Larry Smith and Piper Kerman recently drove past a Barnes & Noble in Danbury, Connecticut, about 80 miles northeast of their home in Brooklyn. “I see a reading here,” joked Smith, referring to Orange Is the New Black, Kerman’s forthcoming memoir about how a dalliance with heroin trafficking landed her in prison a decade after the fact.
“Hmmm,” Kerman replied, unenthused.
Danbury does not excite Kerman as a target market, perhaps because it is the primary setting for Orange. She spent eleven months in the Federal Correctional Institution located on the edge of the Western Connecticut city. In 1993, soon after graduating from Smith College, the reserved Bostonian got entangled in a romantic relationship with Nora, “an impossibly stylish” lesbian who happened to run smack for a West African kingpin. Kerman didn’t smuggle drugs, but she did help launder money for the operation, once moving over $10,000 from Chicago to Brussels.
Kerman later came to her senses and started over in San Francisco. There she met Smith, eventually fell in love, and moved with him to New York. Then the past caught up with her. In 1998, customs agents rang her West Village apartment with news of an indictment for money laundering and drug trafficking. Despite pleading guilty fairly quick, a series of legal entanglements kept her out of prison until 2004, more than a decade after the crime. Those were bad times — but a good book in the making.
Smith, founder and editor of the SMITH website and the Six-Word Memoir book series, says it never crossed his mind to leave Kerman during the long ordeal. (They were married a year after her release. Here’s a photo of the two that was taken in the visiting room, before a false backdrop of cherry blossoms.) He also never imagined something as positive as Orange could result, although, he says, “I knew it was a great story.”
But that is what sets Kerman apart from the more than 50,000 other prisoners who also had stories about entering federal jurisdiction in 2004: Most didn’t have literary agents expressing interest in their experience, or a husband who knows how to work the publicity angles now that the book is ready for publication. That, to a degree, was the point of writing it, says Kerman, who works as a communications strategist for nonprofits. “It wasn’t even so much my own story,” she says, “but the people I met along the way who would probably never have this opportunity.” Kerman says her main worry is that the oddity of her situation will overrun the message that “the prison system is just so much about wasted time and wasted opportunities.”
But it won’t go unheeded for lack of exposure. Excerpts of the book have already run in Marie Claire and The New York Times Magazine. Smith is also working on a piece for the Times. Then there are the all-star blurbs on the back of the book — glowing comments from Elizabeth Gilbert and Dave Eggers, both friends of Smith’s.
The whole thing is not as harrowing as prison, but Kerman admits to being nervous about what comes next. “It’s totally scary to put yourself out there,” she says. “It was such a long road with the writing process, I sort of forgot people are going to read this.”