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CONVERSATIONS WITH LITERARY EX-CONS: Neil White

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Fifteen years after serving my time, I still think about prison and the ways in which it might have affected me. I still struggle with time management—for the sake of my sanity I’d learned how to expertly kill time. Fantasies can still overwhelm.

I wrote a book about my prison experience in South Korea. I’ve certainly referenced that story, directly and indirectly, in other things I’ve written. Understandably, I think, the themes abide. I’m fascinated by prison narratives. Law and order, crime and punishment, continue to compel me: from James Ellroy’s My Dark Places and the film “A Prophet” to Scott Anderson’s recent provocative New York Times Magazine piece on the man-child who killed his parents when he was 14.

They’re stories on the edge, in the crucible. But beyond the fascination they help me to answer the questions I still have. In a strange way I think these narratives comfort me, with their new perspectives on something deeply personal, their insight into these mysteries of the human condition.

And so I’ve been seeking out other writers and thinkers on these themes, including people who’ve written effectively about their own prison experiences—literary ex-cons. I hope they can shed light for me on how prison and matters of crime and punishment affect the way we think, the way we write.

Here is Neil White, author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts (2010), a vivid and popular account of the year he spent, in the early 1990s, in the federal prison in Carville, Louisiana, which also held within its walls one of the last leper colonies in the United States.

I spoke to Neil by phone as he whipped through the back woods of Alabama.

***

The Rumpus: Congratulations on Sanctuary, as you call it. It’s a great read, colorfully told. But in many ways this is a severely handicapped genre, isn’t it? Even with the archetypal crucible, and the sometimes very real redemption, the changes, that the protagonist undergoes, readers and viewers just seem so worn by that in this context. So many stereotypes and clichés. I knew that going into my story. In yours you had this amazing element of the leprosarium, so you were able to transcend many of those clichés. Were you conscious of that when you were writing it?

Neil White: Absolutely. One of the things I didn’t want to fall into was calling the guards hacks and doing the typical prison lingo that you see in so many of the books in the genre. I waited a long time to write this. I mean, I could’ve written who said what to whom the day I left. And did in fact. But it was the first time I had a story that I thought was worth telling and so I went and studied the craft. I studied with Barry Hannah, studied with Larry Brown, studied with Lee Gutkind.

Rumpus: Where was that?

White: A lot of them were visiting and came through Ole Miss. I was taking these classes. This was the mid-1990s. There were no creative nonfiction classes offered, so I was taking fiction classes. I was just using the techniques of fiction to write a true story. Then about 2003 I discovered Lee Gutkind’s group, creativenonfiction.org and started going to those workshops. The clouds were parting. I found this group and resources on how to do this story justice.

Rumpus: You have a lot of vivid scenes that power the book forward.

White: Well, for example, this black crack dealer from New Orleans just found me incredibly funny because I was still using manners and being polite and all those things we did in society outside the prison. He was always asking me questions and laughing at my answers. The way I revealed to the reader what I did was through this conversation I had with him.

What the hell you in here for, you look just like Clark Kent?

I’m in here for bank fraud.

He says, ‘You’re a damn bank robber?’

No, no, bank fraud. I was kiting checks.

Well, I don’t know anything about checks, but did you take money from a bank that you weren’t supposed to have?

Well, yes.

Then you’re a damn bank robber.

How much did you get?

I didn’t get any.

How much did the banks lose?

750,000 dollars.

How much of that do you got?

I don’t have any of it; I was keeping my business afloat.

I could have just told the reader what I did, but I had the benefit of this scene.

Rumpus: I have my students do that: let other characters describe you. It takes the burden off yourself. And I think it can speak to the credibility of the narrator. You let other characters take a shot at you. Is that something you did naturally, or learned how to do in those writing classes?

