Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons: Vickie Stringer

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Vickie Stringer’s voice is soothingly sweet and smooth over the line. I notice she keeps using my name, drawing me in—“Don’t you think so, Cullen?” and “Cullen, isn’t it true…” I could have listened to her for a few more hours.

Stringer has made sharp choices and paid for them: running an escort service, dealing cocaine with her ex-boyfriend, spending seven years in prison in the 90s, growing a publishing company. She’s a hustler, an ex-con, a mogul, and a mother.

She wrote her first novel, the highly autobiographical Let That Be the Reason, from prison. She eventually self-published and pushed it herself, out of the trunk of her car, launching her writing and publishing career. She soon built a platform for not just her own urban fiction but the stories of other convicts and hustlers, too, their narratives of the street and the game. Her novels and her Triple Crown Publishing venture have made her a queen of the genre, recognized by the New York Times, Essence, Ebony, Publishers Weekly, and beyond.

Stringer and I were talking about Freeway Rick Ross, capital punishment, and the pending execution in Oklahoma of Richard Glossip. She spoke of Angola Prison in Louisiana, the Farm, where most of the inmates will be kept until they die.

We were free; we were loose; we both knew we had it good.

***

The Rumpus: Are you still writing novels?

Vickie Stringer: Not as passionately as I used to. I’m not an urban person anymore. I’m a suburban person. I’m older now. I’m not interested in the same things. I don’t want to live around urban things. I want to live like I’m white! I joke like this to my friends. I have to be passionately motivated to write. It’s not the volume of what you write; it’s the depth of what you write. The Game of Thrones writer was just doing his thing; now he’s thrown into this celebrity and he’s under all this pressure to produce more. I think writing for dollars is so different.

Rumpus: Tell me about that moment when you’re in college, transferring from Western Michigan to Ohio State, and you meet the eventual father of your son, who was a drug dealer.

Stringer: That association began to change my perspective on crime. Up until that point I had never had a relationship with a criminal before. Meeting my sons’ father, seeing how poor he grew up, his decisions no longer represented lawlessness to me. They represented necessity.

Rumpus: Was he from Detroit, too?

Stringer: He was from New York. Every day was survival for him. Hearing that, understanding that he was not the person I saw on the news, he gave me the reasons behind it all. I saw that you could get into desperate situations and make those decisions. He was such a good guy, a hard worker, but he already had a strike against him. He was already a felon, either for stealing or drug trafficking.

Rumpus: What you’re saying is true, that circumstances bend our morality.

Stringer: I was so idealistic when I met him and he was so doom and gloom. I bought into his way of thinking.

Rumpus: Do you regret that?

Stringer: I don’t. Of course when I got in trouble, yes, but when I came home from jail with nothing, it was his voice in my mind, having his spirit with me, him talking to me every day, to come up from nothing. He was just a dreamer. He was like my life teacher. He taught me how to survive, how to know people. My parents didn’t teach me that, the art of swimming through a shark-infested world. ‘It gets greater later,’ that was his saying. Kept me laughing in the middle of not having anything.

Rumpus: You said you loved bad boys, were attracted to them. Why exactly? What’s the lure?

Stringer: I think women like men who come up through struggle. When you’re dating them you don’t argue about money. When you get a bad boy, when it comes to how we gonna eat, how we gonna be safe, he’s got those two covered. He’s gonna protect you. You know the boundaries. We’re gonna have cable; we’re gonna have food.

Rumpus: Sounds like loyalty is coming in to play.

Stringer: Oh it definitely is.

Rumpus: What’s more fun, being a madam or a drug dealer?

Stringer: Being a madam, there was no risk, no harsh consequence. That made it fun, but being a drug dealer the money was better. When I got arrested I had a quarter of a million dollars on me. I can’t even remember counting it; it was such an insignificant number. Can you imagine that? The amounts of money are huge.

Rumpus: You did seven years of federal time, right? Where?

Stringer: I did a total of 78 months. I did eighteen months in Columbus, Ohio, two years in Alderson, West Virginia. [For details on the storied Alderson Fed, see the Rumpus’s conversation with literary ex-con Patricia McConnel.] I did the balance in Bryan, Texas. Nice weather there, barbecue. Texas is the best in the federal system. It’s a little newer, and the weather is great, a lot of outdoor activities. My roommate was a millionaire Colombian lady. She had all this food brought in. She was doing life. A lot of probation officers and attorneys in there, too.

Rumpus: One of the street rules of Pamela, your alter ego in Let That Be the Reason, your first novel, which you’ve said you’ve sold more than a 100,000 copies of, is to trust nobody, not even yourself. How can one operate without that?

