Leslie Jamison‘s “Fog Count,” which ran in the spring issue of The Oxford American, is hard to pin down. Its subject matter is, ostensibly, jailed ultramarathon runner Charlie Engle — whom Jamison has profiled once before — but it’s also a meditation on incarceration and a dirge for a ravaged planet. Jamison, who is also an accomplished novelist, manages to blend these separate strands together to the point of invisibility. For this installment of “Annotation Tuesday!” she chatted with me about how, exactly, she pulled this off. My comments are in blue, Jamison’s in red. A couple of questions, to start:
Storyboard: How did you sell this story to an editor? How did it end up at The Oxford American?
Jamison: An editor at Oxford American got in touch with me after reading an essay I’d written about an ultramarathon in Tennessee. He liked that essay and wanted to know whether I would write something for OA; as it happened I very much wanted to write a piece about Charlie Engle — who I’d met at that very same ultramarathon — and I realized the subject would be a perfect fit for them: The journal is interested in the South (Charlie is from North Carolina and was incarcerated in West Virginia) and is open to structural creativity and hybridity in their longform nonfiction. I knew I wanted the freedom to see how this piece developed. It became a mixture of travelogue, memoir, profile, and rumination. There was some surprise built into the essay for me — I knew I needed to take the journey and see what I found — and OA was willing to give me that flexibility, without demanding that I prophecy the shape or terms of the piece before it was written.
Did you have a particular model for this piece? I’ve never read anything like it. It’s gorgeous, unbearably depressing, and somehow reads briskly.
I didn’t have one particular model for this piece but I can tell you some of the writers/essayists who are constantly haunting me, and maybe that list will get us somewhere. I’m a big fan of Charles D’Ambrosio’s collection Orphans, in large part because it recounts the world with unapologetic bias and manages to excavate surprising veins of importance from all sorts of disparate corners — Mark Kay Letourneau and pre-fab housing — but feels fundamentally committed to encountering all sides of a question. I also admire Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” because it takes on something “unbearably depressing” (in her case, a mass shooting) and isn’t afraid to talk about that tragedy in the same breath as her own divorce, or her attempt to get rid of the squirrels in her house — which is how life works, huge things jostle for elbow room with little ones. Further back, I was — have been, will probably always be — deeply affected by James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which is obsessed by the project of trying to confess its own culpability, its biases, the limitations in its perspective, but is also deeply grounded in research and careful observation. Confession doesn’t entirely obstruct documentation. My piece doesn’t compare to that epic, though it’s probably a quicker read.
What was most challenging about the reporting or writing?
Visiting the prison was hard in many senses. It was emotionally overwhelming — an emotion lodged deep at the heart of the essay — and it was embarrassing to get the rules wrong — but logistically, as a writer, it was incredibly difficult not to be able to record my interview with Charlie in any way. I wasn’t allowed to bring in pen and paper, much less a tape recorder. So I went from having total access to our exchange — our letters, printed and preserved — to nothing but memory. I basically raced back to my car as soon as I left the prison and starting writing down everything I could remember from our conversation, and then — when I felt like I had to leave the prison parking lot because visitors’ hours were done — I pulled into the closest fast food restaurant (I think it was a chicken place) and kept writing. But memory’s capacity to deform and distort comes into play almost immediately — I knew that, and had to accept it. What the piece was about (the many ways in which incarceration limits our freedom) was also dictating the terms of how it could be written.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? What led you to writing? Where and what do you teach?
I was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Los Angeles, where I felt different the way that many people feel different growing up, wherever they’re from. It was only once I left L.A. that I began to feel protective of it. I’ve loved to write since I was little, but for most of my life I’ve identified as a fiction writer. As a little girl, I wrote stories about princesses in perilous situations — that often didn’t end well — and I felt sure from early on that writing was what I wanted to do. I got my MFA in fiction from Iowa, moved to New York — realized I couldn’t find much time to write around the constant struggle to pay rent in New York — and then moved back to L.A., got a job as an innkeeper, and plunged into the book that would become my first novel. It feels so important to me that I circled back to my hometown to write that book. Since then I’ve lived in Nicaragua (briefly) and New Haven. I’m moving to Brooklyn in a few weeks.
Many nonfiction writers come to essays from more journalistic pursuits, but I was somewhat the opposite — I came to the essay from fiction, without much formal journalistic training, so things like scene and detail are familiar to me — the crafting and whittling of narrative — but I always have to constantly contain the part of me that wants to be fully in control of the story. For the past eight years I’ve been writing and gathering the essays for my first collection, The Empathy Exams, which will be released by Graywolf Press in April of 2014. The essays have assembled quite organically into a collection — though their subjects range from silver mines to strange diseases, murder trials to painted corsets, they are all preoccupied with how we try to find meaning in pain, our own and others’.
Though I’ve loved the process of experimenting with nonfiction, it was also hard for me initially to accept that I wanted to lay aside the pursuit I always felt defined by (fiction) in order to pursue this new form that felt so electric, so charged, so full of energy. The lesson in that — from my perspective — is that you have to be willing to follow the energy whenever and wherever it emerges, even if it wasn’t part of your plan — inside a piece or on the broader scale; you have to stay flexible and brave about listening to what’s working — what’s alive — and what isn’t.
I have an active life as a teacher and I feel pretty grateful for it. In addition to teaching fiction, nonfiction and literature classes at Yale (where I’m also a doctoral candidate in English), I’ve taught fiction for a few years at Wesleyan, and currently teach both fiction and nonfiction at the Southern New Hampshire University low-residency MFA. In addition to focused correspondence work, the MFA program involves staying at a beautiful resort in the White Mountains — where we get to talk about craft and inspiration and all the other good stuff all day, every day, twice a year. I love working with those students because they represent a broad range of ages and backgrounds. Many are juggling their projects — novels or memoirs — alongside a couple of jobs, a couple of kids, a bunch of debts. It’s inspiring to watch them fit their writing into these dense lives; it’s the struggle for all of us.
By Leslie Jamison
The Oxford American, Spring 2013
It’s early morning and I’m hunting for quarters. Downtown Fayetteville is quiet and full of stately stone buildings: mining money, probably. We’re in the heart of coal country. The corner diner isn’t open yet. The “Only Creole Restaurant in West Virginia” isn’t open yet. City Hall isn’t open yet. One of its windows displays a flier raising money to build a treehouse for a girl named Izzy. A startling opening. It’s a series of negatives: no quarters; closed establishments; and Izzy lacks a treehouse. What was the narrative and thematic intent in beginning this way? I love that you noticed this pattern of negatives. When I was wandering around Fayetteville that morning, I was struck by a sense of marginality — that being downtown earlier than anyone else (all these shuttered doors) felt like being inside of the world and outside of it at once; and the ghost town feeling was simultaneously lonely and privileged. It felt apt, in a way I hadn’t expected, because I knew I was headed even deeper into the margins (the prison itself). I focused on quarters because it was a tiny detail about prison I hadn’t expected — that this ritual of the vending machines would play a large role in visiting hours — and I wanted this piece to explore the fine-grain texture of prison life, those details too small to earn a place in more sensational accounts. Also, prison made me feel powerless in almost every sense — and getting quarters, making sure I had enough, was one of the few things I could do. I couldn’t bring Charlie any kind of gift; I could only buy him a microwave burrito if he wanted. (He didn’t.) But Izzy’s treehouse? Who’s to say why it belongs, except it was there — it became part of my day, the unknown story of this girl (sick with something, I think) and her desire, and a community’s desire to help her. Part of the truth of essays is simply allowing things to coexist because they do, in the world, and not forcing metaphor to connect everything, letting pieces stand in unknown relation.
