Interview with David James Keaton

Ever since seeing the 90’s Nic Cage/Sean Connery action flick, any time Alcatraz is mentioned, somewhere in my head a thick peaty growl welcomes me to “The Rock”. Other than unleashing a Pavlovian earworm, that movie fueled an unquenched interest in Alcatraz, which collided with the unfortunate reality that, for a prison as mythic as Alcatraz, there are a scant few satisfying narratives involving it. Imagine my enthusiasm building after I heard David James Keaton’s idea for an anthology that would use Alcatraz not as a simple set piece, but as the jumping off point to answer a series of far-fetched what-ifs.

Having been a fan of Keaton’s work, I was excited not just at the possibility of an anthology that would expand upon the legend of Alcatraz but would be influenced by the chaotic madcap rollicking weirdness that have become his stamp. With the sure hand of co-editor Joe Clifford and the impressive list of contributors involved, HARD SENTENCES: Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz promises to be one of the most memorable and entertaining reads of the year.

In addition to HARD SENTENCES, Keaton is the author of THE LAST PROJECTOR, FISH BITES COP!, and STEALING PROPELLOR HATS FROM THE DEAD. Clifford is the author of JUNKIE LOVE and his latest entry into the Jay Porter Thriller Series, GIVE UP THE DEAD, will be released this summer. He also is the editor of Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Stories Based on the Songs of Bruce Springsteen.

David took the time to chat with me via email.

Tim Hennessy: What got you interested in using Alcatraz as the backdrop for a fiction anthology?

David James Keaton: To be honest, my first visit to the island was all it took. Until I did the Alcatraz tour last year, any previous interest in the prison was relegated to Point Blank, Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz, or The Rock, pretty much in that order. I’ve always had an interest in prison films, lit, and songs, but maybe


it was the lack of available Alcatraz movies that helped keep me in the dark for so long regarding its rich, incredible history. So when I took that headphone tour, and still had all the voices of the actual prisoners bouncing around my head when I hit the gift shop, I was amazed to find that no only was there even fewer Alcatraz films than I thought, there wasn’t a whole lot of Alcatraz books either (and as far as a song, all I really knew was the Nazareth tune). So by the end of that day, I was harassing my wife and her family who’d come out to sightsee with us in San Francisco, asking them to help me come up with possible names for an anthology. It was sometime over shrimp rolls at some ratty tourist trap that we settled on the name Hard Sentences.
TH: Having seen the call for submissions for the anthology, you weren’t looking for head-on prison stories per say, you had writing prompts. How did you envision this collection distinguishing itself? Did the tone you had in mind for the anthology change once submissions started rolling in and you had to start putting it together? What kind of stories did you want to avoid?

DJK: I had some mixed feelings at first about putting together the book, mostly because I really wanted to write a story for the damn thing (which I sort of did anyway by cheating the “truth” of my introduction), so to steer myself away from writer thoughts and more towards editor thoughts, I made a call for submissions that started with many of the ideas of the stories I wished I could have written. Then I expanded this list to include any famous prisoner that I felt would give the project a good breadth. I knew there had to be a Frank Morris/Anglin brothers escape story, and we got ’em. I knew we’d need a Whitey Bulger story, and Nick Mamatas delivered a dark, trippy slant on that maniac. I knew there had to be an Al Capone story, and Nik Korpon rose to that challenge, beating out about ten other Al Capone stories because we got a metric ton of Al in the submissions. But Nik injected some real empathy into Capone’s miserable little stint, which we loved. So, yeah, we needed all the usual suspects; Creepy Karpis (thanks, Gabino Iglesias!), something from the point of view of a guard (thanks, Jedidiah Ayres!), the civil-war incarnation of the island (thanks, Rory Costello!), the Native American occupation, the Birdman, and so on. And when similar plots started piling up in the slush, I started playing with the facts a bit, soliciting some people directly for stories of the children who lived on the island (approximately 300 civilians lived alongside the prisoners, families of the guards and other staff), something about their famously tasty prison cafeteria menu (surprisingly, it was way better than most prisons), etc. etc. And the writers delivered. So I got hungry for even more. I was like Gary Oldman in the movie Leon, when he says, “Benny, bring me everyone. EVERYONE!” So at that point I tried to coax some weird ones from writers I knew would be game, asking “What-if” type questions to sprinkle in there alongside the more historically accurate stuff. Like, “Hey, you know how Johnny Cash has those Live at Folsom Prison and Live at San Quentin albums? Well, why didn’t he ever play at Alcatraz? And what if he did, but we just don’t know about it…”

And the writers kept delivering. One of my favorites in the book is the story which opens the anthology, by Dr. Glenn G Gray, who I contacted with a request for a “medically accurate depiction of someone who attempts to squeeze through the bars.” So the book definitely opens with a bang (or at least a crack). 
As far as your question about which stories I avoided, I think we lucked out with the quality of the work we received. 80% of the stories eventually selected came from the slush pile, mostly because those writers were smart enough to answer the prompts. I would say though, besides the deluge of Al Capone stories I sifted through, there were also a lot of stories regarding the Morris and Algin Brothers and the escape, which is understandable, of course, since the prison is famous for this one (possible) escape. Because of how that particular incident resonates (it’s the basis for Eastwood’s film, arguably the one “classic” Alcatraz film in existence) I made sure that the specter of that escape hovers over many of the stories. 
This helped the finished book read like a unified whole, so that the stories move in a direction that I feel is logical, but also surprising, from historical to contemporary, realistic to fantastical/even horrific, with a finale that hopefully leaves people satisfied they took the tour.

