WBUR / Here & Now
Two-time National Book Award finalist Rachel Kushner’s new novel “The Mars Room” centers on a woman who’s sentenced to two life terms plus six years in a California prison.
Kushner joins Here & Now’s Mina Kim to talk about the book.
Book Excerpt: ‘The Mars Room’
by Rachel Kushner
When I was five or six years old I saw a paperback cover in the supermarket that was a drawing of a woman and her nude body had two knives coming out of it, blood pooling around her. The cover of the book said, “Killed Twice.” That was its title. I was away from my mother, who was shopping somewhere in the market. We were at Park and Shop on Irving and I felt I was not just a few aisles away but permanently sucked out to sea, to the engulfing world of Killed Twice. Coming home from the market, I was nauseous. I could not eat the dinner my mother prepared. She didn’t really cook. It was probably Top Ramen she prepared for me, and then attended to whichever of the men she was dating at the time.
For years, whenever I thought of that image on the cover of Killed Twice I felt sick. Now I can see that what I experienced was normal. You learn when you’re young that evil exists. You absorb the knowledge of it. When this happens for the first time, it does not go down easy. It goes down like a horse pill.
Excerpted from THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner. Copyright © 2018 by Rachel Kushner. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Rachel Kushner recently spoke with Entertainment Weekly writer SEIJA RANKIN.
The Mars Room was definitely going to be about a prison. It might seem like a stark setting change for a novelist whose previous books covered the art scene in New York City, the leftist movement in 1970s Italy, and a pre-revolutionary Havana, among others, but Kushner is as passionate about the criminal justice system as she is informed. She used the term “prison abolitionist” when she recounted her writing experiences to EW, and it’s an apt descriptor. Around the same time the ideas started flowing, she decided that she wanted to learn everything she possibly could about the state prison system in California and got involved as a volunteer at the human-rights organization Justice Now — which, under the direction of a president who is himself on a life sentence, works to prevent violations inside women’s prisons.
Before Kushner sat down to write The Mars Room, she completed exhaustive research, if you can call it that.
(in the WBUR Internet, Kushner shared the research was really more about outreach for her and she visited, and began to know, the inmates.)
It began with tasks that she is quick to point out she wanted to do as a citizen: familiarizing herself with the California prison system, visiting the criminal courts near her house and watching arraignments. And then she spent 10 days going undercover visiting prisons throughout the state. The trip was organized by a criminology professor, and they kept her identity hidden — writers aren’t allowed into prisons, but the professor agreed to bring Kushner along in 2014 because he was retiring.
“I actually wasn’t surprised by anything the first time I went to a prison,” Kushner mused. “It was a very illuminating trip. To actually get inside and walk around is something: I could wander into people’s cells and talk to them, even be out on the maximum-security yard.”
“Most of my visiting with people in prison wasn’t about me getting information from them to put in the book,” she explained. “Usually it was about me paying attention to them and listening to what they wanted to tell me that day.”
I don’t think art can be message-y or political,” Kushner said. “Why not just write an op-ed? And I’m not the person to do that. I’m interested in trying to figure out how I should live my life, and I wake up in the morning and start with me. I try to live without doing harm to other people, and that’s pretty much where I end.”
Of course, if the book changes a few minds or allows a reader to think in a new way, that would be pretty great. And as any potential reader — both Kushner fans and newcomers alike — should be warned, it’s hard to pick up The Mars Room and not do just that. Romy Hall, the novel’s protagonist, says it best:
I had learned already not to cry. Two years earlier, when I was arrested, I cried uncontrollably. My life was over and I knew it was over. It was my first night in jail and I kept hoping the dreamlike state of my situation would break, that I would wake up from it. I kept on not waking up into anything different.