David Ulin: Hi everybody. I'm David L Ulin. I'm the books editor of Alta Journal, and welcome to the May edition of the California Book Club. This afternoon, or this evening, we will be watching a conversation between John Freeman and Rachel Kushner, author of the novel, The Mars Room. Before we get to that conversation, a few kind of program notes. I want to just talk a little bit about the book club, which is a monthly book club focusing on the literature of California. And also Alta Journal, which is a journal of the west: Western United States, California in the Western United States, Old West, New West, all the West's in between. And we are particularly interested or have been particularly interested in book coverage at a time when a lot of publications are scaling back their book coverage. We are trying to move in the opposite direction and cover as many books and as much literature as we possibly can.
Literature is the lifeblood of the culture, and that is what we are here to celebrate tonight. So I want to first thank our partners. We couldn't do this without a series of partners, and those include Book Passage Books, Inc. Book Soup, Bookshop, Diesel, A Bookstore, the Huntington USC Institute on California in the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Vroman's bookstore, Narrative Magazine, and Zyzzyva. And I also want to introduce a sale for California Book Club members. And let you know that $50, just $50. You can get a year of Alta Journal, a California Book Club tote bag. I'll do my little show and tell here. It is a bad show and tell, but some show and tell, and also one of our upcoming California Book Clubs. If you want more information, you can check at altaonline.com/tote.
And please watch tomorrow's thank you email for a link to this deal. Also, you can visit the California Book Club Clubhouse to keep the conversation going. This is a space that Alta has created for California Book Club members to allow you to dig even deeper into the Mars Room and the other books that have been selected for the book clubs, sharing questions, discussing tonight's event and the upcoming California Book Club titles. You'll find links to sign up for the clubhouse in the comment section and also in tomorrow's email. So now let me turn it over to John Freeman, the host of California Book Club, who will introduce Rachel and kick off the conversation, John, over to you.
John Freeman: Hello, thank you for coming. It's a real pleasure to be here to be talking about Rachel Kushner's novel, The Mars Room. All of Rachel Kushner's books have been about revolutions from the tumult of Telex from Cuba, to the artists who animate the Flamethrowers, her second novel. What happens though, when people aren't in charge of these changes of their lives.
This seems to me to be the story of The Mars Room, which unfolds in California in 2003 and some years before capturing the moment its prisons grew from a heaving state system to a gargantuan human eating machine. Like everything in California, it didn't have to be this way. And so among other things, the Mars Room was a book about lost chances and it makes us feel the ache of that and telling stories within stories about the lost souls, who people its pages, mostly inmates at a women's prison and Stanville that Romy Hall, our protagonist, is sent to for a crime we read our way towards. I haven't read a book in a long time that is this full of talk, which feels real like a garrulous space made up of the people trapped in it.
It's not just set in a women's prison too. There's so much in here on the landscape of the so-called "Golden state": the scuzzy underwater world of San Francisco strip bars, where Romy worked, the dirty cops drive around sidle bow in their seats, mimicking the criminality they declared themselves the protectors of. It's a gorgeous, deeply sad propulsive book, The Mars Room, the likes of which I've never read. She might be our Jean Genet, or Dostoevsky, or Elena Poniatowska. A writer whose style doesn't enshrine her own hip self-regard, but rather it does something far more radical. Rachel Kushner turns her readers gazes back out to the world she has drawn from, showing it to us as the fallen place we so often pretend it is not. Please join me in welcoming Rachel Kushner.
Rachel Kushner: Hi John.
John Freeman: Hey Rachel, how are you?
Rachel Kushner: I'm good. Thanks for that very flattering introduction. It's really an honor to be here and to see all these people logging in and think already about, I don't know, California and readers and independent bookstores for starters.
John Freeman: Yeah, that was one of our goals with this book club is to gather together independent booksellers and readers who go to those places to try to read our way into the best books coming out of and about California and your book really rose right to the top of our lists. And I wanted to ask you, you mentioned that you thought of this as your California book and it made me realize that the Flamethrowers is New York in 1975, 77 is East Village, as well as Italy. Telex from Cuba is this very specific enclave within Cuba and during the revolution and California is not a microcosm, but it is in the way you treat it. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that.
Rachel Kushner: Sure. Thanks. I like the way you have props holding up the books. Yeah. So The Mars Room is my third novel. And you know, as you've mentioned, the prior two, the Flamethrowers and Telex from Cuba, I do not consider those books, quote, unquote, historical novels, nonetheless, neither takes place in the contemporary moment. There may be aspects for me of the contemporary in the Flamethrowers in the way that one's own life kind of gets refracted through a space; it's about the seventies and political uprest then, but I wrote it during Occupy and some of what I was experienced filters into that, but I had not written a contemporary novel when I was onto my third book. And I hate to admit that I would ever be shaped by any larger collective notion of what it means to be a fiction writer, but a certain primacy is placed on parsing the contemporary, holding up a mirror to society as the cliche goes.
And I kept asking myself, well, what is my contemporary? Because in certain ways, I live in the present, but I'm also removed from it in a sense, I'm not that interested in hyper modern technologies, the way that some writers like to, name one I admire, like Don DeLillo, I feel can kind of read the tea leaves of the present moment and see the pattern and the shape and write something very prescient and anticipatory that tells us who we are. I don't really have that kind of mind, but I was interested in the challenge of writing about the contemporary. Specifically, I think because we live in history, it's simply that it's taking place as we're living. And so we don't have this kind of hindsight on it. Like what does it mean? And I thought, well, California is a future facing place, for good and also for bad. It seems in a way too, it has a lot of utopian promise in it that trickles back down to how life functions here.
