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Literary Throwdown in San Quentin

San QuentinMichael Tolkin wrote The Player, both the novel and the canonical film directed by Robert Altman.  David Corbett has written some of the most critically acclaimed crime fiction of the past decade. Collectively, they have been nominated for more writing awards than is possible to mention. Recently, Michael and David found themselves on the other side of the fence. Literally. As the judges of a literary competition at San Quentin Prison.  Below, they share their thoughts on the experience.


Michael Tolkin: Every Friday night for eight years, Keith and Kent Zimmerman, whose friendship David and I share, have taught a writing class at San Quentin for inmates with sentences under five years. This spring, they organized a competition between the inmates and a team of Bay Area writers, including David. The brothers asked me to be one of the judges. The Zimmermans were going to select the five or six best pieces from each team, then read them aloud at the next class meeting without identifying which side the piece had come from, and then the judges were given time to rate each piece.

I know that Keith and Kent wouldn’t have put the inmates through the humiliation of a big loss, so I expected to read things that were true to what matters to the brothers, truth expressed directly, and that the flow of truth would be the substance of style. In this way, the professional writers might be at a disadvantage. With only enough time to get down a first draft that would better be called harsh than merely rough, the generally tamer life experiences of the professionals wouldn’t match the inmates’ catalogues of disaster.

I had a sense of what to expect in this way because I once taught a writing class at a Jewish halfway house in Los Angeles. I would come to each class with a phrase they had to use to start writing, and they’d have fifteen minutes to finish. When I gave them “He put,” an Israeli gangster wrote, “He put the rock in my dog’s mouth, and then stepped on his head.” I knew from that class to expect genius at San Quentin, but not art, and that the weakness of the prison writing would be the sentimentality.

As Oscar Wilde, the onetime inmate of Reading Gaol wrote, “All bad poetry is sincere.”

David Corbett: My level of expectation was mixed going in. I didn’t know Keith or Kent, but we connected by phone and shared tales of Sonny Barger and Hells Angels (they’d cowritten a book with Sonny, and as a PI I’d worked for Barger and the club when they were indicted in 1987). I also knew most of my cowriters, though only one of them well. But this familiarity, meager as it was, gave me a certain comfort level going in.

gloomy San Quentin State Prison on a foggy morning.As a PI I’d interviewed witnesses inside prison, though never San Quentin, so the environment wasn’t daunting. And as the guys straggled in, shook hands, and introduced themselves, and later as I learned some of their stories, I felt a curious sense of recognition, because they reminded me of some of my clients when I worked criminal defense. They weren’t evil degenerates but men, men who’d made mistakes, sometimes stupidly vicious ones, or who’d suffered black periods of shoddy luck so savagely overwhelming they’d succumbed. Some had plunged face-first into oblivion—alcohol, drugs, rage—and all but drowned. Some had given in to the seduction of power that crime provides, and woken up on the sharp end of its consequences.

They had names like Rolf, Pitt, Frenchy, Banks, Mister Morrison, Big H, Daleadamown, Jo Jo, and JFK, even Dinero D the Dynamic “P” and, yes, Buckshot (his given name, oddly enough). But they also were William and Tim, Dennis and Daniel, Raul, Christopher, Todd.

Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t think I’d been transported to some kind of testosterone wonderland. There was bullshit on both sides, and a lot of feeling each other out, the natural cagey distrust of men with men, inside or outside, though accentuated by the higher level of scrutiny inmates live with day in, day out. They look at you carefully, assess you hard. By and large they were incredibly gracious and accepting in their welcomes, but they were also sizing us up. And I’d guess they got us a hell of a lot more than we got them.

That sense guided me when I wrote my own piece. I knew that they had personal tales that would steamroll anything “creative.” Whatever I wrote, it had to be real, it had to be true, it had to strike hard and deep. Anything less was chickenshit, and the whole room would know it.

razor ballMichael Tolkin: We were told not to wear anything blue, and to wear shoes we could run in, and that if we were taken hostage, we had to know that the prison policy was not to negotiate for hostages. All of this sounds dramatic, and the razor wire on top of the fences is dramatic, the gun towers are dramatic, but all of this is mocked by the earnest haplessness of the inmates.

Mouldy Marvin Gilbert was an old Hells Angel I got to know while trying to turn Sonny’s autobiography into a movie. I was the second of what are now six or seven writers. I asked Marvin, “Marvin, what’s the biggest difference in the club between today and the old days?” He took less time to answer than it takes me to write his answer, “Longer sentences.” He spent his last years sitting on a crappy sofa, watching the security cameras that were sitting on top of the big rear-projection TV in the Oakland HQ, and sending out for microwave burritos from the convenience store. The TV was always tuned to the History Channel. He died a few years ago. He’d done time for beating a man to death.

