Rachel Kushner's research for her latest novel took her deep into the US prison system. She tells Caroline O'Donoghue about the friends she made there and why those living in poverty are most likely to end up in jail
In Rachel Kushner's new book, The Mars Room, Romy Hall - a lapdancer, former heroin addict and inmate of California's largest women's prison - has just been sentenced to two life sentences for the brutal murder of a former customer. Meeting the 50-year-old Kushner, you would never suspect that this book is one of her most autobiographical, or her most comedic. She's eloquent, incredibly well-read, and elegantly dressed in black slacks and silver jewellery. While waiting for our interview to begin, I listen to her finish a rapid-fire conversation with someone else. I brace myself. I think: this is a person who buys The New Yorker and actually reads it.
And yet, The Mars Room heaves with Kushner's experience. Twice nominated for the US National Book Award for her novels Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers, the author spent a lot of her youth and early adulthood in the roughest corners of San Francisco.
"I lived there in the 1990s, as a young woman," says Kushner. "I worked in the Tenderloin, which is part of why that neighbourhood features in the book. I knew these very rough hotels. Friends of mine from growing up ended up living there. I would go there to visit and it would be... a shock. They're called 'SROs' or 'Single Resident Occupancies', which are places, mainly, for tramps and prostitutes. A lot of those places have burned down," she says, with a sense that this is somehow both a pity, and for the best.
"The fact is, I wasn't ever going to go to prison in my life. But I grew up with people who were going to go. The people I grew up with who have read the book, they love it, and they love me, but these memories are painful for them. Like Romy says," she says, inciting her main character, who longs for the violent life she left in the outside world. "They weren't happy memories, but I wanted them back." Memory is a subject Kushner comes back to frequently. She gifts Romy some of her own memories, lovingly repainting a ramshackled youth spent visiting acid houses.
"We went to this house where they sold purple microdot, a kind of acid that was popular in the 1970s. Every room in the house had been painted with tennis balls soaked in paint and ricocheted around the walls. There was this sameness in the room that was meant to be this free expression of creativity but it felt like a demonic brain scribbling. I've asked people from San Francisco if they remembered it, and nobody does," she says, frowning. "There are lots of things in life... there are places that were real, that are not in the historical record. They aren't in the cultural documents. They are not in novels, unless we put them there."
Kushner recreates places that have been made invisible by progress, and dually, people who have been made invisible by society. Shortly after the completion of The Flamethrowers in 2012, she decided she was going to "learn everything I could about the American criminal justice system", starting with the courthouses in Los Angeles.
"I started going down and watching arraignments, and noticing these sheriff buses that shuttle all day between the jails and the courts," she says. "When that's over, and a person is sentenced, they are remanded to state prison to fulfil their commitment. If they are serving something like a life sentence, they are basically invisibilised from society. And that's it. They are put on a bus and taken to the industrial farmlands of California, very far from their homes. Once they are taken there, the public component of their lives are over with."
From here, Kushner started visiting prisons with a human right's group called Justice Now, who she still works with today. "The book is finished, but the work continues."
It's clear that Kushner is hugely fond of the people she has met in prison, helping several of them to publish their own writing.
"When I hang out with friends in prison, they are hilarious people with a very intense level of psychological acuity. It's a cut above the regular population. And there are reasons for that," she says, with the confidence of someone who has been working up a theory for some time.
"When people live without any privacy, they don't have anything. They don't have any self-determination. Your identity kit - your way of doing your hair, or your clothes - it's all washed away. But what people do have is their personalities. So they are very good at seduction, and charm, and intimidation."
The charm and wit of the incarcerated people in The Mars Room shines in Kushner's prose, and it all seems to stem from the fact that the author truly doesn't judge her prisoner characters, or the prisoners she is friends with in real life. Her ideology is summed up in one line from the book itself: "Maybe guilt and innocence were not even a real axis. Things went wrong in people's lives."
"It's poor people who typically go to prison in the United States," she says. "It's also poor people who commit acts of harm - 90pc of people in the California prison system have been convicted of crimes that the state considers serious, violent felonies.
"But it's no coincidence that it's only poor people. I don't feel like it's my place to judge people for what they have done, because I haven't been exposed to the kind of trauma and violence that they have been exposed to," she says, thoughtfully. "Prison serves some kind of function, on as structural level. There are now, what some people call, surplus populations that, within capitalism, don't have a place in the economic structure of society. Those people also don't have a place. So society reproduces itself. Social reproduction of my life is that my parents were educated, and I'm educated, and so is my son.
"When you start to get to know people who have been shunted in early to the criminal justice system, usually they were in foster care, and then they were in Youth Authority, which is kid's prison. It no longer has to do with guilt and innocence. It has to do with circumstance."
Despite her empathy and passion for her subject, Kushner wants it to be clear that this is not a "message" book.
"If you can reduce a book to a message you should just dispense with writing the book and just say the message," she concludes.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner is published by Virago