But it also gives us glimpses of the near brutality, I think for everyone. And so in a way I thought the contemporary is California in the way that California is future facing. What's the contemporary of California? I'm from San Francisco. I live in Los Angeles, walking distance from the largest criminal court complex in the world, Clara Shortridge Foltz, which itself is walking distance from the largest jail complex. But it wasn't really just, "I want to write a prison novel." It was more, I want to write about the texture and feel of life in this state. So hopefully there's beauty and humor in it too, which are real parts of it to me. But in terms of California, I was thinking also about the epic scale of the place, the size of the state, the art, the geography, there's something almost like a kind of the sublime in terms of like beauty and nature and also the sublime in terms of like a kind of gaping expanse that's scary, when you go through the central valley, it doesn't feel like it's a place that welcomes humans.
It's not scaled to the human. It's industrial farming. And also just the size of our economy. I'm always spouting this, but it's because I have to wrap my head around it over and over that we are the fifth largest economy in the world and we have this huge prison system and we have extreme inequality here. And so it's like the scale of it, the epic nature of it, the beauty of it, and the diversity of people and all of these people who moved to California from, for instance, Texas and Louisiana in the great migration when there were auto industry jobs, steel industry, and aerospace industry jobs in LA for black Americans, all of that, I can feel it just as a person who lives here. And so it seemed very much the terrain for a novelist to try to figure out why California is organized socially and geographically, the way that it is. But also of course, to tell a story in which I had some skin in the game, which is about this girl from San Francisco.
John Freeman: The story of that migration to Los Angeles was sort of in the background of Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress, which was one of our previous reads. And you mentioned Louisiana just now. There's a wonderful small cameo in here by a character named Rodney who comes from Louisiana and winds up in Los Angeles as a drug dealer. And briefly dates one of the main characters in this book. And just in that tiny construction of this lead-up into a question, I show that this is a book of many characters, although Romy is one of the most central ones, as well as Gordon Hauser is an educator in the prison. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the methodology of building this book. It begins with this amazing bus ride at night, a night transfer into prison, which was described with such luminescence, a specific detail. I think Rachel Kushner must've been on one of these buses. Is that the case?
Rachel Kushner: No, luckily for me, I've never been on a prison transport bus, but I've been in a lot of carceral environment visiting people or doing kind of like human rights documentation work, et cetera. And living in LA, those buses are a part of my daily visual reality. They are by design meant not to be noticed so much. The windows are darkened so that you cannot see in. People can see out. And I didn't know that. I wouldn't have necessarily known that, except that I've talked to a lot of people who've spent time on those buses. I didn't really ask anybody, "Tell me about what it was like the night you were taken from LA county, put on a bus and driven up to start serving your sentence." That's a huge moment in people's lives to go from jail to prison is a really big deal.
Even if it's maybe would seem to someone who hasn't experienced either a simple transfer from one carceral setting to another. I think for people it has the, "this is the moment. This is it. I've never been to prison. I'm going, I don't know what it's going to be like." And I had heard from friends, there are people crying on the bus and for people who are going back, they're eager to get there because there's a lot about the jail environment that you cannot control at all, which isn't to say you have much control in prison, but if you've been there before and have a certain social seniority, you're eager to get back and set up your rig and finish with your jail time. So those people on the bus are going to be more impatient and intolerant of the people who are freaking out understandably about what they're heading into.
So I talk to people about that a little bit. I thought about it a lot. And I do that drive a lot from LA up to Chowchilla, which is the big women's prison. I think technically it's actually the largest women's prison in the world. It's a bit north of Fresno. And because I do that drive, I guess it sort of entered my mind that the creative challenge was to think about how I would feel and what I would see among the scenes, beyond the windows. And then also what kinds of conversations people would be having on that bus. And your first scene in a novel is a major showcase for the book because you're setting up the tone and the personalities and that needs to happen right away. There can't be any throat clearing of let me tell you about this person and then eventually they will say something that will demonstrate what I'm trying to argue for. They have to do it right away.
And when you were introducing me, for some reason, I thought immediately of something I see sometimes that makes me laugh on the freeway, which is we have this chain in Southern California called 3 Suits $129. I wonder if anyone in the audience is aware of, or has ever shopped at, or thought about shopping at 3 Suits $129. And you see that out the window. And so even as people's lives are being cut down and delimited and narrowed in this extreme way, and they're scared, there's still 3 Suits $129 out the window. And there's a scene within that long chapter of the bus ride where they'd go past Magic Mountain on the left. And Laura Lipp says, "Oh, Magic Mountain and just starts babbling on about Magic Mountain.
And the narrator Romy notices that the bus pulls off right up ahead and stops at a men's jail. And I did base that just spatially on the real Magic Mountain and this real jail, which was called Pitchess, which is a high security county detention facility for men. And they are basically across the highway from one another. And as I kind of took in the contemporary in a major way to try to turn it into a novel, I became acutely aware somehow of the symbolic universe of Magic Mountain on the one hand and this symbolic universe of detention and the penal net on the other. And what do these two things have to do with each other? Something. It can't be overly constructed, but on the bus you do pass them. And so there they are in the book.
John Freeman: Yep. So you mentioned Romy as our narrator and as the book moves forward into the prison, it's also kind of looping back into the past. As Romy describes her upbringing in San Francisco of a few decades past, the people she ran with, the places she hung out, the beers that she drank in the park and eventually the place that she works called the Mars Room. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about narrating her upbringing, what you grabbed from your own, and if in telling her story in that method, you had to resist any attempt or if you felt any creeping desire to describe San Francisco as more possibly sinister because it, in some ways, it led her towards what happens to her to some degree.
