Rachel Kushner is the author of three novels, including The Flamethrowers—it was a bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Award. Her debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was reviewed on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, and her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and The Paris Review. Her new novel is The Mars Room. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: There are 219,000 women in prison in the United States; The Mars Room is a story about one of them. It’s 2003 and Romy Hall, 29 years old and white, is serving two life terms plus six years at Stanville Women’s Prison in California’s Central Valley. She killed the creep who was stalking her. She left behind a 7-year-old son, her mother is taking care of him now. People who know what prison is like on the inside say your account is utterly convincing. A friend wrote me that he had “found a story in The New Yorker by someone named Kushner who has a perfect ear for prison and the life around it.” How did you do this? How come you know so much about women’s prisons and women prisoners? .
Rachel Kushner: I think it’s a combination of factors. In this case, I committed myself to understanding the structural conditions of prison—not so much as a novelist, but as a person and citizen of California and someone who was interested in the way that the society is layered and structured. I wanted to know why some people end up inducted into the criminal-justice system, and others are not touched by it in any way. In fact, it sort of remains invisible to them.
JW: You’ve been inside Chowchilla, the world’s largest prison for women.
RK: I embarked on a project of getting to know people who were serving life sentences in the Central California Women’s Facility—CCWF. My prison in the book, “Stanville,” is a fictional place, but it shares certain characteristics with CCWF in Chowchilla. I went there regularly as a volunteer with a wonderful human-rights organization called Justice Now, and started getting to know people. I had also grown up with a couple of people who went to prison, so it wasn’t completely foreign territory for me.
And there was one last thing that was huge for me, but very different from working with Justice Now: I went on a tour with criminology students, a bus tour up and down the state of California to 12 men’s facilities and one women’s facility. We were there in a kind of unique situation: The students were being introduced to the world of working for the Department of Corrections, because many of them would go on to be hired by the state. I was there under cover, and we were spoken to as insiders by corrections officers—as if they were with their own kind and could, no pun intended, let their guard down and share openly their feelings about their jobs and about their charges. We were allowed to wander around on yards and go into people’s cells and talk to them, and that’s quite unusual. I was able to see for myself what prisons look like. I can’t claim to know what it feels like to be incarcerated, and I wouldn’t do that, but I was immersed and exposed.