Rachel: Channeling Mark Twain is filled [with] multi-layered characters and topics from pimps and prostitution to mental illness and social activism. What made you decide to give the novel that title? Were you trying to direct the reader’s attention to one area of the book?
Carol Muske-Dukes: I couldn’t write this novel for years. I tried it as a long poem (I’m a poet) and as a kind of journalism, but no go. My difficulty in finding its center or nucleus was caused by a conflict I felt in my own life which colored my initial attempts to write this semi-autobiographical novel. The novel is set in a time I remember well. I was teaching poetry at the Women’s House of Detention on Riker’s Island (and in other prisons) during the 70’s (the “present” of Channeling Mark Twain) and I discovered that I could not seem to bring together, in my mind, the world of prison and prison poetry — and the world of the literary life of Manhattan and its traditional aesthetic of poetry. This division of sensibilities, of language, tortured me for years. Finally, I realized that I could write about the conflict itself, what that felt like at the time. And what helped me realize this was a moment of inspiration: I suddenly thought that, along with writing about my own experience, I could invent a character who was a version of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, contemporized — and I tried to imagine what it would be like if Huckleberry Finn “came back” as a young African American woman in prison on Riker’s Island. Thus, my character, Polly Lyle Clement, is at the center of Channeling Mark Twain. This young woman, a mysterious wayfarer and self-described blood descendant of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, channels him — just as I tried to “channel” her.
Rachel: As I read the novel, the characters that stood out to me were not Holly’s friends and colleagues outside the prison, but the prisoners and prison employees. The vibrancy of the prisoners contrasted to the more muted personality of her husband. It seemed to keep the reader’s attention on Holly’s activism rather than her other activities. Was this contrast intentional?
Carol Muske-Dukes: I’d hoped that the characters on both sides of the bars would hold equal interest and weight, but I do understand that prison inmates, will, almost by definition, given their extreme circumstances, be more intriguing than “civilians”. Also, the poetry writing workshop I taught at the Women’s House of Detention was filled with fascinating women. Some were “ordinary” (at least in terms of their crimes. So many women go to jail for so-called “victimless” crimes, prostitution, drugs, shoplifting, etc. ) So a streetwalker like Baby Ain’t (and the woman she was roughly based on) had a “regular” job, but a wild and funny street personality. Others, like Akilah Malik (who is roughly based on Assata Shakur, alleged leader of the Black Liberation Army, who was in my workshop then) were personally charismatic and notorious.
Rachel: I understand that this novel is somewhat autobiographical – why did you choose to fictionalize your experiences rather than writing a memoir?
Carol Muske-Dukes: Because of the reasons above, having to do with imagination and inspiration. I believe that memoirs are to large degree fiction in any case, but that’s another matter. As I was saying, it was my imagination which saved me, my ability to conjure up people and events never existing before — which finally freed me up to write this book. We live in a time which seems to give tremendous value to the “it really happened just like this” memoir sensibility. I wanted this story to be told in the most powerful way possible — to do justice to the women inmates and to the time. As Picasso said, “We lie in order to tell the truth” in art. I fictionalized and embellished “real life” and invented some characters and events in order to approach the “truer” truth of art.
Rachel: Holly and Polly have very similar names, as well as similar literary interests. They are also very different – a young, white, social activist poetry teacher and an older, black, mentally unstable inmate – and yet they are drawn together. Were their names a conscious choice to tie them together? Was Polly based on any inmates you encountered?
Carol Muske-Dukes: Their names were not a conscious choice — I only realized when my editor or my agent pointed it out to me, that their names rhymed!
Rachel: You continue to be involved in teaching poetry to prison inmates – how much do you think has changed in the 30 years since the setting of Channeling Mark Twain? Could the story have been as effective if you set in the present day?
Carol Muske-Dukes: I’m just struggling with the plausibility of re-setting this story in the present - as there is TV interest in the book — which I will not address till after the Writers’ Strike is over — but I really don’t think the narrative could have the degree of emotional power it perhaps has now. Maybe I’m wrong. But it seems to me that the consciousness of the 60’s and 70’s would be very hard to “translate” into our consumer-oriented fashionista times. Maybe Martha Stewart could star?
Carol Muske-Dukes: I haven’t been involved in teaching in prison for a long time — but recently I did get a new workshop started at Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan — the only remaining women’s prison in the City! A lot has changed, a great deal has remained the same. Women still go to jail for “victimless” crimes on one hand, with very little “middle” crime like burglarly, breaking and entering, grand larceny, etc. However, women’s crime tends to leap from stealing a Twinkie to blowing a pimp’s head off, as it always did.
More depressing is that corporations have taken over prisons and there is even less rehab than before. And suicide rates are up. Recently, a woman hung herself at the Women’s House on Riker’s Island (I wrote a City Op Ed piece re this for the NY Times) — she’d been arrested for stealing several lipsticks. She was deeply depressed and on medication when she was arrested — and she never was allowed to see a therapist (nor was she given her required medication) during the months she was incarcerated. She finally gave up. And inmate-run Suicide Watch could not catch her in time. When I was at the WHD on Riker’s Island in the 70’s, women were routinely “off the calendar” like this, which meant that they were arrested but not officially charged with a crime before a judge, in defiance of habeas corpus. A woman busted for holding a small amt. of drugs could sit in prison for several months, even a year, before being charged. Routinely, women would lose their children — who would be given to foster care as wards of the state. This is supposedly better — the habeas corpus situation — but in reading about the suicide rate, which is as bad as it was and worse, I wonder.
Rachel:You don’t make income or finances a plot point for Holly and her husband K.B. Holly has enough time to do volunteer and paid non-profit work, in addition to freelance poetry writing. Could Holly, or anyone, be as socially active if she needed to earn a living wage?
Carol Muske-Dukes: Holly is teaching at Columbia University plus she is working as a kind of social worker, or Aftercare worker at the Women’s House, for which she is paid. It is not volunteer or “nonprofit” work, I can assure you, as I did it. It’s very tough work. And teaching is wonderful, but very demanding as well. And I love the expression “freelance poetry writing”. There ain’t any other kind - and you know, poets regularly make in the high two figures.
Rachel: I grew up in a very socially liberal family, and I followed Holly through the disappointment of realizing that the protesters and inmates aren’t always right, and the institutions aren’t always wrong. Has that shift in perspective altered your outlook on protesters and institutions in general? Has it changed how you work inside the prisons?
Carol Muske-Dukes: This is a coming-of-age novel, I guess — and therefore a novel about growing up. I guess we all go through periods of idealism accompanied by great naivete, but in writing the character of Holly, my hope was that a sense of her idealism as “tempered” not destroyed, would come through. No person or institution has cornered the market on “right” and we must be thankful for that, I suppose.
Rachel: Fiction with a political message is not always engaging, and yet your novel is engrossing while covering prisons, socialism, and prostitution. Did you edit the political messages inside Channeling Mark Twain to make it more readable?
Carol Muske-Dukes: Well, that’s what I was talking about when I mentioned the process of the imagination fictionalizing some of the more obdurate “political” realities — also, I hope, making them funnier, more poetic, more “human”. Thus, I hope, a character who channels Mark Twain can perhaps convey a “political” message by implication (and by humor, as he, the Great Old Man did!) more effectively than a ideological rant would. We’re all on the same raft, as Polly says, and we’d best, therefore, get along!
Rachel: Thank you for your time – I loved your novel.
Carol Muske-Dukes: Thank you so much for reading my book and asking such terrific questions.