An Ex-Con Walks into an Ivy League Classroom: The Millions Interview with Matthew Parker

September 7, 2012 | 2 books mentioned 3 8 min read

coverMatthew Parker, the author of the graphic memoir, Larceny in My Blood: A Memoir of Heroin, Handcuffs, and Higher Education, did not look like the other students at orientation for the Columbia University MFA Nonfiction writing program, where I met him in the fall of 2007. Most, as depicted in Parker’s book, were in their 20s, coming in directly from college or after a few years in entry-level journalism or publishing jobs. Parker was in his late 40s, his arms covered in prison tattoos. Before coming to Columbia, his life had consisted of serving time in jails, penitentiaries, and federal prison. He had been a heroin addict and dealer who often made his drug money by stealing and re-selling things like cigarettes and jeans. It was as if he was wired for such a life: in his youth, Parker’s family ran a counterfeiting business, among other illicit forms of employment. Crime, as his title notes, was in his blood. It was a lifestyle he began at age 13.

The obvious ending to this kind of story would be something more akin to the fates Parker’s two brothers suffered: murder and suicide. Parker, however, did the different, surprising thing and ended up at Columbia University. It is a tale of sinking to the lowest of lows and then finding redemption through education. The resulting narrative, through interweaving threads and powerful “jump-cut’ style, invites the reader to laugh at parallels between the bureaucracies that govern both prison and institutions of higher education.

The book also portrays the romantic, traditional side of a man who turns out to be anything but a hardened ex-con. Parker’s first major publication, a New York Times Modern Love column, detailed his relationship with his Colombian girlfriend, now fiancée, who lives in Cali. They met through a matchmaking service, but again, Parker was atypical of men who sought foreign women on dating sites. Used to spending years deprived of intimacy in a cell, he had no problem finding the patience it took to deal with a third bureaucracy: his fiancée cannot get a visa to come to the States. The book reflects Parker’s most disarming qualities: sweetness and sincerity.

The Millions: I met you the first week of graduate school at Columbia’s MFA program, at orientation and then in Amy Benson’s class, Memory and Morphology, which seems appropriate. Your Columbia experience was ultimately folded into your graphic memoir, but this wasn’t the book you came to Columbia to write — you were working on a straightforward prose memoir. What inspired the switch?

Matthew Parker: I started writing the prose memoir at Arizona State. I continued that into Columbia. I wasn’t thinking at all about a graphic. I didn’t get into the graphic until a couple months after I finished my two years of course work. With the prose memoir, I wrote 20 chapters of it for workshop, which didn’t endear me to my workshop mates — two chapters a week at 50, 60 pages. But the prose memoir is more detailed, deeper, as you’d expect. The graphic memoir is a light romp. Though it’s serious at some spots, it’s very tongue-in-cheek. That’s what I was trying to capture with the Columbia experience, how much fun it was to be at Columbia after being in prison.

TM: Both you and this book are very funny, in spite of dark subject matter of prison, crime, addiction, arrest. Was this a tonal decision or are you just a funny guy? Did you use humor as a survival mechanism?

MP: I was always kind of funny. In prison it’s almost a necessity cause it’s really the only thing they can’t take away from you. They can’t take away your writing or your ability to laugh. The hard thing is finding people to laugh with. You’re always on the move, and if you’re not, everything’s self-segregated so you have to hang with lots of racist assholes. But once you find a friend, that’s all you do is laugh. Make jokes about the guards, about everything.

TM: One of the elements in Larceny that made me laugh was the parallel between prison and Ivy League bureaucracy.

MP: Bureaucracies are the same everywhere — Kafkaesque. In the prison system, guards aren’t making a lot of money and aren’t too bright. Prison bureaucracy is politics — the divide and conquer aspect. If they keep us at each other’s throats we are less likely to be at their throats.

It’s similar to school bureaucracy in terms of cost. The cost of sending someone to prison is even higher than college: $33,000 a year to keep the average inmate locked up. Columbia’s bureaucracy got weird when they found out I was a convicted felon. I lost my three campus jobs. You’re basically fighting against a system. There’s not a specific person — the same thing happened at Columbia.

TM: What do you think gave you the incentive or the strength to start this new life and not backslide? Where does this come from and what in your journey allowed you to overcome heroin addiction and patterns of crime and being constantly in and out of prison?

MP: This is for my mom as much as for me. I lost two brothers. She always wanted me to go to college. Once I quit heroin, there was nowhere else to go. I’m a carpenter by trade. I went back to that — but I’m getting old, I’m tired of that. I could channel my inner junkie into [course work]: Psychology, Ancient Studies — to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.

TM: Since your book has come out there has been some critique of the style in which it’s drawn. However, the story and style seem to complement each other — if it were a sleek-looking thing it wouldn’t have the same stark power. What’s behind this visual style?

MP: I wanted to compare two threads: being a junkie and in prison and going to college. It starts with me getting out of prison and going to college. I wanted those two threads to run parallel. What I was trying to capture…part of it was how you can be on the streets as a junkie one minute and in prison the next. The revolving door. I wanted each thread to end how they ended.

I’ve always known how to draw but I’m basically a copier. If you give me a picture of John Lennon I can draw it pretty damn good. At first I was drawing freehand. It wasn’t until further in that I started taking pictures of myself and drawing those, so you notice the pictures get better as they go along.

