Piper Kerman is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” which has been adapted into an original series for Netfix by “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan. Kerman will be speaking at the Student Center on Nov. 18 and was kind enough to agree to a phone interview with the Sonoma State STAR.
STAR: When people tell you they loved your memoir or the Netflix adaptation, do you ever have conflicting thoughts, or have you given us the audience permission to laugh at what sometimes were painful experiences for you?
Kerman: I think that for those who read the book and also watch the show will find that there are some significant differences and not just the literal differences in the storyline or plot. But also they’ll find the book, which I don’t think is comedic at all, it’s not intended to be, so of course there are funny moments and humor in the book. That’s a reflection of humor as a survival skill or a survival tool, that people draw down on in some of the most difficult situations imaginable. One of the ways we cope with that is by relying on our humor on some level. And what I think is really interesting and impressive about the show and what Jenji Kohan has accomplished is she really rides that razor’s edge of very serious themes that are drawn from the book, and she also brings humor in her examination of them. And I think that’s hard to pull off, and I also think it’s really great because it’s some really difficult material and so it’s hard for folks to come to it without sorta the release of the humor.
STAR: How did you first meet Jenji Kohan?
Kerman: I met Jenji shortly after the book came out. I was on my book tour, and I was in Los Angeles, and a mutual friend had given her the book and said, “I think you’ll really like this.” She did, and that was a happy meeting.
STAR: When you heard that she loved the book, or she told you she loved the book and thought something should come out of it, did you just think “Oh yeah, sure sure,” or were you actually really intrigued by hearing it from her personally?
Kerman: I was very intrigued, because I think she brings great creativity and obviously a really stellar track record, and a very unique perspective to the material that she picks up. And so it was very interesting to imagine that she might sort of turn that creative eye towards this.
STAR: Do you have a favorite scene or moment that was brought to life on the show, whether it happened in the book or not?
Kerman: I think it would be impossible to choose just one moment. I really think it’s fascinating to watch how they adapted the book, some of the choices they make. There’s some moments in the show that are drawn directly from the book and there are other moments that are wild, wild departures, total departures from the book, and so that makes it fascinating for me to watch as well. There are lovely, lovely moments in the book that I think are so true to life, like these incredible moments of human kindness and also some suffering, which I think really rings true to folks. I really like that episodes three, four, and five present a really interesting sort of arc of the overall narrative. Episode nine is the Thanksgiving episode—that one is pretty heartbreaking on a lot of levels, but I just think they did a great job.
STAR: Did Taylor Schilling reach out or request to shadow you when she got the role of Piper Chapman?
Kerman: No, I think Jenji really asked her to create the role of Piper Chapman very independently. I think a really smart choice on Jenji’s part is not to try to capture reality or create something that is something like a biopic. The show is definitely not that, and so Piper Chapman is not the same person as Piper Kerman, and again a comparison of the book to the show reveals that very quickly. So what I think is really great is that Jenji by her writing and Taylor by her acting have really created their own person, a separate person. Taylor is delightful, and it’s been really nice to get to know her during the process of production. The show shoots here in New York, which is where I live, so I get to visit the set whenever I like and they’re very fun and very inviting. And Taylor’s very curious about the reality of what the show depicts, and has spent some time with me at the Women’s Prison Association, where I’m on the board, which is a direct services and advocacy organization which is here in New York. She’s really educated herself and we’ve gotten to know each other via that.
STAR: How soon after being released did you decide you wanted to help make a difference through justice reform?
Kerman: I had two years of supervised release, lots of time to sort of mull over those questions. I started volunteering at the Women’s Prison Association at a program that we run which is a mentoring program called Women Care so folks on the outside volunteer as mentors for women who are going to be coming home. That process starts while those women are still incarcerated and then during their process of re-entry the mentors are there to help them with a number of things. So I started volunteering via that program, eventually I joined the board, and it’s a really amazing, amazing organization. In my professional life I’ve also been fortunate to work on a number of other criminal justice issues. It’s really humbling and gratifying to sorta get to follow your calling.
STAR: Do you keep in contact with any of the inmates or correctional workers portrayed in the book?
Kerman: I do keep in touch with a number of my friends from Danbury. I can’t say that I’ve stayed in touch with any of the staff. I treasure those friendships, and some folks have come home very successfully and have really flourished in various ways, some folks have definitely struggled, and a small number of people that I know have gone back to prison which is really heartbreaking and seems very unnecessary.
STAR: The website ThePipeBomb.com says that before you went to prison, you encouraged people to write to you. Did you find that receiving letters really helps pass the time and really helps keep one’s sanity?
Kerman: I can’t overstate that those letters were lifelines. And that’s not just true for me, that’s true for every single prisoner I’ve ever known, that those contacts with the outside world, especially letters. But also things like phone calls, visits, those contacts with the outside world are absolutely essential to help you survive the experience of prison and also keep front and center the fact that you’ll be coming home, and you’ll want to be prepared to come home.
STAR: Do you have any plans on writing another memoir, or even something in the realm of fiction?
Kerman: I definitely have no plans to write another memoir [Laughter]. However I do have some writing projects that I’m working on right now. But definitely not another memoir. I think I’d have to live another 40 years or so before I was ready.
STAR: What advice do you have for students who might be mesmerized by the crime, sex and drugs seen in a provocative-yet-seductive light in media?
Kerman: I think that the reality is probably far less glamorous than anything they might see in a film or on television in terms of what goes on when folks are in desperate situations and commit crimes. And so I think the thing that I’ll always emphasize to young people, and I certainly wish I could go back and tell my young self in my early 20’s, is that your actions in the world mean a great deal and they have a lot of impact on other people, not just consequences for yourself. And that didn’t always seem true for young people who don’t necessarily recognize that they have a lot of power in the world.
STAR: “Weeds” went on for eight seasons, and it was just announced this summer that a season two of “Orange Is the New Black” was picked-up by Netflix. How many seasons can you see your story running for before the character and situations become unrecognizable even to you?
Kerman: I don’t know the answer to that question. It is an adaptation, so certainly the first season departs a great deal from the book, and the book is really just a jumping-off point that offers sort of this setting and context. But the interesting thing about the setting is that there is a constant influx of people in any prison or jail and all those people are constantly leaving so it affords the opportunity for many, many fascinating characters and situations.
STAR: We don’t see any of your cats, Wayne and Lady Bunny, on the show, but what were their reactions when you finally got home? Did they show affection, or not even notice that you left?
Kerman: I think the wonderful thing that all cat lovers know is that cats have incredible memories and Wayne and Lady Bunny were really happy to see me, but probably not even close to being as happy as I was to see them. [Laughter]
STAR: What’s next for Piper Kerman?
Kerman: I’m really humbled and grateful for all the success of the show and the book, and so I spend a lot of time talking to readers and talking to students and just trying to lend my voice in any way that I can to see policy put in place that will reduce our enormous prison population. It’s been a really busy year so far, and I think it will be a busy year next time. I’m really, really looking forward to coming up to Sonoma: the Bay Area and Northern California are very close to my heart. I was born in Berkeley, so I couldn’t be more excited for my impending visit there. And I love to talk to students: it’s one of my favorite things to do in the world.
Piper Kerman will be speaking at the Student Center Ballroom A on Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. Tickets are free to Sonoma State students and $15 for non-students. Tickets are on sale at the Student Union Box Office. For more information on Kerman and the organizations she’s apart of, visit piperkerman.com.