Reading The Mars Room, we enter the world of the Californian prison system. How did you come about this topic? Is it personally relevant to you, and what was the initial objective of the book, if you had one?
I never have an objective except to write a book that will give me a full experience, a way to come to some better understanding of things that matter to me in life, but I did set out to write what I would consider a "contemporary novel,” which I hadn’t done yet, when I began The Mars Room. My last two novels (which I think are both in Croatian, but actually I’m not sure), Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers, are not "historical” novels, but they aren’t contemporary either. They both take place, and are about, the twentieth century. Much primacy is placed in writing about one’s own time. I was interested in the challenge of it. It’s harder, because you do not have the tool of hindsight. You have to recognize patterns, and discern meaning, from the world in front of you, which can be hard to do. But because I live in California, and am from California, it was almost immediately apparent to me that the story of contemporary life here is, in part, the story of the way that the state and its courts and institutions have destroyed peoples’ lives: people I grew up with, people I know now, and people I see on the streets of my neighborhood. The subject of life here, now, was my only objective. Prison, but other things as well, are a natural component of the contemporary—unfortunately. But also: I feel that contemplating cruelty and the social structures that necessitate, or at least allow for cruelty, are serious subjects for a writer, and ones that form a long tradition in literature.
Writing about Romy, you also partly write about yourself, given that there are autobiographical elements in the novel. I came across you saying that you are suspicious about autobiographical stream, why is that? Were you reluctant about exposing yourself in your fiction?
I’ve had mixed feelings over the years, regarding writing about one’s own life. I think that fiction, for me, to some degree, has, in my own history as a writer, been a place to take leave of the self, to chart a path through feelings and imagery and scenes that take me outside myself, and into worlds I’ve thought about, imagined, read about it, intuited. But of course, there is great psychological charge to one’s own private obsessions and traumas. They can be transmuted though, into fiction, in ways that keep the focus on the logic of the narrative, of the novel, and not the logic of one’s own trauma, if that makes sense. If one writes with the objective of accurately and vividly recounting an experience one lived through, that’s different. I’ve largely avoided that, even if my previous novel, The Flamethrowers, is loaded on every page with my sensibility and my sense of humor. With The Mars Room, I decided to "unleash” a bit of my own life into the book, because the book called for it. Suddenly it seemed deeply appropriate, and to serve the book, for this character, Romy, to be from my neighborhood, to have lived in a time and place that I lived in, because I would be able to understand her and where she comes intimately, and because it would then give me an occasion to process some of the feelings I’ve stored up, over a lifetime, in regard to the destinies of various people I’ve known, grew up with, and whose lives turned out very different from my own.
Writing from the male perspective seems natural to you, however, I couldn’t escape the feeling that there is a slight authorial nudge to see the men in the novel as somewhat more ironic characters in comparison to women. Should your writing be perceived as feminist? Do you think about a feminist perspective when you write, or is it something inherently interwoven with your creative expression?
I enjoy writing from a male perspective, though I’m not sure why. It does feel natural. The male characters in this book are both in third person which creates a bit of distance, and that may account, to some degree, for the irony. But Laura Lipp is slightly ironic. There are female characters who shade into that as well. The male characters, though, unlike Laura, have depth and tragic shades to me. I love them. They are part of me, which is perhaps why they were not difficult to render. Whereas the main character Romy was more challenging. The first person is the most difficult voice in which to write. That’s partly why I like it. An "I” is not seen and can’t be shaped and judged. An "I” is more elusive. Romy’s voice is meant to be a testimonial: she’s giving an account of why she’s in this predicament. A first person, traditionally, is confessional, but she does not confess much. She defends and rationalizes. She is not in any way sentimental. To me that’s not about gender, but instead her situation: someone given a life sentence—in fact, two life sentences--and thrown into an institution with no privacy and a lot of hostility isn’t given the space or context in which to reflect. But she does go back and look at her past, as if to account for how she ended up where she is.
About feminism, when I write, I’m free of gender. That might sound strange, but it’s true, and it’s been a feeling I’ve had life-long. And so, I don’t really know what it would mean to be a feminist writer. I’m just a writer. Someone could argue, maybe, that to have that freedom I’m telling you about is, in fact, feminist, but my books are written from a space of total creative freedom, and not from a motivated desire to carve one out.
A major topic in the novel is motherhood. In the culture that so ostentatiously celebrates the uniqueness of life, the way that the state treats imprisoned mothers is tragically paradoxical. How do you see the role of mothers today?
