Rachel Kushner's "The Mars Room" takes readers from a San Francisco strip club to a fictional women’s prison in the Central Valley largely based on the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla.
The California Report Magazine's Sasha Khokha spoke with Kushner in our San Francisco studio. Excerpts from the interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.
On California as the setting for 'The Mars Room'
I wanted to write a novel that was my take on contemporary times, and that also really reckons with the idea of being a Californian.
In certain ways, even though the novel definitely processes and deals with some dark material, it's really about the complexity of the state -- the long stretch between L.A. and San Francisco, and what's there in the Central Valley. So for me it is a kind of love letter to California.
On how both she and her main character, Romy, grew up in San Francisco's Inner Sunset district, a largely working-class Irish-American neighborhood in the '80s
I went to public schools and so did all my friends. I wasn't aware that there was this other San Francisco happening right alongside but not at all contiguous with our San Francisco. I didn't know any people who went to private schools until I went to college. There was a lot of violence, just kind of a certain type of culture ... I'm actually quite nostalgic for it in a way, but it had an intensity that may have been somewhat unique.
[The novel] was a way to recast or resuscitate that lost world. That San Francisco is very much gone, but for me, it's one I turn to most immediately. It hasn't been replaced for me by the new San Francisco.
Writing into these spaces, like the old Pall Mall Bar on Haight Street, for instance, allowed me to remember things I hadn't thought about in almost 40 years. ... It was as if the process of writing conjured them into existence for me again.
On working with women prisoners
I got involved with an Oakland-based human rights organization called Justice Now whose board is in part -- if not primarily -- made up of people serving life sentences in the women's facilities in California.
I became good friends with people and started corresponding with them and talking to them on the phone and, you know, they mentored me insofar as they taught me a lot about what their lives were like in prison. But a lot of the women in Chowchilla do not have supportive families or supportive anybody on the outside. There are certain people who call me who don't have anyone else that they can call.
On getting the details of prison life
One friend, Teresa Martinez -- who's the first person I thank in the book -- has immense knowledge of Chowchilla. She went there right when it opened. As she puts it, she "broke ground" on that prison and was there for 23 years.
And she has this very specific and deep expertise of that place. And so part of culling all these details from her was valuing that knowledge and giving it life in the book.
On choosing a white narrator for a novel about life in a women's prison
I needed to construct a central character who I could understand in depth. I made her a girl from the Inner Sunset who grew up with these Irish kids in this world. These kids had no power at all, but they had this identity that's very much a white identity.
I made her from that paradigm, and that gave me a range, and maneuverability and depth in terms of understanding her, that I don't think I would have had if I tried to make a narrator who would typify who's in the prison in Chowchilla.
However, I do think that she is typical in a certain way. If you go to Chowchilla, it's one-third white women. So why would I feel I had to make the narrator a woman of color?
On 'Orange is the New Black,' which also features a white main character
I haven't seen the show. I don't watch TV really, but also, I didn't want to see it because I was worried I would accidentally take something from that show without realizing it.
But I've read some of the description of it. Some of the pushback is not really about [Piper Chapman]'s race, but the fact that she's upper class. My narrator doesn't have that kind of power. Also, [in the Netflix show], it's a minimum-security federal facility. People are there for low-level drug crimes.
I'm interested in the reality and the truth. In California, 90 percent of people in state prisons are there for what the state considers serious, violent felony convictions. I'm interested in those people, and their fate, and their predicaments, and caring about them in some radical, committed way.
But I do want to say one thing: I have asked formerly incarcerated friends what they think about it, and they all, to a person, love [Orange is the New Black].
On feedback she's gotten from incarcerated women about 'The Mars Room'
I read it at California Institution for Women [a women's prison in San Bernardino County] in front of 60 incarcerated people. That was the most exciting night of my entire life.
It was just like high school at first, in the way that people throw a ton of attitude and try to intimidate you. But I'm used to that from growing up. And I was like, 'OK, I'm going to charm these people.'
I read this part about this guy sort of giving this woman obsessive unwanted attention because I thought maybe the women would identify with that. They loved it and they were laughing hard.
I was saying, 'Am I going to get in trouble for this?' because there was a guard standing in the back of the room and they were like, 'Girl, keep on going!'
On what she learned about prison life
People in prison have to spend so much time in close quarters. And they have no privacy whatsoever. And also they lose what ... sociologist Erving Goffman would call your "identity kit."
So they can't throw attitude or shade by the way that they look, their makeup ... because all of that is stripped away from them. Everyone's wearing the same clothes. ... Your currency is your personality and your ability to perform. And so people are a cut above in terms of their ability to have presence and charisma, and to read other people. Being in a room full of individuals like that, it was very clear to me.
On writing about a woman who kills an abusive stalker, in light of the #MeToo Movement
That movement actually got its start after I was entirely finished writing this book.
I think somebody could make links between the book and a shifting set of dynamics between men and women, and maybe this recalibration that's long overdue. It wasn't really on my mind while I was writing.
In terms of [Romy's] crime of murdering Kurt Kennedy, I don't necessarily think she's innocent.
I wasn't actually interested in writing about an innocent person. There's a lot of focus on the idea of the wrongly accused, the relatively innocent, the low-level or nonviolent drug offender, etc.
I really wanted to write about someone who seemed like people I've known. Everyone I know in prison has done the thing they're convicted of. I still really want those people to have a chance to be rehabilitated, and to make a contribution to society.