June 4, 2015
Talking about talking to literary ex-cons
by Andrew Karpan
Over at The Rumpus, Cullen Thomas (author of Brother One Cell, an account of his own time in a South Korean prison) has been interviewing various American literary names about their experiences behind bars and the respective work of turning that into consumable literary pulp, be it that of the fiction or memoir kind.
The most recent of these is with Newberry-award winning Jack Gantos, who landed in the slammer for helping to smuggle 2,000 pounds of hashish into 1970s New York and selling it out of a shopping cart. The new king of dark dramaturgy, Daniel Radcliffe, is currently in talks to portray him in an adaptation of Gantos’ 2002 memoir, Hole in My Life.
In his interview, Gantos talks about some of his favorite books growing up and its influence on his early life of crime:
Gantos: I just found those stories so appealing—The Car Thief, In Youth is Pleasure, On the Yard, This Boy’s Life, Seven Long Times…
Thomas: Did you bring books with you on the boat when you were doing your [drug] transport?
Gantos: Oh yeah […] I was naïve and quite frankly I know people are always wanting you to go, Well, I was bad; I was very very bad.
Thomas: To moralize.
Gantos: But when I took the job, I thought it was just gonna be like, Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. Be like a pirate. Just be like Robert Louis Stevenson.
Later, he would begin writing about his prison experiences while still in the hold, utilizing the margins of a copy of The Brothers Karamazov from the prison library to begin his literary pursuits. Gantos talks about how the romance of the situation was tarnished by the realities as he left:
“I watched Mr. Copley, the guard […] open the cover of that book and when he noticed the prison library stamp in it he tossed it into the prison belongings. About the same time the front door of the prison was being opened and I was being tossed out—it was one or the other and I didn’t want to argue with Mr. Copley so I zipped my lips and headed for the exit sign.”
Not being quite Shawshank-mold criminals, one issue that comes up is guilt—or lack thereof—with Gantos even admitting that “it was sexy to imagine myself in prison.”
In his interview with white collar criminal-turned-memoirist Neil White, White talks about being stopped in a grocery store while touring for In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, in a college town and being accused by one of his readers that he “didn’t seem very remorseful” for the $750,000 check fraud that landed him eighteen months in prison.
This cannily recalls the kind of backlash a movie like Wolf of Wall Street’s received for its lack of similarly themed moral atonement for its protagonist’s real-life misdeeds. White’s response to these concerns: “Self-pity, not only does it have no place on the page, it doesn’t do any good in real life.”
In a similar tack, Thomas’ interview with J.M. Benjamin, who was featured in a New York Times profile titled “Ex-Con Back in the ’Hood, Hustling His Novel Now,” discussed living in a culture that also viewed the prison experience in a romantic light : “Prison was not spoken about as a bad thing. If you hustled and got caught, you went to jail, you come home, you go harder […] It was a badge of honor.”
Foreshadowing his turn to the the literary world, Benjamin also talks about his pre-incarceration hustles of writing love letters and poems for some of the “big-time drug dealers who can’t read and write.” After a while in solitary and some support from diminishing prison support programs, he says he got the focus he needed to start writing, soon submitting and publishing four novels while still behind bars.
And anyone’s whose pilfered a few hours down to the Netflix establishment knows all about the uses of the prison library system. On that note, Thomas also sat down with Piper Kerman herself, somewhat before her series-adaption fame. Regarding her prison experience, Kerman talked about everything from prison reform to receiving letters from another ex-con-turned-memoirist Joe Loya and consequently picking up his book The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell, (now, that’s a targeted press mailer).
What everyone Thomas interviews agrees on, however, is of the primacy their prison experience has had on their writing and literary identity; none reject the often pejorative label “ex-con.” Turning back to Neil White, his time in prison was enough to give him a lifetime of inspiration:
What the federal system never imagined is that someone would break into the prison and switch places with an inmate while the inmate went out for the night. This guy’s brother, the twin, did that and he would be counted and before morning the inmate would slip back into the prison, climb through the window and trade places with his brother and no one ever knew…. What I realized is there are so many stories, much like Shawshank Redemption, where there’s an innocent person in prison and shouldn’t be, but there are very few stories about someone who is out of prison and free and nobody knows it.
At the moment White is working to change and that and make that story into a novel. Now that’s the kind of inspiration we know is worth any Ivy League writing workshop.