White: Five years after I was out, I wrote a full-length play called “Lepers and Cons” and it was produced in Oxford before I wrote the memoir. It worked all right. It was a funny play, but I didn’t have the literary skill to do it well. So I was writing these scenes with dialogue for the play all along. In a memoir you’ve got some telling to do, you can’t show everything, you have to get some information across. But I tried to get across every bit of information I could to the reader in scenes. I wrote about 150 scenes, anywhere from three paragraphs to five pages. Then I strung them together. Then I put in the transitions and the exposition. So it’s a scene heavy book, and that worked best for me.

Rumpus: Gives it that novelistic appeal, no doubt. Did you ever think about fictionalizing the story?

White: All the fiction writers were telling me, ‘Fictionalize it. It’ll be even better.’

I just couldn’t bear to composite these characters and create scenes that didn’t happen because the experience was so rich for me. Now that said, I had been given the greatest story in the world as a writer, to have these characters dropped in my lap. But to do the story justice, to accurately portray these characters, to address the social stigma of leprosy, and wrap it all up in a meaningful experience, that was a tall order. And so I really spent years and years and years working on it.

Rumpus: Now I think about ways to fictionalize bits and pieces of my prison experience, but back then it felt like a responsibility to tell it as truthfully as possible, to try to capture the essence of it. Sounds like you felt the same.

White: Dinty Moore was a real mentor. He wrote The Accidental Buddhist, a bestseller in the 90s. I had thousands of pages of notes, thousands of snapshots, those Polaroids you have in your mind. To go back and make sense of these, to match the disease leprosy I studied afterwards with the patients I remembered walking through the hallways—the process was so wonderful. It was like discovering what really went on, because at the time we were not supposed to talk to the leprosy patients. Of course when the guards weren’t around we did. You might pass in the hallway and you might see the man with a newly amputated foot and you couldn’t say anything; you couldn’t ask him anything. This really heightened the drama and the mystery of these people we lived with.

Rumpus: Why wouldn’t they let you guys talk?

White: There was just a rule against fraternization. How about for you, could you communicate, were you fluent in the language?

Rumpus: Took me quite a while to learn enough Korean. That was something I tried to chart through the story. It was powerful for me, the challenge and the reward of it. I wanted to ask you again about stereotypes you might have been consciously trying to avoid.

White: The black comic relief Eddie Murphy-type character who everybody loved.

There was this guy named Link in Carville who was that person. I left him the way he was. I knew he may in fact be seen as that stereotype, but he was such a foil to me—a young black crack dealer from New Orleans and me, a young white guy, white collar, with this façade of perfection. He just kept poking holes in my white-man’s societal mores. And he was right, he was right. So I fell into that one, but it was also true. I was writing a true story.

Rumpus: You were a writer, a publisher, prior to prison, right?

White: Yeah, I had a weekly newspaper and I was the editor and premier writer.

I covered the city reports, the government beats. I was always looking for the quirky stories. So yeah I was practicing journalism before I went to prison.

Rumpus: What paper was it?

White: It was called The Oxford Times. In Oxford, Mississippi. It was a paper that I actually owned. That was 1985 to 1988.

Rumpus: Were you writing in prison, taking notes?

White: I took notes the whole time. I was not a creative writer, but as a publisher and journalist I knew that at the core of every good story was conflict. This place was riddled with it. But initially my attitude about what I was going to write was skewed and off. I was thinking that I would just write it soon after I left and get back on my feet. But by the time I left Carville, other than the birth of my two children it was the most significant event of my adult life. So I couldn’t do the sort of expose I had been thinking of; that wasn’t the real story.

Rumpus: You weren’t able to tape record any of it, were you?

White: Well tape recorders aren’t allowed in federal prison because some guy figured out how to make a tattoo machine out of one of them.

Rumpus: That’s great. You heard that story in Carville?

White: I did. But we had freedom of movement, no bars on the doors. I could take notes all I wanted.

Rumpus: Were you thinking of publishing the story even then?

White: Gosh yes. I was a huge George Plimpton fan. It occurred to me about a week in that even George Plimpton couldn’t weasel his way in to a federal prison with a leprosarium. It was immersion journalism at its best.

