Saturday, February 9, 2013

Q&A with Amy Friedman, Author of Desperado's Wife

Hey Y’all, My friend Amy Friedman—who wrote a terrific essay that appeared in Stricken, an anthology about grief that I co-edited-- has a new memoir out. Desperado’s Wife, about the time in her life when she was married to a man in prison for murder. You can get the book by visiting, Pages A Bookstore in Manhattan Beach, California and on Amazon. Watch her website for an airdate announcement for her interview with Katie Couric. Below, Amy answers questions about her life and her book. 

SG: Hi Amy. Great to be back in touch. Will you start out by giving us a little background re: your writing career?

AF: I began writing short stories when I was a teenager, inspired at first by a desire to give voice to a grandmother who had stopped speaking and whose story I wanted to know. And then I never stopped, though throughout my teens and 20s and into my 30s I was a devout fiction writer. I received my MFA in creative writing from City College of New York, worked for years as an editor and writer, and in 1985 moved to Kingston, Ontario, Canada where I happened upon a newspaper that was, at the time, a literary wonder. The Kingston Whig Standard had a beautiful Saturday magazine. I sent off a couple stories to the editor who invited me in for a talk and offered me a weekly column. That column is what turned me into a personal essayist and memoirist. Over the eight years I wrote Hard Lines, that column, I also published two memoirs and hundreds of stories and essays. I also began writing Tell Me a Story for The Whig, a newspaper feature of adaptations of myths, legends, folk and fairytales and within a year I was under contract with Universal Press Syndicate to syndicate the column internationally. Twenty years later, I’m still writing that weekly column. I also teach personal essay and memoir in Los Angeles where I moved in 2002.

SG: Your new book, Desperado's Wife, is a memoir about a time in your life when you met a prisoner who was behind bars for murder, married him, and what ensued. I'm guessing a question you are often asked is, "What were you thinking?" or "How could you marry a murderer?" Is that right? Will you give me a little laundry list of FAQs you get hit with and a couple of answers you perhaps have memorized by now?

AF: Why is definitely the question, and it’s often followed by an eye roll or two. And quickly followed by the question: Did you ever get to sleep together? And how did you get past the fact that he had killed someone, were you afraid? The shortest answer is you have to read the book, which of course leads me to your next question—why I decided to write it. So I’ll take those two together.

Will and I were married for 7 years, 5-1/2 of which he was in prison (I met him during his 7th year inside); when he was paroled (and yes, even those who have been sentenced to murder receive parole—though less and less in the States), and the last 18 months of our marriage we lived together, but the marriage disintegrated when our strongest bond—the fight we were waging together to win his parole—was gone. He also did not cope well with the world when he was first released—he fell apart emotionally and that put a strain on our relationship—a strain that finally broke us apart.

But he did not fall apart in the way most people imagine released prisoners do. The general image of a “murderer” is someone who does nothing else—who moves through the world seeking to kill. When I was an official visitor (I first visited prison as a columnist so that I could learn about prison), and during the years Will and I were married, I came to know dozens of men serving time for murder. It’s important to understand that each of these people were individuals, each one with a story—bar fights gone awry, drug rivalries, accidents, drunk driving. Most of the stories involved drugs and/or alcohol. I did not meet any serial killers (though it is the women who marry psychopaths and serial killers that seems to me to inspire psychologists to write books about “those prisoners wives.”)

 But Will and I fell in love the way people do outside—at first I was drawn to him because he was intelligent and when I asked him questions about prison, he was the person who gave me the answers that made most sense. For instance, the very first thing he told me was that if I wanted to understand prison, I ought to talk to prisoners’ families because they understand prison and never did anything to hurt anyone. And so I began to talk to families. I also continued to talk to Will (and many other prisoners, guards and administrators) until one day a prison official told me I was welcome to continue visiting, that I was welcome to write stories about prison for the paper, but that I was NOT permitted to talk to one inmate. That inmate was Will.

 I was naïve enough to think that the official had just given me valuable information—had told me that it was Will who was telling me the truth about prison. I ignored his instruction and continued talking to Will, at which point prison officials wrote a letter to my editor letting him know the prison was expelling me, refusing to allow me in. My editor who had always been my staunch supporter did not support me in my effort to fight for the right to keep visiting. The prison I later learned (by accessing their letter through the Privacy Commission Act) had accused me of inappropriate behavior (which was untrue)—I argued with my editor: This was, I said, Canada, a free country; prison officials could not decide who could and who could not investigate what went on behind those walls, who a writer could or could not talk to. Alas, at just that point in time the paper had been purchased by a large corporate syndicate and my editor, worried about his own job, turned his back on me.

