Thrillers or mysteries typically don’t interest me, and I admit I was initially squeamish about reading this novel, especially with the ominous title, The Four Stages of Cruelty. Debut author Keith Hollihan had sent me copies to make into clutch purses for Christmas gifts, which left me with the coverless text. When I learned it was named one of the Best Books of 2010 by Publisher’s Weekly, I decided to give it a try.
To my surprise, I was quickly drawn into a fascinating story, at once compelling and repelling, of morality and survival told through the eyes of a female corrections officer who discovers unlikely alliances in the dark tunnels of Ditmarsh Prison that involve her fellow officers and inmates.
As a writer interested in the choices other writers make as they’re working, particularly with point-of-view, I emailed Keith a few questions. The author was kind enough to take the time to answer:
Q: I read in an interview that the first draft of your novel, The Four Stages of Cruelty, was in the voice of Joshua, a young inmate, but then you began rewriting after hearing the voice of a female prison guard named Kali Williams. How, exactly, did her voice come to you?
A: I took a break from the novel, and started writing some short stories. I’d been feeling creatively thin, as though I didn’t have enough paint to cover a large canvas, so it was a relief to work on something different. Then, I started writing a story about a woman driving to work in the winter on a Minnesota highway. I guess I couldn’t escape prison either, because I realized she worked in the mail room of a penitentiary in central Minnesota, a striking castle-like structure, called St. Cloud. The woman felt drawn to the prison like a character in a fairy tale, fearful and compelled. She was contemplating her situation. One of the inmates was sending her messages through the mail system – messages she was supposed to censor – but she’d fallen for him and was doing his bidding in the outside world. She didn’t know anything about him, what he’d done, or even what he looked like, but she was in love….
My story started to become too entangled in its own plot to be interesting, but, in a nifty bit of transference, when I went back to my novel it became infused with a different kind of sentiment and tone. I could feel some longing, some confusion, and the basic alienation of work that took more than it gave. I started rewriting the novel from a first-person female narrator’s perspective – not the same woman from the short story, she was too ethereal and passive, but a very capable and psychologically mature though emotionally depleted woman, a cross between a social worker and a soldier.
I wrote a line and then a paragraph with her voice, and it was right, and I just kept going. I now had enough paint.
Q: Kali is as emotionally strong as her male coworkers, but you stated that she allowed you to introduce “this notion of human compassion throughout the book.” You could have written the book entirely in Kali’s point-of-view, yet several sections give us Josh’s perspective. I assume they are from the first draft? Can you talk about why you kept Josh’s narration?
A: I like playing with narrative points of view, and breaking rules, so it was fun and strangely satisfying to get away with first-person and third-person narratives in the same book. Josh’s perspective was from the first few drafts, but the actual events and the writing continued to develop. They weren’t hold-over scenes, though they did serve to hold the plot together at times. I also saw Josh’s point of view as coming from Kali’s retelling of the story – her re-imagining of what he went through – and that served as another justification for the approach, though I’m not sure it would stand up to the withering logic of critique. Nevertheless, I liked the rythm between the two points of view; and the back and forth seemed to establish a relationship between Josh and Kali within the telling of the story.
Q: Can you explain why you chose first-person point-of-view for Kali’s narration, whereas Josh is in third-person? Was Josh’s narration initially written in first-person?
A: I went with the voices. It simply felt right that Josh, who is more emotionally constrained gets expressed through the third-person, and Kali, who’s more honest with herself, gets the first.
In fact, I ended up feeling as though everyone in the story – and in the prison – was emotionally constrained and dishonest except for Kali, so it was fitting that she was the lone first person point of view. The context of my novel was much like a war story, or a survivor’s tale – in which, in the end, there are few honest witnesses left behind who are willing or able to tell the truth.
Q: Kali is a gutsy woman who takes a tough stance that’s often counter to the way she feels in order to keep place in a man’s world. What issues presented themselves as you wrote in the voice of the opposite sex, and how did you deal with them?