Rumpus: Your appreciation for that is why you were able to tell such a good story.

But on the other hand, and again I speak from my own experience with this, I feel like people somehow think that it takes away from your guilt, or away from your true contrition, because you still have this active appreciation for the wonder of the experience and you’re not thinking and saying, ‘I’m a scumbag and I’ve done wrong and I’m doing penance.’

White: I went through a terrible period and feeling great guilt, great remorse, wanting to make it right, to make amends, to make sure I didn’t do this sort of thing again. I went through a great deal of that. But in writing a story, to wallow in that, doesn’t make it interesting. I think for the sake of a narrative, to move it forward, to make it interesting, I skipped over a lot of that. It may not have made me look like the nicest guy in the world or the most remorseful guy, but my primary concern was not to get people to like me. It was to tell a good story.

Rumpus: Even that sense of adventure, as a motivation, perhaps for both the original crime and the spirit of the written story, can strike some readers wrong. Because it’s not saying, ‘Well, let me think twice about this. It wasn’t right.’ The sense of adventure, for some people, makes no mention of the morals involved, the stuff they want to hear from the inmate, the ex-con. It’s a kind of requisite they can’t get past, with some reason, even with nonviolent crimes like ours.

White: It doesn’t happen that often, but I was in the grocery store a couple of weeks ago, and this woman from Great Britain who was visiting Oxford for a year, who’s at the university and is in a book club, says to me, ‘Oh we read your book.” And I say, “Oh great, thanks,” you know, I never take that for granted. And in this proper British accent, she said, “You didn’t seem very remorseful to me.” I said, “Well okay, it’s been a long time, I was trying to keep the story right, and you have every right to feel that way.”

Rumpus: I had a few people on my guestbook say that I should’ve been hanged.

White: What’s wrong with people? Mine was fraudulent. It was taking something from others that didn’t belong to me. I mean, a hundred years ago, what you did wasn’t a crime. I know that you broke the law and all that, but saying that you should be hanged for that? My God.

Rumpus: Even though it’s been, thankfully, just a very small minority overall, it’s still disappointing, in terms of a story that you try to tell, that you’re sure has some deeper, broader interest, and people dismiss it on that moral ground.

White: Yeah, I’ve gotten lots of those. I have a website where people can make comments. For the most part, ninety-nine percent of them are positive, but I get the occasional, ‘I can’t wait to see what you come up with for your next scam, way to make a quick buck off of the suffering of others, you elitist asshole.’

Rumpus: Naturally, the ex-con narrator is dubious, right? There’s a reliability, credibility, issue front and center.

White: Absolutely, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. But if you come right out in some fashion, in a way that works for the story, to be honest about what you did, you can get past it. It’s like the guy who opens up the essay saying, “I’m a liar.” Well, I’m gonna be leery of that, but I’m also amazed that he’s been truthful enough to tell me that.

Rumpus: That’s an interesting compensating contradiction. For a reader, which one of those wins out, the knowledge of his cheating past or the trust he might have earned through his candor?

White: I think absolutely the confessional, if it is in fact true, if it’s heartfelt, and if it’s not manipulative to get the reader to like you, then for the most part, for most readers, that honestly I think will win out.

Rumpus: You describe your experience in Carville prison as “wonderful.” I relate to this. But I think this attitude must throw some people for a loop. Reminds me of the Milan Kundera quotation about the glow of nostalgia and the guillotine. Do you deal with any nostalgia for the experience, something I’ve dealt with and have seen as a challenge to relay to readers without them thinking you’re nuts or disingenuous?