Rachel Kushner: Yeah. I mean, I think at one point in the book, she says there's evil coming up out of the ground there, which I feel bad about. I have a more measured relationship to San Francisco right now because I've since written a very long nonfiction essay about it. And then other people have chimed in, in recognition of what I attempted to do. And then suddenly the thing that seemed unpleasant to me in terms of my own adolescence, I've become almost kind of proud of in a weird way, because it's much more shared, those components of it. When I was writing the Mars Room at first, I resisted setting it in a San Francisco that was very familiar to me, or even setting in San Francisco at all. I was just thinking about this girl. And I hadn't really come up with the specifics of her background because I was really focused on her present predicament, but she needed to have a past for some pretty specific reasons.
Maybe the most pressing among them that, once you go into prison, your present reality is kind of, as I said before, curtailed by how limited it is. And you're stripped of what the sociologist Erving Goffman would call your identity kit, your manner of presenting yourself to other people and who you are, what kind of person you consider yourself, what kind of jobs you've had, how you do your hair and makeup, how you dress. All of those things are really essential to people and that's all gone and you still have your past. And so to my mind, somebody would have a very active engagement with their past, especially if they were speaking in the first person as she is in this book and kind of trying to give a testimonial about how and why she thinks she's arrived, where she has, which is to say serving life sentence in California.
And in order to do that, I needed to know a lot about her and the most obvious way to do that was to make her somebody who was from [inaudible 00:46:11] that's intimately familiar to me, to give her as friends, my friends, to give her as an adolescent growing up neighborhood, my neighborhood. And it wasn't that much of a stretch in certain ways, because a close friend of mine from growing up did go to prison and served long sentence there. Didn't really make it. He died prematurely and his death was very prison related. And I think that that had kind of introduced a connection to prison that I didn't invite or, excuse me, or look for. But that story is kind of anchored in what we experienced as adolescents together. So I sort of just threw Romy in there, along with us.
John Freeman: I should mention, Rachel's got a new book out called The Hard Crowd. This has this beautiful 1964, 1963 Ford Galaxie on the cover, which is hers has, and I realized in reading this book that you've had this car since the nineties. I'm very impressed, but in the book, there's a number of incredible essays. One of them is about the blue lamp, a bar that you worked at, which sounds like a slightly, somewhat tamer, but not that much tamer version of the Mars Room. And it sounds like a place of the kind of slightly damaged souls that you find in a Dennis Johnson book. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about working in that environment and what, if anything, it sensitized to you as just a person who would eventually become a writer?
Rachel Kushner: Hmm. That's a big question. Yeah. I actually think that the blue lamp makes a cameo in The Mars Room and forgive me for not knowing right off the bat, but because I've been talking about this other book and The Mars Room came out in 2018, sometimes details dim and my small mind, which only has room for a certain amount of active retrieval of information. But I think it makes a cameo. And the blue lamp is at the top of the Tenderloin in San Francisco. It was my first bartending job. And my first shift there was a morning shift. So I was really kind of like plunged in with the pensioners and characters and personalities of this neighborhood among people who had been waiting since liquor since last call the night before to get back in the bar and start drinking again. And I had been very familiar with a Tenderloin from teenage hood because it was kind of where we went to Rome, an older friend of mine.
She was 15, I was 13, got a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken on Eddy street. And it was scary to me to go down there, but it was also, it sort of had to be dealt with somehow when we were in the Tenderloin, a lot. The Mars Room as a club is actually based out of a real place. That's not a bar, it's a strip club. And for anyone who's kind of from a certain San Francisco, it's immediately recognizable as the Market Street Cinema, which is gone now. And I knew a lot of people who worked there and other places like it, and I don't know, it's all kind of one world in a way. Yeah. You know, I just remembered something that you had asked me to read a section from it. I don't know when you want me to do that, but in that section, I make mention of a guy named Jimmy the Beard, who is a character in this book, and he's a doorman at the Mars Room, any he kind of...
And he's a doorman at The Mars Room, and he kind of, I don't know, the name makes him seem sort of like a big bear-like friendly guy. But he ends up having something to do with the fate of Romy. And I didn't... sometimes sources come to you mysteriously, like they pop up and you don't necessarily remember their provenance, ya know where they came from. But when I was trying to practice that reading, because I've never read that part for anybody before out loud. I mean, I did the audiobook, but I haven't read it in an event out loud. So I was practicing and I realized, oh, Jimmy The Beard, you know, I took that name from a real guy whose name was Jimmy, the beard. And I'd completely forgotten about this. And Jimmy, the beard was a guy who was a doorman at Big Al's The Condor Club, on Broadway street in San Francisco.
I think maybe there is some San Francisco people in this event because I saw that Paul Yamazaki from City Lights is here. So maybe others as well, any case, so the condor club was where Carol Doda famously was a dancer and they had the neon...
What's it called? Not horizontally perpendicular sign of her with the two red nipples. And I think I even mentioned that sign in the book because it's like, it stays in your mind as part of your childhood in San Francisco. And in, I think it was 1979, there was a stripper after hours after working there who was having a romantic tryst with Jimmy The Beard, on top of the used to have a white grand piano in that place. And the piano was on a hydraulic lift and Jimmy The Beard and the stripper were on top of the piano, enjoying themselves and each other one could hope and assume, and he accidentally flipped the hydraulic switch with his foot. The piano raised up to the ceiling of big Al's condor club and crushed Jimmy The Beard to death. It's actually really terrible story.
John Freeman: Sorry for laughing.
Rachel Kushner: The woman was underneath him, trapped there until the janitorial crew came in, in the morning and saw what had happened. But you know, when you're a ten-year-old kid, which was my age when that happened, you already read the newspaper, like the way kids read the internet now. So I remember reading the newspaper and thinking like, Jimmy The Beard, Jimmy The Beard, it's just such a name. And then the woman, I don't think she was named in the article, but I thought about them both more recently when I was thinking about The Mars Room before I started writing it. And I thought, you know, these are these, like the people who are just suddenly illuminated by something usually terrible and have to go from their functioning, obscure existence into the light of some public moment only then to disappear forever. Not, you know, among their friends and et cetera, but like sometimes I like want to hold the flame of memory of some person, you know, Jimmy The Beard and this woman who was unnamed anyway.