I’m looking for quarters because I’m headed to prison, and I’ve been told they will be useful there. The first time through this piece this line really shocked me. I assumed (I guess I was meant to assume?) you were doing a stretch. I was so focused on how to introduce Charlie that I didn’t even consider the moment of suspense or misdirection embedded here — between these two sentences, that it would seem like I’m serving time. I’m going to see a man named Charlie Engle. Why “a man named”? That suggests you don’t know him well, which isn’t the case. I was thinking of this as the moment when readers are meeting Charlie for the first time — so even if I’m already on a first-name basis with him, they’re not. We’ve been corresponding for the past nine months. He has promised that if I bring quarters we can binge on junk food from the vending machines while we talk. Visiting hours are 8 to 3. It makes me nervous to think about talking from 8 to 3. I’m afraid I’ll forget all my questions or that my questions are wrong anyway. I’m plotting my meals in advance: vending machine breakfast, vending machine lunch. I’m already thinking about what I’ll do — what I’ll eat, who I’ll call, where I’ll drive — once I’m out. Lovely foreshadowing of the rigidity of Charlie’s days and night — all planned out, too. We readers get a sense of Charlie’s life before we even meet him. Yes, I like that you found that sense of claustrophobia and rigidity in this moment — I very much wanted it to be there. I wanted to introduce the seed of what I say explicitly later, which is that even though Charlie and I were occupying the same physical space — for some stretch of hours, in that visiting room — we were occupying it in such radically different ways (partially made different by the fact that I had the ability to imagine an afterward full of freedom and logistical choice). Our encounter was never free from that difference. In this moment, I’m also starting to give a readers a sense of my narrative voice — not a professional journalist but an essayist, a human voice with clearly confessed daydreams and stomach, a woman who is thinking about where she’s going to have dinner at the same time she’s thinking about the role of prison in the American imagination. This simultaneity — big thoughts and petty ones lying side-by-side — is a big part of how I try to be honest in my essays these days.
Charlie and I met two years ago at an ultramarathon in Tennessee, several months before Charlie was convicted of mortgage fraud and sentenced to twenty-one months at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Beckley, in Beaver, West Virginia.
Charlie is a cat of many lives: once-upon-a-time crack addict, father of two, professional repairer of hail damage, TV producer, motivational speaker, documentary-film star, and—for the past twenty years—one of the strongest ultra-distance runners in the world. Charlie started running in eighth grade: I was awkward and gangly and self-conscious pretty much all the time, except when I was running, he wrote to me once. Running made me feel free and smooth and happy.
Charlie’s accomplishments are well-known in the ultra-running community: he’s run across Death Valley; he’s run across the Gobi; he’s run across America. I like the repetition of run — suggestion that even Charlie’s pre-prison life was filled with its own kind of monotony. Or am I reading too much into this? I definitely wanted to create that sense of running as constancy, a fixed point between other places/stages/eras — run, run, run — to suggest his attachment grammatically as well as explicitly, so that I could pose the dilemma more forcefully: What happens when he has to stay put? I tried not to completely buy into ideas about running as substitute addiction — something in that vein — which is a popular/available model for thinking about ultrarunning, but also limited, or too easy. And this last reason is really simple — but I also just wanted to give a sense of how badass Charlie is; why I was so fascinated by him. He has trekked hundreds of miles through the jungles of Borneo and even more through the Amazon. He’s climbed Mt. McKinley. In 2006 and 2007, he ran 4,600 miles across the Sahara. The journey was documented in a film and it was this film, incidentally, that set his legal nightmare in motion.
The story of Charlie’s arrest and conviction is long and harrowing, but here are the basics: an IRS agent named Robert Nordlander started wondering about Charlie’s finances after watching the Sahara film. He wanted to know: how does a guy like that support all his adventures? I’ve tried to understand Nordlander’s curiosity as vocational instinct. Perhaps he wonders how strangers pay their taxes the same way I wonder how strangers get along with their mothers, or what secrets they keep from their spouses. Did you attempt to interview Nordlander? I didn’t. This isn’t a piece of investigative journalism but an account of my encounter with Charlie — and I like to think the piece isn’t pretending to be anything it’s not, that it’s honest about its limitations.
Nordlander opened an investigation, and he didn’t find anything wrong with Charlie’s taxes. But instead of closing the case, he pushed further. He authorized garbage dives. He authorized tactics that wouldn’t have been possible before the Patriot Act. He started looking into Charlie’s properties. He sent a female undercover agent—rigged with wires—to ask Charlie out to lunch. Charlie was single at the time. He said yes. He tried to impress. He said his broker had filled out a couple “liar loans”—standard shorthand for stated-income loans—and that non-confession pretty much sealed the deal. Is this information culled from news accounts? My account is based on Charlie’s version of the story, but also draws on two pieces written about him in the New York Times by Joe Nocera. I don’t offer anything close to a fully researched account, but that’s because the thrust of the piece isn’t digging into Charlie’s legal ordeal; it’s trying to document his experience through my own — highly subjective, highly confessed — gaze. For me, in this vein, the most important thing is to be clear with readers about what you’re offering them. In October 2010, Charlie was convicted of twelve counts of mail, bank, and wire fraud. Nordlander had won his case at last. You refer to Charlie by his first name and the IRS agent by his last — is that formality meant to nudge the reader towards Charlie’s corner? Perhaps it does that! But it was simply meant to express my own relationship to both men (again: highly subjective, highly confessed) — to me, Charlie was Charlie and Nordlander was Nordlander. I knew one and not the other; I had more sympathy for one and not the other. It’s funny, there’s something that might have felt disingenuous about calling Charlie “Engle” — like I was trying to seduce readers into forgetting the stance/intimacy/proximity the piece was being written from.
Charlie’s case was also part of a much larger story: the fallout of the American subprime mortgage crisis. His conviction, one imagines, was largely fueled by the general knowledge that things had gone terribly wrong and the sense that people should be held accountable. So Charlie was held accountable. He was held accountable for something millions of people did, something he still alleges—with compelling evidence—he didn’t do. He became a convenient scapegoat for the inevitable collapse of a system fueled by recklessness and greed. Charlie seems to be at the mercy of several forces here: a financial crisis brought on by easy money; a broken prison system; and a dying planet. This imbues his story – your story – with great tension. What was your intent here? Part of what fascinates me about the essay form is that it seems to acknowledge — in its structural fluidity, its capacity — that phenomena in the world are ruthlessly — often surprisingly — connected; I wanted this essay to posit some of those connections between various societal structures of sentiment (the crutch and comfort of blaming, for example). I hate rhetorical hinges that pose clever but ultimately hollow connections between things — and am sure some readers feel I’ve done some of that in this piece — but I really did feel like the impulse to self-soothe by way of accusation — that feels like an important sentimental wire running between what happened to Charlie vis-à-vis the subprime crisis, and what happens with incarceration more generally.
At the time of his arraignment, Charlie was engaged. His engagement didn’t survive the trial. He was imprisoned a state away from his teenage sons in North Carolina. Did you interview Charlie’s fiancée or sons? Nope. Partially because of the scope/scale/intentions of the piece, as mentioned above, and partially because Charlie was interested in preserving privacy for his family. Not to say that the job of the investigative reporter is to fulfill the emotional wish list of his subject, of course, but my role in this situation was more personally involved, and I felt more personally beholden. He lost his corporate sponsorships. He lost two years of racing. He lost the right of motion. He lost—as he’d tell me later, quite simply—a lot.