Stringer: Because when you trust yourself, you second-guess your head. Your gut is telling you something different than your head, how right before you got caught something was telling you things weren’t right. Your gut didn’t say yes to getting the drugs. Cullen said yes. Second-guessing yourself is good, your gut telling yourself something else. Don’t trust yourself, because a lot of times we’re wrong. That little small whisper is like, Nope, and you don’t do it.

Rumpus: Ghetto fiction, street lit, hip-hop lit, urban fiction… What do you prefer to call it? What do you and your writers call it?

Stringer: Hip-hop. I like it as hip-hop literature. It was the music, the clothing, the culture. When I started that’s what it was. It was the movement.

Rumpus: Obviously I was white, growing up suburban, but the early 90s creativity and optimism in the music, De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest… The hip-hop connection seems broader, more positive than urban or street.

Stringer: Most of the people who call it urban or ghetto fiction, they’re trying to say black, and it’s not. It’s hip-hop. I was a big Tupac fan. I like rap that tells stories. I don’t know what Lil Wayne and these new people be saying, but I like when you can understand a story and follow along. KRS-1, Public Enemy tell us those stories. Now, no, I don’t know what Nicki Minaj is talking about, Boom Boom Boom and this bs.

Rumpus: You ever watch Orange is the New Black? [Check out the Rumpus’s interview with Piper Kerman from before the Netflix series came out and became a smash hit.] What do you think of it?

Stringer: Hell no! I’m not letting some white woman steal my story! Tan is the new black; that’s what you wear when you’re in the Fed. They’re all on her shit because she’s a white suburban housewife. I’m officially hating on her. That’s what they do when you’re white; you get a Netflix show for being in jail. She should have included me in that project, a guest appearance or something.

Rumpus: Ha! But you’ve also carved out your own success, haven’t you? You’ve done something with the experience.

Stringer: You know, I’ve been a part of two scientific studies. One was through John Jay [College of Criminal Justice]. Venturing Beyond the Gates they called it. They profiled a lot of successful former felons. It was extensive. They had us talk to a forensic psychologist, Sonnee Weedn, who profiles serial killers and criminals like that. As a result of her falling in love with me, she included me in her book where she collected these stories. And you know what they find, Cullen? Entrepreneurialism is the key, the common denominator among former inmates who’ve made good. To keep them free, to really keep people out of jail, is through their own businesses. They have to have that self-worth and creativity. Felons are free-spirited, can’t be in a box. They want to do it their own way.

Rumpus: Many of them don’t want to be a part of the established system, right? I feel that. I don’t want to be co-opted into everything, the way the mainstream makes you sign up, sign on.

Stringer: They went to Donald Trump to try to get a successful ex-con on Celebrity Apprentice, but he didn’t go for it. I think he doesn’t want to show Americans how amazing felons are.

Rumpus: That would be some message to send out nationally.

Stringer: I’ve been trying unsuccessfully at local halfway houses and in prisons to get entrepreneur programs started. They’re always claiming to want to help ex-felons.

Rumpus: In spite of that resistance, people idolize the hustler, don’t they?

Stringer: We do idolize the gangster, the hustler. We idolize the tenacity. Hustlers like challenges. Great risk, great rewards. We’re gamblers.

Rumpus: I remember sitting in my cell thinking about what was so different between the guards and the inmates, why I felt myself admiring the convicts more that the authority, which seemed to get it backwards. I realized it was because the cons had gone for something, they dared something, you know? [Lest you read me wrong, I’m not talking about violent crime here.] Maybe something crazy, and they failed, but at least they tried; they went for it. The guards mainly had played it safe, and they seemed bored and flat in comparison.

Stringer: It’s the risk, the heart. I will watch Cops on TV and I will just love the guy who runs from the police. Don’t you just love those people, Cullen?

Rumpus: [Cracking up] People were talking about that even with those two murderers who escaped from prison in New York recently. You saw that? Those guys were nasty and yet there was still some of that feeling.

Stringer: I had an escort service back in the day and I’m having lunch with my mom. I’m in my truck with my mother and pulled up in a parking lot. I went to the hotel to pick up my money; that’s how we used to do it. One of my girls was there. I see a white guy leave her room. He comes to the car, flashes a badge, “Vice. We need to talk.” I flew out of there. My mother is in total confusion. “What just happened?!” she’s saying. “That was the police; he wanted to talk to you?” “Mom, I’m not talking to the police.” Back then they wouldn’t shoot you. Now they will.

Rumpus: I like to joke that they’ll never take me alive, because I’m not going back to prison, no way. What a miserable place to be, to spend your life.

