A conversation with authors Piper Kerman, Jessica Queller, and Ta-Nehisi CoatesMarch 1, 2008
1. The three of you are memoirists whose books will be published by Spiegel & Grau. When did it occur to you that your life experiences would make an interesting, worthy book? Was there a signal moment when you realized you had a story to tell?
Piper Kerman: Well, it might have been the moment when my fiancé turned to me in the prison waiting room, where he had escorted me to begin serving my fifteen-month sentence, and said, “Well, I bet you’re the first Seven Sisters graduate to eat a foie gras sandwich washed down with Coca-Cola for your last meal as a free woman.”
In fact, when I learned that I would serve prison time for a drug offense committed many years in the past, I became an immediate oddity among my friends and family. I suddenly became a person who would experience something almost unimaginable in their world, like going to the moon. Yet I quickly learned just how much prison is a part of American life—we lock up more of our people than any other country in the world, with deeply questionable results.
So while guilt and innocence and personal responsibility and forgiveness play a part in everyone’s life, imprisonment is only typical for “certain people,” and that I was one of them was astonishing to all. The people I met in prison were so different from what popular culture and the media depict, and my story is about reconciling these disconnects—between the person I am and the prisoner I became, and between the system of justice Americans want, need, and deserve, and the one we currently have.
Jessica Queller: I wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times about being a single woman grappling with the information that I had inherited the breast cancer gene from my mother. The response to the article was overwhelming, and the piece sparked passionate debate. In the article I posed the age-old question: Is knowledge power or is ignorance bliss? By choosing to seek my genetic information I took the stand that knowledge was power, whereas my sister chose not to take the gene test and be free of the burden of such knowledge. It seemed everyone who read the article took this dilemma personally—they imagined themselves in the situation—and each person fell vehemently into one camp or the other. It became apparent that this was a modern, ethical dilemma that had touched a collective nerve. The week after the article came out I realized the subject was worthy of a book.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Hmmm, only after I got my contract. Of course, I wasn’t originally at S&G. Back when I was at Crown, the book was supposed to focus on my father’s life, using my life only as commentary. But my father—and my editor, Chris Jackson—felt that the writing was a lot stronger when I was closely connected to the story. Once it became clear that it was smarter to focus on my time, I tried to give the story a definite beginning, middle, and end. Originally, this thing was going to span from my father’s time right up to the present--roughly sixty years. That would have been a mess. Once it occurred to me to tell a singular coming-of-age story with my father and my older brother as central characters, everything became easier. So yeah, it took some time for me to get focused and clear.
2. Ta-Nehisi, you’re a journalist. Jessica, you are a TV writer. Piper, you’ve been involved in corporate and public-interest communications. What kind of adjustments did you have to make to write in the first person and about an intimate, personal subject?
PK: When I first began writing I found that I was very good at describing what I saw, and what happened, in vivid detail. Yet I struggled to express how I was affected by what I witnessed and what I did. It took an enormous amount of work to reorient my writing from reporting on what took place to trying to make it possible for the reader to know “what it feels like to be me.”
JQ: Writing a book was an enormous adjustment for me. TV writing has trained me to work on deadline—I’m used to writing around the clock for five or six days in order to produce a sixty-page script. I only gave myself six months off from TV commitments to complete a draft of the memoir. I found myself cramming like I usually do—except this time it was not a sprint, it was a marathon. There were months in which I thought I would never possibly make it to the end. Also, writing about my mother’s illness and death was so emotionally draining—I wept while writing for weeks. I’d certainly never had that experience while writing for Felicity or The Gilmore Girls!
TC: I didn’t come to journalism in the usual way. When I was fourteen or fifteen, my Dad gave me a copy of Greg Tate’s Flyboy in the Buttermilk. I didn’t know what the hell Greg was talking about—but on some visceral level I knew the book was ambitious and beautiful. A few years later, when I was around twenty two, I started my career at Washington City Paper, under the ambitious eye of David Carr. In those days, and even today, City Paper was much more interested in a mix of literary nonfiction and investigative reportage than most papers. The ideal writer there had to be bold and tenacious in his/her reporting, and equally bold and adventurous in his/her writing. We used to have whole sessions in which Carr would import writers from other alternative papers or magazines to critique our work. Also, he’d clip stuff from Esquire, GQ, and Vanity Fair and make us read it. Half the time the stories were told in such a weird way that I had no idea what the hell I was looking at. This was in the last days of really great literary magazine writing—like the mid to late nineties. The approach was very novelistic, but at the same time there was a strong stigma attached to any sort of inaccuracy. We didn’t have people there cooking shit.
That approach informed everything I did after that. I was—and am—always looking for a way to tell a story that is unique to that particular story, because I believe every story is different and deserving of that respect. I usually fail in my attempts, but I think the intent, the desire to say something original, is important, and it certainly informed the style of this memoir. I spent a good three months searching for the voice of the book. In fact, if anyone wants a good laugh they should see the “sample chapter” I used for my proposal and compare it with the voice I ultimately found.
3. What are your thoughts about publication—the moment your story goes out into the world, into the public domain, to be read by (we hope!) the masses? It must be strange to anticipate reviewers responding critically to your life story. Do you look forward to it, or is the excitement also accompanied by some anxiety?
PK: I am terrified, and hopeful. I broke the law and committed a serious crime, and I know that I will be reproached for this, and for having the nerve to open my mouth about the nature of the “corrections” meted out by our government. Some people will question whether I can be trusted. Many may feel that the shame of imprisonment should keep me silent. It is hard to put myself out there.
It would be disingenuous to say I don’t care what people think of me. I am writing on some controversial and emotional topics within the framework of prison: transgression, guilt, revenge, redemption, forgiveness, justice, race, and class. So I expect to take some hard knocks on a number of fronts.
But I am very hopeful that I can tell an engrossing and yes, entertaining story that will reveal something new and truthful about who is in prison and why they are there. My hope for the book is that it helps spur a more honest and productive public debate about the role of prisons in America. And I feel very lucky to have the chance to tell my own personal story.
JQ: I cannot imagine what it will be like once the book is actually in bookstores and being read by the public. Already I’ve had the surreal experience of talking to a stranger who had read the galleys and having her say, “How’s Danielle?” (my sister). And, “How’s Bruce?” (my brother-in-law). “What a great guy!” In the same conversation, I mentioned that I’d been staying in an apartment on 57th Street, and the woman said, “Your grandmother Harriette’s apartment?” (Indeed it was.) Later, I referred to having been an actress when I was young and she said, “Yes, I know . . .” It’s eerie to meet someone who knows intimate details of your life and has read your most personal, interior monologues and yet knows nothing about them. I’m a bit anxious about how this will feel on a large scale!
TC: Good Lord, I can’t wait. I am obsessed with the whole thing. It ain’t pretty. But I feel like much of my life has really led up to this. This all started when I was around twelve, fell in love with Rakim, and decided I wanted to be an MC Then I fell in love with djembe and wanted to be a drummer. Then I fell for Larry Neal and Carolyn Forché and wanted to be a poet. Through it all I desperately wanted to tell the story of my generation. That sounds pretentious, but it’s what I wanted. Stylistically, I sought to bring all my past disciplines to bear on this project. I wanted to try to echo the detail and the lovely word economy of, say, vintage Nas. I wanted the random, beautiful chaos of a djembe solo. And I wanted to emulate the surreal imagery of Yusef Komunyakaa. I don’t know how close I came to any of that. And if I completely and utterly failed, it’s OK. But I really, really enjoyed trying to get it done.