I first wrote Charlie a letter because I was fascinated by his life. It gave me a sense of vertigo to know that when we’d met, in the hills of Tennessee, he’d had no idea what was about to happen, how everything was going to change. I wondered what incarceration was like for him. Running made me feel free and smooth and happy. His body was a body that found solace in moving itself across territory—across deserts and jungles and entire nations. The core of his life pointed its finger at the very fact of what incarceration does, which is to keep someone in one place. I wanted to know: what happens when you confine a man whose whole life is motion? His body was a body that found solace in moving itself across territory… This reads more like poetry than prose. Do you have a background in poetry? And when you write, do you read your work aloud? Yes, and yes. I wrote a lot of poetry in college — divorced innkeepers and their sad parrots, etc. — and finding the right cadence to carry a piece of sense or sentiment is still one of the most sublime parts of writing for me; when I hit the right groove and feel things start to sing. I have to be vigilant not to keep things I can’t conceptually stand behind simply because they sound good. I read everything aloud, many times. I wrote this essay alone in a cabin in rural Maryland — didn’t talk to anyone for days — and was constantly reading it aloud there.
One thing that happens is you turn him into a good pen pal. Over the course of our correspondence, Charlie was smart and funny and honest. Why assert that Charlie was honest with you upfront? Why not allow the reader to make up his own mind? Fair point. It gets back to what I was saying earlier — I am offering a highly subjective account of how I experienced Charlie and his story. I found him honest; I’m telling you — my reader — that’s how I found him. For a piece like this — largely single-sourced, as you say — confessing bias and limitation feels particularly important. Doesn’t the reader always still have the chance/right to make up his own mind? To disagree? It’s a mistake to understand the nonfiction narrator as anything but unreliable, and a mistake to assume that this unreliability isn’t open to pushback from a reader’s own sensibility. He steered himself away from anger about his incarceration, but he did so with such intentionality, such earnest and visible effort, that the anger itself emerged as a negative shape carved in the margins. Charlie described it as a cliff; he had to pull himself back from the brink. My anger is immense and I hate the feeling that I am losing control, which happens mostly when I let that anger breathe. He looked for what he could salvage: Like all difficult things, if we can remain open … something positive will come. That said, I am still a bit baffled about what good will come from this for me. I lost a lot.
He wrote about his mother, who was slipping into dementia: I miss her. I can say that it’s unfair for me to be away from her and it would be true. He wrote about women: I have never gone this long in my adult life without sex. I don’t think I could have ever gone a year alone out there. You do not specify when you received various missives. Was he always this candid, or did he open up gradually? Our letters did get more candid as our correspondence progressed, and as it became clear — to both of us — that my letters to him were going to be personal and revelatory as well.
“Out there,” incidentally, was a phrase I heard frequently at the Barkley Marathons, the ultra-run where I first met Charlie. It’s a brutal race through more than one hundred miles of briar-studded Tennessee hills. At Barkley, “out there” meant in the wilderness, on the course, getting lost or getting found or whacking your way through underbrush. “Out there” meant you were in motion, doing the thing, winning or getting beaten. “In here,” in prison, was the opposite of all that; it was never getting lost, never going where you hadn’t already been.
Some weeks Charlie’s letters were written from a low-down place: My mother is getting worse, my knee is getting worse, my attitude is getting worse. Or: Today I awoke full of fear. At what point did Charlie agree that you could quote his letters? Was this is condition of doing the story? And do you believe he wrote with an eye toward the piece you would inevitably write? From the beginning, I was clear with Charlie about the fact that I wanted to write about him, and that our letters were — among other things — part of that project. I talked to him more explicitly about using the letters once the piece was finally taking shape, but I do think he wrote the letters with some eye to their eventual public appearance. As did I. Dan Chiasson wrote a great New Yorker article about the collected letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, in which he makes the point that they were writing for each other and for immortality; these horizons weren’t mutually exclusive, intimacy and posterity. Not to say that my correspondence with Charlie is destined for immortality, just that it was genuinely personal and public at once.
He was forced to stop running on the prison track because of an injury that turned into a Baker’s cyst, a huge swelling behind his knee. He wrote about the incredible frustration of trying to get treatment: I have spent more than 90 days just trying to see the doctor. Did you confirm this with the prison? How was this piece fact-checked? On the face of it, it’s single-sourced. Single-sourced. Just a quote from Charlie. Though as my conversation with the guard indicates later, there was a sense amongst others in the prison that he had been waiting a while to get this taken care of. This piece was fact-checked by a wonderful woman at OA, though most of the substantive changes had to do with ways I was framing/presenting West Virginia economic issues. Most of the material about prison we took as Charlie’s account of prison experience — framed that way, rather than incontestable fact. But the process of fact-checking information about West Virginia was incredibly useful — it forced me to rethink some of the points I was making — and my friend Cat was a wonderful resource as well, in helping us check facts and think about the larger framing of West Virginia in the piece. The neglect here is almost unimaginable.
At Christmas, he sent a photocopied cartoon: a bearded Santa behind bars staring at a puny tree. “Wish You Were Here” was crossed out and replaced by “Wish I Was There.”
Writing to Charlie often made me feel guilty. I wrote about something as simple as walking around my neighborhood, with its methadone clinic and its blossoming pear trees, and felt like there was no way to communicate my world to Charlie that wasn’t rubbing salt into the central wound of his life. This may be the first story I’ve ever read where the writer professes to be aware of — and sensitive to — a subject’s feelings. It’s not very Janet Malcolm-y. The Journalist and the Murderer is a brilliant and disturbing book that had a huge effect on me when I read it. It still calls to the surface a lot of guilt and anxiety I have about turning people into characters (as nonfiction necessarily does) but also makes me glad I write pieces that don’t profess to be standard journalism; I can write about the process of caring about the people I write about; there’s space for that. That said, my editor at OA was very clear with me about not showing Charlie the piece once it was written and before it was published (which I had wanted to do). He said he’d kill it if I did that. It was sort of a dramatic moment for me, actually, though it was old news to everyone else. I wrote about running in the rain—by the end I was so soaked I didn’t even feel separate from it—and how running in New Haven rain reminded me of running in Virginia rain with my brother, past a fish factory on the Chesapeake, after our grandfather died. This is wonderful, the way you weave in details from your own life without jarring the reader out of the story. I preach specificity to my students at every turn. There is no impact when you say, “I wrote about my life” or something similarly general — that kind of vague statement dissolves immediately into the ether. You have to give the texture — the fish factory, the Chesapeake — to turn the details into splinters; and weirdly being more detailed gives you the freedom to move quickly, if you trust that your details were good enough to be vivid in a single short breath. You asked about my relationship to poetry — I think that some of my fixation on details (though it’s shared with the legacy of the New Journalism) comes from having been a fiction writer most of my career. My first book was a novel. Details are the fun part. Though in Salvador, Joan Didion has a lovely passage condemning her own impulse to make too much of details, find their easy ironies. Maybe I’m an asshole to write to you about running, I wrote, but sent the letter anyway. To repeat the question posed above, but about you: Did you write letters to Charlie with publication in mind? Yes I did. Would be so totally dishonest to pretend otherwise. That said — if I’m in a confessional moment — I should say that I write most of my letters/diaries with some secret shameful dream of someday having archives. I just read Blake Bailey’s biography of Charles Jackson, who carbon copied all his letters to others — anticipating his own archives — and I found that very poignant; especially since I’ve spent some time at those archives, and it was moving to me that Jackson might have once daydreamed about the attention I — a stranger — would someday grant him. At a certain point I started photocopying my letters to Charlie, which is about as “publication in mind” as things get. I thought it might connect to something Charlie had mentioned about running around the prison’s gravel track during a storm. It was the best time to run, he’d written, because everyone else went inside. It was the only time he got to be alone. Talking on the phone with Charlie was even stranger: a voice announced, at even intervals, You are talking to an inmate at a Federal Correctional Facility, and I walked down Trumbull Street in the twilight while he sat somewhere—in a little plastic booth? I couldn’t even picture it—and when we got off the phone, I ate roasted trout at the nicest restaurant in town while he headed off for another stretch of top-bunk reading into the late night.