A girl in my daughter’s circle was murdered two years ago, and I don’t know if her killer was in San Quentin while we were there. We weren’t going to see him, of course, but how does one think about such things when hanging around a prison classroom, making small talk with the inmates? How does that look to the families of the people hurt by these men? Does it matter? Does one say, somewhere in one’s heart, there’s a randomness to life, and we must detach ourselves from the grief of friends over crimes that leave a stain only others who have suffered like that can understand?

A prison video crew recorded the event, and the camera operator asked me to autograph the prison newspaper for the members of the video crew who aren’t allowed to be part of the class, because they’re doing life. Little things like this just stick to the skin. It’s a mission of mercy, not justice. Justice is being served by order of the state.

We were there, let us freely admit, to have a good time by sitting in judgment according to the laws of writing, not society. They may have lied in court, but they couldn’t lie to me.

Class assembled. The stories were given to the judges. Keith and Kent took turns reading them out loud.

David Corbett: As the Brothers Z read the pieces, I cringed a little inwardly at how obvious it was which ones were written by the inmates, which ones by the “published authors.” The stakes and consequences were so much higher in the inmate pieces, and obviously so. Like you (Michael) said at the outset, genius not art. But genius all the same.

Joe Loya, who was one of the authors but who’d also been a bank robber in LA and did eight years in federal stir, stood out for me. I didn’t realize which piece was his till afterward, when we got printouts with everybody’s name at the end of his piece. But his recollection of returning to lockup because of a psychotic break caused by a severe bipolar disorder just shook me. His remembrance of an inmate at Lewisburg who clawed out his own eyes, or the serene Filipino on the psych ward where he ended up who’d suddenly rip into spontaneous obscenity, “Fuck you cocksmokenmotherfucker,” only to quickly drift back into peace. You can’t, as they say, make that shit up.

It was Joe who told the inmates they had two big advantages over most aspiring writers on the outside: they have no problem taking risks (they wouldn’t be in prison otherwise), and they have a high tolerance for ambiguity. But he also noted that they’re natural storytellers. Everybody on the tier has a great story, if only the story of his arrest. But that means yours has to be tight, it has to be funny, it can’t wander off into pious self-reflection—or hokey self-congratulation—or you’ll get cut off so some other guy can tell his tale. True enough, most of the inmate stories were about their arrests. And the premise of the assignment—Damn, Back at Square One Again—obliged them to reflect meaningfully on what that meant. I wasn’t just impressed by their stories. I was impressed by their insight.

Which brings me back to a point you made, Michael. I felt no obligation to consider what the families of crime victims might think of our being in that prison. I worked criminal defense for fifteen years, knocked on my share of doors to the homes of crime victims—specifically murder victims—and came face-to-face with the savage harm my clients had caused.

But I also saw firsthand both the machinery of the state and the tide of public opinion surge overwhelmingly toward victims and their survivors and against men like those in that room. Joe and Jane Crime Victim do not lack for sympathy or support. In contrast, by and large the guys in that prison are on their own. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it. But I only got a few whiffs of self-pity from them, or the sneaky arrogance of thinking they were getting away with something.

The guys in that class were most likely unique. They were there to learn something, and writing requires introspection. So does change. We probably saw the best there was to see among the inmates. And yet, I remain disinclined to pass judgment. Somebody’s already done that.

I mentioned feeling like I felt I needed to measure up to the inmates’ stories, dig deep, bring up something real. I wrote about the day I had to threaten to kill a doctor to get my wife, who was dying of cancer, out of pain. After she died, I spent a year oscillating among numbness, despair, and rage. But there was nobody sitting in a cell somewhere I could blame for her death. She died too young and too hard, in slow-motion agony. She was tortured to death, there’s no other word. But there was no moral high ground I could climb to afterward, no soapbox from which I could condemn the bastard responsible. I had to learn that loved ones die, senselessly and cruelly, and they never come back. There was no sacrificial victim who could make it all meaningful, balance the scales of justice.

I find myself impatient with those who insist that the guilty should never be forgiven—worse, not regarded as human, or even listened to. From where I stand, that kind of righteousness seems unwilling to accept the brute reality of death and the inscrutability of existence. Nothing you do can bring the loved one back or make things right. All you can do is live. It feels wrong, it feels pointless, it feels dishonorable, but we do the dead no favors by refusing to love and live.