TH: Were there any anthologies that served as a model for the sensibility that you had in mind?
DJK: I had in mind Spoon River Anthology as a template for the book, Edgar Lee Masters’ collection of tombstone “epitaphs” where townspeople sorta spoke from the grave to spin tales about the drama of their lives, some poignant, some grotesque or sad, which all paint a vivid picture about this imaginary entire town. A good example of this is when Johnny Shaw surprised us with a quiet, introspective story from the point of view of a woman visiting her husband at the prison, which was exactly the sort of scope I was hoping for, making it not just a steel-and-concrete prison but a living, breathing island.

TH: This is the first anthology you’ve edited; what was easier than you anticipated and what was harder?
DJK: I was previously the founder and editor of a literary magazine back in grad school at the University of Pittsburgh – the now defunct Flywheel Magazine – and working on that, (as well as the kinda “greatest-hits” e-book of the website when we paired up with Jason Stuart’s Burnt Bridge Magazine), I did have some practice at working with writers. Also, my previous job of closed-captioning reality-television shows meant that I had that grammar stuff locked down pretty tight. This book was easier than those years with Flywheel though, as I had a unifying theme to work towards, and there were ways I was able to work with some of the authors to connect some of the stories in surprising ways. Luckily, anyone I asked was game for these sorts of moves. And early on in the brainstorming, I contacted Joe Clifford, a Rock fanatic (the movie, not Dwayne Johnson), knowing that he had lots of experience editing Gutter Book projects. And J. David Osborne at Broken River Books became our third partner, and since he is also a freelance editor in his spare time, I knew the book would be in good shape after all seven of our eyeballs spent time on it (I added an extra eye there because Osborne’s been eating a lot of mushrooms lately). 

But I would say the hardest part about putting together this anthology was probably putting the stories in an order that made sense, an order that avoided redundancies, like back-to-back historical stories, for example, or back-to-back escape stories, or too many similar POVs in a row, as that would suggest connections between stories where their weren’t any, and mostly I was just trying to get that vibe of escalation as it went along. I hate to fall back on the High Fidelity mixtape model, but I totally fell back on the High Fidelity mixtape model and mixtaped the shit out of it.

TH: The photos interspersed through out the book are fantastic and really
add a distinct visual sense of Alcatraz. Did you take them when you
were on the tour or did you happen upon them in some other way?

DJK: The pictures in Hard Sentences were from several sources. In the ARC we hadn’t credited everybody yet or finished the copyright page, but the vast majority of the pictures were taken by Mark Rapacz when he was visiting Alcatraz very recently (he took my two favorite pictures in the book – the guard tower for Jed’s guard story, and the skyline with Korpon’s story). Other pics were taken by my wife Amy, one by Nikki Guerlain that I asked her if I could use when she posted it on her Facebook page after her own tour of the island, and a couple were from the National Park archives. In a bit of luck, when I was researching how to get permission for some old pictures, I discovered that because Alcatraz is a National Park, many of the pictures in its archives are government property and therefore public domain, just like stamp art basically – the trick was to comb through their archives and look for “NPS” in the bottom of the pic, which meant some private citizen didn’t hold the copyright. So we used two or three from that source, mostly for the older stories that dealt with earlier incarnations of the prison. One or two of the pictures in the ARC are place-holders until we finish the final product

TH: When I was last in California I stopped by Folsom Prison, a legend in its own right, still in operation, and was able to check out its tiny gift shop and museum. Odd as it was, it was a worthwhile stop that allowed me to get a sense of the history and personality of the prison. Did Alcatraz have a Wall of Shanks or display prisoners’ art?

Is there a chance that Hard Sentences will be found in the Alcatraz
gift shop?

DJK: I’m very jealous you got to stop by Folsom Prison – it’s next on my list (if I make a list).
Alcatraz didn’t have prisoner art displayed when I was there, but it DID have a display of guard “weapons,” like blackjacks and clubs – that was pretty fascinating.

We’re definitely working on gift-shop placement of the book. I talked to a couple people at the island gift shop early on, including their book buyer, and they said the book needs to be done for them to consider it but they seemed interested, so we’re putting together a publicity care package to woo them into adding it to their inventory. seems like a no-brainer though. the competition on the island was pretty lacking and overpriced. at close to 250 pages for 16.95 I think they’ll take ours. They have some junk in there that’s only 60 pages and selling for 15 bucks, and a couple vanity press books, covers all warped and curled up. I don’t think they’ve shaken up their book selection for a while. 