I liked when we wrote about the past, because it meant we were on equal footing—or rather, he had more past than I did. As he put it, more life experience under his singlet. Why isn’t this in quotes, or italicized? Free indirect discourse, I guess. We both wrote about drinking and using, and stopping drinking and using. Charlie wrote about being an addict with twenty years of sobriety in a prison where he suspected no one else—out of more than four hundred men—had gotten clean before arriving. In his twenties, Charlie ran a hail-repair business that took him all over the country—chasing nasty weather and its comet trail of damage, chasing eight balls in the worst neighborhoods of shitty Midwestern cities. He hit bottom getting shot at by angry dealers in the wrong part of Wichita. He would have gotten more time for what he was guilty of back then than he got for what he’s innocent of now.
I wrote about the one-legged traveling magician I’d met in Nicaragua, years before, who was a drunk and whose drinking made me unspeakably sad; how I thought of him years later when I tripped, drunk, on a pair of crutches of my own. I wrote about trying to take a girl, newly sober, out to a raptor refuge near Iowa City—to see the wounded owls! I’d promised her, as if these broken birds were some wonder of the world—and how I’d gotten lost, and driven in circles until we finally sat on a bench smoking cigarettes instead, and how I felt like a failure because I wanted to make sobriety seem full of possibility but instead I’d made it seem full of disappointment. A canny move; the reader learns about you, and gets a sense, perhaps, of why Charlie is candid with you. With the truly great stories – of which this is one – you get a sense that only that writer could have produced it. Thank you! It’s clear you’re a sharp and sensitive reader for this essay — very attentive to its emotional core as well as its strategies. I needed sobriety to be in this essay, but I didn’t want to make it central — it was one truth among many truths, and the most important ones to illuminate (here, at least) were other ones. But you’re right; it was a connective glue — it made other illuminations possible.
For a week, in the spring, Charlie and I wrote letters every day. We made a ritual out of noticing. We focused on particulars. He described an argument about an unpaid debt, a bigger guy approaching a smaller guy: “Blood on my knife or shit on my dick, I will collect what I’m owed.” This is apparently common slang. Yes, well it was the first time I’d heard it! He wrote about the evolution of his Fridays: draft beers for a quarter in his drinking days, prerace rest days in his sobriety. In prison they were something else entirely: Every Friday for 15 months, lunch has been a piece of square fish of unknown origin, along with too-sweet cole slaw and potato chips I won’t eat. Friday means very loud inmates late into the night, playing cards or dominos. Fridays mean there will be another movie shown, a movie I refuse to watch because I never want to even pretend that I am comfortable here. I love this passage because Charlie, like you, employs the language of repetition. Friday … Friday … Friday … I think Charlie was committed to finding patterns in his life — it’s a way to keep from going crazy when things that feel incredibly unfair have happened to you — and that Fridays were one way of making sense. And you’re absolutely right — refrain becomes an important mode of sense-making for the essay as a whole, too.
Charlie wrote about buying FireBalls and instant coffee at the commissary, about the correctional officer at lunch who yelled when inmates couldn’t decide quickly enough between cookies and fruit. He described how Beckley felt on Mother’s Day: Mother’s Day creates a prison full of zombies, walking around in a daze, hoping the day passes quickly. Mother’s Day reminded those men of how they were failing to be sons. Every holiday was an invocation of “out there,” the life none of them were living.
Charlie invited me to come visit. He put me on his visitation list and told me the rules: You probably shouldn’t wear Daisy Dukes or a tube top. Also best not to bring in drugs or alcohol. A woman once came in a skirt without panties. She was, he wrote, visiting a very young man with a very long sentence. This story succeeds, in part, because Charlie is an excellent writer. If he’d been only mediocre, would you have quoted him so extensively? Would the structure of the story have changed? Would there have been a story at all? Glad to hear you acknowledge this — Charlie’s writing is powerful in its own right. I think there could have been a story with someone who wasn’t so naturally fluent, but it would have posed a different dilemma for me as writer — I’d risk that note of condescension creeping in if I was quoting writing that wasn’t terribly strong, and then holding it up as artifact for analysis. I think I might have done more paraphrasing, but then the essay would have lost so much — wouldn’t have had the relief/breathing room/minor chorus of another voice.
I found more guidelines online: I wasn’t allowed to wear camo gear or spandex or green khaki that looked like Beckley khaki, or boots that looked like Beckley boots. If there was too much fog, I might get turned away. Beckley gets strict in the fog. The inmates get counted more often. I pictured this fog—this mythic, West Virginia fog—in vast, billowing ripples, fog so thick a man could ride it to freedom like a wave. Every fog count is an act of protest against unseen possibility; Beckley clutches men close—tallies them up, keeps them contained, seals them off. Why anthropomorphize the prison? To evoke some of the psychological experience of prison — at least, as I got this experience through Charlie — that the prison itself starts to feel like an agent with some sort of affective/emotional intention. The institution of prison is an aggregation of human impulses/desires/errors, anyway.
I found the commissary sales list online in a grainy pdf. You could get Berry Blue Typhoon Drink Mix, Fresh Catch Mackerel, Hot Beef Bites, or a German Chocolate Cookie Ring. You could get Strawberry Shampoo or something called Magic Grow or something else called Lusti Coconut Oil. You could get mesh shorts or a denture bath. You could get Religious Certified Jalapeño Wheels. You could buy Milk of Magnesia or Acne Treatment or Prayer Oil. Do you find a certain power in lists like this? The reader is confronted with the sheer oddity of what’s on offer. I think this gets back to the power of specificity. It forces a reader closer to the position of someone actually choosing between items on this list, whereas generality (cookies and meat snacks and shampoo!) keeps the whole thing more abstract, more distanced. It’s like zooming close enough on wood to see the grain, the texture, rather than simply the larger shape or cut of the thing. I was actually so attached to this list that I fought for it against the probing of the fact checker. The commissary list changed between the time I wrote the essay and the time it was published. I felt it was more accurate to use the list that Charlie had had, rather than the one that happened to be accurate when OA was running the essay. But really I couldn’t stand the thought of losing Lusti Oil.
I found rules. There were rules about movement and rules about hygiene and rules about possession. Too many possessions could be a fire hazard. You were allowed five books and one photo album. Hobby craft materials had to be disposed of immediately after use. Finished hobby crafts could only be sent to people on your official visitation list. There would be no postal harassment by hobby craft.
I saw what happens if you follow the rules: there wasn’t just basic didn’t-fuck-up official Good Time (Statutory Good Time) but also Extra Good Time, further divided into Industrial Good Time, Community Corrections Center Good Time, Meritorious Good Time, and Camp Good Time. Camp Good Time. Not really.
Did Charlie provide you with this weird prison lingo?
