer in a position to judge her.
The lack of results, the emptiness of the search, forces him back onto
himself. He won’t have the chance to not-judge her. He has to instead
marinate in his own somewhat charged impulses: he thinks he’s ready to
not-define her by what she did, and yet he’s been typing madly to figure
out precisely what it was.

Over the years that I’ve spent trying, in my own way, to grasp what
prison is and does in our society, I have certainly struggled, but my
struggles are not about attempting not to judge people. While I’m
personally interested in the concept of mercy, it’s almost beside the
point when you start to think on a larger scale about how society is
structured. Individual destinies recede, and one sees a set of
relations, an arrangement, a set of allocations. In societies like ours,
certain acts will be defined as crimes—crimes against property, crimes
against people’s bodies. And these acts are largely committed by the
“problematic” layer at the bottom of society. There is a tendency on the
part of both liberals and conservatives to regard crime as individual.
For the conservative, the criminal is “bad.” For the liberal, the
criminal is remade to seem relatively innocent, so that the liberal
can feel “empathy.” I don’t concern myself with innocence and guilt, or
that kind of empathy, where the person with whom one empathizes must be
seen as being like oneself, as sharing one’s values. This way of
regarding the individual acts of others seems to exclude the larger
truth of the organization of society: that some very poor people are
destined to commit crimes. Sure, there is some chance and variability
and individual agency in who, in that layer of the population, will go
to prison, but what is defined as crime in our society is committed
by—and against—the poorest people. There are exceptions, but they are
merely exceptions. If crime were a matter of character, then I could
say, “It’s my character that keeps me out of prison.” But that would be
a lie.

Do you see “The Mars Room” as a departure from your previous books, or
as a logical next step?

Both. You could say that there’s a sort of chronological trajectory to
my three books. My first novel, “Telex from
Cuba
,”
was about a historical moment that I saw as one key to understanding the
mid-twentieth century. My second novel, “The
Flamethrowers
,”
took place in a period of time, the nineteen-seventies, that marked the
beginning of a long economic downturn and the onset of
deindustrialization in the U.S., even as it was also simply a novel
about some stuff I care about—art, motorcycle racing, et cetera. The
narrative in “The Mars Room” transpires over the first decade of the new
millennium, 2001 to 2008. I am slouching toward the contemporary, and
this book is my take, I guess, on both where we are as a society and
what I think a contemporary novel might look like. Histories aside, it
has a range of voices and outlooks, which is something I have done
before, but I feel I know how to manage narrative better now. I was much
more in control of the story technically than I was in control of it
morally and emotionally. It took me on a ride, a sometimes harrowing
ride, and that was new.

Did you have any models, in terms of writing about prison life?

Yes, but first I want to assert that I don’t consider “The Mars Room” a
prison novel. To me, it’s a novel novel. In terms of models, Don DeLillo
is a high standard for humor, and for the necessity of humor even in
bleak scenes and histories. I heard him say something, while I was
writing this book, that was incredibly useful. He was talking about his
novel
Underworld
and he mentioned that there was a period of time when he was “the
world’s leading expert on about four square blocks off Arthur Avenue,” in
the Bronx, as they were in the early nineteen-fifties. For better or for
worse, this gave me permission to be the world’s leading expert on about
four square blocks in the inner Sunset in San Francisco as they were in
the nineteen-eighties, and the Tenderloin as it was in the
nineteen-nineties.

In terms of writing about prison life, I’m definitely interested in what
seems to be a tradition of writers caring about people whom society has
disappeared into enclosures. Denis Johnson’s
Angels
is a great novel that starts in the open landscape, on a Greyhound bus,
and ends on death row in an Arizona prison. While writing, I read the
correspondence that Johnson engaged in with two men who were in prison
in Arizona, letters that are among his papers at the Harry Ransom
Center. “The Brothers
Karamazov

was vital to me for its treatment of innocence as something that every
soul might possess (as Alyosha suggests, at least in my interpretation,
in his “talk by the stone”). John Cheever’s
Falconer,”
which takes place entirely in a prison, is probably his greatest
achievement as a novelist, even if it’s not a perfect book. The
characters and the dialogue and the way he handled a “cast” are expertly
done. I also like what Cheever said when he was inevitably peppered with
questions about why he taught at Sing Sing prison. Did he do it in order
to gather material so that he could write fiction about prison? He
said—in one interview—“One doesn’t marry in order to write about women
nor have children to write about children nor teach in prison to write
about prisoners.” Which is the model of a perfect answer.

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