Prisoners and Race: PW Talks with James Kilgoreby Bob Hahn
September 21, 2012
James Kilgore’s first crime novel, Prudence Couldn’t Swim, charts the efforts of a white ex-con to find out who killed his black African wife.
Your life story includes membership in the Symbionese Liberation Army, 27 years as a fugitive, life as a respected academic in South Africa, and six and a half years in California prisons. Why have you chosen to write fiction?
I have been a writer for much of my adult life, producing educational materials, reports, etc. In prison, I didn’t have access to the resources I needed. Fiction was my only outlet.
How many books did you write during your time in prison?
I wrote drafts of eight novels. I rewrote them once I got out of prison, but they didn’t change too much.
Why did you decide to write a crime novel?
I’d never read much crime fiction until 2006. There was a reservoir of books that people had smuggled into prison one way or the other. A lot of them were crime fiction: Michael Connelly, Ross Macdonald, Sara Paretsky, Dashiell Hammett. I got hooked. I realized they were a whole different way to tell a story.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing while a prisoner?
Learning how to write fiction. At Lompoc Penitentiary, the little library had several volumes of a Writer’s Digest series on how to write fiction. They became my bible and transformed my understanding of fiction.
What did you write with?
At times I had only cheap Bic pens. The first draft of my Zimbabwe novel [We Are All Zimbabweans Now] I wrote on an old manual typewriter. The ribbon was so spent I could barely see the image.
Prudence Couldn’t Swim doesn’t seem to mirror much of your own experiences. Do you intend to tell your own story?
Why should I tell my story when I can tell the stories of so many other people who never get the chance to be heard? In fact, there is a lot of my own experience in Prudence Couldn’t Swim. The protagonist, Calvin Winter, and his sidekick, Red Eye, are right off the prison yard at High Desert State Prison, where I lived for 33 months. Do you know that the prison yards of California facilities are still totally segregated by race? That there are black showers and white showers, black phones and white phones, black pull-up bars and white pull-up bars? These yards produce characters like Calvin and Red Eye, who could be so much better than they are if they weren’t steeped in this racial hatred. I give Cal and Red Eye the chance to escape that racial hatred in my novel.