I found it online, when I was researching prison rules and regulations, and the irony really struck me — the Orwellian quality of language whose texture evokes the opposite of its substance.
Heading south down I-79, I feel the border between Maryland and West Virginia as smooth highway turning to sandpaper. The land is beautiful. Really beautiful—endless lush forests, pristine and unblemished, countless shades of green on hills layered back into drifts of fog. I start thinking maybe coal mining is just a notion someone had about West Virginia; or something they like to talk about on NPR. Maybe it’s just a theme for the twisted-steel sculpture garden I see to my left—Coal Country Miniature Golf—and not an actual series of scars in the earth. Because this place seems phenomenally unscarred, phenomenally pure. Freeway exits promise beautiful, luminous places: Whisper Mountain, Saltlick Creek, Cranberry Glades.
I spend the night with Cat, a friend from college, who covers Fayette County for a local paper. Cat lives in a ramshackle house strung with Mexican fiesta flags and skirted by an apron of oddly comforting debris: a pile of old dresses, a bucket of crushed PBR cans, an empty tofu carton with its plastic flap crushed onto the dirt. Cat lives there with her boyfriend Drew—a veteran of anarchist communal living who now works deconstruction and salvage, taking apart empty homes and selling their flooring to hip bars in northern states—and Andrew, a community organizer who works on land reform.
Their home reveals itself in dream-like pieces: a pile of crusted dishes, a bone on the floor, a giant spider lurking in a white ceramic mug, a fabric owl covered in sequins, a square of vegan spanakopita catching fire in the toaster oven, a dog to whom the bone belongs, a creek out back and a giant slab of rock for sunning and a garden too, full of beets and cabbage and spinach-for-vegan-spanakopita and blossoming sweet peas curling up wire lattice and even the tiny, barely sprouted beginning of a pecan tree.
I sit with Cat and Drew in a cozy room, under a bare yellow light and its fluttering density of flies and moths. A tiny flying thing dies in my spanakopita. I ask Cat what she writes about for her newspaper. She says one of her first stories was about Boy Scouts. Leaders in southern West Virginia fought hard for the Boy Scouts to locate a new retreat center here. They offered to build roads. They offered tax breaks to local contractors. They were eager for an industry that wouldn’t involve plundering the land.
The Boy Scouts built their retreat on an old strip mine. When Cat was interviewing the flocks of scouts who came to clear trails, she asked if they knew how surface mining worked—the blasting of entire mountaintops, the razing-bare of the earth, the turning of forest into dirt-brown vistas. The Boy Scouts didn’t know. They were horrified. But why would you—? That’s when a bigger Boy Scout arrived. A Boy Scout in charge of other Boy Scouts. He said the conversation was over.
Cat and Drew tell me how to pronounce Fayetteville—like Fay-ut-vul—and they also tell me about bigger stuff, like how most of West Virginia’s forest has been cleared at some point since the 1870s—in multiple waves—for the sake of salt and oil and coal and lumber and gas. But it looks so green, I say. I tell them about my drive south—those lush hills, their lovely curves receding into the middle distance.
Drew nods. Yep, he says. There’s no surface mining near the highways.
Potemkin Forests! I feel like an idiot. Cat tells me to look out for what they call beauty lines—rows of trees planted along hill crests to mask the vast moonscapes of mine-ravaged land beyond. I am one of the Boy Scouts. I am being told about the wrongness right in front of me. Drew says that some of the land here has been mined so much it’s essentially on stilts, barely holding itself up. They call this land honeycombed. West Virginia is like a developing nation. It has so many resources and it has been screwed over again and again: locals used for labor; land used for riches; other people taking the profits.
How can I explain the magic of that house? It was a paradise on damaged land, with its fiesta flags and its flutter of moths, its sequined owl and mounds of embryonic squash rising from whatever earth was left between the stilts—and Drew and Cat so full of goodness, their nerves so awake to this world, explaining it so patiently, inhabiting with utter grace their small fraction of a torn territory.
In their hallway the next morning, I find a different dog than the one I saw the night before. This dog seems friendly too. I don’t feel like I’ve gotten much sleep but I can remember what I dreamed: I was interviewing a man in a dingy diner and I had just gotten through my chitchat questions and was preparing to get into it—though I wasn’t sure what “it” was—when the man rose to pay the bill. I woke with a feeling of panic: I hadn’t asked any of the questions that mattered.
It’s a dream so obvious I feel betrayed by it. It neither dissolves an extant fear nor illuminates a new one. It simply tells me I’m afraid I’ll say stupid things (as I’m always afraid of saying stupid things), that I will ask questions that are beside the point, that my curiosity will prove little more than useless voyeurism, a girl lifting her sunglasses to peer between the bars, stuttering What’s it like here? What part hurts the most?
This whole section seems like a gorgeous digression. What’s the narrative purpose?
My digression about the narrative purpose(s) of this digression could probably become an entire narrative in its own right. I never intended for Cat — or her house, or West Virginia more generally — to become part of this piece. I wanted to write about Charlie, and our relationship, and his experience about prison. But West Virginia really intruded on this essay; it felt impossible not to talk about it. I hate when writers use quasi-mystical language that obscures the actual process — invoking the destiny or intentions of a piece, or its characters, as independent of intention — so I’ll try to say it simply: I was so struck by the power of West Virginia — its beauty, its wounds — that I followed a massive unfounded intuition and let myself write out what felt powerful to me about being there. Intuitively, I had a sense that things were connected — the sense of a damaged place that was largely ignored or misunderstood by collective vision, this all felt conceptually connected to incarceration and logistically connected by the fact that incarceration is a major industry in West Virginia. These correspondences are more than simply cute intellectual resonances; they are driven by powerful and unfortunate economic realities. So there was a sense that it was all connected — but I initially wrote the digression because one of my only rules about writing is that I allow myself to follow the energy (and I hate what kind of quasi-mystical language, exactly?) and it felt like there was a lot of energy in the experience I’d had with Cat, at her home. Looking back, I think that the digression does a few different things: It sets up this Edenic place that contrasts with the space of prison the next day; it pushes back against the unilateral conception of West Virginia as damaged; it allows for a micro-narrative of my own busted illusions (Potemkin forests) and gives a sense of me as an outsider trying to get some grip on this place. It also admits — yet again — that I’m a human being rather than a disembodied journalistic “I” — I woke up in a regular bed and petted weird dogs before I went to prison; I didn’t wake up inside a sleek business suit made of objectivity.
I end up finding quarters in a coffee shop tucked under the gray stone wing of a church. I drive to Beaver. I watch for beauty lines from the highway. I can’t pick them out, which I suppose is the point. NPR runs a segment on rural schools in dirt-poor mining counties, while local radio plays advertisements from mines looking to hire.
Mining and incarceration are both looming presences on the West Virginia landscape—both willfully obscured and misrepresented, their growth slopes neatly inverted. Mining is an industry in decline; incarceration is on the rise. The number of inmates in West Virginia has quadrupled since 1990. People with political influence and powerful economic interests allow the state to be exploited by new industries in order to repair the damage old industries have caused.
In the false American imagination, West Virginia is a joke or else it’s a charity case; but more than anything it is unseen, an invisible architecture of labor and struggle; and incarceration shares this invisibility, hidden at the center of everything; our slipshod remedy for an abiding fear, danger pinned to human bodies and then slotted into bunk beds you can’t see from any highway.
Did you always envision this story as a multi-headed portrait: of the prison, of Charlie and the state itself? Are they necessarily entwined?
