Ask a Mentor-Editor: Joe Loya on writing in prison, starring in a documentary about controversial protagonists and Owning Your Story

Joe Loya is The OpEd Project’s founding Mentor-Editor. An author, essayist, playwright, and contributing editor at the Pacific News Service, his op-eds on politics, religion, criminal justice issues, and other cultural events have appeared in national newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Newsday, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He has appeared as a commentator on television (CNN, CBS NEWS/48 Hours, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, COURTV) and radio (This American Life), and he has lectured at numerous colleges and universities (including USC, NYU and Mills College). As a young man, he moved from a violent home life to a life of crime, robbing over 25 banks in the state of California before he was eventually arrested and sent to prison. During seven years in prison, including two in solitary confinement, Joe examined his past and began to re-write his life story, figuratively and literally.  His memoir, The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell, was published in September 2004 by HarperCollins, to high acclaim. Joe has worked with Walden House in San Francisco to help former prisoners re-enter society, and to change the lives of those who want to escape the revolving doors of homelessness, substance abuse, and imprisonment. A firm believer in the need to own one’s story in order to make radical change, Joe has gone into California State Prisons and other Walden House reentry facilities to conduct writing workshops. Joe has received numerous fellowships and awards, including a Sundance Writing Fellowship, a Sun Valley Writer’s Conference Fellowship and a Soros Justice Fellowship. He lives with his wife and young daughter in the Bay Area. He generously agreed to be interviewed by OEP intern Ravenna Koenig.

Ravenna Koenig: How did you get involved with the film “Protagonist?”

Joe Loya: Jessica [Yu], the woman who directed it, is a friend of mine, and her husband, Mark Salzman (who also appeared in the film) he’s a good friend of mine too. The guy who produced it I had met at the Sun Valley Writers Conference… so it was a project I was excited about.

RK: With a documentary film, you’re in control of what you say in the interview—but it’s not your artistic product…what did you think of the end result? Did the vision of the filmmaker diverge at all from your own way of telling your story?

JL: I’ve known Jessica for awhile, she’s an Academy Award Winning documentarian, and the movie she made before this was a film about Henry Darger In The Realms of the Unreal: it was a fascinating documentary and it had animation, and it moved documentaries in a new direction.  Well for my stories, I had dramatized them by performing them on stage in one person shows—so I know how to make violence look violent by acting it out… what was fascinating to me and to my brother, who watched [Protagonist] with me for the first time, was how the puppets acted out dramatic moments of our lives… in particular the scene where my dad was dunking my brother’s head in the water and I stabbed him…and we were so profoundly moved by it; it elicited a huge emotional reaction from us. We couldn’t believe that these puppets could actually carry the gravitas of those moments! So I feel like she really achieved something with that. I was very impressed and moved.

I’ve been on TV many times telling my story, so I know how it gets cut and edited… it’s not mine at a certain point, it’s the way people have edited it to tell different aspects. But that’s what storytelling is. I’ve had to edit my story to tell my story. I went into it excited to be portrayed by Jessica.

RK: The film features four people: you, Mark Salzman (martial artist and author), Hans-Joachim Klein (German terrorist), and Mark Pierpont (an “ex-gay” evangelist). The four of your stories put together with the title “Protagonist” is sort of a comment in itself…the package deal creates a different narrative than any of your individual stories would alone. Did you get that sense looking at the end product? How did you experience your story differently in the context of the others?

JL: Totally. For one, she used [The Bacchae by] Euripides as a framework within which she was going to tell our stories…and that has its limitations and its implications. And then she chose the word “protagonist,” and throughout she kept giving words of narrative, about narrative arc. So she was certainly trying to make a point about narrative arc, and where the protagonist fits in that arc, and using four people to echo the same theme. I thought that was brilliant because it just drives home the point that you can fit any story into the protagonist arc.

RK: When was the first time you told your story exactly how you wanted to tell it?

JL: The year before I gave my [memoir] to Harper Collins for them to publish in 2003, I actually performed a one-person show at the Thick House in San Francisco. Basically I told my story, the essence of my story, so that when people walked away they got the same story arc they would get from the book– that I was a sympathetic character as a child, there were certain pressures on me as a boy that made me begin to act out: the death of my mother, the mayhem of my home, the bloody violence. Then there was stabbing my dad at age 16, my descent into wrongdoings, my living as a criminal and committing a bunch of crimes, and then the ascent: the long climb back to civility.

RK: In the movie you talk about this moment of madness: the hallucination you had in solitary confinement. Where did you go from there? How did you get your sanity back and become a professional writer?

