Conversations With Literary Ex-Cons: Piper Kerman


I took a tall seat at the Old Town Bar, next to the front doors, opened on that sunny fall day to the street. Old Town, been here forever almost, on New York City’s 18th Street, just above Union Square. It’s proud and lived in. You can feel it. No doubt many a lost soul or saved woman has sat here amidst the drink and the story-soaked wood.

In walked Piper Kerman to join me. She is the author of the 2010 memoir Orange is the New Black, a catchy title for her story of how, years after briefly running money for an international heroin gang, she was indicted, convicted, and served roughly a year in the federal women’s prison in Danbury, Connecticut.

Piper is certainly what I mean, when I speak of what is to be gleaned, from a man or woman who’s done time, and yet for that has prospered in the mind: The Literary Ex-Cons.

The investigation continues.


The Rumpus: I want to talk to you about the strange ways that crime and punishment stick around.

Piper Kerman: A few months before I went to prison, self-surrendered, a friend of a friend of a friend knew someone, a young woman about my age, who had served about a sixteen-month sentence in Illinois, and she agreed to talk to me on the phone. She talked to me for hours, gave me all kinds of advice. She’s an artist, and she was working on a graphic novel about prison, and she said something to me that struck me then and has stuck with me ever since. She said, “Not a single day goes by that I don’t think about prison in some way. In some small way, every single day, whether it’s a positive or negative thought.”

Rumpus: That makes sense to me. A lot of times for me it’s very positive. I recognize it as a nostalgia even, which is strange because it was the most challenging thing I’ve ever been through. Do you find that?

Kerman: Not sure I would use the word “nostalgia.” When you think about or talk about why stories of prison or prisoners are relevant to many people, people definitely talk about redemption. It’s an incredibly strong theme. I think that almost every prison story that I’ve ever heard or read is a survival story. Especially when I talk to people who had much worse prison experiences that I did. I mean, I was not raped, physically abused, or locked up for years. Other people experience far worse things than I did, but even for folks who are talking about brutalizing experiences there is a survival story aspect to it, which is relevant and resonant to other people, but also is incredibly important to the person who did the surviving.

Rumpus: I like that, because that comes before redemption. Gotta survive first to have any shot at the redemption. In class we come back to this a lot. We look for these large dramatic arcs, because if you have it in your story might as well highlight it, put it into relief, that archetypal journey. But a lot of times it’s just a very humble resolution, just surviving.

Do you get this? I always have people recommend prison books to me. In a welcome way, it’s almost like they trump you: “Oh, yours is interesting, but, wow, man, this one will really blow your socks off.” I saw this happening in responses to your book, even when they were very positive. Do you find that?

Kerman: Definitely. Particularly in the long-form, there’s less writing by women about the prison experience. There are a lot of remarkable short-form anthologies but not that many full-length memoirs.

Rumpus: About women in prison?

Kerman: Writing by women in prison, or who’ve been there. There’s a really important distinction between writing about prisoners and writing by prisoners.

Rumpus: I have very slim experience of prison here in the United States.

Kerman: Lucky you.

Rumpus: Yeah. Thank god.

Kerman: It’s so not necessary.

Rumpus: One part of my story that people often seem to respond to was that after a certain amount of my sentence, there was a possibility I could have lobbied for and perhaps won, with the help of the U.S. Embassy, a return to serve out the rest of my time in the United States. And I thought, Hell no. Absolutely not. I know this language now.

Kerman: I figured it out. I figured out how to do time here, even at incredible odds, with an incredible learning curve. It seems to be a universal experience among many prisoners I know, if not all, or former prisoners I know, that there is this incredible learning curve, but then you figure out how to do your time and then anything that threatens the way you’ve figured that out is catastrophic.

Rumpus: Very interesting. Makes me think of how regularity and habit calm the human soul. I keep getting into all these contradictions. Like that: you’re treated like an animal, you’re warehoused, but at the same time, what we’ve just stumbled on here, there is a comfort in the evils you do know.

Kerman: That’s the negative dividend. Can you have a negative dividend? Maybe not.

Rumpus: Literary math. You’re allowed to do that.

