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Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons: J.M. Benjamin

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Back in 2007, I read a New York Times article that told the unlikely story of a recent ex-con who had given up the drug game and was now hustling his own books. The story struck me.

J.M. Benjamin grew up on the streets of Plainfield, New Jersey. He spent more than twelve years—most of his adult life—in state and federal prisons in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

But he read and read in prison, and eventually wrote more than a dozen urban fiction novels; got signed for his debut, Down in the Dirty; got out in 2006; started publishing and selling more of his gritty stories through his own outfit, A New Quality Publishing; and began writing nonfiction books, including From Incarceration 2 Incorporation, offering transformational lessons to guys still hustling in the hood or in prison.

I went down to Plainfield recently, and visited J.M. at his little storefront bookstore where he sells his Ride or Die Chick series and other titles. We carried chairs out front and sat facing the street.

I needed to know more about how a man could go from “pumpin’ crack and smack, to pumpin’ paperbacks.”

***

The Rumpus: Tell me about the J.M. as a younger man coming up.

J.M. Benjamin: Actually, my dad grew up in the streets. My mother didn’t. It was a good-girl-being-attracted-to-bad-boys type of story. I was the product of that. My father spent more than half of his life in prison. The only relationship I had with him was phone calls, visitations. Contrary to what many may think of people growing up in the projects, my parents were married. So my mother would lug me and my siblings down to the prison to visit him.

Rumpus: Where was he?

Benjamin: He was in various different prisons, but the one that stands out the most was Rahway, East Jersey State Prison. I remember it being like a mini-vacation. It was designed that way. I mean, you got ice cream, cake, candy, burgers, hot dogs, games, music, all of these…

Rumpus: They fool you.

Benjamin: Absolutely. This fancy façade that kind of brainwashes a child. The parents really playing a part in that, the father not really wanting you to know what he’s going through, nor the mother. So all you’re thinking is, Dad is here, Mom’s taking us to see Dad, we’re having a nice time, and we look forward to it the following weekend.

Rumpus: Were you into reading back then?

Benjamin: Aside from having a dad who was incarcerated, I was an above-average student. I can remember being active and interested in academics. But growing up with the type of friends I had, it wasn’t cool to talk about grades, poems, any talents that you had that were positive, other than basketball, baseball, football. We didn’t sit around saying, “I just got an A+” or “I just aced that test.” We were talking about what was going on in the community. “Did you see so and so’s new car?” “Did you see that outfit?” “Who’s not gonna be fortunate to get the brand new Nikes?” But my mother encouraged us to read. I come from a generation where parents read to their children. Contrary to the stereotypes of African-Americans not reading enough, or they don’t read; all of those misconceptions, you know: put it in a book if you want to hide it from a black person. I don’t come from that. My mother’s in college as we speak, going for her third or fourth degree.

Rumpus: How old were you when you first visited your father in prison?

Benjamin: He was in and out since I was born. Actually my book, Memoirs of an Accidental Hustler, opens up with my experience of visiting him in prison. Describing the night before, my mother slaving over the stove making my father’s favorite meals, us packaging up the food, the excitement. After eating healthy all week we get to have junk food down at the prison; Dad’s gonna let us do what we want. So prison was actually an adventure for us kids.

Rumpus: Did that all make it kind of attractive?

Benjamin: Absolutely. It played a significant part in the perception that I had about prison. Even when I started hustling, I remember guys coming home from jail. They would go in, 120, 130 pounds. Come home 250, shining. Their car is bigger. They’ve got more money. Their jewelry is bigger. Their clothes are fancier. I was always a little guy—110, 115 pounds. I remember guys used to say, “Man, get your weight up.” And I would say, “I’m gonna wait ’til I go to the prison to get my weight up.” Rather than thinking that I could just join a gym and get bigger. 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. A guy would go in; he’d be gone five, seven, ten years, and when he came back he would have more than when he went in.

Rumpus: Why, just because of his contacts?