White: That was a danger from a craft point of view. I not only felt nostalgia for this time and place and the people, I felt a real sense of reverence and gratitude and I had to be careful not to make it too wonderful, to make every leprosy patient a saint, because they weren’t. Couple of them were, in my opinion. It was absolutely a factor for me. One of the great things about writing scenes as opposed to exposition, first you don’t have to draw any conclusions. You just have to paint this picture. Let the reader experience it and hopefully they will get it. When I came back to Oxford after prison, my ex-wife said, “You know I’m glad that’s over.” And I said, “It was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.” She said, “Well it was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me.” I heard a black woman in the visiting room of Carville say, “Y’all are in here playing handball, walking on the track and lifting weights, getting fed three times a day. It’s the mammas outside that are doing the hard time.” And, well, they were right. I didn’t have money to deal with, the stress in my outside life, other than of just missing my kids, was gone. Prison was this simple life that you described. I rediscovered many of the values I’d lost touch with out here in this world where they’re so many temptations, so much excess. So yeah I felt incredible nostalgia about my time in Carville. Still do.

Rumpus: I started finding myself really drawn to prison accounts, people’s stories of crime and punishment basically, all over the place. Obviously that was borne out of my experience with it. I wasn’t like that beforehand. I’m wondering if it was the same for you: do you find yourself drawn to prison stories?

White: Yes, but not modern day prison stories. I was reading essays by people who’d been imprisoned, but I didn’t want my story tainted in any way by any recent accounts and so I didn’t read a lot of what would be considered the modern works, including yours. It was intentional on my part because I wanted this for me to be as fresh as possible. Of course you always run the risk of writing something similar to what someone else already did, but I didn’t worry about that because it was through my eyes. But that said, I was fascinated and read every account, every book that was in English, about leprosy. There were so many things there, about being an outcast, about being in prison, about being separated, about being put away. But they committed no crime, they did no wrong and that was what fascinated me. That’s why I wanted to weave a narrative that eliminated any of that self-pity and wallowing. I was there for less than a year for mishandling three quarters of a million dollars and I was standing in front of a woman with no legs that had been there for 68 years because she was susceptible to a bacterial infection. That was where I wanted this story to go.

Rumpus: Yeah, amazing. When I was put in the Seoul Detention Center, there were these two guys, two Pakistanis, who had death sentences. I was reeling from the situation that I’d put myself into, I was scared of that and the prospect of being there for years, and whenever I felt that overwhelming self pity and pathetic sadness I would think of those guys. I would look over there, just a couple of cells down the hall, and there was an example to snap you out of it.

White: And I think that’s important and, boy, the people who didn’t do that weren’t able to look around and see the richness and the tragedy and the humor in these experiences. I knew a guy in Carville who had a five-month sentence and he cried more than anybody else there. He kept saying that if he’d gotten another month he would have gone ahead and shot himself. And I’m like, “James, you’re saying that to a guy who’s been in here for nine years, for God’s sake.” Self-pity, not only does it have no place on the page, it doesn’t do any good in real life.

Rumpus: You said you don’t read too much prison literature, what about prison movies? I want to know if, like everyone else, you’ve seen The Shawshank Redemption.

White: Sure, I know those and I do find those fascinating. The Green Mile, that whole series that Frank Darabont directed. I think both of them based on Stephen King short stories. Shawshank Redemption was an incredibly well made movie. Maybe even ahead of it, if I had to pick one, but certainly neck and neck, is Cool Hand Luke.

Rumpus: What struck you most in those?

White: What I find fascinating in both of those stories is that you have people who are in charge of a group that is compromised, and the power that those in charge have over these institutionalized folks—again not all guards are bad, not all wardens are bad; most of them are pretty decent people—but when you do have the real criminal in charge, what they can do is absolutely horrendous. They have all of the credibility. If there’s ever a conflict, they’re the ones that will be believed. They can manipulate paperwork. They can coerce other inmates to do bad things on their behalf with promises of benefits. What you have are these groups that are so susceptible to corruption and they have virtually no recourse, and I find that fascinating.

Rumpus: The abuse of power, in the prison setting?

White: Yes. In both those movies they were using inmate labor to profit and anybody that got in their way, they kill ‘em. I’m not saying that it goes on that often, but the potential is there.