Kerman: That’s the tragedy for folks doing serious, serious time. Many of them get to the point where their comfort zone is now in prison and it’s difficult to come home. I found it difficult to come back home even after my short little bid.

Rumpus: Concerning nostalgia and contradictions: reading a response to your book, I saw that someone had mentioned this dissident Russian poet, Irina Ratushinskaya, who’d been imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp back in the ’80s. I read an interview years after her release where she talked about, in the same breath, it seemed, how horrible and difficult it was and at the same time how she wished she’d kept her zek uniform, how there’d be so much treasure in that somehow.

Kerman: For me and many people who’ve written about being a prisoner, as you’ve said, it’s a crucible. The journey of the sentence, everything around it, transforms them in some way. After, you’re left with the memories and other vestiges. I think going to war is probably that same type of crucible experience. Soldiers who survive combat wear medals, they have signifiers that are memorializing the experience.

Rumpus: Honoring it.

Kerman: Honoring it, exactly. There’s nothing honorable about committing a crime and going to prison, but it’s still a crucible experience.

Rumpus: A book maybe can be our…

Kerman: Well, the act of documenting your story and telling your story the way you want to tell it is really important, especially for folks who are outcasts and have been shamed.

Rumpus: Did you have a sense of the underdog before prison?

Kerman: How could I? I mean, look at me. I’m a blonde, blue-eyed, middle-class, educated…I’ve had a lot of chips in my favor, so it’d be ludicrous to think of myself as an underdog in the world.

Rumpus: Not you yourself, but in the larger sense. There are many people who have a lot of privilege who are benefactors and philanthropists and have a beautiful sense of it. I was talking the other day about those lines I love from Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “If.” Don’t know if you’re familiar with it. Kind of masculine and patriarchal, as Kipling gets accused of being, but there’s some beautiful stuff. “If you can walk with kings nor lose the common touch.” Certain people have it, that ability to empathize and connect.

Kerman: A sense of the humanity of other people?

Rumpus: Right. To what extent did prison instill more of that in you?

Kerman: It instilled more of that by an exponential factor. I think one of the reasons that I was able to navigate my sentence relatively unscathed was by observing pretty early on that there were certain types of prisoners who were in incredible conflict all the time. Middle-class women who got to prison and said, “Oh my god, this isn’t me. I don’t belong here. I’m not like those people.” Often they sort of empathized with or gravitated toward the staff, the prison guards, as though they had more in common with the guards than with the other prisoners, which I thought was ludicrous. I saw how unhappy those women were. Another category of prisoner I saw being in serious conflict a lot were really young women, teenage women, eighteen, nineteen years old, who came in, just so angry, and they might have a lot of conflict with prison staff; they might have a lot of conflict with other prisoners, and it took those young women a long time to accept the situation. Of course I paid significant attention to that first group. It was obvious how miserable they were. That attitude, “I’m not like you people.” I thought it was ludicrous, thinking, Of course you’re like them, look where you are.

Rumpus: To extrapolate out from that, that’s what society as whole makes the mistake of doing with convicts, isn’t it, saying, “We’re not like them.” Not recognizing their own dark side. About what you were just saying, those younger women, did they predominate, population-wise?

Kerman: There were certainly plenty of them, but there were plenty of old ladies, too. One of the fascinating things about prison is that you’re living in close, tight quarters with teenagers and seventy-year-olds and women of every color, every religion. The sad truth is that there are very few contexts in most American lives where you live cheek by jowl with people who are dramatically different than you, whether it be by age, by race, or economic group. But of course overwhelmingly, most people in American prisons are poor people.

Rumpus: It’s a curious thing for us. I say us, meaning white, middle-class, suburban, northeastern, educated—we weren’t the typical inmates. Do you find that a real bugbear, that it’s impossible to transcend?

Kerman: I think that if you set out to write a story about the biggest mistakes you’ve ever made, the worst things you’ve ever done as a person, you have a responsibility to be honest. But also the inherent challenge of writing is you have to have a protagonist that the reader wants to stay with. So that’s the challenge as a writer. In the U.S., which is the biggest prison system in the entire world by far, the vast majority of the people who are incarcerated are not people exactly like me but are people of color, poor people from poor neighborhoods who are beset by problems I’ve never faced. So one of the things I know people say about my book is, “Why should we listen to this story as opposed to a story that’s more reflective of a typical prisoner?” And my answer is, of course those prison stories should be told and should be championed and paid attention to. One of the things that’s unfortunate is that outlier stories are more interesting to the press and sometimes more interesting to readers. And that’s a really tough thing to contend with if you’re trying to depict not only your own narrative but also a narrative that’s relevant to a much bigger experience.

Rumpus: Your story is an outlier.

Kerman: That’s how it’s often read by people. They often read the book and they come to readings or engage with me in some way, and they seem to come away with the impression that I was the only middle-class white woman in that prison, which is far from true.  In minimum-security prisons, there’s always a good handful of middle-class white women.

Rumpus: How do minorities—those not of your broad brushstroke demographic, ilk—how do they respond to your story? Do you ever get provocative comments?

Kerman: I have not received a lot of direct communication that was negative about my book: I didn’t like your book and here’s why. I think most folks that are deeply concerned about the criminal justice system in this country are excited for anything that brings attention to a group of people who are often portrayed in the mass media in ways that are very narrow and not really reflective. When you have the biggest prison population in the world, you’re going to have a lot of diversity, diversity of everything. Broadly, in terms of folks who are deeply concerned about what has happened in the criminal justice system in the last thirty years, they’re psyched for anything that brings more attention to it.

Rumpus: Do you do a lot of work in this area?

Kerman: Yeah, I’ve been fortunate. I was working in public communications already, and since the book came out I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to work on indigent defense reform, juvenile life without parole, other types of criminal justice reform.

Rumpus: The Supreme Court ruled in a good direction on that, juvenile sentencing.

Kerman: They did. They’re starting to trend us back toward where most of the rest of the world is.

Rumpus: Bernie Kerik, the former New York City police and corrections commissioner—now federal inmate—quoted something to me. I did an exclusive interview with him for The Observer. Went and visited him down in the federal camp in Cumberland, Maryland, and he quoted a great line from Justice Kennedy, from a speech Kennedy gave to the National Bar Association: “We should know what happens to the prisoner when he is taken away.” The physicality of that moment. So often that’s where the cameras turn away, that’s where the story stops.

Kerman: That’s right.

Rumpus: Do you speak at conferences or write op-eds?

Kerman: I work directly with organizations to help them communicate more effectively. It’s really not about me or my story.

Rumpus: And these are criminal justice, sentencing-reform organizations?

Kerman: Yeah, public defense reform. When you look at the subterranean, hidden things that would make a really big difference, whether you talk about recidivism… There are specific things that would make a really big difference. Everyone can wrap their heads around the fact that if kids who are getting in trouble are able to change their lives that would be good for everyone. Something like public defense. If people who are accused of crimes in fact received the same quality of defense that I paid for, fewer people would be going to prison and for shorter periods of time.

Rumpus: It can feel overwhelming. It’s such a sprawling, massive chaos of a problem. It can easily lead people to say…

Kerman: That it’s unsolvable.

Rumpus: Yeah. I was driving myself crazy while I was in there, doing that same old dance of trying to figure out why human beings treat each other this way. I went through that, and the shortsighted foolishness of it. I ended up, in part for my own sanity, saying, “I’m not going to solve this. I wouldn’t want their job, figuring out how to deal with people like this: the very violent, the sociopathic. Who has the time for it? Who has the energy? What can I do?” But I like what you’re saying; there are small specific things that can be done. I admire what you’re doing. For me the idea of giving back keeps tugging at my sleeve.

Kerman: You’re after some redemption, huh?

Rumpus: Yeah, not because I believe in a heaven and hell, but to honor the experience, to use it somehow for a greater good, if possible. Is it personally satisfying to give back to that world?

Kerman: Of course. One thing I think about every day in relation to that experience is equity, the lack of equity.

Rumpus: Thinking of Kerik again. You know he’s a conservative culture warrior, but I found common ground with him. He wants to write books about this; he’s gonna come out very soon and be a force for this, and work toward it—sentencing reform, reform of the system. In fact, there’s this phrase, jailbreak conservatives. Have you ever heard that?[1]

Kerman: No, that’s a great term. It’s like the Right on Crime people.

Rumpus: Right on Crime?

Kerman: It’s the name of an organization, a nonprofit basically advocating for conservative arguments for reform. The real politics side is you don’t get criminal justice reform without conservative action. I’m serious. It’s literally a nonstarter. It doesn’t move forward otherwise.

Rumpus: Stories like Kerik’s, in particular, have resonance, I think. This guy who was a cop and head of the NYC police, prison commissioner before that. He used to arrest people, lock them up, and now he’s in federal prison saying, “This is a waste, on many levels.” It’s not about being weak or soft, all those same arguments against reform. The other one that’s been flooring me lately because of the election and the wild national conversation that’s so valuable, however ridiculous at times and even if it only happens once every four years: how people can be so pro-life and anti-abortion and yet steadfastly love the death penalty? That there’s no cognitive dissonance for them in that.

Kerman: Cognitive dissonance is a really important term in all of these matters. It’s one of the biggest obstacles and challenges around the idea of punishment. The idea that harsh punishment doesn’t necessarily yield the results that you want. There’s an emotional drive behind that desire to punish, which predominates any intellectual response.

People make their decisions emotionally and back them up with reasons. The cognitive dissonance that the harshest punishments don’t give us the results that we want and we have to think about that. On a gut level it creates that dissonance. That’s a real challenge to reform.

Rumpus: You’re trying to reason someone out of an emotion. It’s very hard to do that.

Kerman: The emotional desire to hold people accountable when they’re transgressive is something, I think, that we can all understand.

Rumpus: But the way in which it’s done makes all the difference. Do you see any positive movement in this fight?

Kerman: Yes, definitely. The trend is positive. It’s driven really very much by economics right now. In other words, state governments particularly just can’t afford the prison systems that they’ve built.

Rumpus: The privatization of state systems is a bad direction, though.

Kerman: It’s treacherous. Private prisons are like a cancer on democracy.

Rumpus: That’s like a Margaret Atwood story. You could get some crazy shit…  It’s fascinating from a literary standpoint, where you have all the power in this closed world; you call all the shots; there’s no oversight, no balance of powers.

Kerman: There are state governments that are making commitments to private corporations that they will keep their prison beds filled. It’s very scary.

Rumpus: What’s said publicly even about the reasoning behind it is so grossly crude.

Kerman: It’s disgusting. What’s fascinating is that there are companies that have been upfront in a lot of ways about how they’re going to make their bottom line and it’s essentially about monetizing poor people, turning poor people bodily into property. Right now state governments can’t afford the prison systems that they’ve built and everybody knows it.

Rumpus: So for reformers it affords an opportunity to jump in there right now.

Kerman: Right now.

Rumpus: Pocketbook solutions.

Kerman: Pocketbook solutions have driven all of the reforms. There’s actually been a lot of reform in the last couple of years. Six or seven states have passed, not comprehensive reform, but a beginning, including things like sentencing reform, which is always the hardest nut to crack politically. Sooner or later the economy will improve and some of those incentives will lessen. When governments can better afford to incarcerate people there’ll be less incentive for them to stop doing it.

Rumpus: Who do you see as most effective in the world of NGO’s and nonprofits in this field?

Kerman: Like you said, it’s incredible overwhelming. You could talk about reforming policing, so that policing is more equitable, and there are great organizations working on that, including right here in New York City. You can talk about the courts, one of the more subterranean and ignored areas for reform. You can also talk about public defense reform, providing robust and competent defense. The conditions of confinement are actually one of the toughest things to change. Rehabilitation is something that a lot of prison systems explicitly gave up on a long time ago and they just warehouse. The key is minimizing the number of people who get sentenced in the first place.

Rumpus: Are there still things that affect your life because you did federal time? Are you allowed to vote?

Kerman: I am allowed to vote in New York. Every state has different rules. If I lived in Florida and Virginia, which are big swing states of course, I wouldn’t be allowed to vote there. If you have a felony conviction, it’s a state-by-state decision. And it’s no coincidence that states with high African-American populations are more likely to have felony convictions that bar you from voting.

Rumpus: The new Jim Crow.