Benjamin: No, just because of the love that he was shown. It was a badge of honor. There are certain things that catapult your status in the streets.

Rumpus: Cred.

Benjamin: Street cred. Carrying a gun, shooting someone, going to jail. Someone who comes home from jail receives more love, recognition, and status than someone who comes home from the service or from college.

Rumpus: You still see that?

Benjamin: It’s happening right now, in this city, all around, worldwide. I’ve seen it since I’ve been home. Right now as we speak someone just came home from spending over a decade in prison, and for the last couple months that’s the only name that you hear. He’s on a pedestal right now. These are the things for young people looking in, not really seeing or hearing behind the scenes, the things we need to talk about today. Someone that comes from what I come from, rather than coming home and giving you the reality of the prison, they get caught up in the hype of being home. He wants to tell these magnificent stories about how he was living large in prison, you know: “my commissary stayed piling; yeah, the women CO’s [Correctional Officers] was on me; I had to knock a joker out to rep the town; I was lifting the gym up; all I did was eat, play cards; I had all these cigarettes.” He paints all these pictures, jumps down on the ground, does a hundred pushups in one set. Young kids are looking. He’s got the tank top on, muscles bulgin’. You’ve got a circle of people hanging on his every word. And for someone like myself as a kid watching, just thinking, “Wow.”

Rumpus: You remember that from when you were young?

Benjamin: Absolutely. But after my experience of prison, I realized that he came home frontin’. He should have come home and said, “Prison was the worst experience of my life. I hated every day of it. It was the most degrading time of my life.” If he would have just come home and said that the food was horrible, the shower’s dirty, that I’ve seen people OD in there, I’ve seen people get stabbed in there, get killed, seen a guy get raped in the shower. I saw all of that. But no one comes home and tells these stories, because no one wants to seem like they couldn’t handle what was going on.

Rumpus: So how did you make that break? It’s gotta take some courage. I imagine there’s got to be resistance to what you’ve done. Maybe some people say, “Oh, he’s gone soft.” Do you ever get that?

Benjamin: No, I don’t, because when you come from the hood, they always root for the underdog. And that’s what I represent. I represent the minorities. I represent the underdog. I give those that come from what I come from hope, inspiration, motivation—especially those who are incarcerated—to be able to say, “I grew up with him, I used to hustle with him.” I come from that, but I made it out.

Rumpus: Not just out, you made yourself a positive example now. Like Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, setting this other example through their writing. There’s this other avenue.

Benjamin: Those guys are iconic figures in urban fiction. They come from what I come from. The difference between how they carried it and the path that I’m on is that they wrote through their addictions. They were still full-blown and active in the thing that they wrote about. I use my writing as my outlet. I don’t live it anymore.

Rumpus: Those guys were heroin addicts, right?

Benjamin: Yes, heroin addicts, pimps, hustlers, a variety of things.

Rumpus: Their material came from what they went through.

Benjamin: The same for me. There’s no way I could write the depths that I do now had I not experienced the many things that I have. I’ve been up close and personal. So you’d be able to read something I wrote and from the details know that this is real. No yeast put on it, no embellishing. This is exactly how a gun sounds or a gun feels when you pull the trigger. This is how it feels to get shot. This is how you feel internally when you’re about to pull a caper. This is how you feel when you’re in a vehicle with a death sentence in the trunk. This is how it feels when you go to a foreign territory and set up shop.

Rumpus: What about My Manz and ‘Em, your story of friendship, the criminal life, betrayal, redemption. How much of that is autobiographical?

Benjamin: It’s not my story, but there are some elements that I experienced. I try to stay away from writing my story and keep it universal. They’re billions of J.M. Benjamin’s out there, who I was before incarceration. I use it as a reminder. When I was speaking about Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim, those guys were still struggling with their addictions. My addiction was criminality. I was addicted to the streets, and I keep that at the forefront of my mind. That’s what keeps me from going back. I have no desire to go back to that.

Rumpus: Do they try to pull you back in?

