Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Pat MacEnulty

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

It was here in prison I discovered my gift. The gift of listening. They come to me. White, Black and in-between, young and old, vicious killers and women with no more business in here than your kindergarten teacher. They tell me things. The loudmouths and the quiet ones, too. I observe all from my throne (my bunk square in the middle of the room). I know every secret. I know that sweet old grandma in the corner is the source of the compound marijuana. I know that mean Magna cries late at night and worries about her sick mother. I know that Viola Carpenter is a little crazy behind her Bible-reading front and that the chubby Jewish American princess from Miami is one generation away from West Virginia hillbillies on her mother's side. This place is some kind of madhouse. What I do is watch and listen.

Pat MacEnulty's work is hard to classify. She writes about people with inner demons who are literally imprisoned and others who are imprisoned by limited self-beliefs and addictions. She writes about darkness, but her stories are filled with passages of light and often hopeful endings. She is the author of three novels From May To December(2007), < i>Time to Say Goodbye (2006), Sweet Fire (2004), and one short story collection The Language of Sharks (2004), all published by Serpent's Tail. She has a doctorate in English from Florida State University and lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. From 1995 to 2002 she facilitated writing and drama workshops for prisoners as well as at-risk juveniles. She is currently working on another novel and also works as an independent editor and writing coach.

Her most recent novel, From May To December, is the story of a group of women in prison who help each other come to terms with their lives through an in prison grant­funded drama workshop. It is also the story of the two sisters who lead the workshop and how they face their own personal demons. Lolly has cancer. Jen is a former porn star who is working on finishing her Ph.D. in theatre.


EG     I thought considering the subject matter ofFrom May To December, it might be a story whose characters were one dimensional or have a simple uninteresting plot like certain TV movies (I think Farah Fawcett starred in one), but I was wrong. I wanted good things to happen to these very "dimensional" women whose lives had been filled with bad breaks and turmoil. Do you think getting a reader to like your characters automatically gets them engaged in the story?

PM     I know what you mean about those "women in prison" movies. As for likable characters getting the readers engaged, I think that is key to a good book. It is when I read a book, at any rate. That's one of the problems I have with a lot of contemporary fiction, I just don't care about the characters much.

EG     Can you give me an example of a contemporary novel whose characters were not appealing to you?

PM     It's such a matter of personal taste. I honestly don't even remember the titles of most of them.

EG     What about authors and book you enjoy?

PM     There are a couple of authors I like who have edgy, complicated characters that are interesting and ultimately likeable to me, There are several books I like which have main characters with varying degrees of edginess. I love Vicki Hendrick's new book Cruel Poetry. Her book is extremely dark. I also like the writer Amanda Eyre Ward. Her characters are not nice, happy people but they're very interesting. And a few years ago, a book came out called The Time Traveler's Wifee by Audrey Niffeneger that really engaged me. I should also mention Pamela Ball's two books, Lava and The Floating City with a disclaimer that she is also a friend of mine. But both of those books are stunningly written and her main characters tend to have messy lives.

EG     How do you define edginess?

PM     I mean characters who are flawed, who have bad attitudes, who don't play by the rules. It's generally more interesting to me to read about someone who has a few internal demons and yet who still has qualities that make us root for them. This was an issue I faced when I first started writing because I was writing about people who were drug addicts and criminals. So I'd bring these stories to workshops and sometimes other people in the workshop would be very offended by these characters. My characters weren't "nice" people. Yet I still wanted my reader to care about them and get involved in their situations. So I know that I've adopted the term "edgy" as a way to warn people: look, these aren't going to be perfectly moral, upstanding citizens and if that's what you want, then you should look elsewhere.

EG     Is adopting the term edgy like a movie rating? Do you actually tell people your books are "edgy?"

PM     You know, I have done that, especially if they are people who may not know me that well but want to read one of my books. But perhaps they have no idea what I'm talking about.

As I said I want people to read my books and care about the characters so I do give them this warning. My first novel, Sweet Fire, was about a junkie. Many readers who read it despite or because of the "edgy" caveat have commented that they liked the main character and were rooting for her in spite of some of the really unsavory things she gets involved in. I think if you get into any character's head and really try to see things from that character's perspective, then the reader will understand the character and care what happens to her or him.