 I’m rebellious by nature, and that literally pushed me into Will’s arms because once I was forbidden to visit prison, the only way I could continue going in was to sign on as a personal visitor. And I did. And soon after that, Will’s mother and children invited me to join them in what were known as Private Family Visits (colloquially conjugal or trailer visits). I applied to do so, but the warden (whom I had interviewed many times and knew well and with whom I had always gotten along) refused my request. He told us we could have a trailer visit in a year—if we “behaved.” Will asked me to marry him—if we were married, the prison could not refuse us the visit. By that time I was so angry and alienated from those around me who were judging without knowledge and turning their backs on me, and I was so attracted to and engaged by and in love with Will, I quickly agreed. Again, that’s the snapshot.

 What followed were years of great difficulty because overnight after I married Will, I became, in the eyes of the prison system and of many outside, just as suspicious and subject to invasion of privacy as were all prisoners. All prisoners’ wives, children, parents, sisters and brothers and friends suffer the humiliation of things like strip searches and long waiting lines and hostility and job loss and every other imaginable indignation. Indeed, the publisher canceled my column, friends turned their backs, for a while so did my family, a board of directors on which I had long served kicked me off its board, and I wound up in combat against prejudice and misunderstanding—the sort that I think inspires those eye rolls, and the question. That’s not to say I don’t understand why or how people ask, but one of the reasons

I knew I had to write the book was to continue what I started out to do when I first visited prison—long before I met Will. That was to paint a picture of the world that is prison, to try to better understand and then describe in writing what happens to those impacted by prison, to write about what it is like trying to have a have a relationship against the odds. When the relationship collapsed, I collapsed for about a year. I knew I would have to write about it to find my way back to making sense of the story, of all the specifics of what happened.   There’s another important piece to the book and that is that Desperado’s Wife is actually two love stories—the love story between me and Will, but maybe more important, the love story between his daughters and me. They were 14 and 8 when we met, and I helped to raise them for most of those years. And they are still two of the most important loves of my life. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was to help to lift the mantle of shame from them, a mantle that is the result of others’ lack of understanding and prejudice against anyone who loves a prisoner. 

SG: Has writing it been healing?

AF: Yes, but also painful. The book took ten years to write—because it started out filled with the fury I felt towards those who had turned their backs and full of the despair the divorce left me feeling. After several drafts of writing with an agenda of sorts (to prove prisoners wives are no different from other women who love someone), I realized I had to give up trying to prove anything. I decided to try to write the book as a novel from the point of view of a prisoner’s child—that way readers wouldn’t come to the book with a built-in question (how could you love him?) because everyone understands a child’s love for a parent (no matter how flawed that parent is). And after another three years of working on the novel, I finished it and a good friend and colleague read it and looked me in the eye and said, “You do realize you have to write this as a memoir.”

At first I wanted to punch him, but I knew he was right. I went back to the drawing board, back to beginning as if I were walking into prison for the first time, open and ready to learn what there was to learn, to find what there was to find. The journey led me to a deep understanding of how this story happened, to my realization that ever since childhood I’d longed to know what prison does to human beings in large measure because I am the daughter of a man who was a Jewish prisoner of War in World War II and granddaughter of a man who was a prisoner of War in Siberia in World War I. That is how I know that prison seeps deep under the skin not only of those who are imprisoned but of their loved ones, and future generations. 

SG: Where is your ex-husband-- does he know about the book?

AF: He was released from prison in 1999, and he has remained out, living and working in Canada. There is no animosity between us, and though I haven’t consulted with him about the book. We did have a conversation a few years ago when an excerpt of the book was published in the NewYork Times Modern Love column, and he found out about it and read it. I was worried—that’s why I hadn’t told him about it. I thought he would object to my telling this story. But in fact he called me and told me he fully supported me in anything I wrote, that he knew me to be a person of integrity, and he was confident that my writing would always reflect that integrity.

SG: This is probably one of those stupid questions, since I know we should take life on a case-by-case basis, but if I told you that I was going to marry a prisoner, would you counsel me one way or the other, for/against?

AF: Not stupid at all, but the answer has two parts. The first is yes, I would. In fact, a friend of mine has a daughter who is engaged to a man in prison, and I’ve been talking to her for months, trying to convince her to wait until he is released to marry him. But the counsel does not come in the form of “he’s a loser, why would you do that?” or “you’re throwing your life away.” Rather it’s that the life of a prisoner’s spouse is full of suspicion and hostility and loneliness and a kind of poverty of the soul. Part two: I know that my counsel and anyone else’s is likely useless. People in love do what they feel they need to do, what they must do. Love is powerful medicine, and I don’t think there’s a verbal antidote, and if you’re anything like me, if I counsel you for or against, you’ll rebel against my counsel. 