Benjamin: In the beginning there were a couple of situations where I may have been, not necessarily tested, but offered the opportunity. But if you’re consistent with something eventually the craving for it goes away. There are times I may go out, and guys who are still in it, you know, they’re popping bottles at the club, making it rain, and I see it. But I’m at a place in my life I can say I don’t have to get it on the block. If I want to pop a bottle, I can. I work just as hard as them. People, places, and things—that’s what I had to watch when I came home. This is very important when you’re dealing with addiction.

Rumpus: Those triggers.

Benjamin: Yeah, all of those trigger trippers.

Rumpus: So take me back. How did you start hustling in the first place?

Benjamin: Eleven years old, I was an innocent kid. Twelve years old, I was on the block. That one year of difference. Thirteen years old, I was driving. Fifteen years old, I was being charged as an adult for drug trafficking in North Carolina and went to an adult prison.

Rumpus: You were crossing state lines.

Benjamin: Yes, drug trafficking across state lines. At sixteen, you’re an adult in the South. Even if you’re younger, depending on the severity of the crime, the judge will wave you up. So he waved me up. They put me in an adult prison and I became a worse criminal.

Rumpus: You did two years?

Benjamin: I did two years. Came home, I was seventeen. After me leaving home at a young age and us not speaking for a while, I remember my mother coming to see me in the projects and her only request was that I afford her the opportunity to see me walk across the stage and bring her my diploma. I was in school while I was hustling, that’s the irony. I was still getting A’s and B’s, but drug trafficking. I would go to New York City on my lunchtime, catch the train over there, cop my drugs, come back before school was over, go to the project.

Rumpus: Clothes, cars—you must’ve been rolling in money.

Benjamin: Absolutely. The average kid growing up in an urban community, they always have good intent when doing bad. The commonality with myself and the guys I grew up with is that there were no father figures or positive male role models. There was about thirteen of us, and out of thirteen I may have known one of my friend’s fathers. So in the midst of that, the intent was: I’m gonna get this money and move my family out of the projects, to be the man of the house. The irony of it all is that we never knew criminality was an addiction. We started making all of this money, but our parents and grandparents were still in the projects. None of us moved them out of the projects! We lost focus of our main objective because the streets just swallowed us up.

Two years later I had charges trumped up, case after case, and I went on the run at age 20. I relocated to the South, ran from New Jersey. And it was then that everything spiraled downhill. There were so many things; I call them signs. There were so many signs. They’re in front of you every day you just have to pay attention to them.

Rumpus: Reminds me of my arrest.

Benjamin: I’m sure there were things that were taking place that you disregarded.

Rumpus: Yeah, there were. I could see those later, looking back. I remember it distinctly. There were all these little signs, things my girlfriend was saying to me, a feeling I got, something about the package, someone said something funny, these guys in suits behind me. You’re right about that. If you don’t listen to those signs you can be in big trouble.

Benjamin: Absolutely. That’s what wound up happening. The final sign before the final charge was from my mother. She’s very spiritual. She’s a minister. My entire life since I’ve been in the streets, my mother has always called me when something has happened, or is about to happen and she’s had a dream. So this one particular time I had a young lady bring me from the South to New York. We were on our way back and it was pouring down raining. I was asleep and my mother called me and said, “Are you okay?” Now I’m coming through the New Jersey turnpike. I’m on the run.

I said, “I’m okay.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m down South, Mom.”

“No, you know, ’cause I had one of those dreams.”

I said, “No, Mom, I’m good.”

I hung up with her and dozed back off. When I woke up I see these lights coming at me. I really didn’t know what it was. It was pouring down raining and the car was hydroplaning. The girl had hit the breaks and we flipped over on the turnpike and were thrown into a ditch on the side. I got about two keys of coke in the trunk, couple pounds of weed and all of that. The only thing I can think about is how can I get to the trunk to get this stuff up out of here, to get up off of this highway so I don’t go to jail. I’m not thinking about, Is she hurt? Am I hurt? I’m thinking about the drugs and getting up out of here.