The graphic aspect was my agent’s idea. I really had no idea I was going to do a graphic. The hardest part was using Photoshop, luckily I have a cousin who is a graphic artist who could help explain things, but basically I learned it on the fly. It wasn’t easy.

TM: The self-taught aspect is another thread running through your journey.

coverMP: I was also trying to capture that, like it was drawn in prison. The drawings aren’t supposed to be good. They’re supposed to be crude and rough. Dan White [author of The Cactus Eaters] said it best: the drawings look like contraband, like they were smuggled out of prison.

TM: It was smuggled out of your experience.

MP: Yeah.

TM: The launch party for Larceny was held in the apartment of our mutual grad school friend who also hosted your 50th birthday party, which is depicted in the book in a way that’s as spare and stark as everything else, yet I have to confess brought tears to my eyes. Was having a book party thrown for you surreal? What stands out?

MP: My mom was here. She went across the street and smoked a joint. People said, “Where’s your mom?” and I said “Oh, across the street in Central Park, smoking a doobie.” But yeah. Party was good.

TM: What kind of reactions have you gotten from the people who are characters in the book?

MP: Pretty much good reactions from you guys. Although there is a noticeable silence from your ex-boyfriend. That motherfucker.

TM: You don’t rely on linear storytelling. You jump around and the reader is oriented in time through your drawings and setting. How did you come upon this form? As a reader I was always oriented and not distracted even though you jump around. Did you make this decision or did it just happen this way?

MP: I did have the jarring jumps into jail because that’s how it is when you get busted. One day you’re driving down the street and the next day — boom, you’re in the back of a police car. I was trying to capture that. When my editor and me worked on it I basically drew a stick man graphic, typed out the text and dialogue and drew stick men for the characters, until I had about 330 finished pages. Then I went to my mom’s house in Arizona and spent a couple weeks there. I sat in a room and separated it, put each chapter in its own little pile. It took about two weeks to get the form the way it is now.

This was after we edited. My editor would edit and send back 20, 30 pages at a time. Once I had the whole book, he wanted a few things added. That’s when I printed the whole thing out and stared at it for two weeks.

TM: just doing regular prose writing is so revision heavy, so to do so with images too…

MP: It’s kind of tricky. But like with everything, you learn as you go.

In a prose memoir, Columbia would have been a footnote — I got into Columbia — yay. But in a graphic I could show it, the parallels in all bureaucracy. Even Columbia off-campus housing…Arizona State, getting kicked out of Scottsdale community college for sending that dirty email…wardens switching in prison — you know you’re in trouble when they switch wardens because it comes with a whole new set of rules. One didn’t allow us to have books on bookshelves. We had to hide them. He didn’t want them to be out in the open.

TM: What did you learn and experience during your time in prison that you look back on as an important part in your education?

MP: Richard Shelton, the head of English dept at University of Arizona. He created a writing program in one of the prisons. Even though I only got to work with him for a few weeks because I was in transit — that helped a lot. When 9/11 happened in prison, this was around the same time, there was a Muslim kid — this kid suddenly had a real problem. He couldn’t eat with or bunk with anyone. I don’t know what ended up happening to him because they moved him. They gave him a job in the kitchen so he could eat, but I didn’t see him again after that. I felt bad for the guy — he wasn’t responsible for 9/11.

In Arizona prison, they wouldn’t let us play Dungeons & Dragons because they said it would teach people how to hide and escape. In Federal prison though, we could. There was always something to break up the monotony.

I was always writing. I didn’t draw as much, only if I needed money. I sold drawings, made money that way. Mostly I wrote really bad essays and really bad poetry. I knew my writing wasn’t any good then, it was too random, as you would expect from where I was writing from.

TM: How did Columbia help you craft-wise?

MP: Working with the students in workshop is great ––but mostly you get a lot from the professors. The one-on-one meetings. The connections and friendships I made helped a lot. And the encouragement. Their advice was usually spot-on, though my agent might disagree. The real world of the publishing business is much more practical. Praise and workshop help are not going to help you get published. It’s a whole different thing. You have to — what’s the saying? — kill your darlings. You have to learn to work with an editor, but a good editor will make you look smart.

TM: What’s up next for you? Where will you go from here?

MP: I’m doing the prose memoir, working on a novel on the side, but the prose memoir is right up front. Half of those 20 chapters I wrote at Columbia. It’s much deeper and more detailed. Personal. It still has that backhanded humor, just not as much. It’s more concentrating on my mom and the process her and me went through. I’m sending in six chapters tomorrow and guessing two will be cut right off the top. I haven’t touched this memoir in three years. I kind of got a clearer perspective coming back to it. Writing is 70 percent revision. Realizing a lot of what you write is never going to get published, and I’m fine with it. Any kind of writing is good practice.

TM: Would you teach in a prison-writing program yourself?

MP: I would — they’d never let me in Arizona, but maybe here.

TM: It seems like your story could be really inspiring, everything you’ve overcome to make it to the Ivy League and write a book…

MP: Yeah, but they don’t care about that.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

is the author of the novel Mexican High. She recently completed her second book, a memoir about the years she was married to her gay best friend for his green card while her mother worked for the government preventing immigration fraud. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the LA Times, Newsweek, Poets & Writers and other publications. She lives, writes, and teaches in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and online. In October 2012, she will be the first John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence at the Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio.