Among Murderers, literary journalism

NYFA talks to yours truly…

NYFA’s Lara Hidalgo interviewed me about my new book Among Murderers: Life After Prison, about unforeseen, writerly challenges, journalistic integrity, cats, bunnies and make-up! The interview is part of the organization’s series Meet A NYFA Artist:

First of all, congratulations on your forthcoming book Among Murderers: Life After Prison. Will you introduce the book and explain what inspired it?

Thank you! I think at the heart of this book is my interest in the human struggle. Questions like, ‘How do people overcome obstacles?’ and ‘How do you start over from nothing?’ have always been tremendously important to me. When I moved to New York I had no friends and no job. New York is a very competitive city where you are defined by what you do for work, so I became interested in New Yorkers who didn’t work. I talked to trophy wives, retirees, mentally ill people and people who had lost their jobs. I started visiting so-called “job readiness classes” run by reentry organizations and talked to the student ex-cons and to the teachers (often ex-cons themselves). Through these classes and the organizations that offered them I saw that there was so much missing from people’s lives, so much at stake and so many obstacles that needed to be addressed. I felt like someone had to talk to these people and tell their stories. I wanted to show how people got to this point in their lives.

How did you choose the book’s three protagonists?

I interviewed a lot of ex-cons at various organizations until I found my book’s main characters. While reporting on a reentry event in Albany I met Angel. I sat next to him on the bus back to New York City. Angel had spent almost 30 years in prison for a horrible crime he committed as an 18-year-old. He was funny and charming, but I also noticed that he had an edge, a tension in him. He seemed like the perfect subject.

At the halfway house Angel became friends with Bruce and Adam. There was this sense that they could relate to each other not only because all three of them were men of color, had grown up in New York and had spent several decades locked up. They also related to each other because they had taken another human being’s life.

I noticed that the men dealt with their experiences in entirely different ways. They each had their own idiosyncratic approaches to life. I hope that the readers of my book will really “get to know” Bruce, Adam and Angel. Only if we understand that we are dealing with real people—not statistics, “clients” or “survey participants”—will we be able to address America’s reentry crisis.

Will you share with us an especially memorable experience you had with Angel, Bruce or Adam in the course of working on this book?

There are many, but I often think of our trip to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. One of the many parole stipulations forbade the men to leave the five boroughs, so we were coming up with stuff we could do in New York. Adam said that he had read about Williamsburg while incarcerated, something about how Williamsburg is the new East Village. In prison he had this scrapbook into which he would paste articles about places he wanted to visit. I lived in Williamsburg when I first moved to New York, so one weekend afternoon I met with the three men at the subway to give them a little tour. We went to a bagel café and to the waterfront, looked at graffiti and walked south to Williamsburg’s Hasidic neighborhood. The trip helped me understand how hard it is to relate to the outside—“to master your freedom”—after 20 or 30 years behind bars, and how difficult it is for former prisoners to make independent decisions. I also felt how difficult it is for us and for them to accept people who are different. Adam always talked about his “prison armor” and how he couldn’t find the zipper to remove it. I felt that society had its very own “armor,” which it is incapable of taking off..

What unforeseen challenges, if any, occurred in writing this book, and how did you deal with them?

Narrative nonfiction books have very specific challenges. You have to adapt to people’s ways, and your subjects have to adapt to you. The goal is always to make a meaningful connection with the other person. But each situation is different, so flexibility is very important, and so is a certain “social fearlessness.”

I always felt that—despite the difficulties of being a female writer doing narrative nonfiction about the downtrodden at a time where publishing houses are struggling for their existence—there are plenty of rewards. You are getting into another person’s mind and into his life! That’s a huge privilege. And it’s a learning experience, an adventure. Sitting in front of the computer or on the couch, writing, thinking, reading, and wearing your old gym pants is a tremendous privilege. If you have a cat and a rabbit next to you, as I do, it’s an even bigger privilege. Of course, eventually you have to get up and make some money because the animals are not pulling their weight. Continue reading

Among Murderers, literary journalism

Good Prose

‎In the last few days I have begun to send copies of my book to some of my subjects. Naturally, I wonder what they think about the book. Will they recognize themselves? Will they like or dislike “their characters” and my treatment of the subject matter? These questions made me revisit some of the (accidental) qualities of the relationships between a writer and her subjects.