Rumpus: Have you ever used that scene?

Benjamin: Something like it in Memoirs of an Accidental Hustler.

Rumpus: One thing I like about urban fiction, something we teach, is the way that it drives forward so steadily. I’m noticing this in Whoreson right now.

Benjamin: I’ve read that one. Read all of Goines.

Rumpus: Every scene, every chapter, there’s some kind of major conflict, major drama, either a fight or someone’s getting fucked. The main character’s situation is getting shaken up.

Benjamin: And that’s what urban fiction is all about.

Rumpus: That’s what you need in a story. Yeah, you might say these are just popular books, made for easy entertainment, but there’s that mark of narrative craft.

***

A guy comes from across the street and walks up to J.M., shakes his hand, thanks him. They press chests and the man walks off.

Benjamin: That’s what I love. I was out of town working on a new book and he was down there, him and his lady. He didn’t have enough money to get home, so I lent him a little bit. It’s a blessing to be in that position because we broke bread in prison together. At one point, I was hustling in jail and he was my enforcer. He was a notorious stick-up guy here in town, got convicted of manslaughter. But now he uses that truck he’s driving to collect scrap metal. Every Sunday he pulls up and we just talk about what we overcame.

Rumpus: Amazing how things turn… Going back to the idea of keeping stories action-packed, making that character want something, go after something, scene after scene. I notice you doing that in your stories. Were you taught to do that or just learned from reading?

Benjamin: I learned how to write novels from reading a lot of novels. I was an avid reader. I mean, aside from Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim, books from the ’60s, this genre of urban fiction wasn’t booming like it is now. So I read Patterson, Koontz, Grisham, Deavers, Dan Brown, from Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins books on down, the Harlequin novels. I was just reading. Reading, reading, reading.

Rumpus: They know how to shape that story arc.

Benjamin: Absolutely. I actually try to put a little Grisham-Patterson in an urban tale, you know—the suspense, deception. I’m very much into deception. Who dunnit.

Rumpus: Deception in terms of characters fooling each other?

Benjamin: Me fooling the reader. Putting it in front of you, but camouflaging it. Then when you get to it, you say, “Ah, man, that’s what that was in the beginning.”  That’s a J.M. Benjamin coin when I write.

Rumpus: The big reveal. This is in prison that you’re reading all of these authors?

Benjamin: Yeah. I’m gonna tell you something. Urban fiction is so huge because of the prison audience.

Rumpus: Is that right? What percentage of your readers are in prison?

Benjamin: I’m gonna say that seventy percent are women here, on the streets. The other thirty percent is incarcerated men.

Rumpus: Huh.

Benjamin: Absolutely. There are times I sell more books from prison orders to my PO Box, than I do in my store or at a book signing. When you put your bag in the back seat of my car you probably saw a bunch a mail. That’s all prison mail.

Rumpus: So how do you run your publishing operation? How exactly do you sell your books?

Benjamin: This is what I did. I took the blueprint that I used in the streets, and now use it in the publishing game. The same way of starting with one package, taking that package, pushing it, pushing it, pushing it, getting known for having a good product, paying my dues in the streets, being up under someone, and then busting out on my own with a new product, which was My Manz and ‘Em.

Rumpus: Your first novel was Down in the Dirty, right?

Benjamin: Let me give you the history of my writing. I started writing when I was in lock-up, in solitary confinement, in federal custody in Pennsylvania. I was given a year and a half in lock-up. Like I said, I was hustling in jail. I was fighting, things of that nature. But I used to attend all of the programs, just as a form of manipulation, for the state or federal boards, the supervisors, you know, just to look good in my jacket, my folder. So I would attend these programs, and there was this Caucasian woman, sixty-plus years old. She loved the way I could take the curriculum and break it down into layman’s terms for the hood in there, who couldn’t comprehend what she was saying because they made all this money in the street but they were illiterate. That wasn’t my story. You may know that there are many kingpins, big-time drug dealers who can’t read and write. That was one of my pastimes. I used to write love letters and poems for guys who couldn’t write ‘em to their lady friends. That was a hustle of mine.

