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May 01, 2018 at 10:00 AM EDT
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The Mars Room

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When Rachel Kushner set out to write The Mars Room, there were a few things she knew immediately. She knew she wanted it to take place inside an institution — maybe a prison. She knew that the protagonist of the book would be named Romy, that she would tell her story in first person, that she was from California. It was late 2011 and she was still finishing Flamethrowers (which would go on to be her second National Book Award finalist in a row), but sometimes these things just come to you.

On second thought, The Mars Room was definitely going to be about a prison. It might seem like a stark setting change for a novelist whose previous books covered the art scene in New York City, the leftist movement in 1970s Italy, and a pre-revolutionary Havana, among others, but Kushner is as passionate about the criminal justice system as she is informed. She used the term “prison abolitionist” when she recounted her writing experiences to EW, and it’s an apt descriptor. Around the same time the ideas started flowing, she decided that she wanted to learn everything she possibly could about the state prison system in California and got involved as a volunteer at the human-rights organization Justice Now — which, under the direction of a president who is himself on a life sentence, works to prevent violations inside women’s prisons.

“I started going on prison visits with them and very quickly decided that I was going to write a book about that world,” Kushner told EW. “About all the parts of the criminal justice system that are so subtle most people don’t notice. Even the location — these prisons are way out in the Central Valley, so far from people’s homes.”

The result is a devastating page-turner about life on the inside, both in terms of what it’s like to be in prison and who that life is made up of. The incarcerated are given all manner of backstory, from the simple fact that one woman was given a life sentence for driving a car for people who committed a crime to a deep dive of what led the protagonist, Romy Leslie Hall, to a conviction of two consecutive life sentences. The Mars Room jumps back and forth in time between present-day at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, where myriad humiliations occur, and Romy’s upbringing in a rough San Francisco neighborhood, sorely lacking anything that might help her avoid the business end of the system. She was an exotic dancer and a mother on the outside, but on the inside she is what feels like the only piece of levity in a crazed institution.

Did we mention The Mars Room is funny?

Romy observations at Stanville are gut-wrenchingly witty, like the list of rules for inmate guests that specifies, “No pants that are actually ‘long shorts.’” Or the fact that prisoners are not only issued a CDC Offender’s Handbook, but also a 40-page guide to the handbook. They’re still waiting for the guide to the guide to the handbook.

Lucy Raven

Before Kushner sat down to write The Mars Room, she completed exhaustive research, if you can call it that. It began with tasks that she is quick to point out she wanted to do as a citizen: familiarizing herself with the California prison system, visiting the criminal courts near her house and watching arraignments. And then she spent 10 days going undercover visiting prisons throughout the state. The trip was organized by a criminology professor, and they kept her identity hidden — writers aren’t allowed into prisons, but the professor agreed to bring Kushner along in 2014 because he was retiring.

“I actually wasn’t surprised by anything the first time I went to a prison,” Kushner mused. “It was a very illuminating trip. To actually get inside and walk around is something: I could wander into people’s cells and talk to them, even be out on the maximum-security yard.”

The author says there wasn’t one moment during her entire undercover trip that she was scared of the inmates (not even the time a riot started and they had to leave the yard because garbage cans being thrown around), but rather it was the guards who elicited fear. They brought Kushner and the rest of the group of “criminology students” into the investigative services unit, or ISU, which she described as the FBI of the prison. They demonstrated how they worked to figure out which inmates are selling drugs or breaking other rules and boasted about the violence that takes place under their watch.

RELATED: Read an excerpt from The Mars Room

In the years since, Kushner has been to prisons countless times. Although none have been quite so intimate as those tours, she has gained a detailed knowledge of the system. Her work with Justice Now has led her to friendships with current and former inmates.

“I’m still very involved in the lives of many people I met,” she said. “I wrote a commutation letter to Jerry Brown for someone yesterday, someone else will be calling me today for help.”

She counts Theresa Martinez, a former 23-year resident of Chowchilla, the prison that inspired the book, as one of her closest friends and someone she credits with teaching her almost everything about the way prison works.

“We’ve become really good friends and I hired her as my consultant, and it was a really amazing experience,” said Kushner. “For me, her knowledge is a form of dazzling expertise, even though it was come by in a very painful way, because she was imprisoned for most of her life.”

Kushner learned that, in California, it’s difficult for many inmates’ families to visit because they’re located deep in the Central Valley. She learned that long-termers with a lot of social clout are known as “shot callers.” She learned that the guards come mostly from underprivileged situations themselves. She learned that stabbing someone with a prison shiv is harder than it sounds. She learned that the guards are in their own gangs. She learned that inmates put in administrative segregation (or “ad seg”) are placed right above the death row inmates, and that they can communicate through the pipes and vents. She learned that the signs in prison are totally absurd and say things like, “Ladies report to staff if you have a staph infection.” She learned that prison recipes really are just as weird as that cheesecake from Orange Is the New Black.

Kusher also got to know a fascinating group of people, many of whom formed the basis for the characters in The Mars Room. The character Doc, a dirty cop housed in a nearby men’s prison, was inspired by someone she met on a visit. Martinez, her good friend and the book’s consultant, provided the basis for Sammy, a woman Romy shares a cell with in ad seg. Candy Peña, a woman on death row who passes things back and forth with Romy and Sammy, is based on Rosie Alfaro, who has been on death row since 1992.

Even with all that, Kushner took almost no notes during her many prison visits. The inspiration for the book came flowing, but the trips were never really about research in the strict sense of the word.

“Most of my visiting with people in prison wasn’t about me getting information from them to put in the book,” she explained. “Usually it was about me paying attention to them and listening to what they wanted to tell me that day.”

Being a prison abolitionist is a new normal for Kushner, but she admits that delving into the issue shook her in a way that her previous novels never did. The Flamethrowers was a complicated novel spanning years and continents, but she was already familiar with the New York City art scene and had friends who were involved in the Italian liberation movement — that research amounted to having fascinating discussions over dinner, later to be used in the book.

“I don’t know if it’s good or bad, to be totally honest,” she said. “But this book weighed on me hugely and felt completely different. My last book was fun. In the case of The Mars Room, telling you this story about the prison guards, it’s not very fun. I was surrounded by people who had the hardest lives and then committed acts of harm, and then the state piled more harm on their shoulders. It was a bleak version of humanity.”

So what does she want now? The book is on shelves today, and while a third consecutive National Book Award nomination seems likely, it’s easy to wonder if she doesn’t want The Mars Room to make like previous pieces of prison pop culture — such as Serial and Making a Murderer — and inspire change and activism. The short answer to that? No.

“I don’t think art can be message-y or political,” Kushner said. “Why not just write an op-ed? And I’m not the person to do that. I’m interested in trying to figure out how I should live my life, and I wake up in the morning and start with me. I try to live without doing harm to other people, and that’s pretty much where I end.”

Of course, if the book changes a few minds or allows a reader to think in a new way, that would be pretty great. And as any potential reader — both Kushner fans and newcomers alike — should be warned, it’s hard to pick up The Mars Room and not do just that. Romy Hall, the novel’s protagonist, says it best:

I had learned already not to cry. Two years earlier, when I was arrested, I cried uncontrollably. My life was over and I knew it was over. It was my first night in jail and I kept hoping the dreamlike state of my situation would break, that I would wake up from it. I kept on not waking up into anything different.

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