Kerman: Yup.

Rumpus: And like you said, they’re not even surreptitious about it. It’s blatant. That is fucked up. Who was instrumental in the victory of the Supreme Court decision, to the degree that outside influence is possible, about juvenile life sentences?

Kerman: Graham and Miller [the Supreme Court decisions in Graham v. Florida, 2010, and Miller v. Alabama, 2012]. There’s the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, which is a national campaign, and they are very effective.

Rumpus: They did some heavy lifting?

Kerman: They did the heavy lifting, not all the lifting. I mean, it’s a combination. You have to have litigation strategy, the folks who bring the suits. How do you actually get to the Supreme Court, affect national policy? But the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth is the linchpin with all the folks out of the states. They bring together the juveniles who’ve been charged, heavily. They bring together families of those kids. They also bring together the victims of the crimes with the families.

Rumpus: That holistic approach is excellent: instead of cutting all of those cords and leaving that wrongdoer out there to just waste away in some time capsule spinning out in space. Keep it all connected. Make them face the victims. Some of the worst punishment I saw was the torture in people’s own minds, the guilt and the knowledge of what they’d done, the wreckage that they’d created. You couldn’t compare any other punishment with that one, and that one’s not very expensive!

Kerman: One of the common things that victims of crime or the families of victims of crime say about the current justice system is that it ironically shuts them out, an adversarial system of justice. Once the wrongdoer is charged, the voice of the victim or the victim’s family is removed. There’s not a lot the system does to make them whole. A sentence that gets you shipped away upstate doesn’t cause you to confront the deed. Maybe some prisoners do the personal work, but there’s nothing actually inherent in confinement, being locked in a cage, that causes you to really think about what you did. Either people do the work themselves or they don’t, and the prisoners, they see that in each other.

Rumpus: It’s an accident. No credit to the system. But interestingly, a common denominator I’m finding, that’s emerging from these interviews with literary ex-cons, is that for all of us, despite the system, it seems to have worked.

Kerman: Depends on what you mean by working. Brings me back to the question of what society expects from prison.

Rumpus: That somehow it was positive, productive, benevolent, leads to insight, leads to personal growth. Does it mostly have to do with books, education, reading, introspection? What would you say to that?

Kerman: Perhaps the people who really want to examine the experience are inclined to look for the positive. I would push back on the idea that incarceration quote-unquote works.

Rumpus: What particular books did you read in prison that really affected you?

Kerman: A book by Steven Johnson called Mind Wide Open. It’s about how the brain works. He starts by writing about September 11th, the fight or flight impulse. It really resonated with me while I was in prison. There were so many new signals that were coming in to me. Stakes were high. I didn’t read a lot of prison literature. One that I did read while there was The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell by Joe Loya. While I was incarcerated, I suddenly began to receive letters from this guy I didn’t know. Joe Loya. He was the friend of a friend. Joe was a bank robber. He did about seven years of fed time, several California state sentences, a big chunk of his adult life. And he wrote this incredible book about his experiences and his transformation. He was also one of four men who were studied in this incredible documentary called Protagonist, which every writer should see. Joe started writing me these letters, saying, “You and I probably don’t have a lot in common. I’m a Latino man from California. I did a lot of hard time and there are some things I want to share with you.” He let me know that I was going to make it through, that I was going to be a stronger, better person at the end.

Rumpus: He was one of your angels.

Kerman: He was totally one of my angels. You have to be very careful about what you say and who you confide in in prison. There are certain things you have to handle yourself. There were times, as I detail in my book, where I didn’t feel like I could even reach out to my family. Joe was one person on the outside who would understand what I was going through. You gotta talk with him.

Rumpus: As you’ve said, the female prison world is an understudied area, or at least it doesn’t get the attention that the male prison world does, outside of B and C exploitation films and male fantasy. I’d gathered from things I’ve read from you that there’s less violence among women prisoners than men.