Rumpus: Nice. I used to do a little of that.

Benjamin: You see what I’m saying. This counselor loved me. When I went to lock-up, she was hurt. She was one of those people who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. She saw the good in me, like my mom and my grandmom. This stranger.

She told me that the CO’s asked her why she would always talk to me. She told them, “Benjamin’s a good guy.” They said, “Benjamin’s a bad guy. He’s faking you out.” So when I went to lock-up, she came to see me. I remember laying on my bunk and hearing her voice ask the officer, “What cell is Benjamin in?” I felt embarrassed and ashamed and I didn’t really know why. I got up, came to the window, and she had this look on her face, this look of disappointment, but sadness as well. Of all the things she could have said to me, like, “You faked me out. You really are a bad guy,” all she said was, “What happened?” That’s all she said. “I told you, I’m not gonna let anyone disrespect me,” I said. She answered, “Remember what I told you in the group. Disrespect is only what you perceive it to be. If a guy calls you a punk and you’re not a punk, then what does it matter.” This is one of those things that keeps me very humble and very focused. It enables me to block out a lot and to not entertain a lot.

Rumpus: Keeping yourself out of all those little battles.

Benjamin: Absolutely. I call those prison politics. You got street politics, prison politics. The codes, the laws, the rules you feel you must abide by—live by—in order to be respected. That’s something I got caught up in. This is the thing I always convey to young people. There’s no right way to do wrong. I was in those situations of trying to protect my respect because I was indulging in things I shouldn’t have been indulging in. I put myself in the line of fire to be challenged. So I cut out all these things to focus on my writing. I had to make sacrifices. I stopped playing ball. I stopped watchin’ BET. I stopped listening to the radio. This is why I was able to write sixteen books. I stopped playing cards, stopped playing chess. I stopped watching television. All of these distractions that are put in place. I stopped hustling in jail. All of the vices that help the time pass. If you indulge in those, then finally the door opens, it’s time to go home, and you haven’t worked on yourself. So I wasn’t in the TV room where guys fight over changing the channels. When you found me, you found me in my area, my circumference, writin’ stories.

Rumpus: At what point did you start disciplining yourself like that? How long were you in before you flipped it?

Benjamin: I was already in for a few years. Here’s the thing: we all have our limitations. We just have to know what they are. I’ve always been an extremist. It’s either all or nothing. Another thing that pushed me to reevaluate myself, aside from that counselor, was my mother. She discovered that I was in lock-up and she said, “I can’t do this anymore. When are you gonna get it together?” That’s when I realized that my mother had been incarcerated with me the entire time. I’m always asked what is the difference between me and those that go back to prison. And this is really what it is: often we talk about what we’re gonna do when we get out. But seldom do we talk about what we’re gonna do while we’re still in. That’s what it was for me. I knew that I was in love with the streets. I could tell someone, “Man, I’m done.” But in my mind I knew I wasn’t really done. I would have came home, worked for a little bit, you know, showed my mom that I appreciated it, but the moment that it got hard or difficult, I would have resorted back to what I was most comfortable with, which was the streets. And the streets will always welcome you with open arms, no strings attached, no questions asked. This I knew. The counselor said, “Something in your past has you so angry. Maybe you should sit down and write.”

Rumpus: I read somewhere that for Iceberg Slim, during his last prison stint, he did the final ten months in lock-up and that solitary got to him so much that he became a writer there and then. He decided he had to do something other than pimping.

Benjamin: I was just telling this to the director of my upcoming film of My Manz and ‘Em. When I was in solitary, I was going insane. As strong as I felt or believed I was, as much as people thought I had it together, I was falling apart in lock-up. Something about being isolated from everyone and everything, not knowing if it’s day or night, that whole feeling of not having communication with the outside world. That’s when I embraced Islam. Islam gave me that peace of mind. It restored my sanity. There were times I was sitting in my cell thinking that everybody was against me.

