Mesha Marin's novel Sugar Run opens as Jodi McCarty is getting turned out of prison on parole after serving 18 years for manslaughter.
She shot her girlfriend when she was 17, so Jodi has lived up to her life in prison, and now she has never known. Soon, she'll meet somebody, and they'll try to live in a small West Virginia town where they're outsiders in every way.
Sugar Run is the first novel from Mesha Maren. She is a visiting writer at the University of North Carolina and a writing fellow at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution in West Virginia. She also grew up visiting prisons.
"My dad worked for a nonprofit, and part of the work that he did is volunteered to visit women in the federal prison camp in Alderson, W.Va. – women who had not received a visit from family or friends in more than a year, "she says in an interview from West Virginia Public Radio. "And I would often go along with my dad." "I think it was exciting to me because I got to eat candy out of the vending machines." But those experiences stuck with me.
"When I started writing Sugar Run and started realizing that my character Jodi had spent a significant amount of life in prison, those impressions that I formed when I was young came back to me. I specifically remember overhearing my dad speaking with women at the Alderson prison who were released. And later as an adult I realized just how strong their joy was, you know, to be released – but also their fears of life. "
On coming up with the character Jodi
Jodi came to me very strongly before I even realized that I was writing a book. I was hanging out with Jodi, and she kind of took up residence in my mind, and I became a little infatuated with her. I started thinking about her all the time. And then the plot and the rest of the story sort of fell into place. I really was kind of felt like I was getting to know her. And so it was a process of "realizing" what she had been through.
On when Jodi meets Miranda – a woman who has three children, a country singer and an addiction
She just got out of prison and she knows in many ways that taking Miranda is a bad decision. I mean, she kind of looks at the first night that she is hanging out and tells herself: "Do not do this." But at the same time she's drawn to her – I mean, she's physically attracted to, but she's also, I think, that Miranda is bound. So it's the joyful out of life.
On what we misunderstand about West Virginia
So I asked a lot, you know, "Why not just leave West Virginia?" you know, or "Why would a character like Jodi go back to West Virginia?" And I think that we love them with this extra fierceness … But there's so much that is interesting and beautiful, both in the people and the landscape. …
One of the things that is difficult about West Virginia is that it is a place where – a lot is exhausted from here, right? Coal, lumber, now fracking for natural gas. And it's devastating on the land here. But I also think that that is where we get the conversation or "why do not you just leave," is that people child or envision West Virginia.
On her work teaching at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution
I think there's a great story in every human being. And … the same is true: There's a great story in every prisoner. But the thing that I love about teaching there is just how much how much it means [to] the guys who are in my class, being able to sit down once a week for two hours and focus on their writing. And they've told me to be in a quiet room, too – where, you know, I'll give them a writing assignment, and then we're quiet – they've told me that that, in many ways, is one of the things that is most valuable to them.
On "finding" the end of the book
I think that at least for me the way I write is: I have this sort of foggy idea of the ending. I need to have something that I'm working towards, right? But I do not want it to be too sharp, actually, in my mind because then I would write it and I might miss something along the way. And actually, this book ended slightly before I had planned. So I had this kind of idea. And then when I think, "I know that's the end."
Sarah Handel and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.