Rachel Kushner is one of America’s most exciting contemporary novelists; a master storyteller at the top of her game. Kushner’s first two novels (Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers) were both critically acclaimed, and her latest novel, The Mars Room (Vintage), was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. Set in a maximum-security prison in California, The Mars Room is a rich and complex novel largely narrated by Romy, who is serving two consecutive life sentences for murder.
KYD: Can you tell me about your relationship to the criminal justice system in California? What inspired you to write The Mars Room?
Rachel Kushner: The initial inspiration to write the book was that I thought it was time that I write what I might call a ‘contemporary novel’. The Mars Room was my third novel, and my previous two books each took place in a time before the present. There are a lot of tools that a writer has with hindsight, because you can see the drift of the culture by looking back through the lens of art and movies and your own memories. You can kind of get a grip on a set of ideas about what that time was. The present is also a time in the same way that the past is a time, but we don’t have the long view on it yet. But it’s still in history. There are streams and forces going on that give it that shape. So in a way I think it’s harder to write a truly contemporary novel, by which I mean a book in which the writer has some ideas about the time itself and isn’t just throwing in like, iPhones, or some other shred or vestige that proves or places the time as now. So I had to ask myself: what does it mean for me to write a contemporary novel right now? What is contemporary time?
I started thinking about my life as a Californian and where I live in Los Angeles, and the people that I knew growing up. I think a very real component of contemporary life is the way that society is structured and stratified, how different one person’s destiny can be from another person’s. And it’s not by chance. I had grown up with people who had very different lives and outcomes than I did and the book, in a way, was a journey into forcing myself to think about that. And think about other people – some of whom went to prison – and what happened to them. I also had been interested in understanding the criminal justice system and looking into it and learning how to see it. Not just jails and prisons and courts but the more subtle manifestations of it in society. I live a mile from the criminal courts in LA and I’m interested in the endless flux and flow of people coming and going. I wanted to know what that experience was like. Not as if I were undergoing it, but looking at it as a witness to it.
‘I think a very real component of contemporary life is the way that society is structured and stratified, how different one person’s destiny can be from another person’s.’
Speaking as someone who’s never been there, the depiction of California in The Mars Room is very different to the glamour of a lot of pop culture depictions of California. Romy says that San Francisco’s ‘beauty is only visible to newcomers, and invisible to those who had to grow up there’. Can you tell me a bit more about the side of California you wrote about?
I guess that’s the great thing about novels not being pop culture, they don’t have to sanitise things. Instead I wrote about the San Francisco that I grew up in and still know. I’m from the neighbourhood that the main character, Romy, is also from and describes in the book. She’s from my street; her friends are my friends. I wasn’t trying to reproduce a pointedly ugly world at all, I was just writing about a city that I know. San Francisco is very beautiful to people who’ve never been there before. It’s very precious, it’s small, it’s kind of compact, it has a lot of beautiful views…there’s just something about it, a particular kind of beauty that I really was never attuned to even though it was around me growing up. But part of what I see there, or remember seeing growing up, is informed by the experiences that I had. Once you get into the meat of people’s experiences it’s never the glamorised, sanitised version of things.
I read in another interview you gave that your editor encouraged you to drop some of the details about prison life that readers would maybe find too unlikely or exaggerated – but were actually true. Did you think some readers might not be able to grasp the realities of what prison can be like?
What I think that’s maybe referring to is when my editor looked at the manuscript and there were a few details she flagged, quite sure that I had made them up. And the things that she’d flagged just so happened to be quite blatantly lifted from things people that had spent their lives in prison had told me. There were just things that I never would have otherwise known…like transmitting ice-cream through the plumbing. Thanksgiving dinner is traditionally celebrated with a roast turkey in America, but prisoners in various prisons are served emu. My editors assumed I was being fanciful. I think those details are still in the novel, but it prompted a conversation between us about why that is, that the thing you think is made up is absolutely the real detail. Because I guess it is hard for people to imagine.
But I never even consider the reader when I’m writing. When I’m writing I’m trying to undergo myself a series of ruminations in order to think into questions that don’t have easy answers, or to sustain some kind of trance where I’m trying to unearth something, or have an encounter with my own unconscious. I don’t think about readers, and I would imagine that a lot of writers don’t. If you did, then you’re trying to second-guess or anticipate what other people want of you, which is never a good idea in life or in art.
You tackle some big social issues in The Mars Room, including racial and economic inequalities. In this context, I wondered what you think ‘guilty’ means for prisoners.
