Q&A: ‘Orange is the New Black’ author Piper Kerman on Netflix show
Piper Kerman was a comfortably settled member of the Manhattan creative class on the day in 1998 when two police officers knocked on her door, telling her she’d been indicted for her brief but fateful involvement in a drug-trafficking operation years earlier.
By the time she finally went to prison six years later, she was engaged, in her 30s and desperate to get her 15-month sentence over with.
“The beginning of the sentence was the beginning of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Kerman said this week, over a late lunch of heirloom tomatoes at the trendy New York City gastropub the Breslin -- a far cry from the iceberg lettuce and mystery meat she subsisted on while locked up at a federal prison in Danbury, Conn.
Kerman wrote about her experience in the bestselling 2010 memoir “Orange Is the New Black,” now adapted into a Netflix series by “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan. Starring Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, a flightier and more hapless character than the one in Kerman’s book, the series debuted Thursday to almost uniformly positive reviews. (“Netflix may wind up changing the world after all,” wrote Times critic Mary McNamara, calling the series “fine and feisty.”)
We spoke with Kerman, who now works as a communications consultant for nonprofits, about the series, her future writing plans and the fascinating world of prison literature.
Your book got a lot of attention when it came out in 2010. How does it feel making the rounds a second time with a TV show?
Out there talking about the book, it’s just me and my experience, and the show is so much more than that, which is why I was so thrilled to do it for television. I think the reason that people liked the book isn’t just because of my trajectory as a protagonist but because of all these other women’s lives. These characters that you maybe just get the tiny details about in the book, in a TV series they can create characters and blow out their back stories and make them so rich.
At what point did it dawn on you there might be a book to be written about your incarceration?
I came home in 2005, and almost every single person I knew wanted to hear about the experience in ... detail. Clearly, people had this real interest in this very, very hidden world. It’s just apparent the story had this currency that made it a good story to tell, and I was encouraged to try my hand at some writing.
You shopped your book around before settling on “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan. What about her take on the material appealed to you?
More than pitching me, she asked me questions. She had this hunger to know even more than what was contained in the book. That was much more compelling to me than some of the other meetings where people were like, “This is how we see it.”
To what extent were you involved with the development?
I read all the scripts in the first season, and my point of view has always been that what I have to contribute is trying to make the show as real as possible. I always try to limit my feedback to “This is a detail that you might not think of adding.” Like when [one character] loses her glasses. If you lose your glasses in prison, you’re screwed. Those little telling details that make the thing such a complete world.
You’ve watched the whole series. Did you find anything surprising or revelatory in Jenji’s version of your story?
I am really impressed with how they built the comic elements. I am so so impressed with that tone, how they balance really serious themes with really, really funny moments. It’s dark material, and there’s nothing funny about much of the reality, but there is humor to how people navigate every day to get through there.
How does Piper Chapman, the character in the series, differ from you?
She makes some choices that are very different than mine. I made many mistakes when I was locked up, but she makes some real doozies.
It seems like books were an essential part of your prison experience.
They were complete lifelines. They were the only legitimate forms of escape. I actually avoided the TV rooms because they’ll suck you into some weird places. There was no prison library in Danbury. We just had informal book shelves, but it’s very interesting what books are popular. Serial romances and mysteries, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton. There’s the whole genre of street fiction -- “Dutch,” “The Coldest Winter Ever.” Ann Patchett is big.
“Random Family” [by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc] was hugely popular at Danbury. There were these dog-eared copies that kept getting passed around. There were some women who were reading, and they were like, “This is my life,” and there were other women who were from middle-class backgrounds who were like, “This book is explaining where we are.”
Did you have any anxiety about writing about your experience, given your relative privilege compared with most of your fellow inmates?
I think one of the things that made the book possible was the fact that it was a fish-out-of-water story. I thought it was important to address that in the book really clearly and directly. The most important thing about the experience was recognizing that what I had in common with other women. Then when you step back and you ask, “I got treated this way, they got treated that way. What’s that about?”
Are you working on another book?
I have a book idea I’m very interested in. It’s nonfiction about the criminal justice system, and I’m trying to figure out how to pull it off. It’s not a memoir. I don’t have any memoirs in me at this point. Someone asked me if I was interested in writing about motherhood because I’m a mother now. And I said, “No, there are plenty of books about that.”
You’ve said elsewhere that the correctional system is about missed opportunities and lost potential, yet your experience has been a positive one in some ways. Would you do it over?
I would do anything to be able to go back in time and not be able to do it. What it put my family through alone is not worth it, and any contribution that my own actions had to other people’s drug addictions is not something I take lightly any longer. When I was 22 years old, I was not thinking about that at all. When I was in prison, I was living with women whose lives had been devastated by their drug addiction.
What are you hoping viewers will get out of the show?
I wrote the book very intentionally because I believed that telling my own story would potentially reach people who would not be inclined to pick up a book about prison. It was just that simple. I think that if the show is incredibly compelling and people want to spend a good chunk of time with these characters, they will think more about the real people who are in prison. People tend to disappear into our prison system, and I would like for them not to be disappearing.
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