SG: What was your publishing process-- agent, NY publisher, etc? Or more DIY? Whichever it was, will you tell us the pitfalls and rewards you encountered?

AF: Ah publishing! For the last 10 years, ever since I moved back to the States, it’s been more or less the bane of my existence. I have an agent (my second in the last ten years), and both have loved the book and sent it out far and wide. The rejections have come mostly in this form: This is a fascinating story and beautifully written but it would not interest enough people. One editor even wrote, “But there aren’t enough prisoners’ wives to make this saleable.” But my agent convinced me she could keep at it. In the meantime, a producer at the Katie Couric show came to me—she’d read my piece in the New York Times and another excerpt in Salon and a third in your book, Stricken: 5,000 Stages of Grief, and she wanted me to appear on Katie to tell my story and feature the book, and I decided I would not appear on the show without a book. So I went the self-publishing route.

The reward is I have a book between covers, the pitfall—because the book is self-published it is ineligible for all kinds of reviews and awards for which I wish it were eligible and the cost, of course—in terms of money and time invested in doing everything on my own—hiring my own editors, copyeditors, designers, and so on, and working with no publicist or machine behind me. But I’ve reached out for reviews and so far these have been more positive than I could have dreamed—most people have told me that once they picked up the book they couldn’t put it down—and I think it’s opened some eyes, and hearts. That’s my hope. And of course it would be nice to make back the investment … And meantime my agent has the self-published version out for consideration too. We shall see.

SG: How's the marketing going? My experience is that it's pretty tough out there to get noticed. On the other hand, I really am pleased that, as a self-publisher this time around-- I got to write exactly what I wanted. But the marketing can be a bit exhausting. Agreed?

AF: Absolutely agreed. I’ve gone this route before with a series of CD Audiobooks I’ve produced from Tell Me a Story, and when I put those out into the world, I developed a schedule which was this: For three years, each day I wrote one letter to someone—to librarians, to reviewers, to bloggers, to schools, to churches, to women’s groups. And now, six years since the release of the first CD, I do nothing and the CDs continue to sell—not gangbusters but it’s always amazing to me, and I sell at least one CD or story each day to someone somewhere.

I thought to do that with this book, but in some ways I’d prefer now to put that energy into writing the next book. That’s why people like you, and interviews like this, are blessings. I’m scheduled to do a radio interview with KPFK (Experience Talks) in early February. But you’re absolutely right. Making this book be and say precisely what I wanted it to be and say is, ultimately, what matters. And that it exists has left me with the energy to begin to put prison behind me.

SG: Working on another big project now? 

AF: Slowly, slowly bringing myself back into an old novel I first wrote when I was in graduate school, and  I have another book recently completed that’s coming out in September. This is with St. Martin’s Press, it’s a co-authored memoir with Anne Willan. In other words, I’m the “ghost” (I’ve ghosted several books, though for this one I have an author credit). Anne is a well-known cooking teacher and author of 30 books who had a famous cooking school in Paris, and the book’s called One Souffle at a Time, and I love her and the story and the book—and it couldn’t be more different from Desperado’s Wife. Her story is one of travel, adventure, food, life in a chateau in Burgundy…very little darkness, lots of light, and Anne’s amazing recipes, too.

SG: What else would you like to tell me?

AF: Without you and Stricken, I don’t know that I would have ever finished Desperado’s Wife. The writing and the efforts to entice editors was such a slog until the day your co-author, Katherine Tanney, called to tell me you and she had submitted my excerpt to Dan Jones at Modern Love and that he wanted to run a portion of my piece. That opportunity seriously turned everything around for me, first because at the time so many editors were telling me no one cared about the story of a prisoner’s wife, and then because Dan cared so deeply, and afterwards because the feedback was oceanic, and 95% was positive.

So I honestly feel that without you and Katherine on my side, I might not have made the long trek to publication. And this: That 95% of prisoners get out of prison eventually, and families of prisoners are the single best hope that that release will end up being positive and nurturing. And as Will told me on the first day we met, prisoners’ families understand prison, and they never did anything wrong. Before I was a prisoner’s wife, I thought all those women (wives, moms, daughters, sisters) standing at the bus stop outside the prison waiting to go home were probably smuggling drugs or knives. Ninety-nine percent of them not only aren’t smuggling knives and guns and drugs, they’re only trying to hold tight to their love, despite the burden of sorrows.

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