Stringer: You know, every hustler on the block is hustling for the day when he can take his money and make it legal. But there are no ethics in legal business. The worst are the legal criminals. They know what they’re going to do with us; they do business to screw you. But you don’t know what to do with them. When an illegal hustler goes into a legal business they run into problems. I had a book distributor for Triple Crown who filed bankruptcy and stole $200,000 from me. This was so confusing to me I went into a depression. I never experienced this in the street, these types of violations.

Rumpus: So is being legal just a disguise?

Stringer: It’s a complete disguise. Being legal just keeps you out of jail. You found a way to legalize your hustle, right, Cullen? And that’s the only reason I’m not selling drugs. I would love to be a drug dealer, but I know the consequences. I don’t want to go to jail anymore. People get into big business to steal. I talk to my lawyer about this. All of these people with offices are just fucking shit up, breaking stuff, stealing.

Rumpus: Is that America? Is that capitalism?

Stringer: It is. America was designed for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. And that’s the travesty of publishing. It was one of the last of the free hustles. It was limitless in what you said, in your earnings, your word, to your audience, delivered the way you wanted to give it to them. Publishing was the last chance to have control. Now Amazon is controlling everything because they control the distribution. Publishing to me has turned into a travesty because no indie publisher can offer what Triple Crown Publishing could do. I can’t take you from A to Z anymore.

Rumpus: It comes down to how one wants to play it, right, staying legal while still being a crook, or being a criminal with morals.

Stringer: My boyfriend now, we argue about this all the time, arguing over methods. He says I’m always scheming. He has ideas; I have schemes. “You haven’t gone through what I’ve gone through,” I tell him. He doesn’t break the law. He’s black, West Indian, straight-laced. He will not break the law for anything. He won’t even pick up a grape in the store to eat it. He’s afraid of going to jail. He thinks I have no moral compass. My sons’ father, we were co-defendants; we moved together on everything. We were just so in synch with survival. That psychologist I told you about, Cullen, she was fascinated by women, because women take risks that men don’t.

Rumpus: Really? How do you mean?

Stringer: Well, it starts in the jungle. Female species just rule. I’ve had a really contentious relationship with my sons’ father. He used to affectionately call me the ‘wounded lioness.’ I was offended. But then I saw one of those nature shows. A lion was walking around with this atrocious, unbelievable wound in her stomach and she was still protecting her kids, doing her thing, with her guts hanging out.

Rumpus: Do you believe in the bad seed theory?

Stringer: I do think it’s a bad seed, a spirit of lawlessness. Some people are born evil. That’s me and you, Cullen [joking]. I tend to believe it’s true. Having two kids and them being night and day.

Rumpus: Something wrong with us, huh? Is there any hope?

Stringer: My sons’ father did ten years; now he’s doing another eight. What do you think those people who are repeat offenders tell themselves? I think my sons’ father told himself he would be smarter. I started Triple Crown Publishing when I got out and he went back to the street and started hustling. He caught a case and then tried to mess with the witness. If you were so desperate that you would do that, then what made you go back to that lifestyle? Let me ask you, do you miss being in prison?

Rumpus: It was tough going through it, the hardest thing I’ve done, I’d say. But I’m glad I had that experience. There are things I do miss about it. [I realize that this utterly contradicts what I said above, about prison being a miserable existence, which is as true as this here. Such is life, isn’t it? That which is, akin to that which isn’t.]

Stringer: I was the happiest in my whole entire life in prison. I was at peace. Didn’t have money. I was in excellent shape health-wise, had a healthy detachment from things. And it was gratitude. I found a way to be thankful. It had a resonating humility on my soul. God, I surrender my will. I think prison is a great way to cause detachment. I began to flow like water through not having control. Now out here, all this bullshit.

Rumpus: Amen to that. Those are the main things I took away from it, the simple life, and being grateful.

Stringer: I read this book Twenty-Eight Days of Gratitude. You’ve got eight hours of sleep basically, so can you even go sixteen hours in a day being thankful? You know what, Cullen, we can’t. I was riding through my neighborhood and someone was painting his house and I said, “Man, that’s an ugly color.” I didn’t want a house looking like that near me. Then it makes you realize how ridiculous our thinking is. You’ve gotta retrain your mind to focus on the positive. Prison was quiet; I could focus in on that. That’s why great things are birthed out of solitude.

Rumpus: No doubt.

Stringer: We gotta go to Walmart, Cullen, get us some grey sweatshirts and grey sweatpants [common prison wear] and just hang out.

***

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Cullen Thomas is the author of Brother One Cell, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book and one of World Hum's Best Travel Books of the Year. His writing has appeared in GQ, the New York Times Magazine, the Daily Beast, and Foreign Policy. He teaches The Dark Side: Crime and Punishment in Literature at New York University. More from this author →