Rumpus: That’s the madness.

Benjamin: The madness. The insanity is just enhanced. I was thinking, “I’m gonna get out, take over the projects. Anybody get in my way, I’m dropping ‘em. F’ everybody.”

But that’s not who I was. When I started writing I had to take a look in the mirror. I realized that the things I thought I loved I really didn’t. Example: I used to think that my favorite color was blue. It wasn’t. That was my brother’s favorite color. I love him. He was a father figure to me. But my favorite color was brown.

Rumpus: You have to de-program almost.

Benjamin: That’s what it is. You have to de-program, unlearn and relearn a new behavior. I had to strip myself down.

Rumpus: Would you have been able to do that out here? Or did prison do it for you, as fucked up as prison is? I mean, I know it personally only from South Korea. While there I did read Soledad Brother, George Jackson. Reagan’s California prison system in the ’60s. Blew my mind.

Benjamin: One of the classics, one that I’ve got under my belt. Another book that I loved was Man Child in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. Here it is society had stereotyped him as a menace. He was gonna spend the rest of his life in prison or die in the streets. He was in and out of reformatories, just a menace. But there came a point in his life where he turned his life around. He became this scholar and professor, just became this positive brother before he passed. It’s a true story to show that it’s never too late.

Rumpus: What you’re describing is that solitary, prison, somehow worked. Would you say that?

Benjamin: There’s a saying that “some are arrested and some are rescued.” I believe I was rescued. Prison was inevitable for me. The graveyard or prison. My life was spared. I was given one more opportunity, one more shot to get it right. Why do guys go to jail and become Muslim, jailhouse Muslims? I hear that a lot. And I say to them that the prophet became Muslim during a time of seclusion. He came out of seclusion a changed man and he stayed the course. And then I take Malcolm X. It was in prison that Malcolm X had this spiritual awakening. So a lot of times I share that with people to say that sometimes it takes seclusion and isolation to discover a power greater than yourself, and to discover yourself.

Rumpus: My mom sent me something like that when I was in prison, about character being built in solitude. I came to respect and love that isolation because it was so far away from all this noise and distraction.

Benjamin: When it came time to get out of lock-up, I wasn’t even ready to go back into [the] general population. Word had spread that I had gotten signed to Flowers in Bloom, the small independent publisher in Brooklyn. I became like the writing guru. My name was at the facility as a writer.

Rumpus: That must’ve been a strange feeling.

Benjamin: It was cool because people would come and say, “I heard about it. Can I read it?” So I was printing up copies to distribute amongst the inmates. Down in the Dirty was released four months before I came home. I wrote all those in prison: My Manz and ‘Em, Ride or Die Chick, Memoirs of an Accidental Hustler.

Rumpus: Do you think they have a special flavor, having been written in there?

Benjamin: I used to think that. I used to think I couldn’t write a book when I was home. That was one of my greatest fears: I’m a jailhouse writer. I’m not gonna have any time to write. I’m gonna get out there; world’s moving at a rapid pace. The first book I wrote on the streets was On the Run with Love, and people loved it and I realized I was a real writer. I might write ten, fifteen pages on the plane, another thirty pages in the hotel, might write some at my store here. I’m gonna buckle down the next two weeks at home. My dad’s gonna watch the store.

Rumpus: What about writing programs in prison, state or federal?

Benjamin: There weren’t any. What they used to allow, and they stopped it, is college correspondence classes. People were taking creative writing and things like that, but they stopped that some years ago.

Rumpus: Are you actively involved in bringing any kind of writing to prison?

Benjamin: No, although I’m J.M. Benjamin, author, motivational speaker, they’re still some restrictions being an ex-offender that the prisons won’t allow me to do it. I try to do what little I can. I get letters all the time from inmates asking how to start a book, how to go about getting published, and I respond back.

Rumpus: You said seventy percent of your readers are women out here, and thirty percent guys in prison. What are the guys inside getting from your stories?