Not that I don’t understand anger. I’ve been angry most of my life. Talk about a waste of time. I’ve learned that forgiveness can be liberating. Some people, though, want to remain shackled to the object of their blame. I don’t envy them.

Michael Tolkin: Given a short time to write, with no advance notice of the topic, “Damn! I’m back on square one again,” forced aside everyone’s refuge in style. I was certain that I could tell the inmates from the outmates, but I wasn’t sure about all the outmates, and David, your piece was one that fooled me, as it sounded like the story of the explanation for a despair that ended in the crime that brought the writer to this room.

Your piece was about the same length as Joe Loya’s. Since I hadn’t been introduced to everyone, I didn’t know that Joe had done time, and I wasn’t sure if his story was about an episode between times in prison.

We were told to score on three criteria, scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent:

1) Voice: To what degree is the voice dramatic, individual, and authentic?

2) Clarity: To what degree is the message being conveyed clearly?

3) Originality: To what degree is it original, entertaining, and/or important?

Here are some examples:

Cadillac EscaladeLife is fucking great, man! Here I am, 19 years-old. I’ve got 3 hoes on the team, I’m driving a clean ass Caddy on 24″ rims, chromed the fuck out, I’m clean as a mutherfucka dipped in Louis Vuitton trousers and Gucci loafers.” [Not three paragraphs later, the writer’s stranded in Vegas, abandoned by his team, no money, no car, only to hear this from his nemesis:] “A little advice Young Pimp. Next time you bring some hoes to Vegas, have them hoes locked in cuz the Las Vegas motto is definitely TRUE. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, including ya hoes.”

* * *

I jack a 3 and a half inch load of buckshot into my Winchester and let loose a horrifying roar that blows my screen door off. Through the smoke of my discharged round I see my door bouncing off my front walkway, gardenia petals blowing in the hot breeze. I see cops underneath their SUV’s, and this crazy silence hanging in the air. The sulfur from the shell case burns my nostrils as I pump the spent casing out of the weapon. I pop another beer can and gulp the bitterness down. This looks like it will be the last time. I’ll be damned now.

* * *

In prison, the tobacco market is crazy! Today the guy that has it might like to get tortillas so he can rolla burrito, but he may need rolling paper so he can roll a smoke.

Finally I find someone who wants some coffee and they actually have some soups! So we negotiate how many soups for how much coffee and now it’s back to see the man with the tobacco. He’s happy with the soups so he hooks me up with a big ole fat cigarette and soon I’m happy.

Well, I guess I shouldn’t have looked so damned happy ’cause as I’m almost to the house, there is this [guard] lounging against the wall. I see him and he looks up and sees me and says, “What the hell are you so happy about? Maybe you should put your hands on the wall and let’s see what’s in your pockets.”

And what does he find?

Damn! Now I’m back to square one again!

* * *

She left her earrings next to my bed, and my ex-girlfriend came back for a booty call and found them. The rage of a woman throwing another’s earrings out a window – you have no idea.

* * *

So since I am going to get out soon, well, I need to make peace with my Baby Momma cuz I need my son and also a place to parole to. Well, you know, I’ve been writing love letters, plagiarizing poems, I mean, the whole nine yards. I even had to take this damned creative writing class to get my imagination going to see what kind of shit I can come up with.

* * *

The girl was sleeping with my best friend. My dog was dying. The property [40 acres in the redwoods] and the house were foreclosing. Soon I was sleeping in the back of my truck that I was six payments late on. Driving down the highway one late and foggy night, I got in a head-on collision that definitely put the icing on the cake. I woke up in the hospital with two broken ankles and a long prison term to look forward to.

* * *

Lifting the icing on the cake, we find that the writer of this last piece was hiding drugs in his system when his truck crossed the center of the road, killing two people, and in all the writing, this was the only case of self-pity clouding the work to the point of dishonesty.

When the Zimmermans finished reading, I and the other two judges (Noah and Logan Miller) handed in their score sheets, and the writers and inmates talked for half an hour. At some point, I spoke to the group because there’s a picture of me standing up while they’re all listening, offering whatever encouragement I could think of that didn’t sound stupid, and none of which I remember. On the far side of the yard outside the room, a group of Native Americans, with shirts off, were entering a sweat lodge.

The scores came back.

The San Quentin inmates had won by half a point.