John Freeman: Well now it'd be a great time to read that, that brief passage [inaudible 00:53:36] .
Rachel Kushner: Yeah, I guess I kind of forced that into the, into the conversation.
At The Mars Room, I didn't have to show up on time or smile or obey any rules or think of most men as anything other than losers to be exploited, but who believed they were exploiting us. And so it was naturally quite hostile as an environment, even as it was coded in pretend submission our own, The Mars Room was a place where you could do what you wanted. At least I had believed that. When I was dating Jackson's dad, I broke a bottle over his head and he punched me in the face in, excuse me. And he punched me back in the face and I showed up five hours late to work with a black guy and wearing sunglasses. And no one said anything. I had arrived there on several occasions so drunk, I could barely walk.
Some girls, as part of their routine, spent the first several hours of their shifts nodding off in the dressing room with a makeup compact in one hand. There was no problem with that, the management did not care. There were girls who worked the audience in the standard uniform of lace bra and panties, but with broken down ratty tennis shoes, instead of high heels. If you showered, you had a competitive edge at The Mars Room. If your tattoos weren't misspelled, you were hot property. If you weren't five or six months pregnant, you were the "it girl" in the club that night. That's actually a bit of an exaggeration, I just want to say. Girls maced customers in the face and sent us all outside, hacking and choking. One dancer got mad at D'Artagnan, the night manager, and set the dressing room on fire. She was let go, it's true. But that was exceptional.
We had to fake nice, nice to the customers, but that was really it. The only thing we had to do, and we didn't even have to do that. We did it to make money. So the incentive was easy enough, Jimmy The Beard and Dart, you had to stay off their shirtless, but that was easy to flirt with them, and everything was fine. It was almost comical how weak their big egos were. Jimmy The Beard by the way is not to be confused with Jimmy Darling. They have nothing in common except the name Jimmy. Jimmy The Beard was a bouncer at The Mars Room and Jimmy Darling was for a while anyway, my boyfriend.
John Freeman: I love that section and one of the things that's so compelling about this book is how naturally and gracefully it moves from passages like these to other passages about other characters from their points of view from inside the prison. It's, it's, it's a real montage and it, it actually called to mind the book we had most recently on here, Myriam Gurba's Mean. A brilliant writer who has written short stories, 'Dahlia's Season' and 'Painting Their Portrait in Winter.' And the memoir, which is highly influenced by visual art, which she was studying at Berkeley, which is also, I think, where you studied for your undergraduate. Do you have a lot of overlap? And so we thought we'd bring Myriam back just right after her own appearance here, as, as the primary guest to ask you some questions. I think she's waiting and the audience Myriam, do you want to come on and see if your internet is stable enough to ask Rachel some questions? She's here at Myriam Gurba.
Rachel Kushner: I'm really honored that Myriam agreed to do this.
Myriam Gurba: Thank you. My Internet's been going in and out because I'm in the middle of Joshua Tree and things aren't always reliable in the desert, so I might disappear.
But I'll try, I'll try to crawl back in. But I wanted to talk to you about, well, I wanted to connect Mars Room to the essay collection that came out recently, The Hard Crowd. Cause you've got this fantastic profile of Ruth Wilson Gilmore in that collection and she makes her case for prison abolition. And I was wondering if you think about The Mars Room as an abolitionist novel of sorts.
Rachel Kushner: That's an amazing question. And it has, it has come up a bit. Yeah. I mean, for those who don't knows in my essay book that just came out, there's a long piece about Ruth Wilson Gilmore. And it was also intended when I wrote it originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine as a kind of primer on abolition for a very broad readership of people who don't kind of come out of a more radical mill you and meant to introduce them to the concepts. And, you know, Ruthie is a kind of longstanding activist resident of California, herself who kind of in a way like cut her teeth, organizing with the great California historian, Mike Davis who wrote City of Quartz and together, they were involved in this thing called Mothers. And I will, I'm, this is like my kind of long-winded way of answering the question. They met while organizing together a group called Mothers Reclaiming Our Children.
And it was mothers in south LA who had children, mostly sons, serving life sentences. And her book gives this kind of grand, grand conception to my mind of or grand account, like a full fledged account with all the details. It's like, it's not long or exhaustive to read. It's actually quite concise, but in terms of its amplitude, it's like the Warren Commission Report, but on the project of prison building in California. Like how and why did this happen and who was responsible? And there isn't one conspiratorial answer like, oh, some mean people in Sacramento that wanted to publish poor people, you know, latino people and black people. It's a lot more complicated than that. You know, there's a story that involves water rights and drought and cycles of boom and bust in the state. And again, the great migration and the loss of good skilled and unskilled manufacturing jobs, et cetera.
And the reason that I mentioned it is that I had read her book Golden Gulag, about the state, before I wrote The Mars Room. But in terms of like building characters and trying to think about some morally, complex issues, and also think about humor, like my book, wasn't going to be true for me, unless it was funny. And I was trying to pay homage to people from my own life and the way that kind of like the bravest people usually have the most killer sense of humor. Like Conan in the book was really the inspiring spark of the entire thing and is based on my friend who went to prison and would like say the most cutting thing to the police after they beaten him almost unconscious.
So the reason I mentioned all that is that a lot of those faculties and drives are very separate from a political project, like Gilmore's book. And there for me, a kind of different mind, like it's about the textures of the present, but reading that book kind of reaffirmed some of what I was already feeling, which is that there is truth, sociological, geographic political, and also artistic, just in the bizarre nature of where these prisons are cited, which is deep and industrial farm land.
