Soon after the call was announced, we found ourselves enjoying an old classic during our weekly Saturday night movie date -- 1963's Jason and the Argonauts. I grew up loving Greek mythology (and also the Norse tales), and remembered this movie from the one time I watched it via rabbit ears in my youth. Halfway through -- and in desperate need of a bathroom break -- I paused the movie and hurried downstairs to my Writing Room, where I jotted down notes about one-time deities from dead religions being held for crimes of blasphemy in a big house like no other, one ruled over by heraldic hacks and a warden with an Old Testament temper. The Greek gods would forge an uneasy alliance with the Norse, Egyptian, and other prisoners to stage an escape. My story, "A Farewell to Apotheosis", was born and wrote itself fairly quickly over the following two days. Off it went to editor Jennifer Word, who contracted for "Apotheosis" with a glowing acceptance letter. It now appears among an impressive Table of Contents, in a beautiful volume devoted to an ugly subject.
Many of my wonderful fellow authors shared the back-stories behind their stories in The Prison Compendium.
Paul Stansfield on "A Ray of Hope": "I’m guessing most writers want their stories to stand out in some way, to be different from what’s come before. In horror tales, the villain, the looming danger, is often a character that’s evil. So, for my story, ‘A Ray of Hope,’ I wanted to put a twist on this cliché. Most real life people who do terrible things nonetheless usually believe that what they’re doing is justified, or even moral, in some way. Therefore, I created a main character who commits what could be considered to be the worst possible crime, but he has a justification which is arguably reasonable, given certain religious beliefs. His point of view is clearly extremely warped, but he believes in what he’s doing, and is sane. I think (I hope) this makes for a compelling character, and a thought-provoking story. And because the main character is more realistic, this helps increase how frightening and disturbing it is, since it’s more likely to happen in real life. I’m not saying that imaginary monsters can’t be scary, of course -- just that sometimes a cold dose of reality might keep the reader awake more than something that’s safely impossible."
Larry Lefkowitz on "A Rose is a Rose?": "I don’t recall where the idea for my story ‘A Rose is a Rose?’ first germinated. Surely it did not occur at the Parisian salon of Gertrude Stein (I am not quite that aged), where Gertrude tossed out her now famous, ‘A rose is a rose is a rose.’ I hope she will forgive my cutting down the original to two roses instead of three. There are those who prefer Four Roses (the bourbon), including, perhaps, the Rose named Pete. Pete Rose is supposed to have a good sense of humor, so maybe he will excuse my borrowing him for the story. Most of the stories in The Compendium, I assume, are serious ones -- given the importance of the topic. Mine is humorous, and I am curious whether any prisoner reading it in the prison library would enjoy it or dismiss it. If it provides him or her with a brief escape from the tedium of prison life, I will be pleased."
Adrian Ludens on "Solitary Man": "It's no secret some authors employ ghostwriters to complete their work. I worked several years in a bookstore and noticed two successful western authors kept cranking out books despite the fact that both had died. I later learned that in one case, the publisher was releasing pulp stories the author had written under a pseudonym early in his career, while in the other instance, the publisher had hired other authors to ghost write new novels under the deceased author's name. The idea of a ‘ghostwriter,’ literal or otherwise, must have stuck in my head because years later the last line of the story popped into my head. Once I had that, the rest of the story wrote itself almost immediately. The framework of the story, which involves a man visiting his comatose son, is based on a distant relative of mine. He was hospitalized with a severe illness and his prognosis was very poor. He recovered -- only to be struck by a truck while riding his motorcycle a mere three months later. He remained in a coma for seven years before he died. I can't imagine how hard that was for his mother (a single parent) to endure, but I tried, in some small way, to honor his memory with this story."
Bruce Harris on "In the Jailhouse": "My first submission to The Prison Compendium, a pulpy western story about a small town sheriff and a jail cell was rejected. Undaunted, I conceived of the idea for ‘In the Jailhouse’ after hearing Elvis sing, ‘Jailhouse Rock’ on an oldies radio station."
James Miller on "Smaller": "After I first learned about some of the models of the universe, I became infatuated with the idea of a space that folded back upon itself in a way that made for a volume with no boundaries. Mentally playing with the scale of such a space, it became easy to see how this construct would make for a perfect prison, as there were no edges to pry up, and no place for anyone to work against for escape. It became apparent the only escape from a prison like this would be psychological and not physical. I combined this concept with the idea that there are some things worth going to prison for and feel pretty good about the outcome. Hopefully it is as enjoyable to read as it was to write."