Benjamin: I started writing urban fiction because the majority of it was a misconception and a misrepresentation of where I come from and why I did what I did. They were painting this picture as if we grow up around the projects saying, “When I grow up, I want to be a drug dealer or a gangster or a killer.” No, they weren’t painting the real picture. So I started writing about the parents of the main characters in my stories, and I started spinning tales where the bad guy doesn’t get away, because that’s not my reality. These guys are readers, they say, “Man, this guy comes from what I come from.” They read From Incarceration 2 Incorporation. That’s not just a jail book. It speaks about the home you were raised in, the type of friends you have, your parents, your education background, the decisions and choices you make that lead you there, to prison, and then how you spend your time there, what can happen if you make better choices. So someone who comes from what I come from can say, “That’s the real stuff right there.” It’s a reality check for them. I represent all those who don’t have a voice.

Rumpus: How do you sell your books in the prisons?

Benjamin: I put order forms in the back of my books for inmates to rip out or make copies for other inmates. As my collection expanded I began sending in order forms. I came up with something where if a guy referred other guys to my book you could get either books or credit. Someone spends fifty dollars or more, says your name, you get ten dollars credit. I can give you the cash or you could let it build up or you can order more books. Same thing I did on the block: you can get paid every week or you can come get it when you get more pack. It’s the same blueprint.

Rumpus: You give them some incentive.

Benjamin: When the recession came, a lot of people that I knew had lost their jobs, so I was giving people books to sell to family and friends. I would give them five dollars from every book of mine they sold and they would give me ten. I became stronger because I had people working for me, pushing my books.

Rumpus: This is fascinating to me, your blueprint. I went through a major publisher with my book, but I’ve always felt that despite my efforts I could have done more to hustle it, like you do. That’s how I first heard of you, Kevin Coyne’s piece in the Times in 2007. You weren’t riding the trains were you?

Benjamin: No, that was Randy Kearse, my partner on From Incarceration 2 Incorporation. He rides the train everyday. That’s his only source of income. That’s his job. He’s sold over one hundred thousand copies in the subway stations, just riding trains. I ran off 7,500 copies of My Manz and ‘Em and we sold those in three and a half weeks, going up and down the highway, in the street. Urban fiction is so successful because of the nontraditional ways in which it’s packaged up, promoted, marketed, and sold.

Rumpus: Damn. I gotta pick up my publishing game. I think you’ve far outsold me. I did a lot of press—GQ, NY Times, a TV show, national press—but I still don’t think I ever sold like that.

Benjamin: Imagine this: there was a point in time when I would do over two hundred book signings in a year. Let’s just say I sold only ten copies at each book signing.

Rumpus: And you’re doing it all yourself? Calling these places, introducing yourself, setting it up?

Benjamin: I used to do that, but I don’t have to anymore. Because when a J.M. Benjamin book drops, everyone’s gonna know. The independent booksellers. This is one of the advantages that urban fiction has over mainstream. We have independent distributors, who deal with just black authors’ books, in addition to mainstream distributors. So here Baker and Taylor and Ingram and all of these places—Amazon—will distribute my books, but I also used to go to New York myself and sell a thousand books and get the money that day.

Rumpus: From independent bookstores?

Benjamin: Also from the vendors. You go up on 125th street in Harlem and you see those African guys out there with the books. They buy directly from us. There are book vendors in all five boroughs.

Rumpus: This is flooring me. It’s such a different set-up. I need more of this in what I’m doing even if it’s through a mainstream publisher: the footwork, the hustling, spreading the word. So you’re driving around, dropping off boxes of books.

Benjamin: I still do it now. I’ve done that since I’ve been home. Over six years I’ve been driving to the city. I’m there about four days out of the week. There was a point where I used to go everyday.

Rumpus: You said the majority of your readers are women. What are they getting from your stories? Is it just because women read more in general?