And like I can drive up there and go, gosh, I didn't see a human the entire way because I was only passing through almond orchards, which have automated and rarely bring in workers anymore because they have these huge machines that shape the trees. And then when I read her account, like she's coming from a different angle and explaining how state revenue works and how the agriculture industry works and what happened in the bargains between towns like Corcoran and the prison holding 6,000 men, you know, that Corcoran agreed to build. But I shy away from the idea of an abolitionist novel. I think one could exist, but maybe mine isn't it because abolition is a future for, is a vision for the future. Like of how life may be, could be. And this novel is for better or worse a vision of the present, but maybe to have a vision of the future, you need to understand the present.
And I could guess that abolitionists would be interested in reading my novel because they tend to be people who are already thinking about the texture of the present and what it feels like. And by that, I guess I also mean like there are aspects of the carceral world, like jails, prisons, courts, et cetera, that aren't just in those places, but are like a whole vast net that some people see and other people don't see by design because it's invisible to them. So I would say the person who sees it already, or who wants to see it might be the same person interested in abolition.But I feel like art is, is sacred to me and it's its own space. And I can't say exactly what its function is, but I know that maybe its function isn't to argue a case to argue a political position.
Myriam Gurba: I just want to make sure that I don't take up too much time. Cause I don't know when John is going to be coming back. Okay. The other question that I wanted to, to oh, okay. I can keep going. The other questions that I wanted to ask about was consideration of sequel of sorts.
Rachel Kushner: Oh wow.
Myriam Gurba: How would you imagine a sequel.
Rachel Kushner: Man, that's a heavy question for a couple of reasons. First, I mean, wow. No one has ever asked me that. And when I was finishing this book, like I don't want to, you know, play my tiny violin, but the end was very heavy for me to think about because Romy's had her life cut down by the determination of her sentence. You know? And no one, as far as I know, who's serving in a level four prison, that's the security level, that's maximum security, has made it out successfully and alive. And I had to face that down at the end of the book, like, how am I going to end this with some sense that she's been able to transform herself. I needed that just personally after having written the book, which in a lot of ways was very dark for me. I mean, I kind of felt like it almost ruined my life while I was writing it, but I'm glad I wrote it.
And then in another way, I think it's definitely the funniest book that I've written. But at the end, I just got this idea that she can connect her life to a meaning that is kind of inviolable by the state, which is to say the life of her son. And to think about like your human integer as not your delimited meaning as a soul, as a person, and to graft it onto something bigger there at the end. That said, that ending has so much finality. You know, it just seems like that's it. So I don't know how it would go on. I mean, I'm kind of interested formally in the idea that people bring characters back and I notice it more now as a reader in a way that I didn't use to, like, I think I already mentioned him. I think the DeLillo brung a couple of characters from Americana back into his novel Underworld. And Dennis Johnson, who I admire a lot and have written about, did that with the characters from his really incredible first novel Angels, the two brothers, the Houston brothers reappear in Tree of Smoke.
And I thought, oh, that's interesting that he did that. It almost kind of like opened the door, like the possibility that one can do that. And whether it's a meal you or a character it's possible. And I'm certainly interested in, like, I keep talking about the scale or the epic nature of California, which does seem to suggest that there's more to do. And I'm still interested in California. I live here, but also I'm still interested in, in people in prison. My friends who are serving life sentences in prison are still there. And I still talk to them and time moves at a different pace for them than it does for me. And they take up residence in my psyche, and it's something that I continue to think about.
Myriam Gurba: Thank you,
Rachel Kushner: Sure. Thank you Myriam.
John Freeman: Thank you very much, Myriam, for those great questions. And for coming on last month, I'm just going to put in the chat again. Myriam's fantastic essay about Rachael's essays. She too was a motorcycle rider among other things. Rachel, I'm going to come back to you with a question that's coming from the audience, but that builds out of something you said that this was a book built from the landscape of to trauma to some degree, but there's also a lot of love and humor in it. Within the prison people remember loves they, some of the inmates are making dildos in the shop class and they're having contests to see who would make the best dildo. And I guess I, I wonder, you know, one of the, the listeners BJ Dodge sees this as a kind of story of limitless love. And I wonder if you could, you could speak to that. You know, that, that there's, this is a system which isn't deeply inhumane and terrible for the people in it. And yet they are surviving it because they can remember limitless love some of them. Maybe you can speak to that.
Rachel Kushner: That's an awesome question. Gosh, so many different thoughts popping into my head. But the first one is that, you know, prison like when you've spent time among people who have spent a lot of time in prison, or when you spend a lot of time in prisons yourself and talking to people about their experience in prison. It becomes quickly apparent, but it's basically, so it's, it's a different universe in so many ways because people have lost control over their lives, you know? But then in another sense, people in prison are just like people outside of prison. So it's not like you go there and it's a different kind of human that you have to encounter or deal with. I mean, you know, like in men's prison, there's more violence, but in the women's prison, there are violent in their own way. And there's a lot of dysfunction, but I guess what I'm saying is people still have their dignity.
They still have their humor. They especially still have what I would call their sociality, which is to say they have very heightened and refined social skills. And I have a theory about why that is. And my theory is that it's because so much is taken away from people as I was trying to describe earlier, but you cannot take away people's personalities. And so those really come to the fore as a set of skills, they have to charm, entertain, seduce, threaten, manipulate, you know, et cetera. And like when I've done readings in prisons, the best questions I've ever gotten, I get from a prison audience. And it's kind of terrifying to read in prison because I feel like people can see right through me. It's like, I'm very transparent to them because they are so good at reading into people, features of their personality that they themselves very likely cannot even see.