Kerman: Certainly in a women’s minimum-security federal prison there are few or no violent offenders. Most are low-level drug offenses, insurance fraud, bank fraud, stock fraud. I myself never witnessed a crime of violence. I was doing work with this organization here in New York called the Women’s Prison Association, which has been around since the 1840s. We do all kinds of work with women who are returning home, women who’ve been incarcerated and want to become advocates around these issues. They learn about lobbying, the legislative process, how to tell their stories effectively. It’s a widely held fact that females are less likely to be incarcerated for crimes of violence in the first place or to use violence to get what they want in prison.

Rumpus: That’s basically true in the world-at-large, isn’t it? One thing I noticed, not just for me but for the overwhelming majority of the guys I was in with, the people maintaining contact with us were women. It was the women who maintained contact and who showed me their compassion and their kindness and their connection. Overwhelmingly women, and I saw the same for the Korean men around me. Is there something there?

Kerman: There’s totally something there. And I think that’s one of the tragic things for women who are locked up: there aren’t the same lifelines to the outside world. First of all, for a lot of women who get locked up, their husbands and boyfriends are locked up, too. More importantly, the vast majority of women prisoners are moms, and many of them are mothers of young children. I did not have a baby when I was locked up. I have had a child since I’ve been home. I think if you’re going to take a parent away from a small child, it should be for a freaking heinous crime, because the effect on that kid is devastating. It’s not that men don’t love their children, but the mother has a primary responsibility for caring for the child. A lot of people say, “Well, the kid is better off without them,” and I don’t think that’s necessarily true, unless the parent is abusing the child. That maternal relationship is this heavy factor for the vast majority of women prisoners, the impact that their sentence has on their children.

As much as you think about guilt or shame around if your crime has a victim, there are all these additional people, innocent people, who are hurt by your sentence. That’s very heavy. Something about women’s reproduction and sex; they’re powerful themes. The vast majority of prison guards are men. There’s this very weird power dynamic. The majority of the authority figures that have near-total control over your life are men and there are all these women coming from tough circumstances. It’s just a fascinating and really bizarre thing.

Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about sex in prison. I felt like if I didn’t talk about sex in my book it would be a huge omission. If I’m a reader, I’d be wondering what happened. How does that play out among women prisoners? Obviously we know in men’s prisons there’s a huge problem with rape. How does it play out with the women?

Kerman: Human beings are sexual beings. No one can survive the desert forever. I really hesitate to make generalizations, but I think relationships may be less coercive than they are in a men’s prison. I don’t know. One of the things I reflect on a lot is that I attended a women’s college. These two very different institutions that I’ve been housed in: one an elite all-women’s college, designed for a specific kind of person; the other a women’s prison, designed for a really specific kind of person. On some level the relationships didn’t seem any more shocking to me than what I witnessed at the women’s college. Why do women come together as a couple? What does than mean and how does that play out in a larger community? Perhaps in a women’s prison, the general group is more accepting of those kinds of relationships. I really don’t know.

Rumpus: So there were plenty of romantic relationships, but there’s more of a mutual agreement, not so much based on a power dynamic?

Kerman: Sure, though it might be based on seduction. In every relationship there are some power dynamics.

Rumpus: You hear about male prisoners seducing female guards. Did you see any of that in reverse?

Kerman: The power dynamic is a big factor. You definitely saw some strange interactions that were complicated. But at the end of a day, a correction officer, you know, it’s against the law; it’s grounds for firing, though they almost never get fired.

Rumpus: I read on your website that women are the fastest growing subset in the burgeoning prison population.

Kerman: Women are between seven and ten percent of the population.

Rumpus: And only getting larger?

Kerman: Only getting larger and getting larger quickly. Still a small percentage but rapidly, rapidly growing. And generally prison systems don’t know how to deal with that. Prison systems are built for men. The health issues, societal issues, maternal issues—these are all different for women. Also, the vast majority of the women who get locked up have endured a history of sexual assault.

Rumpus: Does the experience of prison still haunt you in any way?

Kerman: Sure, of course. In choosing to write the book, you give the experience legs.

Rumpus: Right. Did you feel like you had to, that you had a responsibility to stay within this arena and fight for reform?

Kerman: Yes. A lot of folks come home from prison and must deal with really big survival issues. I’m much more fortunate that that. I have my education. I can help support my family in a way that many folks returning to the outside can’t. I’m not saying I speak for those people, but I have an opportunity to speak about this experience in a way that other folks don’t because they have to deal with their daily survival.