EG     I think you are right that writers can see situations from a character's perspective. And that helps the reader understand the character. Do you think it is an innate ability or can it be learned?

PM     Oh, wow. I don't know. Probably a healthy dose of empathy is useful; I bet we learn that as children. But there is technique involved as well. When I'm working with writers, I really encourage them to let the reader know what the character is seeing and hearing and then to filter the information through that character's sensibility. So I suppose that it is generally something that can be learned. Early on, my teacher Jerry Stern chastised me a lot for not letting the reader know what my character felt or thought about something. I had taken that "show don't tell" advice a little too literally.

EG     I know you dealt with an addiction. Would you be willing talk about that and if or how it related to your becoming a writer?

PM     I just read a review of my recent book that said I started writing after a period of addiction and incarceration. Not so. I decided when I was about 12 that I wanted to be a writer. My addiction to heroin from the ages of 17 to 23 had more to do with self-loathing and an enormous amount of emotional pain that I was carrying. If I hadn't taken drugs, I would surely have killed myself. So the drugs kept me basically medicated until I got to the point that I was able to figure out how to stop hating myself. Writing did help sustain me throughout all that. And while I was going through the various events of a drug addict's life I knew that at least I was collecting some interesting material. I would also say that writing has helped me to get over it and move on with my life. I never intentionally wrote as therapy. But there is something quite freeing about giving all your old bad habits to a character and letting them figure out how to deal with it.

EG     What did you write (stories?, poems?) while you were addicted to heroin? Does a heroin high foster or hinder creativity?

PM     Heroin in no way fosters creativity. When I wrote, which wasn't that often now that I think about it, I wrote poetry, pretty bad poetry. And I kept some journals, but it wasn't till I got clean that I actually started writing about some of my experiences.

EG     Would you explain what brought on the "self-loathing" of the following passage:

"My addiction to heroin from the ages of 17 to 23 had more to do with self-loathing and an enormous amount of emotional pain that I was trying to carry. If I hadn't taken drugs, I would surely have killed myself."

PM     Probably abandonment issues. My alcoholic father left when I was three. My older brothers left when I was around five or six. Then there was some unpleasantness with an alcoholic step-father. Some people have those kinds of experiences and they become better people, but I wasn't one of them. I took it hard and I took the anger that I felt out on myself.

EG     It sounds like you are judging yourself for how you reacted.

PM     When I hear stories about people who survived much worse childhoods than I had, I often wonder why I took the self-destructive path. On the other hand, regret is such a waste of time. And the experiences I had have enabled me to relate to and help other people, which has been a great thing.

EG     "Unpleasantness with an alcoholic step-father?" What do you mean?

PM     There was no physical or sexual abuse, but he created a psychological wedge between my mother and me that was very unhealthy. He was in my life right at the beginning of my adolescence, and I was so happy to finally have a father. Then he started to drink, he cheated on my mother with one of his students, and I couldn't stand to be in the house.

EG     Were you incarcerated for drugs?

PM     Yes.

EG     Where?

PM     In Florida.

EG     For how long?

PM     Seventeen months.

EG     Did you write in prison?

PM     Yes, I did. I kept a journal, and I wrote poetry. I even wrote a couple of short stories. None of it was very good, but I was beginning to try to capture my past experiences.

EG     Back to the writerly mechanics of From May To December. I found Nicole Parks' Memoirs, one of the prisoners in From May To December, interspersed with the third person story very effective. I often waited to hear her take on things. What made you put her memoirs throughout the book in unconnected chapters? Did you have a model from any books you have read? Was it a hard decision to go from third person to first?

PM     A true writer's question. I found that I really wanted to have that sense of someone looking back on events, and that's what the memoir form allowed for. And it seemed natural since she wanted to be a writer that she would have written a memoir. I don't remember any model for it, but it wasn't a hard decision. It was instinctive.

EG     In terms of the novel's pacing, I can't figure out how you wrote such a great page-turner considering the story was not a thriller or spy story. Did you choose to make this book a page-turner? James Hall wrote about your novel "Pat MacEnulty's Time to Say Goodbye "starts fast and strong and whiplashes along to an explosive and emotional conclusion. This is writing without pretense, but with real power." Is this intensity of plot movement your style or voice?