As I mentioned above, I didn’t imagine this essay being about West Virginia when I first conceived it — that’s just where Charlie happened to be incarcerated — but it ended up feeling important. Are they “necessarily” entwined? No, definitely not. But it gets back to what you said earlier about writing an essay only you can write (also something I tell my writing students) — in this version of this story that I could tell, everything had to get involved. I was lucky to be publishing with OA because they were very flexible with the essay including material we hadn’t been expecting it to include.
Charlie is one of these bodies. His story is the story of a system that strip-mined the American housing market and peeled away whatever it could, leaving the economy on stilts—land on stilts, subprime-hollowed earth—and balancing an impossible future on dreams and greed. Now we try to live in the aftermath. We punish where it’s possible. We take a systemic tragedy and turn it into neatly packaged recompense: time served.
I follow my GPS to 1600 Industrial Park Road. I don’t make a right turn into Beckley or a left turn into Beckley. The road simply becomes Beckley. I pass an empty guard’s hut and find myself curving between strangely manicured banks of lawn and clusters of forest that remind me of nothing so much as a country club. This is also true of rehab centers. Is there a correlation between these Potemkin vistas and the suffering therein? So many connections, I’d think, but it’s a fascinating question and here are a few connections that come to mind first: The landscaping is the physical/horticultural/visual expression of the notion of “getting better” — that there’s some sort of hope or investment evident in that desire to beautify — that’s both genuine and also a corrosive mythology/falsification — more in the case of prison than rehab — because it disguises the fact of what’s happening beyond the manicured lawns, which is sanctioned detainment. In the case of FCI Beckley it’s a little harder to be straightforwardly indignant about that irony, though, because some of the prisoners have enough freedom of motion (because it’s part prison camp) that they’re actually benefiting from the care put into the visual dimensions of that place — or at least they have some access to that environment. But maybe being somewhere “pretty” just makes it worse. Sometimes empathy is really about throwing up your hands and saying, “I don’t know.” I do know that so many sentences of this essay could have unfurled into much longer digressions — even if it seems like I’m already following every digression possible!
First, I go to the wrong prison. FCI Beckley consists of two facilities: a medium-security prison and a lower-security Satellite Camp. I know Charlie is housed at the Satellite Camp—along with the other minimum-security guys, mostly there for drugs or white-collar crimes—but for some reason I think I still have to get processed at the main building. This is not the case. The guard on duty shows his irritation at my ignorance. Before we discover this large mistake, however, he has the opportunity to point out smaller ones: I’m carrying my purse. We’ll need to put that in a locker. I’m wearing a skirt. He was a very young man with a very long sentence. I want to tell the guard: “My skirt is long! I’m wearing underwear!” I feel my body as an object and agent of violation. I feel suspected and imagined.
I fill out a visiting form alongside an elderly couple. I notice the woman has a plastic baggie full of quarters and dollars; I feel a kind of kinship. She is also looking ahead to the vending machines—has come prepared to offer her son snacks, at least, and company, if she can offer him nothing else. How did you know she was waiting for her son? Did you talk to her? Nope, purely speculative. Could have been her nephew or her son-in-law or just a guy who had husband as a Boy Scout leader 20 years ago. I’d like to think I’ve constructed an essayistic voice where it’s clear I do some speculation — I don’t think there’s anything wrong with speculation; that wrongness only comes when you pass it off as something more certain.
I wait while the guard gets off the phone. It seems like he’s talking to someone who is about to check himself in. “Self-surrender?” The guard says into the receiver. “You can bring a Bible and your medications.” Strange to imagine a man at home, or wherever he’s calling from, being told the terms of how he will be systematically stripped of almost every possession, a thousand freedoms.
Once he gets off the phone, the guard resumes telling me things I have messed up: I don’t have Charlie’s number written on the form, because I don’t have it memorized. But he can look up his name, which I have also spelled wrong because I’ve gotten so flustered, and that’s when the guard tells me I need to go back down the road to the Satellite Camp. This is, on some level, a reporter’s nightmare taken to the extreme. Except instead of, say, forgetting a second set of batteries for your recorder, you’ve gone to the wrong prison. Why mention this stuff? Writers don’t generally don’t divulge how the sausage gets made. How does the story change if the reader is unaware of your missteps? This is perfect question to ask of/about this essay, because I think it gets to the heart of what the essay is trying to do — not offer a straight reported/journalistic account of Charlie’s trial or his incarceration, but document a process: the process of my trying to understand, as best I could, what kind of damage had happened to his life and how that damage might connect to other sorts of damage around him. For me, confessing my own missteps was probably three-fold: partially about warning readers not to mistake my account for something absolutely seamless or objective — as if such a thing could be possible; partially about offering another emotional dimension of my own experience (I felt the burden of telling this story right, and the looming truth of how imperfectly I was telling it); and partially about suggesting that prison is an institution that puts all sorts of rules/restrictions on anyone in its purview, not just those incarcerated in its bounds. By the way, it’s impossible for me to talk about any of this — the role of confession in reportage — without acknowledging Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, where James Agee is always telling you everything you didn’t want to know about how the sausage got made: how the Burroughs family’s food almost made him throw up, how he was obsessed with killing all the bedbugs on his mattress. I owe that book such debts; a lot of us do.
At the Satellite Camp, the guards are nicer, but I am still doing things wrong: I park on the wrong side of the lot. I still have my purse and I need to put it in my car. I feel like saying: But up there they had lockers! I want to show off my knowledge of something. Anything. My purse is a black canvas bag with a yellow dinosaur on it. Officer Jennings is almost ready to make an exception. “A dinosaur exception,” I say. Jennings likes this. The guys down here at the Satellite Camp seem open to speaking this way—as humans, joking around. Jennings asks me whether Charlie ever got that cyst drained. I say I’m not sure. I love that you take a moment to humanize, to flesh out these characters when it probably isn’t necessary. Hey thanks. I don’t really believe in villains — or maybe I think the job of the essayist is to push back against villainy, to show that every villain probably had a hard relationship with his dad, etc. I have also failed at being a good pen pal.
I hear them call Charlie’s name on the loudspeaker. I am thinking of all the families who never mess up anything, who’ve got the routine down cold, have its every motion committed to muscle memory. There’s a certain heartbreak in knowing this minutiae so well: the inmate number, the plastic bag of quarters, the jeans and the hard chairs and the faces of the guards, each one’s particular tolerance for humor, the twist and curve of the roads, the eventual selection of barbecue chips or gummy fruit snacks; the motions of greeting and exit, how you might carry yourself differently saying hello and saying goodbye.
Charlie stands at the visiting room entrance: a handsome man nearing fifty with short silvering hair. He’s wearing big black boots and an olive uniform, his number printed over his heart. I’m not sure about the rules. Can we hug? Turns out we can. We do. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a story in which a writer hugged a subject. I assume there was no concern that readers might find you too close to Charlie? Indeed — the journalist and the hugger. This gets back to the issue of being open with readers — I think of any essay/article/piece as a relationship between reader and writer; you’re just managing their expectations. It’s almost like I’m saying here: Just to be upfront, I care about this guy. He means something to me. If you don’t want an essay with any emotional entanglement, put this one down. It would be worse to hug Charlie and dissimulate about it. But there are other rules: Charlie isn’t allowed to use the vending machines, only I am, so he has to tell me what he wants; and we’re not allowed to sit next to each other, only across from each other, for reasons I’d rather not consider. When I look at all the chairs arranged around the room I see there is often one singled out, apart from the others: the inmate’s chair, facing everyone.