SQ Throwdown Everyone

David Corbett: I was frankly startled that the score was even close. Given the strength of the excerpts you’ve included, and your absolutely correct assessment of the problems the published writers faced—no time to revise, and relatively timid “catalogues of disaster” to draw upon—I just sat there thinking as I listened: their stuff is just so much more interesting. I felt like the smart kid with thick glasses I once was, having to fight my way home from school, realizing there was some fundamental element of life I just didn’t get: Intelligence is a lofty form of weakness, sensitivity is for girls and victims, you have to fight for the right to be left alone. I could feel that old tension, like a humming wire, in the background as Kent read the pieces out loud.

As for what you said when you got up to address the class, I remember it well. You talked about having just read The New Yorker summer issue featuring the recently anointed young phenoms of fiction, and how after only a couple stories you put the magazine down in bored irritation. You told the inmates what a relief it was to encounter writing that was actually about something.

Which brings us back to that tie score. We were all curious what was said in your deliberations with Noah and Logan as you assessed the merit of the various pieces, and how it came to pass that the vote was so close. Inquiring minds want to know, as it were.

SQ Throwdown Winners & JudgesMichael Tolkin: You’d have to ask Noah and Logan, but I don’t remember deliberations, I think we scored this on our own and the scores were added up by someone else in another room. If you saw us talking it was probably about the difficulty of finding a good Lamborghini mechanic anywhere outside of Turin, or whatever it is that professional writers gab about when prisoners are eavesdropping.

It came to pass that the vote was close because the professional writers were given a scary topic that’s at the center of the inmates’ lives. No one likes being asked to think about having to start over again. The inmates took square one with some irony, always a good strategy when you’re writing quickly, and the professionals tried to get around the joke, hunting for a sincerity that wasn’t self-pitying. Getting around the joke is a bit like skipping around the nature of the crime.

William Carlos Williams wrote: “The poem is a capsule where we wrap up our punishable secrets.” For the professional writers, crime is something that happens to us, or to people we know, so our punishable secrets tend to be sins for which the punishment isn’t prison, but spiritual exile, or the end of a love affair, or the hatred of one’s family, or creative failure. The inmate doesn’t have the luxurious opportunity we have on the outside to reconcile with his fate by making whatever voluntary amends are possible, and writing his own pardon. This is why the inmates won. The question was a kind of punishment. They live with punishment every second of the day. Advantage: San Quentin.

David Corbett, in addition to being a contributor to the two serial novels The Chopin Manuscript and The Copper Bracelet, is the author of four critically acclaimed novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise and Do They Know I’m Running?.

David’s essays and short fiction have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and his story “Pretty Little Parasite” (Las Vegas Noir) was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2009. In another collaboration project, he teamed with Luis Alberto Urrea for a story titled “Who Stole My Monkey?” that will appear in the upcoming (October 2010) Lone Star Noir. He has taught at UCLA Extension, Book Passage, Wordstock, and the East of Eden Writers Conference.

The New Yorker called Michael Tolkin “an L.A. Antonioni with a sense of humor.” In Artforum he was called, “The only American filmmaker working near the level of Pasolini and Kiezlowski.” As a writer/director, his two films, The Rapture and The New Age, were opening night selections at the Telluride Film Festival. As writer/producer, he is best known for The Player, for which he won the Writers Guild Award,  The British Academy Award, The Chicago Film Critics’ Award, the PEN Center USA West Literary Award, and the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best crime screenplay. He was also nominated for an Academy Award. As one of the film’s producers he was awarded the Golden Globe, the New York Film Critics Circle Award and the Independent Feature Project Spirit Award for best picture of the year.  The Rapture, 1991, starring Mimi Rogers and David Duchovny, was nominated for three Spirit Awards. He has also co-written four films, the HBO movie, The Burning Season, starring the late Raul Julia and directed by the late John Frankenheimer, for which he shared the Humanitas Prize and an Emmy Nomination; Deep Cover, starring Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum;  Deep Impact, a Dreamworks co-production with Paramount Pictures, and also for Paramount, Changing Lanes,  which was named Best Picture of the Year by Catholics in Media. His most recent credit, which he shared with the late Anthony Minghella, is the screenplay for Nine,  which was nominated for four Academy Awards.

His books,  include The Player, Among The Dead, Under Radar, all of which have been translated around the world, and The Player, The Rapture, The New Age: Three Screenplays by Michael Tolkin.” His fourth novel, Return of The Player, was published in the fall of 2006 by Grove/Atlantic.