PM     I'm not sure. Sweet Fire was a "voice-driven" novel. And my short stories, I think, are voice-driven as well. But in my second novel, Time to Say Goodbye, I was intentionally trying to write something that was more plot driven. This last book sort of synthesized the two. In a way, this has been my biggest challenge. People find it hard to categorize my books. Publishers do, at any rate. I've been fortunate that Serpent's Tail hasn't worried much about whether what I'm writing can be easily pigeon-holed.

EG     If you had to categorize From May To December, what genre would you put it in, or how would you describe the story and style? Another way to phrase this question would be, who do you think is your audience?

PM     You know, I think my audience is comprised people who like old-fashioned stories. I want to do two things in my work: write something that has artistic value and at the same time isn't boring! I don't mind being categorized as literary. Maybe we can broaden the category to include stories like mine. Some people call them crime novels, which is fine too, since all of my books are about transgressions of some kind or another.

EG     Many people think of women in prison as being like members of the infamous Jerry Springer Show: loud, emotional, confrontational, angry, dangerous. Would you like to challenge this assumption that women and men behind bars are more aggressive than people who have never been convicted of a serious crime as defined by the government?

PM     Not necessarily. A prison is an extremely noisy place, and there is undeniably a lot of aggressive behavior. But not everyone is aggressive. And women tend to be less so. I do think that you're likely to find more talented and intelligent people in prison that most people would expect to find.

EG     Do you think our culture is overly interested in the criminal mind and even romanticizes it? There are so many shows on TV about crime.

PM     Yes. I feel like I'm the only person in the whole country who never was the least bit interested in The Sopranos. Not to say I don't enjoy a good crime novel, and I really like the BBC mystery series. But in-depth portrayals of cruelty generally sicken me, and the average run-of-the-mill psychopath is downright boring.

EG     Can you think of any books or movies that realistically portray people in prison?

PM     I read a book called Falconer by John Cheever that I liked when I was younger. And there's an entire genre of "urban fiction" now that deals a lot with people in prison. It's brutally realistic. And Joseph Bathanti has a prison book out, which I'm eager to read. I don't follow prison movies much or the TV shows. I do love certain druggie movies. Trainspotting was absolutely brilliant. Same with Sid & Nancy and Drugstore Cowboy. I even wrote an academic paper about that movie.

EG     I know you facilitated a number of arts workshops for people in prisons? Lolly and Jen had a good response to their workshop exercises. What was your experience?

PM     Extremely rewarding. That part of the book is very closely modeled on one particular experience I had working in the prisons. It's very intense, but absolutely the most rewarding work I've ever done. And while you may think you're helping them to heal, they're quite often helping you.

EG     How does that work? How do they help you?

PM     Oh, you go in there and you're tired or something awful is going on in your life and you feel instantly better because they're so happy to see you. And if you want to whine about your life a little bit, they're all right with that. When my cat died, they were so sympathetic. Or when a friend of mine was ill with cancer, they didn't expect me to be cheerful all the time. When you're together and you're all sharing what's going on through your writing, it can be life-sustaining. In general, they're very open about what's going on in their lives. I mean, once you're in prison you've hit bottom so in a way you're freed of a lot of your pretensions. You're not judging others.

EG     The cover of From May To December is a story in itself. Who is the woman on the cover?

PM     I have no idea. Everyone asks that, too. I myself don't have any tattoos.

EG     Do you have any say about the covers for your books?

PM     None at all. They just show up. And that's probably a good thing because a lot of people react very favorably to this cover, and I probably wouldn't have chosen it. But I'm not a very visual person so I can't imagine what I would have picked instead. I'm glad they chose this cover for me.

EG     Do you think you will write about another population of people or do you believe that writing what you know idea is what works best for you?

PM     Right now I'm writing a coming of age novel that takes place in 1970 and deals with the peace movement and that era. So while I know something about that era, I also need to do a lot of research about it. I enjoy researching new material, and I think I'll continue to explore stories that center around various issues that are important to me.


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