And so I really wanted to reproduce that feel in the book of people. And there is sometimes riotous conviviality in prison that I don't think about that detail much, but people really do make dildos in machine shop. They do. There's a lot of creativity that's delimited by, you know, the set of tools that people have available to them. And so many people have told me amazing stories about this kind of resourcefulness. And a lot of it is collective resourcefulness and collective intelligence. Like it's no one Edison's brilliant idea. It just sort of evolves. And then they changed the rules to try to prevent people from, you know, like passing notes or making pruner or whatever. And then the, the skill set evolves at the same time. And so to me, that's, I guess part of my love for them was to try to reproduce those, that those kinds of more, like, I guess just positive aspects of people's resourcefulness inside of that space.
John Freeman: In one of the, in the essay that Myriam mentioned, you, you remarked that there's 2.3 million people in America, and that's probably out of date now, in prisons. And another essay in that book is, is set you've you visit a Palestinian refugee camp and in Jerusalem, which in itself is another kind of prison. And I wonder, given the events of, of the, of the past month, if you would reflect a little bit that experience writing that piece, and if in any way it informed the writing of this book and or if there, if there are simply separate experiences for you.
Rachel Kushner: Yeah, no, that's a great question. So when I was in the middle of writing The Mars Room, I, you know, had, I was doing more activism then in the California prisons than I am now, I'm still involved in it, but I was basically banned from Chowchilla Prison because of The Mars Room. The assistant litigator, there is just a jerk and got mad and took me off their list. I can't go there and meet with people, which I was doing quite a lot of then. And the reason I mentioned it is, you know, the people that I know who are serving life sentences in prison have all been convicted of pretty intense acts of violence. And that was something that was familiar to me to a degree, because I grew up with kids who committed some acts of violence, but not to this degree. And it was something that I kind of had to think about and reconcile with.
That's not compared to Palestine. The reason I bring it up is that when I was invited to the West Bank and to Shuafat Refugee Camp, which is technically inside of Israel. So I, I, you know, I don't know anything about this world and I'm really committed to California. I'm involved in like some human rights struggles here. I didn't really think I had space to go there, but then I thought this is sort of an opportunity that I can't pass up because I'm going to learn so much and it's going to change my life to go to a region. I don't know anything about. And I, it was kind of like in a certain way, a world-class tour where we were being put together with experts of so many different kinds for this intensive 10 days of seeing the occupation and actually have that.
I just wrote, well, I wrote, when I got back in 2016, a diary of everything that I saw, and my idea was to put it all in one place and I never published it because I had no distance from it, but I just published it this morning with the journal n+1. So for anybody who hasn't seen the occupation, I've seen it for you. And I would like you to read my piece so that you could think about what that occupation is like. But after going through that tour of the occupation, I went to the refugee camp and I stayed with this wonderful family the Nababta. The husband Baha to the father. They have two young girls and his wife Heba is a kind of defacto [inaudible 01:15:04].
Heba is a kind of de facto mayor, community organizer, mediator, just person extraordinaire with phenomenal charisma, very upbeat, very charming, kids love him. I was really wowed by him and I spent a weekend in this refugee camp talking to him about how the people in that camp self-organize and what they face, essentially living in an open-air prison, which is not a metaphor there's 26 foot concrete walls all the way around the camp. There are guard towers, there's razor wire. The only time that Israelis enter the camp, they blow these trap doors down and storm in to either make an arrest or demolish someone's house. So it does feel like a prison, but what happened after I left is that Baja Nabata, my wonderful host was murdered in the street for the 14 days later and I still don't know what to make of that.
But at the time I was writing the Mars Room and talking to people who wanted to tell me about things that had happened to them in their youth and things that they'd done to other people. And it was an engagement with the sort of physical version of violence. There are many versions of it, physical versions of violence, and then Baja was murdered and I kind of felt I was sandwiched in between two very intense forms of violence that I didn't necessarily ask for. And I didn't know how they related or if they related, but that did happen to me while I was writing the book. So, maybe there's a connection there.
John Freeman: There's a line in that piece about Gilmore, but I just wanted to read back to you because I feel it will lead us to a sort of discussion about the novel as a form and the kind of bourgeois novel, that it feels you're writing against. You write "The Gilmore has come to understand that there are certain narratives. People cling to that not only are false but allow for policy positions aimed at minor or misdirected rather than fundamental and meaningful reforms". I think Myriam's question sort of edges towards this, "Is this an abolitionist novel?" The other question is, "Is this a liberationist novel?". A liberation being something that's looking to free people from systems all over and in general, and we're at an apex of those systems power to enact violence, it seems like sometimes. And I guess I wonder if in writing this novel... Because the form is more montage, if you came to a different understanding of what you want the novel to do.
Rachel Kushner: I love this question. I don't know if I came to another understanding of what I wanted the novel to do probably, but I think that only becomes really apparent when you sit down to write another one. But I would say that my ideas changed a lot over the course of writing this book and it wasn't a quick process, it was a slow process. And the ideas that changed most, I would say, were brought to mind in the quote that you read of Ruthie Gilmore, and they have to do with the innocence narrative. I've never really been interested in the categorizing of innocence versus guilt on two clean axes. The guilty people go to prison and the innocent people stay out of prison and then maybe we have a problem that there are innocent people going to prison. So we need to advocate for them.
And then maybe there's a layer of people in the prison who are less guilty. If they are just they're just there on a drug charge and so then we need to advocate for them. And then maybe there are the women who are victims of domestic violence, so they're not really guilty. So let's advocate for them. I understand why people think that way and as Ruthie says that I quote in that essay, the problem is so phenomenal and so vast that people are trying to figure out how to find a way to care for those in prison. And so they have to find some narrative by which those people get to have humanity. I'm interested in everyone in prison.