I was exuberant when I stumbled across Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, about the literary friendship between author Tracy Kidder and his editor at The Atlantic, Richard Todd. The whole book reads like an important manifesto: WE THE NONFICTION WRITERS BELIEVE! Kidder and Todd’s observations resonated deeply.

Below are some of the remarkable quotes about writers and their subjects.

“To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them—by imagining for the reader an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself.”

“For immediacy of effect, writers can’t compete with popular music or action movies, cable network news or the multiplying forms of instant messaging. We think that writers shouldn’t try, that there’s no need to try. Writing remains the best route we know toward clarity of thought and feeling.”

“I sat gazing out the window, listening, I swear it, to the book I wanted to write.”

“Every story has to be discovered twice, first in the world and then in the author’s study. (…) One discovers a story the second time by constructing it. In nonfiction the materials are factual, but the construction itself is something different from fact.”

“At the extreme, of course, the author’s gradual understanding of the subject becomes the heart of the narrative.”

“We want to understand characters in a story better than we understand ourselves.” Continue reading

Among Murderers, literary journalism, rehabilitation

The first chapter of Among Murderers is up online!

The first chapter of Among Murderers is up online!

My publisher University of California Press has posted the first chapter of my forthcoming book Among Murderers: Life After Prison online. Click here and go to “Read Chapter 1” (link on the upper right corner).

Among Murderers, literary journalism, rehabilitation

How my book Among Murderers came about

I was born and raised in Germany and immigrated to New York two months before 9/11. I was ready, but New York was not. I chose New York because it was known for its determination, industriousness, and speed, (and, of course, its neuroticism). I was practically raised by Woody Allen and share these qualities. But now that I had “come home,” New York lay in ashes. Unlike most New Yorkers, I had a hard time dusting myself off and picking myself back up. For a long time I remained paralyzed. I half-heartedly applied for jobs I didn’t want, and because I couldn’t find work I started to take pictures of people sleeping in public places. The city was a carousel that seemed to spin faster each day, and I envied those sleepers who had allowed themselves to check out. I wanted to sleep and never wake up.

When I finally did find work, it wasn’t what I had hoped for. For three years I taught poor inner city students to write and take photographs. Few of them appreciated my two-hour commute to New York’s and Newark’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods. The children had bigger problems. It seemed that the sense of social defeat passed on to them by previous generations was so intense that it was impossible to shed within a single lifetime. More often than not my students were raised by their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, or in foster families; their fathers were mostly absent, many of them in prison. The few hours I would see my students each week did not allow me to break through to them.

Having written for German newspapers in the past but lacking a solid knowledge of American journalism, I decided to go to school. Robert Boynton, the director of NYU’s magazine journalism program, had just come out with The New New Journalism. Boynton had interviewed 19 literary journalists about their craft, among them Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Susan Orlean, Alex Kotlowitz, and Jon Krakauer. These writers, along with their forebears Joseph Mitchell, George Orwell, Marvel Cooke, Susan Sheehan, and Truman Capote, became my heroes. Proposing to write about New York’s unemployed, I applied to Boynton’s honors class and was accepted.

In late 2005 I set out to learn what New Yorkers who don’t work do with their time. This marked the beginning of my descent into the Byzantine system of New York’s job readiness programs. Over the course of the next several years I talked to the clients and staff of organizations with Pollyanna-ish names like STRIVE (Support and Training Results in Valuable Employees), CEO (Center for Employment Opportunities), and the Fortune Society. Most clients of the Fortune Society, STRIVE, and CEO were people with extensive rap sheets—and most were out of luck. Few had ever learned to strive for anything, and it is safe to assume that neither will they ever become CEOs.

Continue reading