Rumpus: I think about that a lot—the privilege of reading, writing, the arts, indulging in creative pursuits.

Kerman: Absolutely.

Rumpus: The act of writing can obviously be such a powerfully positive element for inmates. Were there writing programs where you were? Are you involved in that at all?

Kerman: I have not been involved in that. There were none in Danbury.

Rumpus: Someone mentioned Wally Lamb to me.

Kerman: Yeah, he published two anthologies of writing by women prisoners. Two great anthologies. In York, a prison in upstate New York. Those are great books.

Rumpus: Because of the way writing makes you sit down and reason through what happened and take responsibility for each word, each thought, the value of that. In particular memoir, I think, because it asks for that introspection; it asks for self-accountability; it fails if you don’t hold your feet to the fire. Writing programs in prison could bear so much fruit. Were you writing while you served your sentence?

Kerman: I was not. I’ve never been a very active journaler. What I did write is copious amounts of letters. I got a lot of mail and I wrote a lot of mail. One of the valuable tools in the writing of my book is many of my friends had saved my letters and put them in chronological order.

Rumpus: I see a divide. Seems to me there are a lot of people who don’t read prison stories, that don’t go into this dark corner. Do you find that?

Kerman: Part of my hope in writing my book is that I might reach some people who might not be inclined to pick up such a story. The ultimate responsibility of the writer from my point of view is to connect with the reader. It’s not self-expression. I’m sure there are writers who would vehemently disagree with me.

Rumpus: What’s the series you mentioned that’s being made from your book?

Kerman: It’s being produced as a series by Netflix. It’s thirteen episodes and it’s in production now.

Rumpus: Telling the story that the book does?

Kerman: Yeah. I mean, it’s an adaptation. It’s fictionalized.

Rumpus: Have they thrown in other elements to raise the drama: rapes, escapes?

Kerman: No rapes as of yet. There may be some escapes. It’s an interesting thing to talk about in a minimum-security facility, where there are no walls essentially. You sort of think about that and talk about that when you’re there. How come this never happens?

Rumpus: Because it’s a mostly hidden world, a secret world, the prison story lends itself to fabrication. Do you know of Jimmy Lerner, the guy who wrote You’ve Got Nothing Coming?

Kerman: I read that before I went to prison. It was comforting in the way that all survival stories are comforting, telling the reader that you can overcome it. He lied in that?

Rumpus: He definitely fabricated parts of it, invented stuff about the real guy he killed. Even Papillon was probably invented, a collection of different parts, not just Charriere’s story.

Kerman: I’ve been surprised by how many people have said to me, like it’s just expected, “Well, of course you made some stuff up.” I was meticulous in my first draft. I can’t imagine creating composite characters. There were so many outsized personalities. I remember during the writing process being so scared and paranoid about being called to account.

Rumpus: To your credit. I stress that in my classes, being faithful to the form. It’s creative nonfiction; it’s not fake nonfiction. Are you writing about prison still, or other things?

Kerman: I have a baby and so the last year and half has been pretty packed.

Rumpus: I read that your husband Larry [Smith] does a Six-Word Memoir reading series. You know that great Hemingway one: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Do you have one for your story?

Kerman: I do. “In and out of hot water.”

Rumpus: You were too well-prepared for that. I’m completely unoriginal in that question. Do you have an alternate?

Kerman: I have one about Larry and me: “Found fellow cliff-diver, best risk ever.”


[1] Just days after I transcribed this, Kerik was all over the news, mostly being mocked and derided further for the sins of his past. Nowhere in any of the press on him did I see mention of his transformed views on the criminal justice system—views he shared with me and that I publicized in my article on him. Of course it’s easy to dismiss—a liberal is just a conservative who’s been indicted, and a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged. But it’s a mistake to ignore the chance for the man to reinvent himself as an unlikely voice joining the call for positive change.


Want more from Cullen Thomas? Visit the “Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons” archives here.

Cullen Thomas is the author of Brother One Cell, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book and recommended reading by Lonely Planet. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Foreign Policy, USA Today, and the Daily Beast. He teaches writing and literature at New York University. More from this author →