In the modern world, people raise children, not women. So what is motherhood, as word, a concept? I actually don’t know. That said, I think that having a child and having the connection to the child severed by the state is something I wanted to think about because it’s a reality: most women in prison have kids under 18. And the agony of not being able to see them grow up, or be involved in their lives, is real for people. I know incarcerated people who stopped thinking about their life outside, their relatives, stopped calling them or writing and just got completely absorbed in the world of prison, the chaos of, or the dailiness of it, because it was too painful to try to survive in one place while feeling chained, emotionally, to another place. To me this is less about motherhood and more about childhood, and what the state is doing to whole generations of people. We can assume this kid, Jackson, will go to foster care. Most of the kids in foster care end up in prison. So these institutions birth their own future. But for Romy, she does realize, near the end, that having a child can possibly connect a person to something much larger than they are, and could even afford a person a kind of philosophical freedom, or, if not freedom, the ability to inscribe meaning to their life that isn’t about the biological segment of their own existence. Even in death, her life has meaning, because she created a person who will outlive her.
I found it exquisite how you achieved strong political critique without judging; instead, you are simply trying to understand the characters and their situations. Do you think empathy has the power to make a change in the world? Does it have any kind of power?
Thanks so much. Even if I might be judgmental in real life, in fiction it’s quite easy not to judge, and in fact it’s anathema to understanding a characters. The way that people rationalize their own decisions and actions is fascinating to me. That’s what I want to get to: people do think logically, and everyone wants to attain a positive self image. So I always start, instinctually, from that place. But how people attain their positive self-image can be quite different. As Gordon says, some kids play violin. Others demonstrate courage and even honor, ethics, by committing an act of violence. In answer to your question about empathy, I don’t know. I don’t think about it as a practical agent. Luckily for the fiction writer, her job is not to solve the world’s problems, but to mine them for moments of grace of truth. A minor job, perhaps inconsequential on a pragmatic level, but a life’s work.
What I find particularly interesting is reading The Mars Room midst our ‘cancel culture’. You give those criminals voice during the time in which we tend to perform damnatio memoriae on people involved in something controversial. What is your take on punishment, forgiveness, redemption, are you interested in those concepts? Does everyone get a chance to redeem themselves, or does it depend on the circumstances?
Oh boy. This would deserve a very long answer I don’t have the time to give it. In short, I don’t see much of a link between so-called cancel culture and the world of prisons. Because the people who are worried about protecting free speech, on one side, and those who want to set new terms and standards and thereby, hopefully, improve the world, are not the same people who are absorbed into the penal zone, the world of courts and jails and prisons. These conversations are largely happening on twitter, among journalists, academics. That is a bubble, compared to the real world, where inequality is at historic levels, and where only a very particular layer of the population—the poorest people—end of committing acts of violence and going to prison. The reasons for this are material: to do with capitalism, governance, a weak social safety net, an economy that excludes multitudes, who are then controlled with brutality, rather than nurtured to succeed and participate. As to the second part of the question: I don’t believe that anyone should go to prison for life. It doesn’t correct a wrong, nor revive the dead. It doesn’t even give victims the relief they do deserve. I think that if we value life, we end up with a population who values life.
Personally, though, because I interact regularly with many people serving life sentences, I am interested in concepts of redemption and forgiveness. Because these are important to the people I know in prison. And I think that if they have to stay there, for life, they should be offered paths to both redemption and forgiveness, and they aren’t. A California prison can make Christianity seem soft and loving by comparison with a system that offers no redemption, no second change whatsoever.
Visualizing prison life in The Mars Room felt very easy and natural to me – and I attribute that to watching the show Orange Is the New Black. Although parallels can be drawn between your agenda and that of Piper Kerman, I’m interested in your thoughts on the show. Do you think this kind of portraying of prison life makes people more sensitive to the issue of class/race/gender inequality, or does it rather make a spectacle of it?
Honestly I haven’t really watched that show. It debuted while I was writing The Mars Room and I didn’t want to see it because I’m a sponge and what if I absorbed something and then accidentally put it in my book? For this reason, I mostly pay attention to culture I know I can learn from, lift from: like St. Augustine or Dostoyevsky, for instance. And I still haven’t watched it because I’m not a television person. I’m an elitist, in that regard. If I’m going to watch something, I’ll watch a good film. That said, I know Piper and have had extensive conversations with her, both publicly, in front of audiences, and privately, just us, and she is an incredibly serious person who has devoted her life to changing the carceral system. She’s very smart and earnest and tough and selfless. About the show, I know several formerly incarcerated people who liked the first season of it. I even witnessed an argument between a formerly incarcerated person and a young activist. The activist felt the show made a spectacle of prison, and was criticizing it for not being realistic. The formerly incarcerated person yelled: "It’s TELEVISION, the role is to entertain us! It doesn’t have to be exactly like prison. It’s enough that it’s about prison, and women.” But that’s just one anecdote.
While I’m typing this, George Floyd and raging protests are all over the news. Police brutality, racism, all other kinds of injustice and bizarre, tragic, almost unbelievable everyday horrors. And this is only scratching the surface. It extends to all the layers of society, as you helped uncover it in the novel. Is America one great, bleak prison complex? What has gone wrong in the land of the free?
