By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn-based author Piper Kerman earned critical raves for her memoir “Orange is the New Black”, which chronicles the 13-month stretch she spent in federal prison. Published three years ago, Kerman’s book is a fascinating account of the experiences that resulted in her becoming the unlikeliest of inmates and of the women she met behind bars. Now, her story – which offers an exceptional view into the lives of women in prison – will be featured on screen, premiering on July 11 as a Netflix Original Series, also titled “Orange is the New Black.” The show, created by Jenji Kohan (who created “Weeds") and produced by Lionsgate Television, features Taylor Schilling (“Atlas Shrugged: Part I”), Jason Biggs (“American Pie”), Laura Prepon (“That ‘70s Show”), Kate Mulgrew (“Star Trek: Voyager”), and Natasha Lyonne (“American Pie,” “Slums of Beverly Hills”), among others.
Kerman, who has settled with her family in Brooklyn, works as a vice president at a Washington, D.C.-based communications firm. Kerman is not alone in having gone through a rebellious period as a young adult before settling down with a family and career, although her wholesome good looks make her story all the more startling. But for Kerman, her michevious past came back a decade later to haunt her in a serious way.
A Boston native, Kerman stuck around in Northampton after graduating from Smith College with a theater degree in 1992. There, she met Nora Jansen, an “impossibly stylish and cool lesbian” who was a bit older, already in her 30s. The two developed an intense relationship, soon after which Kerman discovered that Nora was a drug trafficker. Eager for adventure and a counterculture lifestyle, Kerman began traveling with Nora until she herself became involved in the drug trade. Ultimately realizing that she was in over her head, Kerman moved to San Francisco, where she got a job in TV production and began dating Larry, now her husband. She writes, “From the safety of the West Coast I broke all ties with Nora and put my criminal life behind me.”
Kerman settled down with Larry, moved with him to New York, and rarely spoke of her reckless escapades. Years later, though, in 1998, two officers appeared at her West Village apartment. “No matter how badly things had ended between us, I never dreamed that Nora would turn me in to try to save her own skin,” Kerman recalls. But Nora had done just that, and after a long process through the criminal justice system, Kerman ultimately wound up in Danbury, Connecticut’s federal prison.
There, Kerman met a richly diverse group of women whose compassion and generosity surprised her. Kerman's memoir not only reveals portraits of the inmates and particular moments that resonated with her, but also paints a bigger picture of women in prison, touching upon the question of why so many are locked up and what they endure while imprisoned.
In anticipation of the upcoming Netflix series, Brooklyn Eagle spoke to the author about her book and its transformation to the screen.
Your story is deeply personal – can you talk a bit about your hesitations in publishing such a confessional memoir?
I had many hesitations about writing a memoir not about my greatest accomplishment but rather about my biggest mistake, my greatest moment of moral failing and poor judgment, and the consequences. But we have more people in prison in the U.S. than ever in human history, and I thought telling my own story could help make the idea of who is in prison – why they are there and what happens to them there – more multifaceted.
What most surprised you about the women you met in prison? What surprised you about yourself?
The women I met in prison were incredibly creative, resilient and even subversively defiant in the face of a prison system that works very hard to dehumanize its residents. I was more resilient than I expected, with tremendous help from the other women and from my friends and family on the outside.
Your relationship [with Larry] endured some major adversity. What was it like transitioning back into your life with him once you were released?
Coming home is exhilaratingly happy, but even after just a year in prison it is a jarring re-entry process. Because I had a safe and stable place to live, a job waiting for me, as well as Larry waiting for me, my return home was much easier than for most people. But we had to readjust to each other, and I was pretty jumpy about lots of things for a while.
Did you write any of the memoir while in prison?
I did not start writing the book until after I came home in 2005. But once I set out to do it one thing that I found invaluable was the letters I had sent to and received from friends. Many friends saved my letters and then photocopied them for me when I was working on the book, and in those letters I was trying to convey the world I was living in as vividly as possible.
Do you think writing might have played any part in helping you and/or Larry survive the ordeal or its aftermath?
I didn’t set out to write about the experience as catharsis or a way to make sense of the experience, but that’s certainly what happened in the process of writing the book. I was most interested in exploring the relationships that helped me survive, and the inequality between Americans that is on stark display in the criminal justice system.
How did the inception of the TV series originate? Were you always on board with the idea?
After the book was published various people were interested in adapting it, and a TV series came up frequently. I think that what people like most about the book is all the women they meet whose lives intersect with mine. The fundamental story and the setting are ideally suited to a series, because it allows for deep exploration of many characters and stories. Jenji Kohan is such a brilliant and provocative creative force; I was thrilled that she was interested in the book.
I imagine you must have had some opinions and sensitivities when it came to casting and writing for the show. How involved were you with the adaptation process?
I’m a consultant on the show, which means I provide feedback and answer questions from the writers and the production design team. I had no input at all on casting, and I think they did a phenomenal job. The show is populated by wonderful actors and I think Taylor Schilling is great as the lead. The show is a “dramedy” while the book is not, and they really ride the razor’s edge between very serious themes and humor which provides a release valve.