And most especially those who can't be saved by those narratives. And I always have been, but what changed for me had to do with this idea that my activism manifested emotionally for me as an almost Christian form of compassion, I still have that to some degree, It's like a very strong instinct that I can't counteract entirely, but I don't think that as a society, it really matters so much.
It's not... Asking people to care about all of these people as though they're human it's on a practical level, putting people into prison simply doesn't produce a safer and better society. But for me as a writer, I guess I'm circling back. It does matter to me that I believe that every person possesses a soul. I think it's very, I think it's painful for people to acknowledge that they didn't avoid prison because they're good and careful and gentle and not violent. The reason they've avoided prison is that they were born lucky. I just cannot say what my life would have been like if I were born someone else. And I think maybe in a way that goes back to a fairly classical version of what the novel is, which is a serious engagement with something outside of your own good fortune and your own set of biases.
And I think that's why writers historically for the whole 200 years of the novel have turned to the question of incarceration and the question of the nature of evil, like Roberto Bolano Savage Detectives is one of my favorite books because he's trying to think about like, "What is evil? is it something, human and containable? Or is it something out there?" and these come into play, when you try to think about how humans can manage their society. I guess is a little vague, but it's a big question.
John Freeman: It's a big part of Angels by Denis Johnson, a writer that you've written on a brilliant essay about his last story collection and The Hard Crowd. There's a question in the audience that I would like to bring Myriam onto, to both answer and maybe jump off as well, which is basically asking you for some recommendations. This book has beautiful essays on Clarice Lispector, Denis Johnson I've mentioned, some less obvious figures. "Is there someone that you're reading right now that makes you excited, that sort of has yoked that tradition?". You just talked about forward, and I guess Myriam the same question for you too, as well.
Rachel Kushner: I always have that wit on the staircase thing about, "What are you reading right now?" I mean, I do have to do a lot of reading that comes with the territory of being a writer. Some of it is obligatory, but you mentioned Angels that is one of my favorite novels and actually when you mentioned it, I remembered that I found an entire cache of letters in the Denis Johnson archive at the ransom center at The University of Texas Austin, that he had received from a couple of guys on death row in Arizona, quite clearly, while he was working on Angels. He doesn't say he's working on a novel, but the timeline makes it pretty obvious and it was interesting to me, to read those. He kind of hits a jackpot, I think with these people that he was corresponding with they were both incredibly funny and very articulate and self-aware and, describing their experiences. And I think a lot of them ended up in Angels.
I'm looking at the shelves right now. I don't know, I'm a kind of... I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction. I tend to be like a re-reader. I'm reading The Final Volume of Proust over again in which he lays out what art is and how novels and memory and life all work together. And there's this great line in it where he says, "The real paradises are those paradises that we have lost" by which he means when you can really dig in and understand the meaning of your life is after you've had a set of experiences and a long time has passed and then you go to reflect on them, I don't know.
John Freeman: That's devastating. Myriam?
Myriam Gurba: I was going to say, like Rachel, I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction either. Right now I'm reading several nonfiction works. I'm reading a book by Rafia Zakaria called Against White Feminism and I'm also reading Sarah Schulman's A Political History of ACT UP. And then right now I'm working on a piece of writing that has to do with partial spaces. And I was thinking about what Rachel was saying, as far as the delusion that so many of us labor under, which that we've somehow avoided prison because of our goodness and because of our good behavior, when in reality, most of us who have avoided prison have done because of some measure of privilege and this is something that I'm exploring right now. And I'm doing it through a series of like interpersonal essays that I'm writing with my cousin who was incarcerated for 15 years.
And Desire is no longer incarcerated. She's free now, but one of the things that I know in the introductory essay to that series is that as children, we pretended to be gangsters, we never played house. We played at being female gangsters. We started our own two girl gang and Desire grew up to be a gangster and grew up to be incarcerated. And I grew up to be a writer, but that two girl gang still functions in a sense because when Desire called me and told me, "You need to tell my story", I still am functioning as the gang secretary (laughing), and so I'm writing about those sorts of institutions, that's pro-social institutions, as opposed to like the anti-social institutions that they're typically represented as.
Rachel Kushner: This is [foreign language 01:27:05].
Myriam Gurba: Yes (laughing), PPL, [foreign language 01:27:08] yeah. So I published the first installment of that on Tuesday, and then I'm going to be publishing the next is upcoming week. And I was thinking also about your mention of the transport buses. When you see the transport buses that are taking people from jail to prison or moving them from partial spaces. I remembered reuniting with my cousin after she had been released from prison and I was riding in the passenger seat alongside her along some LA freeway. And we saw one of those buses and my cousin insisted on getting like right beside the driver's window and like flipping them off and it was just such a wonderful moment. I think there's a picture of it somewhere on Instagram, but (laughing).
Rachel Kushner: I just think it's such an amazing project that you're doing and when you think about a life and an alternate life or a speculative life, the born lucky thing, I keep coming back to it to try to account for sort of the difference between me and other people. People I knew growing up or people that I love now and sometimes those who've had less luck are very aware themselves of the difference between them and you and can come sometimes see it better than others can. I've had friends who know that they were deprived of a childhood. If a childhood can be defined as a space where you get to have a measure of innocence. And I was just thinking of, I went two years ago on a tour of Scandinavian prisons with a bunch of people.
That was a very strange, interesting experience. I've had not written about that, I just realized. But there were people on that trip who had been incarcerated for a long time, who were invited on the trip. We were all on this kind of junket together. There was something that somebody said who had spent 45 years in California prisons and we were meeting with the prison administration of this prison in Norway. Which it's not perfect, It's still a prison, but people only go there for three or four years and then they go back to their community. And while they're in the prison, they have a lot more freedom than people do in American prisons and they have like therapists and job training, and the idea, the goal is to reintegrate them into society. And some of the guys on the trip who had been in California prisons kind of became like, we were a clique, I hate to admit that I was in the clique, but hey if the cool guys want to have me in their clique, I'm going to be in the clique.
