Rachel Kushner is the author of three novels, including The Flamethrowers—it was a best seller 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.
JW: I don’t know much about prisoners convicted of violent crimes. I have the standard left-liberal view: Most of them never had a chance. They never had a decent childhood. They never had parents that took care of them. We hear a lot about wrongful convictions of people in prison for serious crimes, people who are actually innocent. We hear about how the cops lie, the DAs cover up for the cops, but your women are not innocent victims of police lies. I thought a lot of the women in prison were there not because they did horrible things, but because they had boyfriends who did; they drove the getaway car for the bad boyfriend–in fact, this comes up in the first chapter. They carried the drugs for the bad boyfriend. They hid the bad boyfriend’s gun. That’s not really true of the women in your book, especially Romy. Romy is not innocent..
RK: No, she isn’t. You do hear a lot about wrongful convictions and cops and DAs lying; I’m not saying those narratives aren’t true, but they aren’t all that common. I’m interested in thinking into the predicaments of the majority of people in prison, and the majority of people in prison actually did the thing of which they were convicted. In California, 90 percent of people filling the state prisons have been convicted of what the state considers “serious violent felonies.” In order to advocate for the actual people who have been thrown away by our society, I believe that one needs to advocate for the so-called guilty, and not for the very rare and actually quite small percentage of people who liberals could interpret as relatively innocent. Blaming the “bad” man who set up the otherwise innocent woman simply shifts state harm, shifts the practice of human caging, or the need for it, onto another person, another human being. I don’t really myself believe in punishment. Maybe because I don’t feel I’m in a position to judge other people who have not had the societal advantages that I have been given because I’m middle class.
JW: We care so much about Romy and what’s happening to her, and what happens to her is terrible. The most infuriating thing in the book is the response of the prison staff to Romy’s seeking help in finding out what’s happening to her son. They tell her, “Your situation is due 100% to the choices you made and the actions you took.” .
RK: But even as I wrote that, I wasn’t really interested in vilifying the correctional officer, because I’ve been around those people a lot. They are working-class people, usually from these rural communities in the Central Valley. The only education you need to be hired by the California Department of Corrections as a guard is a GED, an equivalency exam, and you can get paid an almost middle-class salary to work in that environment. But the cost for the person psychologically, I believe, is enormous. Those are really stressful jobs. They have a very high rate of depression and suicide. I can see, or at least I believe I can see, a kind of brittle carapace the guard takes on in order to justify what they have to assist in enforcing. They tell themselves that it’s okay that these women have been separated from their children.
There’s a scene in the book where the character Gordon Houser asks a guard if it’s hard to watch the women and children saying goodbye to each other, for those who are lucky enough to get family visiting. That was a question that I asked a guard in the women’s facility, and she said, “You grow a thick skin, and they are in that situation because they deserve it, because these are choices they made.” I knew that she didn’t really believe that. She’s standing there on the sidewalk in Chowchilla while children are screaming and crying and hugging the legs of their mothers. I know it’s brutal, but, in thinking into this and writing about it, I’m not interested in locating and naming pure villains in the pages of my fiction. I don’t really believe in such a thing. If there were good and evil structuring things, we probably could have found solutions a long time ago. It’s more complicated than that. The staff construct narratives that provide rationales for what they have to see all day, and do all day.
JW: Of course the challenge in writing this story is to have something in addition to misery and suffering and crying children. Thank God you succeeded. Please explain how you did it.
RK: The thing I’m most proud of about the book is the comedy and the vitality in it, which don’t feel like they take away from the horror. Even before I started writing the book, I knew from my own experiences that people in prison are full of life and spirit and even, like, hilarity and performative nerve, with a capacity to make light of a situation, to bring something darkly funny to it. If I wasn’t conveying that in my writing, it was going to be a failed project. People in prison can have a kind of brilliance that’s quite unique. I have a theory about it: Because they’ve been stripped of all of what Erving Goffman would call a person’s “identity kit,” what they have instead as currency is their personalities, which is to say their ability to seduce and charm and intimidate and threaten and their ability to perform. And they have really heightened psychological acuity, which they need to survive in such a tough environment. I wanted to convey that.
JW: Tell us about Justice Now.
RK: Justice Now, based in Oakland, California, but led from inside Central California Women’s Facility, is an incredible human-rights organization with a unique history. A lawyer named Cynthia Chandler cofounded it—she got the idea to start an organization whose leaders would be people in the women’s prisons who are lifers or serving long sentences. The founding board members of Justice Now were people who had been in prison for a long time and were deeply respected by their peers. They learned human-rights law and how to teach it to other people and how to document abuses. The president of Justice Now right now is Mychal Concepción, who is currently incarcerated at CCWF in Chowchilla. The organization was key in getting Sunshine legislation passed in California in 2014 that makes it clear it is illegal to coercively or non-consensually sterilize women, which is something that had been happening, believe it or not, in California prisons until that time. Beyond their impressive campaign work, Justice Now, as I see it, gives people in prison an incredible sense of purpose and dignity, because they can lead themselves and form a community of mutual assistance. JN has a dedicated phone line that anyone in a women’s facility in California can call collect to report on human-rights abuses, and get advice, and strength. That in itself is amazing, and worth supporting. (I encourage everyone to donate to them!)
JW: One last thing. Rachel Kushner, are you related to Jared Kushner? .
RK: I am not at all related to Jared Kushner, although I did ideate on what I thought would be the comedy of pretending that we are cousins, and referring to his family as “our bad Jersey kin.” My husband calls him “Cousin Jared,” and recently e-mailed me after Jared got his security clearance downgraded, “Cousin Jared is in deep shit,” which my father thought was very funny.