Rachel Kushner: ‘Having children complements the making of art’

The Guardian | Alex Preston

After the intercontinental sweep of her dazzling second novel, The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner has fixed upon a more circumscribed milieu for her third. The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) takes place in Stanville, a prison based upon California’s notorious Chowchilla, the biggest women’s jail in the world. The novel is largely told from the perspective of Romy, a young mother locked away for killing her stalker. Kushner grew up in Oregon and California, the daughter of unconventional parents who had her working in a feminist bookstore from the age of five. She has twice been a finalist in the National Book awards. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the writer and philosopher Jason Smith, and their son, Remy.

Tell us about going undercover in a maximum security prison when you were researching The Mars Room.
I was with a bunch of graduate criminality students. Because they didn’t know I was a writer, I was allowed amazing access. I met a police officer who was serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole in a sensitive needs yard [an isolated area for inmates at risk of attack]. He started telling me about the murders he’d committed, some of which he’d never been convicted for.

Why did you decide to write about women’s prisons?
After I finished The Flamethrowers I decided that I wanted to rearrange my life so that I was in communication with a population in California who have been effectively rendered invisible by the state. When people are given a life sentence, they’re taken on a bus up one of the big freeways, far from where they live, into industrial farming territory and are never heard from or seen again.

Some of the most moving passages in the book are those in which Romy imagines the life of her child. Was this one of your ways into the novel?
I know that readers like to reverse-engineer motives, so they’ll say, ‘Her way in was to imagine losing a child’, but I don’t really work that way. My way in was more the tone of the narrator. Maybe having children allows me to see into a deeper kind of moral complexity. For me, having children complements the making of art…read more

Image: Chloe Aftel