Rumpus: I remember really banging my head against the system like a fool. It took me a while to get past that. One of the things was that they’re so good at the strength part; the harder part is the smarts. Strength comes easy to authorities. If you can combine that with intelligence, it’d be a better world.

White: Yeah, I agree.

Rumpus: You told me that you’re working on a novel. What’s it about?

White: There was an incident in my book that exposed for me a flaw in the federal system. There was an inmate who happened to be a twin, and the way you’re counted in the federal system is it’s just a count. They count you at 4 o’clock everyday and everybody in the prison stands up, then they count you at night at ten, two, and four. All you have to do is just be in bed. You don’t have to stand up. They don’t have to see your face. They just need to see a body part. 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.

Rumpus: That’s a true story?

White: It’s a true story. That happened in Carville, at this leprosarium, federal prison. There were no guards with guns out front, just a hole in the fence. 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. To make a long story short, what happens in the novel I’m working on is the guards find out this inmate knows something he shouldn’t know and they decide to kill him. What they don’t know is that it’s his twin brother they end up getting. So the real inmate comes back to switch places and he can’t do it, can’t call the FBI, so he has to use all these ex-cons in New Orleans to get justice, to get the bad guy. The only story that I know that’s like that is The Count of Monte Cristo.

Rumpus: That’s a classic. I think he spends, what, 14 years in prison?

White: He switches places, is cast off for dead, and he’s outside and free.

Rumpus: This goes back to what we talked about earlier in terms of trying to overcome the pitfalls, the easy stereotypes and clichés of these stories.

White: Yeah I’m excited about writing it. Essentially this one warden is taking inmates who have no children, no spouse or parents, and testing their blood and matching them up for organ donations.

Rumpus: Reminds me of the story of Holmesburg state prison in Philadelphia, infamous for its medical experiments on inmates. Drug testing. Your scenario isn’t far-fetched—getting inmates to volunteer even, getting them to do some crazy stuff.

Acres of Skin, that’s the book about Holmesburg. Lurid title for a graphic true story.

White: Right, and the prison guards said there was informed consent when there really wasn’t.

Rumpus: Do you feel like the prison experience, listening to such flawed, complex men, guys who had done a lot of hard living, made a lot crazy choices and wrecked lives, do you feel that this gives you added insight into character?

White: Absolutely. First I would say, you don’t lead a simple, balanced life and follow all the rules and end up in prison. Or very rarely. You have rich, rich characters in the people who end up there. So yes, I learned a lot about psychology and pretty much started reading about it there. It was first with my own: Okay, how could I end up here? I was a guy who never cheated at games. If somebody drops a ten-dollar bill on the sidewalk I’d chase them down and give it back to them. How did I end up in this prison? And I started studying the psychology of people who tend to step over boundaries. I’m gonna give you an oversimplification here. The vast majority of the world falls into two circles: neurotics and character disorder. Now there are updated names for them. Neurotics generally have this view that if something goes wrong in the world, it’s my fault. I should have been better. I should have been smarter. People who suffer from character disorder, if something goes wrong in the world, they generally blame the world or somebody else: If they had left me alone I would have been fine; this guy’s a dumb-ass, he shouldn’t have done this and I would have succeeded. I would say that 90 percent of the men I met in prison were that way, they blamed other people; they didn’t take responsibility for themselves.

Rumpus: They wouldn’t make good memoirists.

White: No, that’s right, they wouldn’t. Taking the time to explore my own tendencies and consciously try to do better, to make sure, you know, that I put a pinch of neurosis in my cereal every morning to try to see the world in a way that doesn’t make me a dangerous person. But what’s fascinating is that it’s not inherently bad, inherently good. Those same people with personality disorders, they ignore boundaries. They fly to the moon. They go the South Pole. They climb Mount Everest. They start big businesses like FedEx. They can do good things in the world, but they’re so self-assured they ignore all the signs that reasonable people would encounter. Understanding that personality, I think, helps you pick the scenes that will give the reader the insight into what makes this person click.

Rumpus: The motivations.