So we were talking a lot about the difference between California prison and the prisons in Norway, because even though I haven't been in a California prison, I understand the mentality, especially for the men, because grew up with somebody who went there. And one of these guys said something about the fate of origin. And I just think about that so much, because what he saw was a life that could have been his, if he merely had been Norwegian rather than American. And then that disarticulate the entire apparatus of bad choices and goodness and violence and etc. Because it's about where you come from and maybe what country you were born into.
John Freeman: I've got one final question for both Rachel and Myriam and then I think we have to wind down. We talked separately, Rachel, right before this, and you mentioned John Steinbeck as a writer that was important to you at some point. And Steinbeck was working in a very different time and the different assumptions, but I wonder if both of you could talk about that work in any way that you want to. I know Myriam, you've read quite a bit of it and probably have even taught it at some point in the past, but I want to see if you could talk about what it means to you now and what you feel the future of that kind of literature might be in your hands rather than in a kind of Neo-Steinbeckian way, if that makes any sense.
Rachel Kushner: Is Myriam going to talk first?
Myriam Gurba: I could. My internet is kind of on the fritz, so I wasn't sure if I was on or not. I was really seduced by Steinbeck when I was first introduced to the work, because suddenly I had California on the page and I had California behaving epically, and I had California behaving as both setting and character. And that had not happened in my history as a reader, up until those books came to me. They were influential. I don't think I've read Steinbeck though as widely or as well as I should, but his work was I guess, a bridge or a gateway for me into writing about my home state. I had not thought of my home state as a place that I could represent in a literary way until he sort of reached into my imagination and planted that seed, so to speak. So, I suppose I owe him a debt of gratitude and that sense.
Rachel Kushner: Should I say something?.
John Freeman: If you wish [crosstalk 01:33:22] (laughing).
Rachel Kushner: So, I love Steinbeck. I mean, I was introduced to his novels young. There's the short ones, Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row and then the short stories, The Red Pony and The Pearl. I read all those as a kid and I think I kind of got this idea that literature and hobo lifestyle were somehow the same thing. This idea that you had to move toward where life is happening and there's this line in Cannery Row, where the guys who are the hobos in the book who kind of take over this old place, they live in a squat basically. And they're always trying to get the guy who runs the store to give them credit for liquor and etc. And they walked by and the guy who was the scientist in the book says, these are our real philosophers or somebody says that, sorry, I haven't read it in a while.
And there's this Steinbeckian sense I think, of real reverence and respect for life where, and as it's happening, not by certain more conservative definitions of who's an artist and who's a philosopher. And that always appealed to me, but also, I mean, he writes about so many aspects of life in California that are both wonderful. He's a naturalist, obviously who loved the state quite a lot, but then he was unafraid to expose certain aspects of California that are part of the story of the place and why people come here and how the place functions so well is also on the backs of labor. I was in the Czech Republic once, right after the Velvet Revolution, when you could still feel and see and apprehend the lingering effects of a Soviet world.
And I realized Grapes Of Wrath, I think was one of the most popular books in the Soviet union. And I actually have a Soviet copy of it. And it's probably because they're interested to see capitalism show it's dirtier elements rather than the cleaned up version of how life here works. I mean, maybe the Russian news service RT, the way they love to show kind of like life fraying at the seams during the Ferguson uprising or whatever. Maybe Grapes Of Wrath, Is there a version of that? And that is a serious tradition that we have here in California. I don't think that every state has a John Steinbeck and I'm really interested in that as a kind of literary legacy and like looking at it and thinking about it as California writers now.
John Freeman: Well, the two of you stand very firmly in that legacy and I've taken it much further forward in this exciting way. Thank you, Myriam Gurba for joining us and also Rachel Kushner for the gift of this novel Mars Room. Like all of hers, it seems to be five years apart, which I hope means in 2023, there will be another Rachel Kushner novel.
Rachel Kushner: Will see, I hope so.
John Freeman: If you have read the others, there are two collections of stories. There's a new, a novella call, The Mayor of Leipzig, which I highly recommend and the strange case of Rachel K a small book, which is just beautiful and strange and wonderful as well as these new essays, The Hard Crowd, which is just about as delicious as this 1963-64 galaxy 500. I wish we could talk for much longer, but everyone's going to go to dinner and hopefully keep reading this book and other books by you Rachel, it's been a big, big pleasure to have you here tonight.
Rachel Kushner: John, thank you so much. And thanks to the awesome, brilliant Myriam Gurba and also David Ulin and Alta and the California Book cCub is a serious honor to be here.
David Ulin: Thanks, Rachel and thanks, John, thank you, Myriam. That was a really superior thought provoking conversation. And I agree about the kind of epic, that kind of idea of Steinbeck as epic and revealing the underside and all of that. So I want to... I know everybody wants to go to dinner as we've talked about. I want to, again, reiterate my thanks to John and Rachel and Myriam.
For those who've been asking in the chat, this interview was recorded and will be available at californiabookclub.com. Next month's book, the spectacular collection Voyage of the Sable Venus national book award winning collection poetry by Robin Coste Lewis on Thursday, June 17th. A reminder for your last chance sale on the Alta membership for CBC members, altaonline.com/tote And we would really be grateful if you would all participate in a two minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event. In the meantime, stay safe. See you next month, keep reading and continue the conversation in the California Book Clubhouse. Thanks again to all the participants. Thanks to everybody for being here and have a good night take care.•