Over the course of our visit, my Fay-ut-vul quarters buy us the following: a block of peanut-butter cheddar crackers, a bag of M&M cookies, a bag of Cheez-Its and one of Chex Mix, a Snickers bar, a huge “Texas”-sized cookie as big as a child’s face, a Coke, a Diet Coke, and two grape-flavored waters—the second one a mistake, or else a free gift to me from the Bureau of Prisons. Our table turns into a miniature landfill.
It’s a Monday, not a weekend, so the visiting room isn’t crowded. Nearly everyone stays until three. We’re an ecosystem. The family sitting next to the vending machines reminds me to take my leftover twenty cents. Two little girls are obsessed with the thin line of ants near the window. One of them starts telling Charlie about a sorcerer, and something about her birthday, a monologue that remains largely unintelligible until she pauses to say, quite clearly: “I hate evil.”
Charlie says, “I do too.” Was this recorded, or are you a good note-taker? Are recorders even allowed in the prison? No paper, no pen, no recorder, no nothing. When I can, I generally record interviews. I am a good note-taker, but I’m also a good fiction-writer — and I try to be aware of my impulse (subconscious, even) to invent or embellish to serve the story. Having a recorded version of the interview pushes back even better than notes, though both help.
When these girls first came in—with their pretty, dark-haired mother—Charlie told me he heard their father got reduced time for telling on an innocent man. I hate evil. What do we call a government with marijuana laws so strict that one man has to tell on another so he can get out in time for his daughter’s fifth birthday? A few paragraphs ago, you note you could only sit across from Charlie, “for reasons I’d rather not consider” — forcing the reader to do the considering. The reader is prompted to silently fill in the blank here, too. Yeah, I do think you’re right to point out some of the ways this essay is subtly or not-so-subtly corralling readers’ sympathies — politically, personally — but I also think the essay is pretty upfront about its desires. But I was also trying to turn the screw a bit here — Charlie came down hard on this guy for having been an informer; I was trying to think about the larger context around that act.
The girls seem so comfortable with their father—eager to sit on his lap, laugh at his funny faces, gratuitously court his already-granted attention—but this ease feels deceptive. They must associate this place with long drives, nebulous fear, men in uniforms, and their mother’s sadness.
Two frail old white women arrive. One hangs her pink cane on the back of a chair. The cane matches her lipstick. The women are eventually joined by a large black inmate. Charlie watches my face. He smiles, “Not what you were expecting?” He tells me these women are raising the man’s kids. They show him photographs. They buy him a bag of pretzels. Caitlin, the little girl who hates evil, tries to grab the pink cane. “Not a toy!” her mother shouts. The old woman doesn’t appear to notice. She calmly reaches two orange-dusted fingers into a bag of Cheetos, brings another one to her dry painted lips, and watches her tall friend stare at the changed face of his own child.
Charlie and I spend the first few hours talking about his case. Rereading this story, I’m struck by how little Charlie’s actual voice — as opposed to his letters — is actually in it. Why is that? A couple pragmatic reasons — I had six hours of conversation to compress, so paraphrasing was more efficient; and I didn’t have any notes, so “direct quotes” would have been more fabricated than summary. He offers a couple theories about Nordlander: probably Nordlander was a kid who got his head flushed down the toilet; maybe he thinks Charlie was the kid who flushed it. I find myself growing restless. Why is that? I feel like I’m in the middle of a story Charlie has already told—which is probably true, but it’s also the story behind his confinement. It’s the story that shapes everything about his life. Of course he’d want to keep telling it.
I feel a pressure to separate my stance from Charlie’s—to make myself author, and him subject—but I also feel it as an act of violence to disagree with him about his own life in any way. Is this internal conflict something you’d experienced while working on prior stories, or was it exclusive to Charlie? I could write about this issue forever. It’s hard to imagine running out of things to say about this subject; I have confronted it whenever I’ve written about anyone, ever: people in my life (in my personal essays) and subjects of other reported/researched pieces. I think there’s an abiding desire to believe — as a writer — that if you can find some core truth in a story, that truth will gleam out and everyone will feel a little dazzled by it, even/especially the people it’s about; that if you can just say something profound or beautiful enough, everyone will just feel so grateful your insight is in the world that they’ll love you for it. This could not be more wrong. It’s pretty brutal to represent peoples’ lives in your own terms — it’s a real wresting-away of power — and I’ve had to reckon with reactions to that. I’m a conflict avoider in real life; and fiction was easier for me in that regard. Charlie was a big fan of this piece, as it happens, but that’s more the exception than the rule. I want to talk about his life here. I want to talk about who he has become in this place, what it has summoned from him. But I realize my interest betrays the privilege of my freedom: life in here is novelty to me; for Charlie it’s day-in, day-out reality. For me it’s interesting. For him it’s terrible.
Charlie indulges my curiosity. He tells me he sleeps on a bunk bed in an open room divided into fifty cubicles, like a corporate office, only the partitions are cinder block and no one can leave. He tells me about the black-market currency (stamps) and where the fights usually happen (the TV room and the basketball court). He tells me how life is different across the street, in medium-security, where he’s heard footballs full of coke are tossed over the fence and guards get paid to pick them up. Did you check this? The fact-checker did some research but eventually we just had Charlie’s word. I will say it was stated without the “he’s heard” and the fact-checker — in her quest to get some verification — eventually decided we needed that phrase. I agreed. Across the street guys are owned and rented. Sex acts aren’t seen as gay. “Suck a dick here in camp, it’s because you want to,” Charlie explains. “Across the street it’s because you needed the money, or you were forced.” He’s speaking softer so the old women behind us won’t hear. This is wonderful. You seem so aware of what’s going on around you and Charlie. Is sharp peripheral vision required to be a nonfiction writer? Yes! Peripheral vision is the perfect phrase for it — so much of what makes nonfiction great, I think, are those unexpected angles/details that illuminate the main subject from some fresh vantage. In a way, West Virginia itself — Cat’s house, the forests, the highway — crept into this essay by way of peripheral vision. Once you notice things on the margins, it’s a question of integration/linkage/collage without being too overbearing in an attempt to make everything thematically relevant or connected.
I can’t figure out if hearing all this brings me closer to Charlie or simply illuminates the gulf between us. Am I learning his world or simply perusing its memorable specifics, shopping like a tourist in the commissary? Sometimes Charlie says, “I’m giving you this,” before offering an anecdote. Charlie seems to be an unusually self-aware, poised subject. Did his savviness make you guarded? His savviness made me feel aware of power dynamics in our conversation. He had a story he wanted to tell that he’d told many times before — at that point, it was the defining story of his life. So I wanted to honor that, but I also didn’t want to feel completely disenfranchised as an interviewer; I wanted him to know I wasn’t swallowing every word without some interrogation. That said, Charlie is a bit of a celebrity and this was palpable when I was speaking to him. He was aware of creating an identity with everything he said. His prison life is only mine at his bequest. I’m giving him my attention and he’s giving me something else—not the currency of stamps but rather specifics, intimate access—or its texture, at least—granted by way of details.
Charlie is generous with specifics. He tells me he spent two days running 135 miles around the prison’s gravel track back in July. He timed it to coincide with the Badwater Ultramarathon, a race “out there”—through the flat, baked reaches of Death Valley—that Charlie has finished five times. Charlie only stopped running laps for mandatory count, at four o’clock, and then to sleep. These days he organizes a workout group: a guy named Adam, a guy called Butterbean, and the camp’s only Jewish man, Dave, who has an incarcerated wife and a six-month-old baby born in prison. Butterbean has lost fifty pounds since he started training with Charlie, Adam more than a hundred. Did you talk to Adam, Butterbean and Dave? I would love to talk to Butterbean and Dave someday — but no, all this through Charlie.