Also there are five Alcatraz-themed gift shops on the Embarcadaro along the Bay (including the two “official” ones both on the pier and on the island), so if worst-case scenario the island itself changes their mind for some weird reason, it will definitely be sold to tourists on that strip overlooking the prison anyway, in as many of those gift shops as I can get it. My favorite Alcatraz gift shop is the unofficial gift shop down Pier 39 where the famous seals all congregate, it has a fiberglass model of the prison on the top of their shack. We may even be doing a street reading down there in the middle of all the tourists at some point – if I can coerce Joe into going down there with his guitar, but good luck getting the recluse spider out of the house and into the sun

TH: The mythos of Alcatraz has always been more colorful and full of potential than any of the narratives that seem to have come from its history.
With this project you really had control over the reality of Alcatraz, whatever or however you make or shape it, it is. Was playing within the world of a notorious inescapable prison housed with dangerous felons part of the appeal in gathering stories of Alcatraz or was playing with the legend and shaping its ripe history to your delight?

DJK: I wanted to do both. I wanted the book to appeal to the sort of person who would like to read about that colorful history you describe, as well as take them to some stranger places. In fact, Joe Clifford was a great co-editor for this project because, as some friends pointed out early on, his influence helped me keep an actual audience in mind, which was harder than I thought. I have no doubt that without him reminding me that we are coveting those people who took the tour along side me and were as mesmerized as I was, that I would have happily filled this book with all sorts of fringe, subversion nuttiness. It’s like that scene in White Hunter Black Heart when Eastwood (playing John Wilson playing John Huston) says, “To make a movie, you have to forget anyone is ever going to see it.” See, this is probably terrible advice, and I watch that movie way too much.
TH: Much like me, you’re an obsessive movie fan. What are your essential prison movies? Who would you want to see in your ideal Alcatraz movie and who would be involved in making it?

DJK: Like I said earlier, the number of Alcatraz movies is sorely limited, so I’d have to pick Point Blank as far as movies on or around The Rock, but luckily there’s a bunch of other prison movies out there for me to obsess over. So I’d go with Nick Nolte’s Weeds as my number one. As I was saying to Jed Ayres the other day, I still think it’s his best performance, and the best film about the mindset of a prisoner hands-down, second maybe only to Tom Hardy’s Bronson. Cool Hand Luke is definitely up there. There’s no finer crash-course in wonderful anti-authoritarianism than Paul Newman’s character, a real guru who reminds us all, “Hey, kids, start off easy with some parking meters, then work your way up to shouting at God Himself!” That was the message, right? Sean Penn’s Bad Boys has always stuck with me, and not just because of the Billy Squier soundtrack. And for a more recent prison movie, I was really into Get the Gringo, a spiritual sequel to Payback. Except, of course, Payback (the theatrical version anyway) was that gun-metal blue, and Get the Gringo is kinda orange.

But my ideal Alcatraz movie would be told from the point of view of the shark that ate Frank Morris, because that was the one story we didn’t get. Though to be fair, I didn’t think to ask.

TH: You’ve studied under Chuck Kinder and work with Ron Hansen. What has the experience of interacting with, in two very different circumstances, two writers of distinctly different legend? How has being around them influenced you?

DJK: Chuck Kinder was very influential, mostly because he encouraged the reckless, anti-authoritarian slant in my own work, and many of the stories I workshopped with him ended up in my collection FISH BITES COP!: Stories to Bash Authorities. Maybe he thought he could coax that sort of immaturity out of my system, but it had the opposite effect. We were also involved in a low-speed chase once, when I drove around him and Lorin Stein (then the editor of the Paris Review, but now back in charge of FSG), and I accidentally drove us past some ex-girlfriend’s husband’s house? I’m not entirely sure what happened when I think back to that night, but the drive did end with someone in the hospital.

As a fan of his historical novels, I was also very excited to discover Ron Hansen’s office was right across the hall from my own when I started my new job at SCU last year, and even more excited to discover he knew Chuck, too. It turns out very few escape that dude’s clutches. And now that I think about it, there is some similarity to their deconstructions of the romanticized images of American outlaws, particularly in Chuck’s Last Mountain Dancer and Ron’s Assassination of Jesse James (and more recently The Kid)

This might be only tangentially related, but Ron stops by on occasion to talk about movies that he’s discussing in his script-writing classes, and Chinatown is a big favorite of his, a movie he shows to his classes every year. And something I hadn’t really considered until I rewatched it at his urging was the way it’s sort of considered a classic now, rather than a “contemporary classic,” like more Gone with the Wind than The Godfather, if that makes any sense. Because though Chinatown was made in the ’70s, people sometimes treat it like it was made in the time period it depicts, the ’30s, which (besides kinda betraying them as people who don’t watch a lotta movies) as leads me to wonder if this is happening more and more as “period movies” made in different periods increasingly confuse new generations. And when I think about Alcatraz, and those stories I heard from those archived interviews with the prisoners, I can see how it gets harder every year to separate the reality of that place as it becomes buried under so many layers and different media. Not that Chinatown is a true-story, but it might be starting to become untethered from its rightful place in our memories, and it makes me question what, if any, responsibility we had to depict Alcatraz island as a real place, full of real pain and real history. I was honestly afraid to answer that question for quite awhile, so I just said fuck it and piled on more myth.