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Plumage from Pegasus
Throw the Books at Them!
A federal judge yesterday sentenced Bodnar to write the story of how he came to give false information to the feds about Bristol's 2006 efforts to delay generic competition for its blood thinner Plavix.THE MASSIVE steel door to the Big House slammed behind me, and I knew my days as a free man were over—at least for the length of my prison stretch, which measured one novel and an essay for McSweeney's.
I was a writer now, and had to live like one. More an animal fighting for survival than a human being.
I knew I was entering a circumscribed, constrained, harsh subculture, with its own peculiar rules and customs. From the rumors I'd heard, the writer's life was lonely, frustrating, insulting, and physically demanding, leading in most cases straight to a broken-hearted pauper's early grave. Of course, sometimes, with luck and talent, the outcome involved the bestseller list, Hollywood options and talk-show adulation. Still, even with that potential good fortune, nobody I personally knew ever chose to be a writer these days, so being one must suck. Fate, or bad genes, or desperation, or folly, or an accident of birth, or local Unemployment Offices forced the job description upon you.
Or, like me, you could become a writer just for wising off to a touchy judge.
How I wished I could relive differently that moment when I stood before the bench on the charge of tattooing an underaged client. Facing old Judge Titcomb, I was confident of walking away with no more than a fine. So when he asked me if there were any mitigating circumstances to my offense, I said, "Yeah, it was the same flash I used on your wife, so I thought it'd be okay for your daughter."
Amidst the laughter of the courtroom spectators, Judge Titcomb turned nine shades of red and purple, and then uttered his sentence in a voice of doom.
"You are hereby remanded to the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, for such time as is necessary for you to produce one contemporary, naturalistic novel whose theme reflects the moral squalor of the tattooing industry and the unfortunate plight of those it preys upon, along with an essay of no less than three thousand words detailing the process of creation of said novel, in a manner both autobiographically illuminating and pedagogically sound. Pursuant to last year's Penal Authors Enforcement Act, there is no appeal to this sentence. Bailiff, take the prisoner away!"
Now, as the warden of FCI Otisville stepped forward to greet me, I shook my head at my folly. Too late for a do-over, though. I'd just have to tough it out.
The warden, a gentle-looking professor-type with thick eyeglasses, introduced himself. "Hello there, Johnny, I'm Warden Kinoff Dubbledade. I understand you're with us here until we get a novel and an essay out of you. Well, your time here can go fast, or it can really pile up. It all depends on how many salable words you crank out per day. We've got experts on the staff who determine that. They're tough but fair. Heck, they'll even offer you good advice if you get stuck, or can't see how to fix a passage. Most of them are straight out of Ivy League grad-level creative writing programs. You play straight with them, and they'll do likewise. Email them your output no later than five P.M. each day, and make sure it's been spell-checked. Now, let's get you processed."
The guards carried mean-looking truncheons. (Later I learned they were shaped like National Book Award, Hugo, and Orange Prize statuettes.) They brought me to a dispensary where I surrendered all my outside possessions and received my bedding, my prison outfit, and my laptop. Then the guards and I headed for my cell, through a seemingly endless succession of locked portals.
Who would I be bunking with? So much rested on the answer to that question. Some hard-nosed vet, and I figured I'd become his servant, amanuensis and "muse." Some new fish like myself, and I'd have no protection, no one to show me the ropes.
But my luck, bad till now, took a turn for the better. I ended up with Harold Flournoy, midlister, a burly guy in his forties, I guessed. He sported a tat on one forearm—good work. It was a red wheelbarrow with the legend MAKE IT NEW below it.
Sharing a cell with Harry proved to be the best thing that could have happened to me. He was savvy enough to know the ropes, and not too jaded or burnt-out to share his experience with me.
Harry rolled my name over in his mouth for publicity resonance. "Johnny Bittiker, not bad. Fits your subject matter pretty well. Wouldn't work for a romance novel, say, but just fine for what you're up for. No need for you to use a pen name. Now, let's run through your laptop's software. I assume you know Word. You probably won't need Final Draft, unless you want to do a screenplay on spec. You'll have to pick your browser—"
"We get web access?"
"Sure, we've got to do research, don't we, and email our first drafts? The only WiFi deadspot in the whole prison is the warden's office, of all places! Now, let's get some formatting templates in place for you.…"
Pretty soon the call to lunch came. I was a little nervous at mixing with the general population, and looked to Harry for comfort.
"Are there any real bad guys here, Harry? Murderers and drug dealers, say?"
"Murderers! Kid, you should've been assigned to write a comic novel! Why, there aren't more than a hundred murderers in the whole U.S. prison system. Not since they perfected Aggressonil and Reflectival. As for drug dealers, legalization did away with prison sentences for all of them. Users too, of course. Where you been living, Johnny, under a rock?"
"Well, I get all my news from the TMZ redaction of Twitter.…"
"Jeez, you iBabies are too much! Anyhow, no one but us writers here in Otisville. In fact, ninety percent of the penal population these days is writers. We're the only thing keeping the system solvent. Lots of us show up for voluntary commitment, and pay to play. It's just like Georges Simenon hiding himself away in a hotel room until he pumped out another Maigret. Or when the studio bosses locked up Dylan Thomas with a bottle of whiskey so he could finish a script."
I didn't recognize either of those names, but I kept my face blank and didn't let on. I could see I had a lot to learn.
"Anyway," Harry continued, "we've got the perfect environment for writing here. No petty distractions, no duties, no family!"
All of a sudden I noticed something. "Hey, there's women here too!"
"What, are you claiming women can't write? Oh, I see, the sex angle. Well, there's no love affairs to preoccupy you either, whether you're straight or gay, thanks to the Lustoblox in the diet. So the whole scene is perfect for scribbling. We call it 'Yaddo with razorwire.' Now c'mon, let's get some grub. It's Friday, so they're serving the same smoked salmon you get at Sebastian Junger's Half King Bar in New York!"
That first meal went swell. Harry and I sat at a table that included a best-selling mystery writer, a Pulitizer-prize-winning poet, a memoirist, a self-help author, and a retired general. Once they found out I was a newbie, they practically fell all over themselves giving me friendly advice. That's when I realized all the bad things I had heard about writers and writing was really just a ruse, to conceal the sweet racket they had going for themselves.
That first night in prison I had the best sleep I had enjoyed in ages—no mindless partying till all hours of the early morning like I used to—and the next day I got up refreshed and ready to write.
I won't bore you with the tale of the next thirteen months. If you're interested, you can read all about it in my McSweeney's essay. But I will say that when a certain visiting day rolled around and my new agent showed up on the other side of the bulletproof glass and told me over the speakerphone that my novel had been accepted by GoogleBooks for a big advance, I knew right away that I'd be coming back to Otisville every other year, once each national book tour for the current project was done.
The feds have a special bargain offer for recidivists, and the royalty rates are much higher.
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