Bryan Grafton on "Misconceptions": "My story is about my son with the exception of the ending which I have horrible ized. I did so to make the story a complete tragedy. My son is out now, on parole, has a job and appears to be making his way in the world. Nevertheless every day I live in fear of the horrible ized ending becoming true. My wife is adopted too. Through the years raising our son it became the age old question of nature vs. nurture. We have both come to the conclusion that nature wins, that we are programmed a certain way from the moment of conception and there is nothing one can do to change that. We don’t have free choice. The existentialists are wrong. They are wishful thinkers."
Ken Goldman on "Swing a Sparrow on a String": "While a high school English teacher, I had this gorgeous blonde student -- let’s call her Donna. She sat near my desk where I could see her in the corner of my eye, and whatever literary question I asked my 11th graders, Donna’s hand always went up. She was the brightest student in the room, and (well, okay) she also was the best looking with her golden hair and clear blue eyes. But somehow she seemed apart from the other kids in her class. Donna asked for some after school tutoring (I’m sure she didn’t need it) and I made sure to meet her in the English office where no eyebrows would be raised. The school term had been into several months, and when Donna sat at the table only then did I notice that her left hand was severely misshapen. ‘Baby hand,’ I believe they call it. Donna tried to keep it covered, but there it was! Here was this beautiful and gifted student inhibited by this one damned mistake of nature that in some twisted way defined her, and in her mind must have separated her from the other kids. Somehow she managed to muster the courage to say as much at the end of the hour -- and her words aren’t far off from what Angela says towards the end of ‘Swing a Sparrow on a String.’"
Lee Duffy on "Redemption": "This story takes a privileged, wealthy, self-centered, pampered, ivy-league educated young socialite and drops him into a Mississippi prison farm -- as a prisoner. I grew up roaming the deep woods that Steven Darlington finds himself in during his escape. It’s difficult terrain. And if you’ve ever seen a chain gang working along a southern highway, you probably know that a prison farm is no picnic. I wanted to see how someone like Steven would handle prison, and how he would fare alone in a Mississippi forest with bloodhounds on his trail. He surprised me. Still, we have to ask, where does privilege end and justice begin? And what does chicken soup have to do with any of it? Well, you will just have to read it to find out about the soup, but in the grand scheme of things this story is about a clash of cultures. It explores the idea that some among us feel they are above the law. Are they really? Sometimes they are. And does life always come full circle? Often it does."
Layla Cummins on "The Flea Jar": "Reader, I have a dirty secret. Back when I lived in a grotty house with my ex, we had a pet cat named George. He was a tubby little white and tabby-patched feline with a big heart and a flea problem. I was surprised to discover that I was quite adept at picking fleas off him and drowning them in water while he happily snoozed in my lap, and I was even more surprised to find I enjoyed it… Before anyone reports me for animal cruelty, I’ll stop there and tell you that we did treat his flea problem and he remained healthy and happy. I originally wrote ‘The Flea Jar’ after seeing a submission call for the anthology Bugs: Tales That Slither Creep and Crawl. It was probably the first time the advice ‘write what you know’ ever applied to a story I’d attempted, and it was a lot of fun! There’s one part in the tale that, as I wrote it, made me retch as I put myself in the shoes of my main character as he ate and tried to imagine the mouthfeel... I hope you feel the same way."
Travis Richardson on "Finding the Answer": "I originally wrote a 200-word story for a contest with a photo of an abandoned house with a murder of crows on the roof. I wrote about a woman looking at the house and remembering her past. The story didn't win, but it was mentioned as an (unpublished) finalist. I decided to go back to the story a few years ago and dig deeper, discovering more about the woman and her quest to find to find an answer to a question that had been bothering her. This became the story, ‘Finding The Answer.’"
Calvin Demmer on "Prisoner Reincarnated": "I’d seen the birds on The Prison Compendium’s cover and knew immediately I wanted to somehow incorporate at least one of them into my story. At the time, I’d been writing a lot of serious horror stories and felt like trying a different approach. When I began focusing on a dark humor story, something new for me, I was able to play around with different ways to include a bird. One of my ideas was of a prisoner who believed in reincarnation. This idea stuck, and I thought it would be great if he dreamed of coming back as a bird so that he may soar across the skies (a nice contrast to his being behind bars)…except in my tale he doesn’t get quite what he hoped for."