Mentored (Part 5)
Thanks to the Koestler Trust, I am now being mentored by Sally Hinchcliffe, a published author with an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of London. Sally recently read the middle section of my jail memoir, Green Bologna and Pink Boxers: Surviving Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Jail. Several of the chapters cover a period when the Italian Mafia took over our pod in Towers jail. From that period, Sally likes a particular anecdote about Paulie.
Here’s the introduction to the Italians:
Young Marco was a new arrival to our pod. Within days of him moving into cell D15, he had the guards fetch two of his friends, Paulie and Hugo, from other parts of the jail to join him. No one was quite sure how he’d arranged this – I was flabbergasted – but rumours soon spread that he was the son of a Mafioso and bribery was involved. It also circulated that he’d won trophies for kickboxing, but he didn’t look the fighting type. He was short, with a happy innocent look about him. He had large affectionate eyes, and eyelashes long enough for women to envy. His thick brown tresses and olive complexion made him look unlike anyone else in the jail. From a distance, he seemed unimpressive, but close up, the self-confidence he radiated swept you away. He was in for punching someone. We shared the same attorney, Alan Simpson.
Lanky and with stately slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair, Argentinean Hugo idolised Marco and acted in the capacity of his butler. The son of Italian immigrants, he spoke Italian, Spanish, and English fluently. Although in his forties, he was prone to emotional outbursts, which he put down to his South American upbringing. He wrote love letters to his wife signed in his own blood. Listening to inmates tell sad stories and during church services, he often wept. He was facing deportation to Argentina where he claimed he was blacklisted as a political dissident and the government would execute him on arrival. I paid him cookies to teach me Spanish, a language I was determined to master.
The stocky Italian-New Yorker Paulie looked like a typical Hollywood Mafia goon. He had beady brown eyes, a boxer’s flat nose, and hairy sausage fingers that dealt out a nutcracker of a handshake. Every few days, he vented his anger on Hugo much to our amusement. But like Hugo, he was prone to crying, especially when talking about how much he missed his wife and kids.
Much to the astonishment of the guards and inmates a drawing of the Italian flag and a sign went up on the door of D15: LITTLE ITALY. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and laughed out loud the first few times I saw it.
Here’s the anecdote Sally likes:
“’Ey, England,” Paulie said, entering D10 with a scowl that made me squirm on my bunk. “I’ve come to you ’cause I know you’re the only one in here that’ll give me a straight-up fucking answer.”
“What is it, Paulie? You know I’ll help you if I can,” I said, sitting up fast to give him my full attention.
“You promise me you’ll tell me the truth no matter what I fucking ask?”
“Of course I will.”
“Well then. Tell me this then: do I have a fucking anger problem?” He stared at me as if he were a lie detector equipped to punish a wrong answer.
I pushed thoughts of Why me? out of my head and searched for something safe to say. “Here’s what I think, Paulie. You’re a really nice fella, but you do get a little excited every now and then. You’re an emotional person, and everyone likes you.” I hoped he’d leave it at that.
“So you’re saying I do have a fucking anger problem then?” he grunted.
I paused to find a better answer. “I try and stay as calm as possible during stressful situations, but I can see how you handle things a little differently and like to speak what’s on your mind.”
He looked up as if in deep thought. “So are you saying I do or do not have a fucking anger problem?”
Cornered, I risked being more specific: “I’d say that you don’t have an anger problem, but you do get angrier than most of us.” I studied his face.
He scratched his chin. “So you’re saying I do have a little bit of an anger problem?”
The jokey high-pitched way he’d said a little bit encouraged me to mimic him. “Maybe a little bit of an anger problem, but nothing to lose any sleep over.”
He leaned toward me and I flinched. His hand appeared to be coming for my face, but instead it found my shoulder. Rocking my shoulder, he said, “Thanks, England. I really appreciate your honesty.” Much to my relief, he marched out of the cell. He stomped down the stairs into the day room toward Hugo who was stood watching the TV. He stopped when his face was inches away from Hugo’s, and yelled, “England said I don’t have no fucking anger problem!” He thrust his palms into Hugo’s chest, knocking Hugo over a table. I felt partially responsible. “You don’t know what you’re fucking talking about!” Jabbing his index finger into Hugo’s face, he yelled, “Don’t ever talk shit to me again about no fucking anger problem!”
Here are Sally’s comments on the middle section of the book:
– Overall the writing in these chapters flows well, and it’s nicely paced.
– Not sure entirely that your chapter divisions work. Still feel too short, but it’s not a big deal at the moment.
– Thinking about the structure overall, you may need to cut some of this, but for now write it down and think about shaping and pacing later.
– Try reading some passages aloud to others, e.g.) the anger-problem conversation with Paulie. Do less and let the dialogue and situation speak for themselves.
– Overall this is better, but it shows signs of hasty editing.
– The letters you wrote from the jail work well in this context.
– Now need to look at the overall structure of the book. I’m beginning to lose track of what’s in and what’s been taken out.
Sally went on to explain that completing the book is not the end of the work. To market a book to agents, you need essential marketing tools such as a pitch letter, a chapter outline, a synopsis, a proposal… I’ve found writing these things to be more difficult than writing the book itself.
Here’s my attempt at a pitch letter:
Dear (agent’s full name),
I am writing to you on the recommendation of xxxxx. I have been approached by a number of literary agents, but she told me you are a wizard with memoir. Having read your site, I was pleased to see you have a prison writer in your client list.
I am the author of the blog, Jon’s Jail Journal (http://jonsjailjournal.blogspot.com/), which attracted international media attention to the conditions in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jail in Phoenix, Arizona. My blog only documented the final few months of my stay, so I have written a book about the twenty-six months I spent there.
Green Bologna and Pink Boxers: Surviving Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Jail describes my journey through America’s most notorious jail system. It provides a revealing glimpse into the tragedy, brutality, comedy and eccentricity of jail life and the men inside. It is also a story of my redemption, as incarceration leads to introspection, and a passion for literature, yoga, and philosophy.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio is the most famous sheriff in the world, and seems to be at the peak of his fame with a book published last year and his own reality TV show. He makes his inmates wear pink boxers, puts them to work on chain gangs, and feeds them green bologna. But he is also the most sued sheriff in America due to the deaths, violence and medical negligence in a jail system subject to investigation by various human rights organisations. No book has yet been written from the point of view of one of Arpaio’s inmates. Most inmates are only there for a few months awaiting sentencing. During the twenty-six months I was there, I developed a deep understanding of the jail. This book would expose the inhumane conditions he has created, and could possibly save people's lives.
My crimes: I was convicted of money laundering and drug offences. I immigrated to Phoenix, became a stockbroker, and then a tech-stock millionaire during the dot.com bubble. I brought my love of the English dance scene with me, and threw raves. But I also used club drugs, and invested in them, especially Ecstasy. I was deported in December, 2007. I recently moved to London to start a job speaking to audiences of youths about drugs and the bad choices I made that led to prison.
If you think you might be interested in reading some chapters from my memoir, please let me know and I will send them on to you as soon as possible.Hoping to hear from you soon,
I’m pleased to report that I’ve finally signed with a literary agent out of London. I met him last month. We got along really well. He has an impressive client list, and the right contacts to market my book in America. As many of you know, my original agent died of cancer last year at age 41, which was a great shock. With Sally and now this new agent helping launch my career as an author, I’m confident of achieving my next goal: getting a publishing deal.
Click here to read Mentored Part 4.
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Shaun P. Attwood