But Charlie isn’t popular with everyone. He tells me some of the white guys don’t like that he doesn’t like their racism; and a black guy called him a “white cracker motherfucker” after UNC beat Duke last March. The guy was a Duke fan, and Charlie had been gloating. But Charlie is generally tactful. He knows he has to let the older black guys shush the younger black guys when they’re playing poker too loud; a middle-aged white guy has no place telling them to be quiet. But he also tells me he’s not afraid to get in another guy’s face. You have to be an asshole—just a little bit—if you don’t want to get pushed around.
Not getting pushed around is a relative concept when the government is telling you where your body can and cannot be.
“I’m easy to ignore in here,” says Charlie. He’s learned that weekends are especially difficult—people are busy with their own lives and aren’t in touch as frequently. He feels it most on Fridays. I remember how he described Fridays in his letter: squares of unknown fish, rowdy dominos late at night, no race to look forward to the next day. He can’t do the smallest, simplest things—send a text, for example, or leave a message on someone’s phone, or have a conversation that isn’t punctuated by the constant automated announcement of his incarceration. He lives in another world, and speaking to him always involves speaking across the border between that world and the one we call ours, the one we call outside, the one we call real.
Charlie tells me about his notion of “inner mobility,” something he picked up from Jack London, which involves just that—going somewhere when he’s not allowed to go anywhere. For Charlie, inner mobility means reading books, but it also means following his imagination into other places, other scenarios: “I don’t treat it like fantasy,” he says, “where I always end up naked with the beautiful woman.” Instead it’s something trickier, less like wish fulfillment and more like making himself vulnerable to circumstance—one of the many subtle liberties this place denies: the freedom to be acted upon by many frames, many scenarios, rather than the single abiding context of incarceration. The principle of inner mobility is double-edged, opportunity and consequence: “I am free to nap when I want, go for a run when I want, fall in love, jump from a building, or eat cake till I puke,” he says. “The most important rule of my inner mobility is that I must follow the trail where it leads and sometimes that is not going to end well.” This articulation of desire fascinates me—to follow the trail wherever, not just someplace good.
Incarceration doesn’t simply take away the ability to get what you want, it takes away the freedom to screw up—binge on cake or jump from too high or fuck the wrong folks. This is a jarring revelation. I mean, we’re nearing the end of the story and by this point you’ve given me a pretty palpable portrait of prison’s terrors. Turns out, it’s incalculably more awful. It’s interesting; a number of people have mentioned this moment as powerful for them — in terms of imagining what incarceration must be like — including my brother, another ultrarunner. (Perhaps ultrarunners are particularly sensitive to any form of mobility (inner or outer) that gets taken from them?) In any case, it’s a nice reminder of one of the central ethical calls of the essay — to show what is already known (or thought to be known) in some unexpected way.
Charlie tells me he stopped asking friends to come because it felt too painful to watch them leave. Wish You Were Here is just a Band-Aid over Wish I Was There; Wish You Were Here is never quite enough. When he tells how that moment of departure hurts, we both know we aren’t exempt. No matter how much we talk, or what we talk about—no matter how well Charlie describes prison, or how well I listen—our visit will end. How, how, how … There’s that repetition again. What can I say, what can I claim, what can I protest? I love anaphora. Every moment we spend together gestures toward this horizon of departure—like the perspective point in a painting, everything refers to it. Confessing it does nothing to dissolve it.
Three o’clock is just another hour in the day but it is also the difference between me and Charlie, between our clothes and the dinners we’ll eat that night, between the number of people we’ll touch in the next week, between those liberties the state has deemed appropriate for his body and for mine. Every guy inside has a dream for when he leaves, Charlie says: one guy wants to sell workout videos based on his prison fitness regimen; another guy wants to run an ice-cream boat.
Three o’clock is when one of us goes, the other one stays. Three o’clock is the end of the fantasy that his world was open or that I ever entered it. When the truth is we never occupied the same space. A space isn’t the same for a person who has chosen to be there and a person who hasn’t. This is such a painful line, a painful realization. Do you think this is true generally of the writer-subject relationship? I think it is always true that two people standing in the same room are always there in different ways, and that the author and subject are always coming to their interaction with different needs — and often those needs are at cross-purposes — but I think prison makes this question of inhabiting the same physical space particularly loaded. Malcolm has a psychoanalytic reading in which she posits that the subject opens up to the interviewer as if the interviewer were a forgiving mother, and is then judged and reported/punished by the interviewer as a father-figure instead. I don’t always agree with Malcolm but I am always mentioning her, which must mean something.
The neglect here is almost unimaginable—and it’s not just neglect from the Beckley staff but from the world itself—the world that has carried on with its daily business while keeping all these men invisibly deposited elsewhere, in a slew of the nation’s most obscure corners. On the outside, you can think about prison for a moment and then you can think about something else. Inside, it’s every moment. It’s impossible to ignore.
The fog count comes at three o’clock—on a perfectly clear day—and some of us exercise our right to disappear and others are reminded that they no longer can. One man exercises his right to run 540 times around a gravel track. What happens when you confine a man whose whole life is motion? I guess that, those laps.
Maybe tonight I’ll dream those endless acres of moonscape beyond the beauty lines. Maybe I’ll meet that stranger again. Maybe he’ll come back to the greasy diner. Maybe I’ll buy him a Coke, or a cookie the size of his face, and he can stand for every man who’s ever had a story and I can stand for everyone who hasn’t listened hard enough. I’m easy to ignore in here. I’ll ask that stranger every single question any person ever asked another person. I’ll ask enough questions to dissolve rhetoric and cinder block partitions; I’ll ask him enough questions to make him visible again, so many questions we’ll have to stay in the dream of that diner forever.
Fog counts come when the sky goes opaque and movement feels possible, when the boundaries between the free and the quarantined are harder to see—never dissolved, only hidden—and so the tallies arrive with greater urgency: those who have done wrong are tallied, those who haven’t are tallied beside them, and all around the perimeter is a border backed by guns—or the threat of extended sentences—and this border runs like a scar across already scarred land. Prison is a wound we keep tucked in those parts of the country that can’t afford to turn it away, who need its jobs or revenue, who must endure the quiet violence of its physical presence—its “Don’t Pick Up Hitchhikers” warning signs, its barbed-wire fences—the same way a place must endure the removal of its mountaintops and the plundering of its seams: because a powerful rhetoric insists that we can only be delivered from our old scars by tolerating new ones. Conclusions are, I think, the most difficult part to write. This is perfect. Did you always intend to end on the bird’s-eye view rather than Charlie? I didn’t always intend to end with the birds-eye view, though I like that you call it that — it draws out the fact that the final viewpoint of the essay only reinforces what I’ve said earlier (about the difference in mobility between my vantage point and Charlie’s) — the fact that I’m zooming out, gazing outward and noticing everything, is only possible for me because I’m not in his position. In any case, I didn’t know the essay would end up being about so many things — once I started it — but I got to this ending by really putting pressure on myself to figure out how these threads were all related, to justify to myself why I was putting them in the same piece, why I felt like they belonged there. There was a feeling of purging some of this difficult material by making fugue out of it.
Elon Green writes for The Awl and contributes to Longform.org and to Storyboard. His last installment of Annotation Tuesday! looked at Amy Wallace’s classic profile of former Variety editor Peter Bart. For the full Annotation Tuesday! archives, go here.