Benjamin: Absolutely. The thing I tell men, writers in general: you have to find your audience. I know who my audience is. It’s women. Women come out to my book signings. There is this mystique, I think. They’re thinking, I’m gonna go there and see if he’s like the character in the book. Also, I write strong women characters and they see that. That’s a J.M. Benjamin trademark. I write about strong women. I grew up with strong women, my mom, my grandmom. In My Manz and ‘Em, there’s Meesha and Malik’s mother. Ride or Die Chick is a Bonnie and Clyde story where the women go harder than the men. In Memoirs of an Accidental Hustler, there’s the grandmother, the mother, struggling to keep their kids off the street.

Guys often make men the bigger characters. I get a lot of submissions from prison about the male hero. I don’t accept those. That’s played out. I tell them to write for a female audience. I mean, men love my stories, but I don’t write for men. I write for women. Jail cells alone aren’t enough for sales. Women are consistent readers. I also do literary consultation. I’m responsible for over thirty self-published authors having their books in print. The majority are women who had journals and wanted to turn their literary dreams into a published reality.

***

It started to rain, so we brought our chairs back inside. J.M. locked up the store and drove us down to the New Projects. We passed a row of storefronts on the way, and he pointed out a barbershop that his friend owns, where he did his first reading after prison. We pulled up to a scrappy brown apartment building with several people sitting out front.

Benjamin: Five Twenty-Four. This is the cover of My Manz and ‘Em. As you can see, the hood is in full throttle. These guys are me. I’m them.

Rumpus: This is where you grew up, where you were at eleven, twelve, getting into stuff, as you described.

Benjamin: Right here.

Rumpus: I’ve never been to Plainfield before. It looks pretty diverse.

Benjamin: The town is segregated into east and west. On the east end, that’s where you’ve got the politicians, lawyers, upper middle class, Netherwood train station. That’s a lot different than down here. This is the ‘hood.

Rumpus: Not too far away though.

Benjamin: No, not too far.

Rumpus: Reminds me of that area of Manhattan with Columbia University, and then just to the east of it you’ve got Morningside Heights. You literally just walk down the hill and it’s a dramatic shift, such a switch.

Benjamin: We’re sitting in the midst of it right now. If you would’ve just watched you would’ve seen a lady, that lady in brown. She walked up, went into the building. One of the young guys got up, followed her in there. She came out. She went that way. He went the other way. This guy here, he’s another one. These people have been getting high since I was a kid and stared hustling. I used to serve them. I know them by first and last name. They ate at my grandmother’s house. I remember when they weren’t getting high. I remember when they started getting high. And I look at them now, decades later, and they’re still getting high. That’s a story in itself.

Rumpus: No doubt.

Benjamin: When I first came home, the murder rate in Plainfield was record-breaking. And the murders were between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five—these were the shooters and those who were getting killed. At the time, one of my daughters was living with me. I had to hear my daughters and their friends come to the house and tell their stories. Then I hear the guys from the hood tell their version. Then I hear the working class folks tell their story. So I’m getting all of these perspectives of what’s going on in the city.

Rumpus: Is it worse than when you grew up?

Benjamin: Absolutely. It’s worse now than ever, because of the gangs.

Rumpus: You’re pushing out so much positivity. Is it upsetting to you, to see this?

Benjamin: Yeah. They’re talking about tearing down these projects. It’s been in the papers. They’ve called me to ask my opinion, my views, on it. That’s another thing: to be viewed as someone who’s a voice to speak on behalf of this community. It was a community, still is. You see this girl right here? I grew up with her. She was beautiful. She started getting high and it took away from her beauty.

J.M. honks his horn a couple times at the woman as she walks past. She looks back warily at us, but doesn’t stop or respond.

Benjamin: See that? She’s scared ’cause she sees you.

Rumpus: I already thought of that when we rolled up. “What’s this white guy with a tape recorder doing here?”

Benjamin: I know their parents. Now they’re out here. They’re making the same poor choices I made when I was around here.

Rumpus: If someone asks, “What does writing mean to you,” what do you say?

Benjamin: Writing was my outlet, out of this. I don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t writing.


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 →