Writers & Company

Rachel Kushner examines California's prison system in her new novel, The Mars Room

The author spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about why the book pays homage to the troubled friends of her youth.
Rachel Kushner is the author of the novel The Mars Room and a two-time finalist for the National Book Award. (CBC)

Rachel Kushner is one of the most dynamic American novelists writing today. 

Her first two novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, were both finalists for the National Book Award, in 2008 and 2013 respectively. Described in The New Yorker as "scintillatingly alive," The Flamethrowers is an ambitious, wide-ranging novel that moves from the First World War to the Italian Futurists, from the 1970s New York art scene to the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah — home of the annual motor racing competition, Speed Week. The Flamethrowers appeared on 18 best-of-the-year lists in 2013. 

Now Kushner has a new, very different novel. The Mars Room centres on Romy, a former stripper and single mother serving two life sentences in a California prison. Inspired by Kushner's extensive research speaking to prisoners in a women's facility, the story focuses on poverty, powerlessness, deprivation and abuse, painting a picture of a system that is cruel and brutal. 

Kushner talked to Eleanor Wachtel in Toronto in early May.

Tales of the city

"The city that a tourist visits is always going to be somewhat different than the city where people actually live and work. Having grown up in the Sunset District of San Francisco, I had tried to dissuade myself from writing fiction about it, but I decided that story would be part of The Mars Room. The Sunset District is actually gentrified now because San Francisco has so much money from the tech industry that it's become virtually uninhabitable for anyone but the very wealthy. San Francisco is an extremely divided place for children because most middle-class people send their kids to private school there. But it wasn't like that in the 1980s. It is more racially segregated now than it was before Brown v. Board of Education, which was a constitutional ruling that tried to integrate schools. I went to public schools and didn't even know that there was a high society. I grew up with kids who didn't really have those opportunities; in a certain sense, Romy, the narrator, is among my social group and my world of kids. The Mars Room is a manner for me to process why our lives ended up so differently." 

Reading the room

"Romy is frank, clever and able to survive fairly well in prison, which not everybody is. You have to be tough to understand how to socially surf that environment. I have spent time with people in prison and there is a particular kind of brilliance that you find among them. It's my theory that when people have no privacy and their identity has been largely stripped away from them, what people have in spades is their personality. Romy is somebody who adapts to prison and part of that is because she came from a tough environment. To some degree, so did I. It equips her to walk into an intimidating situation and try to orient herself quickly to the rules — not the rules of the guards but the rules among the people who have been forced to live there."

The prison landscape

"State prisons are part of the story of California. As a Californian, I wanted to think about the grand scope of our society and how it functions. Ever since I was a child, the idea that certain people have to be removed from society and live separate lives disturbed me and I wanted to know more about this manner of organizing people. Our prisons are located on vast tracts of industrial farming land; the majority of them were built between 1977 and 1992, when California undertook the largest prison-building project in the world. Politicians did not want to appear soft on crime and so there was a sense that they needed to build more prisons for public safety on this decommissioned land which was suffering from a drought. The women's prison that I based my fictional prison on has 4,000 women. It's the largest women's prison in the world. 

"As a middle-class person I wanted to force into my life a reckoning with people that have been effectively disappeared by the state. The Mars Room was my version of a contemporary novel — I don't see a whole lot of difference between the zenith or nadir of prison expansion in California [in the early 2000s] and right now, in terms of class structure, poverty, who goes to prison and why."

Rachel Kushner's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: Human Nature composed by Steven Porcaro, performed by the Vijay Iyer Trio.