“Spirit is a word I like because it suggests something deeper and weirder than joy, a sort of wellspring of life-force.”
Rachel Kushner lives in Los Angeles and is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Flamethrowers and Telex from Cuba. Her extraordinary new novel, The Mars Room, is set largely in the California prison system. Here she answers a few questions from BookPage about her new book.
Why did you decide to title the book The Mars Room?
To me this title suits the book really well and also enhances it, brings it something “extra,” which is what a title should do, I suppose. But it didn’t come easily. I had another title that was simple and bold but a bit crude, or lacking in nuance. I ran it by a trusted adviser who read the book and suggested The Mars Room. At first I was unsure because it’s the title of a workplace in the book, a sleazy club on Market Street in San Francisco where the narrator had worked before her life dramatically changed to what it is as the book opens. I didn’t want to reduce the title to that club. But I began to see that it had other associations, just from the words alone, and how they can’t blend but are forced to. Mars is mysterious, red, distant, and also, it’s not just a planet but the god of war. “Room” suggests, at least to me, something solitary, plain, limited and confining. Mars and room: a strange combination that to me suggests an otherworldly place, not necessarily in a nice way. There is something gloomy and menacing about it.
What was the most significant discovery you made in doing your research for the book?
Maybe I’m a stickler for semantics, but I feel like I didn’t really do any research for this book. I had decided, six years back, to try to learn everything I could about the California prison system. I made that decision as a person, a woman, and not as a writer looking to research. Eventually, I ended up with this novel, but I also ended up forming bonds with people in prison and out of it whose lives had been touched by the criminal justice system, and that work continues, despite having finished the novel. I thought about class and how it affects pretty much everything and about people I’d known who had gone to jail and prison, and I embarked on a journey that resulted in this book.
I’m racking my brain for a significant discovery, but I strangely don’t think I discovered anything that was exactly a surprise to me, but I went into this phase of life without any judgments or set ideas about what I would see, which I think is crucial for a writer, to observe finely and without reaction. Maybe the discovery was how painful it was to write certain parts of the book, to think into destiny and try to answer, on behalf of someone doomed, the question of how she could attach meaning to her life. Another totally different discovery was how easily I could inhabit the mind of a rogue cop/contract killer named Doc, who has nothing to live for but his memories of the Harleys he once owned, the bars he went to, the streets he terrorized, the people he killed.
Many of your characters, even those on death row, seem to be serious readers of fiction. Why are books such an important under layer for your characters?
Well . . . only the narrator and one other character really read. Certainly none of the characters on death row in this book are readers. Betty LaFrance seems only to read newspapers articles about her murder conviction. Geronima Campos prefers to paint and draw than to read. Candy Peña knits baby blankets and is probably illiterate. And no one else in the prison is what I would consider a “serious” reader of fiction. Sammy reads Danielle Steel. The narrator likes to read, but she’s not educated, not beyond high school, and she’s not an intellectual. She reads for escape. My character Kurt Kennedy has been trying to read the same trashy Vietnam War novel for three years and talks about the problem of reading, how relentless it is (you get through one paragraph, he says, and then there’s another, and they just keep coming).
There is one character who is a serious reader of fiction, Gordon Hauser, but he’s truly an exception and meant to be, in a way. He’s not in prison. He is a failed academic who ended up teaching in the women’s prison, and is also someone who feels a deep connection to literature and, in a naïve and possibly problematic way, believes that his own love of literature can be cultivated in the students in his prison class, and that they can nurture some kind of mental freedom through intellectual engagement. This is a beautiful idea, but it is thwarted on many levels. He teaches the women children’s literature, and most of them don’t bother to read it, and they make fun of him instead of internalizing his own values, and he comes to understand that even as he knows things they don’t, the reverse is also true. They know things he will never be able to grasp, not even remotely, and not even Dostoevsky can instruct him when he is faced with the moral ambiguities at the heart of the book.
You include adapted excerpts from Ted Kaczynksi’s coded diary here. What do you think these add to the shape of the story?
They are basically straight excerpts, I just rearranged a few things. My friend James Benning, an artist and filmmaker, owns and decoded the diaries and allowed me to use them. James Benning built exact replicas of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond and Ted Kaczynski’s cabin in Montana (both are located on his property in the Sierra Nevada), and he has done a lot of work into thinking about solitude, anger and the nature of an American transcendentalist thought, the darker direction it can go in.
Gordon Hauser, my character, was meant to write a dissertation on Thoreau, and is given, as a joke by a friend, Ted Kaczynski’s diaries (in the parallel universe of my book, they are published and readable by a general public). Gordon begins to read them in his cabin. They appear after each of his chapters, and perhaps one effect is that what is Gordon’s thought and what is Ted K’s bleed together a little, on the edges, because these words of Ted K’s the reader understands to have been read by Gordon Hauser. How did he react to them? What did he think? What Gordon reads becomes part of how we regard him.
But in terms of what they add, sometimes a writer makes instinctive decisions that aren’t straightforward or obvious. This was one of those decisions, and yet I was sure it was the right thing to do. I could imagine someone looking into this someday, attempting to account for the inclusion of those diaries, examining how they function, but I think the person who will do that will not be me, but someone else.
Surprisingly, the novel, while often grim, is also darkly funny. Was that humor difficult to achieve?
I felt even before I’d written a word of this book that it had to be funny. Not for the reader, who I wasn’t really thinking of, but for me, for the whole experience of taking into my interior life a grim, existent world full of despair and violence and trauma. It’s still a world, and people live in it, meaning there is also energy, absurdity, joy and spirit. Spirit is a word I like because it suggests something deeper and weirder than joy, a sort of wellspring of life-force. A will to subvert. If I could not find that will, the subversion of humor, I felt it would be a sign I hadn’t thought deeply enough into my material, my characters, the scenes they inhabit. The humor—it’s pretty nasty and louche humor, but that’s my sensibility to some degree—anyhow, the humor came pretty easily, it turned out, and buoyed me that I was on the right track.
As in The Flamethrowers, you write in The Mars Room with affection and knowledge about cars and motorcycles. What do you drive these days?
A 1964 Ford Galaxie two-door hardtop coupe. I’ve had other cars, but this was my very first car. I’ve had it for 25 years, so the sentimental attachment is deep. I can never get rid of it. And I’m paranoid someone will steal it. Then again, in this plastic world of planned obsolescence a lot of people don’t care about classics and don’t even notice them or know anything about them. As my character Jimmy Darling points out in The Mars Room, One Cadillac Plaza, former headquarters of GM, in Detroit, is now a lottery disbursement office. Which kind of tells you everything you need to know (about the transition from manufacturing to finance capital). If we can’t go back to earlier times, and we cannot, some of us can at least cherish and maintain certain relics, and drive them, too.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Mars Room.