Behind Bars: Working with Inmates as Fiction Writing Sources

Author Demian Vitanza recounts his experience working with an inmate to take his sensitive story material and turn it into a novel. He reflects on the unique considerations writers may need to make when using people who are in prison as writing sources.
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Author Demian Vitanza recounts his experience working with an inmate to take his sensitive story material and turn it into a novel. He reflects on the unique considerations writers may need to make when using people who are in prison as writing sources.

There have always been nodes connecting literature and prisons. There are piles and piles of books to remind us of these nodes. Just think of the works of Jean Genet, of Marquis de Sade or De Profundis by Oscar Wilde, just to mention a few authors from my own continent, whose works have spurred out of the prison walls.

My book, This Life or the Next was also born behind bars, but not as a testament of my own experiences. Rather, it was shaped by more than one hundred hours of dialogue with a jihadist doing time for partaking in terrorist organizations in Syria. We met during one of my writing workshops in a high security prison, and he asked me to listen to his story. So I did. I listened. Asked questions. Took notes. I found it motivating, in a time where so many authors work with autofiction and other forms of literary selfies, to focus on someone else’s life. But this is not without challenges and difficulties.

When you have such an intimate dialogue with another human for hours and hours, you cannot just deal with it as a source of information. At the same time as you’re trying to gather scenes for the book and searching for interesting details to make the characters more complex, there’s a person in front of you dealing with a very deep psychological process. He has seen his friends die. He has been shot in the leg. He has seen a beheaded corpse tied to a rope and dragged around by a car.

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I realized my source was re-traumatized as he dug into these memories. So how do you balance the literary and the psychological process? After a while, I realized that the questions I asked merely to improve the novel were also helpful for his own therapeutic process. When I asked him for more details, he was able to grasp his own inner imagery much better. But you cannot rush a process like that. It’s all about developing an intimate relation of trust, and accepting that in cases like this, being an author is so much more than putting words together.

Another huge challenge was on the question of truth. We shared the goal of creating a novel very close to the truth, but anything close to snitching was out of the question. That was fine for me, as we could disguise, transpose, fuse and fictionalize his experiences, so that nobody got into trouble—keeping the bones of the story, but covering it with new flesh. But then he avoided talking about family problems as well. We couldn’t just pretend it didn’t matter for his life development that his father was in prison for eight years during his childhood and had problems with drug addiction. So I pushed him on that one and got a few things down in my note book. Other things, we ended up insinuating rather than spelling them straight out, and although it started as a way to respect my source, I realized it worked much better from a literary point of view as well. After all, a first person narrator that tries to avoid a topic just adds another layer to the story.

Besides talking with my source in prison, I had to do a lot of research on an array of topics. I wanted to be able to put what he said in a context, and know where to dig deeper with my questions. I studied Islam and the Quran, obviously, and read about violent Islamism, the history of ISIS and the Syrian War. I saw numerous lectures by salafist preachers, and joined Islamic meetings in Oslo. Although I could use very little of this directly in the novel, it helped establish a closer relationship with my source in prison. He could trust I knew what he talked about when he mentioned Anwar Al Awlaki or talked about different insurgent groups in Syria. I even went to Friday prayers in a mosque and practiced Mixed Martial Arts to get closer to his life. Until I broke a rib, that is. In any case, I knew this was not a book that could be written with an intellectual distance.

This brings me to another question: What about critical distance? My source is in prison for partaking in a terrorist organization. This isn’t a topic you want to play around with. I am open about the fact that I see my source as a friend today. Isn’t there a chance I sugarcoat his story?

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Could be, of course. But the possibility to ask the really tough and confrontational questions only arose when we had established a very intimate relationship of trust. Then I grilled him. But I’m stuck with the problem that I don’t know how far from the truth his story is. Did he do things in Syria he hasn’t told me? The only redemption is he is honest about not being honest, and that’s reflected in the novel too. By doing so I invite the reader into the same doubt I had to deal with as I listened to him.

Working with writing sources in this way, and on such a sensitive issue, demands a specific approach to writing. With this approach, the story is born in the space between the source and the author. A space the author has to create and revere. You have to give up on your ego and accept that you can’t control the story that much. It’s an approach to writing that demands humbleness, but also the willingness to confront and get deeper into painful matters with the person in front of you. In my opinion, this puts at stake what writing is about. Is it about exploring self or exploring the other? And can you do one of those without the other?

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Demian Vitanza is a playwright and novelist who has conducted numerous writing workshops, including one for the inmates of Halden Prison in Norway. He is the author of Sub Rosa and the award-winning novel Urak. This Life or the Next is Demian’s third novel and his first to be translated into English.

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