JL: As a child I always thought I was going to be a writer. And then I deviated and became a criminal, but I was always a reader and I loved to write. So, when I had that hallucination, I wrote the story of meeting [the boy in the hallucination] and us becoming friends. I was driven to the page to write about this boy. I just kept going over what it meant, for him to show up. And then I just kept writing, because one story came after the other. I wrote about me as a seven-year old boy and in that story my mother was still healthy and I was still innocent. This story brought up all these memories from when I was innocent… memories that started reintroducing me to myself.

I got out of solitary and I was a changed man, and it was clear to me what I wanted to do. I polished my writing for a year and a half. I read voraciously. I had three subscriptions: Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, and The New Yorker. I would read them cover to cover. I was finding my favorite writers, I was having conversations with them in my head, and I was writing every day. Finally, about two years before I was going to get out, I reached out to a writer named Richard Rodriguez. I asked for a pen pal friendship and he was impressed by my writing so he said yes. In my second letter I told him I had given up on bank robbery and had decided I wanted to become a writer, and he said “you’re already a writer; when you get out I’ll help you write.” When I got out Richard hooked me up with an editor of the Pacific News Service in San Francisco, and I flew to Los Angeles and started writing op-eds for them. Within a year of being out of prison I’d written for the San Francisco Examiner, LA Weekly, LA Times, and my career took off. I became a talking head on TV, I was on the radio, This American Life featured me, publishers were interested in a book I might write… If I didn’t reach out to Richard Rodriguez I wouldn’t have this life.

RK: You write a lot about the prison systems, police corruption, felonies, etc. Is it ever difficult for you to write a piece on that world that you were once a part of? Does it ever feel like a vulnerability more than a strength?

JL: All good writing has emotion in it. There’s this idea of the “objective writer” that I think is an absolutely false notion. Nobody understands with any precision how much of their emotion is rippling through them as they write about issues. It’s not as if there are people like me who clearly are writing about something they were involved in and have all these feelings about, and then there are people who write about things dispassionately. We know enough about emotions to know that they work in subterranean ways and pop up in the weirdest places. I don’t believe in objectivity at all. There are varying degrees of subjectivity.

When I write about certain things that are very intimate and painful, I say “man, I’m fortunate to be a writer with this material, because I can really move, or persuade, or piss off my reader…depending on what I want to do.” There’s a lot I can do. I look at it as an advantage to be able to write about this stuff.

Not only do I write about prisons, or the justice system, mostly I’m talking about morality. When I talk about President Bush’s DUI, I’m not talking about politics, I’m talking about morality. We’re all moral creatures, so it doesn’t matter if I’m writing about the (im)morality of the death penalty, or Mike Tyson biting off someone’s ear, I’m writing about the same thing.

RK: So would you say your purpose as a writer is to hit home that fundamental truth?

JL: [Laughs] Well I think it’s kind of lofty to say you know your purpose as a writer. One thing I can say is that there’s intentionality in my writing to surprise and provoke. Like, when I wrote about Bush’s DUI everyone was saying “he’s a hypocrite,” but I didn’t just want to make the blanket point “he’s a hypocrite.” I wanted to say he was calling himself a “compassionate conservative,” and I wanted to make a point, using statistics, to surprise you as a reader: most of the people on death row were drunk when they committed their crimes. And here’s a man, a drunk, he calls himself a compassionate man, and he spent no more than 15 minutes on all of these inmates’ appeals when they came before him… he spent more time in his day exercising and taking naps than he would contemplating the life of a person. “Compassion” means you use your experience to understand someone else better and give them some forgiveness, and he didn’t. Even though he was a classic drunk like them, he turned his back on them and gave them no special understanding. My intention there was to surprise you with facts how many people die on death row who committed crimes while drunk… and then to make a point about “compassionate conservatives,” to be provocative with that phrase.

RK: What advice do you have for someone who has a story to tell and maybe doesn’t know how to tell it?

JL: Own your story. Figure out what your story is and own it. I started an organization called “Own Your Story,” so this is my big thing. Owning your story means you know who you are and you know what has made you who you are, and you’re not going to rely on anybody else to tell you who you are. We hear people tossing words around about who we are as we’re growing up and we believe them, and we make them our identity. A lot of people hear bad things about themselves, so their story that they tell themselves is that they’re lazy, stupid, ugly, fat, whatever bad word described them growing up. They don’t own their story, therefore it’s going to be difficult for them to ever move forward with that story… all that story does is paralyze them. I came out of solitary and said: there are a lot of words that could describe me right now, and they’re all accurate and they’re all bad but I know there are good things in me and I’m going to exemplify those good words and that’s who I’m going to be. 16 years later I’ve created a new narrative about who I am. It gives me this power to take my story into the world because I’m not ashamed of this story, I’m proud of this story, I feel this story needs to be heard, it is a decent story, it’s a good story. And people need to have that sense about their own story. Because once they do that they will go and find the resources. The resources are not the reasons people don’t write. It’s all internal.

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