White: Absolutely. What motivates them, why they are the way they are, what drives them, what pisses them off. To paint a character in four or five paragraphs and have the reader say, I know that person, that’s a tall order.

Rumpus: Do you think you’re better at that having been to prison?

White: Absolutely. No doubt about it.

Rumpus: You said psychology books were a big influence. Was there one in particular?

White: A book called The Road Less Traveled, a bestseller by M. Scott Peck. He followed up with People of the Lie, which was the first mainstream book that addressed the issue of evil, what makes someone evil. Of course, there’s no easy answer. Those books were and still are gems to me.

Rumpus: Another thing I was very interested to ask you, something I’ve noticed about myself, related to my prison experience somehow, is this question of amorality. I think I’m very good at being able to rationalize something, rationalize it all away and compartmentalize. Knowing that at heart you’re a good guy, as I felt, still feel, at bottom a decent individual, do you feel more in touch with the moral ambiguity in the world, the grey area?

White: Yeah, I’m with you, I realize that I have the ability, if I’m not paying attention, to convince myself of anything that I want to that’s convenient to me, as long as it’s not too far-fetched. I’m very careful and examine why I’m doing what I’m doing. I think there are a lot of people who are like that. People who end up in prison are generally good salespeople and they do their best sales job on themselves. It’s a real common trait among people that get off course.

Rumpus: Were you always self-reflective or did prison make you so?

White: That’s an interesting question and I don’t have a good answer for that.

I certainly lost my way. To be honest with you, I don’t think I’d ever been held accountable. People overlooked missteps because I was going to do so much good in this other area. I had been given a pass my entire life and so I was never forced to make those decisions and do this kind of self-analysis. I never had the opportunity to really do what I did until I got into prison and, I think, thank god I was there. I compare it to my kids, when they get in trouble they get put in time-out for ten minutes. My kids were 6 and 3 when I went to prison. And when fathers break the law they have to go away and it’s kind of like time-out for daddies, for a long time.

Rumpus: Is that what you told them?

White: Yeah, that’s what I told them. Turned out to be accurate. I was so competitive and so dead set on reaching goals I set for myself I never slowed down enough to take advantage of even thinking about these sorts of things.

Rumpus: No doubt. It was an incredible stop-time, to borrow Frank Conroy’s excellent memoir title. Despite the system’s lack of intelligence, and the warehousing—and of course the issue of prison in the United States is a festering wound—but to listen to you and me, it sounds like prison works. Does it?

White: The problem is everybody needs something different. To legislate from above, this is what all inmates need, is crazy. What I got, what are the odds of a guy who is so consumed with his own image going to the one place in America where outward image meant nothing. That was a great place for me to be. But Link, the crack dealer, he was just biding his time till he got out. I can’t presume to know what he would need. Prison worked for you, it worked for me, but Lord, everybody needs something different.

Rumpus: That’s the complexity that makes it such a beast. I remember doing a lot of thinking about authority, the way I was treated, the way I felt degraded and resisted it, but I got over all of that. It was a very important part of my process mentally and spiritually. I kind of just stepped away from it all and wasn’t going to try to figure it out, because it did seem like what you needed was a system that was different for each guy. You needed an approach that was so malleable and flexible that it could tailor the experience to that person. To do that though, you’d need more time and energy and who the hell has that?

White: People ask me all the time, what would you change in the penal system, and I say, I have no idea. I couldn’t begin to tell you.

Rumpus: From your book and the way you talk about Carville, it’s obvious that your time was hugely positive, but does it haunt you in any way? Are there any lingering side effects?

White: Sure, Especially in my dreams. I dream about Carville, or some kind of prison-type facility, all the time. In the dream, I’m always back, for a second time. It’s generally restricted to my subconscious. Of course, a therapist might have a field day with that answer.


Cullen Thomas is the author of Brother One Cell, a 2008 Kiriyama Prize Notable Book and one of World Hum’s Best Travel Books of the Year. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Foreign Policy. He teaches writing at NYU. More from this author →