I think that my ideas in answer to this question are mostly concentrated into my book, which took five years to write. And, even if it’s a funny book, at least I think so, it was really painful to write. Part of that pain stemmed from forcing myself to think into tight spaces that are full of contradictions and moral complexity. Fiction is a good and strenuous occasion for that. Because it’s not about proscriptions and judgments, but nuance. All of which is to say, I don’t really want to answer this question, even as I understand and empathize with it, and why you ask it. But yes, America is fairly bleak. I think our situation in regard to Covid-19 is making that clear. We are alone. Us, Brazil, and the Philippines and Russia, as gangster nations of graft and death. Then again, our culture or what we call culture, is admired and emulated the world over: our music, our street style, our language and idioms—much of which comes from Black people. I’m not entirely into dumping on America. I mean it’s a trash place, but it’s trash with a certain tragic profundity, and a whole lot of flair.
You frequently mention Welcome to the Jungle as a part of your trips to prisons. Which soundtrack do you consider most appropriate for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic? Do you think this is a teachable moment for society, especially American?
Wow it sounds like you’ve read some interviews with me … in visiting prisons in California, the units that do investigations, like the prison’s version of the FBI, make their own reels of prison stabbings on their yards, and they sometimes add soundtracks. In two prisons out of twelve, that soundtrack was Welcome to the Jungle by Guns and Roses. It’s ironic and tasteless but these guards are also people and I wish they had different jobs that didn’t force them to watch someone in a cage or watch someone stab someone and then pretend to laugh it off in the gesture of the soundtrack. Since it is a guard’s instinct to add a soundtrack to a filmed episode of extreme violence, and not my own instinct, I am not sure I want to adopt that stance now, and suggest a soundtrack of my own. My own instinct is not to summarize, or symbolize, and instead, to retreat and get through this with my parents still alive. That said, if you’d like a recommendation to a good song, that would be one response to the pandemic, there’s this. Is this a teachable moment? I think every moment of life is "teachable,” but who learns and what do they learn?
I will quote something you said back in 2018 in a The Guardian article: ‘’Art must be made with a pure intent, and a commitment to genuine risk. The thing created must be smarter than the person who made it.’’ Since you also write about visual arts, do they also fall under that definition? Where do your love and interest in art stand in comparison to your love and interest in literature?
I am not entirely sure which interview this was, but I assume I was talking about literary art. But either way it’s the same to me. A creative imagination, a maker of art, that’s a specific kind of consciousness, and concentration, that is closer to magic than to analytic thought. The thing you make is always smarter than you are, if the thing you have made is good. That’s the magic of it, that it’s better than you, a thing you’ve wrangled down, "pulled off,” "gotten away with.” And it is also why every time you go to start a book, you feel the last time you wrote one it was a fluke, a stroke of good luck that will not be repeated. And then again, you know, from past experience, that sorcery is real. The quote to me is about being an art maker, rather than a connoisseur, or critic, or fan. I can’t say whether visual artists feel this way, since I’m not one, but I believe they probably do, and that all art making is linked, comes from the same part of the soul that reaches for wonder.
You finished the novel with Romy thinking about her son and the life she gave him. Should that be read as an idealistic view towards positive change in society? Is there hope? Are you optimistic about the future?
That final scene in the book is about her and the world her son will inherit. I guess, when I think about it, that world is also this one, which I live in. If she’s resolute and at peace as she runs towards the cops, who are about to annihilate her, I suppose I could be resolute also, but I could not call that optimism, exactly. I was very interested, while writing toward that ending, in Nietzsche’s concept of Amor Fati, or love of fate, where, as I interpret, you take what you’ve been burdened with, passively, and actively love it. Rather than riding out a destiny, you become that destiny as if you were driving it, or constantly deriving meaning from it, even if it’s a tragic and terrible destiny.
I honestly have no idea, about hope, the future. I don’t have a sense of the future. Some writers do. Don DeLillo, for instance, who is a friend and mentor, seems to see into what will happen, as if he can divine a pattern of the future from the now. I could not have anticipated Trump, nor this pandemic, nor many things that have come to pass. So I’d feel foolish thinking I suddenly have that capacity. But also, I don’t feel the need or the desire to see the future as good or as bad, or to have any objective value attached to it compared to what it could be, even if of course I’d like us to avoid wars, death, climate collapse, and suffering. I mean obviously. And yet: I only get this one life and I cherish it as I’m living it. I feel joy every day to be alive. I see the people in the world and I know that every single one of them possesses a soul like I do. So there is hope to me, in terms of a reason to exist, in order to feel small joys. Perhaps my joy is a form of stupidity. But the great gift of that sort of stupidity, is that I don’t mind it and in fact would not trade it away for anything.