That’s so complicated. Maybe I’d say first that I’m happy for a critic like yourself to feel that I tackle issues, but when I’m writing I’m never doing that consciously, because good fiction can’t be made that way. ‘Oh, I want to talk about this injustice or this issue’…my mind wasn’t focused that way at all over the several years I was writing this book. In fact, the deeper I got into it, the less I felt I knew, the less I was sure about in terms of morality and moral ambiguity. Some of the things on which I ruminated were very difficult and required me to go back to or rely upon philosophers that I didn’t know would have a link to things I was trying to think about. Like Nietzsche – for him art is beyond good and evil. He talks about destiny and fate and I was thinking about agency, I guess.
When people go to prison for committing some act there’s a lot of emphasis, in contemporary discourse about so-called mass incarceration, around whether or not they had a choice in doing the thing they did, or whether or not we should have compassion for them. Somehow none of those emphases were my own. I already automatically have compassion for all other people because I know that everyone possesses a soul. I kind of think you either know that or you don’t. Maybe it’s a way people are separated. I have good friends who are serving life sentences in prison and I’m in dialogue with those people all the time. They have all done things that I never would have done, and nor would I go to prison for life. But the difference between us, and the reason they’ve done those things and I haven’t done those things, is not because I’m a good person. It’s because the circumstances of my life were so radically different. I was born to be innocent, in some way, because my parents loved me. So then you start to think, I can’t judge, because I don’t know what it’s like to be them.
‘It’s really painful and difficult for people to think that they’ve had the good lives they’ve had because they’re lucky.’
When you look at the larger drift of mass incarceration, who goes through the court system, who goes to prison, and what their childhood was like… it doesn’t really seem to function on an axis of guilt and innocence, which is I think implicitly understood in your question. Instead it seems to be determined along class lines and to some degree racial lines. If prison is just dividing the innocent from the guilty then it turns out that wealthy people just happen to be innocent. Does no middle-class people in prison mean that working-class people are naturally guilty? No. But it’s really hard for people to get off that axis of innocence and guilt. And one of the things I thought about a lot while writing this book was why that is. I don’t have an easy answer, but I think it’s really painful and difficult for people to think that they’ve had the good lives they’ve had not because they’ve worked hard and are wonderful people, but because they’re lucky.
You mentioned empathy earlier, and in relation to that I wanted to ask you about when you’re writing from different characters perspectives. There are characters like Doc or Kurt Kennedy who have very dark internal lives, and I was wondering what your writing process was like when you were writing those characters.
That’s an interesting question. For some reason those two were the easiest characters for me to write. When I write, I’m writing all of the characters. It’s not as if the ones who might structurally resemble me a little more are the proxies for me, and the others are these foreign costumes that I’m putting on and embodying. It’s as if they’re all getting different distributions of my own sensibility, personality, my sense of humour, my vicious mood, etcetera. Not to say that it’s evenly distributed but they’re all…not exactly versions of me but they’re all ventriloquised from my voice.
Doc, in particular was one of the first characters that I wrote. I had met a man who was serving a sentence of life without parole at a prison in California. I was standing in his cell with him and he proceeded to tell me a lot of things about himself, including how he had extra-judicially murdered people while he was working as a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department. It was a very quick exchange, maybe I was in his cell for 10 minutes, but it was a rich and long 10 minutes. His cell was tiny and all of the possessions he owned were there with him, he had photographs of his previous life on the walls. I just really felt his essence, like it went into me. This man was going to have to live in this cell, or another like it, for the rest of his life until he died. He was not likeable by many people’s standards, and not to say that I did like him, but I was interested in him. I wrote this character whose life is a bit different – he’s not based on him, it was more like he was the seed of something that flowered. Maybe writing a character like that was a way of getting him out of my system a little bit. It wasn’t a nice or easy or pleasant experience. But then in another way I started to really like him and his sense of humour. I think he’s funny…not everybody does! So he was fun for me to write.
‘Maybe writing a character like that was a way of getting him out of my system a little bit.’
The character of Kurt, I didn’t know I was going to include him in the book. He was already in the book as a harasser of Romy, and obviously plays a significant role in what happens to her, but while I was writing the book I had what felt like a kind of epiphany one day. I was thinking about him harassing her and following her around and for all intents and purposes stalking her. I knew a bit about what that feels like from a perspective like hers, just from life. It’s not a pleasant experience and can really totally destroy your peace of mind and your sense of safety. It can take years to recover from that. So I was really wound up in her experience of it because I understand it. But suddenly I saw things from his perspective and thought ‘Oh, he’s not doing this to scare her or to destroy her life at all. He’s doing it because he desperately thinks that what he needs is to see her and to have her attention.’ Maybe everybody else already knows that but I really didn’t. I felt it from his perspective, I felt what his focus would be. And it wouldn’t be malevolent. Misguided for sure, but not malevolent. So then I thought I should write from his perspective in order to investigate that.
You mentioned Doc’s humour before, and I agree with you that he is a funny character. There’s a lot of humour throughout the novel which somewhat surprised me for such a serious setting. I wondered if you could tell me a bit more about that dark comedy?
I knew when I started writing this book that it absolutely needed to be funny. Not as counterpoint or levity to the darkness, but rather as a sign that I was getting close to rendering something true. If I’d written these accounts of people’s trials and miseries without humour…first of all, I think it’s a bit cheap and easy to do that. It’s somehow less challenging than finding where the life-cracks open and people remain vital. That pursuit I think is then rendering a world that’s as accurate and believable as this world.
I guess I was thinking that the people I’ve known historically who are the funniest just also happen to be people who never could get with authority. I had a friend in high school — he sort of makes a cameo in the book as Jackson’s father — he in real life escaped from prison in the way that Romy describes Jackson’s father escaping, then later went back to prison and eventually died. In high school he would make fun of cops even when they had him on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back and were beating him or spraying him with pepper spray. He would say something so cutting to them and it was very, very funny, and also a certain style of self-destructive courage that I really admire. He was willing to win by destroying himself and always got the last word. I didn’t think about that explicitly until I started having to answer this question about humour, and I realised that there are precedents for me of what kind of humour can be had in a really grim institutional situation. And the institutions themselves by nature are so absurd.
You’ve told me a bit about your writing process for The Mars Room. Was it a similar process for each of your three novels, or is each a different experience?
I would say fairly different. Maybe there was one aspect of the early part of writing The Mars Room that was somewhat similar to writing my last novel The Flamethrowers, which was just that both are told primarily in the first person. Choosing first person is always hard, and I think that’s partly why I choose it. I personally find it easier to write in the third person — I think there are a lot of structural reasons for that. You can make the character immediately more round because you’re casting an eye onto them, you’re describing them from a certain remove, even if you are sharing their thoughts. Writing in the first person all you have is the voice and thoughts of that character, and they don’t see themselves from the outside. They don’t think of themselves by their name.
All of these things are really trappings of fiction, conventions of 19thCentury fiction that have oddly tenaciously remained in place for so many writers. The first person is hard because it has to have a tone, and it’s through the tone that you feel the narrator rather than see them. That tone can be hard to locate. With The Flamethrowers it took me two years to really find and capture and learn to sustain the tone of the way that narrator tells a story. In The Mars Room the tone is really different than the tone in The Flamethrowers. It’s much more blunt, and it’s testimonial but it’s not confessional. There’s a lot that Romy’s holding back. But it also took me a really long time to figure out her tone and figure out who she was.
Were there any novels that inspired you while you were writing The Mars Room?
Falconer by John Cheever. It’s his greatest novel, I think. I had read it before, but I read it again while I was working on this book. I sat down and basically diagrammed, like you would a sentence, the entire novel. Paragraph by paragraph, when he introduces each character…I took it apart and examined it as a structure. I don’t know why I did that or what it is that it aided, but it really helped me to write the book. I think it just reminded me that writers are making fundamental decisions quickly. And rather than write and write and write and wait for the lightning bolt to hit you, you have to just make decisions.
‘Rather than write and write and write and wait for the lightning bolt to hit you, you have to just make decisions.’
I also think it’s a very funny book. It has these wonderful idiosyncratic characters in it, and they keep reappearing throughout the text and it’s a kind of trick, because a prison is populated by either hundreds or thousands of people. And if you write a book about an atmosphere in prison how do you get the intensity of exchanges and relationships without diluting it to a crowd? You don’t want to just have them constantly be in this huge stream of people. But Cheever did this thing where you keep running into the same characters, but you don’t notice. You don’t feel that it’s been an artificially reduced selection of people. I think that helped me figure out how to do that myself in my book.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Édouard Louis’ Who Killed My Father. And then I’m about to read two things: The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg, which I read in Italian long ago. It’s a really beautiful book that I suspect must have influenced Elena Ferrante. Then I’m going to read this Nietzsche biography that just came out called I Am Dynamite.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.