A: I don’t have any fear or trepidation writing from a woman’s point of view, as long as the basic parameters of life experience match my own. I would be much more hesitant, for example, to write from the point of view of someone who came from a very different culture, language, or ethnicity.
I started the novel because I wanted the challenge of writing a story about a world that was very different from my own, but which I hoped to capture and illustrate convincingly. I’m interested in extreme situations and experiences that force characters to evaluate what they believe to be true about themselves and about what’s right and wrong, and maybe gain a bit of insight into what they’re actually capable of doing while developing a more tested morality.
As such, writing from a woman’s point of view was secondary to writing from an outsider’s point of view. I was interested in how that world would be perceived from someone who didn’t quite belong or fit with the other inhabitants. I think this outsider’s perspective allows one to see right and wrong a little more clearly. It’s no accident that many corporate whistle-blowers are women. Socially, in what’s still a man’s world, they have less reinforcement and support for playing along with a crooked game, and they see what may go unmarked by others.
Finally, I was influenced by the people I got to know in researching my novel. I talked to some interesting men, but I was most fascinated by the number of strong female law enforcement officers I met. They were very impressive and seemed to have a greater sense of irony, along with a sharpness of insight. Of course, I couldn’t help but wonder what their lives and work were like…
My sister, a police officer, has read the book, and shared it among police colleagues and female friends, and gotten strong positive reactions for the story of a character they don’t often find in literature but recognize in themselves.
Q: Obviously, having a friend in prison aided your research of prison life and the dynamics between inmates and the correctional officers. What kind of research did you do to learn the perspective of a CO, and their daily routine, as well?
A: There’s a number of great first-hand accounts of life working as a corrections officer. Such books are largely about routine, and the occasional moments of violence or connection, and I tried to capture that spirit, without being beholden to too much detail.
Through them, and through articles, first-person interviews, and several visits to maximum security prisons, I became fascinated by the rich and complicated social world inside a penitentiary. One might expect a clear and impenetrable demarcation between inmates and corrections officers, but I came to believe the barriers are actually quite porous. Despite the difference in roles, a common humanity and the need for both sides to negotiate daily events make genuine connections and even emotional involvement inevitable. Those relationships are always strained by the use of force and threat of violence (on both sides), the power balance (which shifts instantly depending on circumstances), and the undercurrent of lies and manipulation.
A CO can probably never fully know or understand what is going on under his or her nose, and mysteries and conspiracies abound. Because of this, I saw a literary parallel with noir detective stories or the cynical spy stories of John LeCarre and Graham Greene. For a CO, every day is replete with the sordid drudgery of complicated and messy lives. Like a jaded and emotionally damaged detective or spy, the CO resists too much entanglement but inevitably opens himself up and becomes vulnerable to the manipulations of others, putting his life and personal beliefs at risk in the process. By making my detective / spy a female in a male institution, I aimed to up the stakes and highlight the isolation, the vulnerability, and the moral questions.
Q: Finally, how did researching and writing about the harshness of life in prison affect your daily life?
A: While crime can be quite fascinating and enthralling even when it’s repellent, punishment can seem dreary, grinding, heavy and dark. There were times, writing this novel, when I felt like I was in prison, too. I tried to lighten this with a fast-paced story, a lot of grim humor, and some amusing side characters but I still needed to go back in later drafts and strip some of the darkness and heaviness away.
I was often angry writing this book. During the three to four years I wrote the main drafts, many post 9-11 news events and stories infused the world I was working to depict. Warrantless wire taps, the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the complicated problems of holding untried inmates at Gitmo, the subtle coopting of the truth that occurs when journalists become embedded, the gruesome beheadings of hostages, the apparently corrupt business practices of companies like Halliburton, and the extra-judicial activities of the private security firm, Blackwater, were among the news stories that got to me. I think the dramatic events and the moral ambiguity of the world within the prison in my story was both shaped by and reflected the reality we were experiencing as a society.
Author Keith Hollihan worked as a business analyst and ghostwriter before publishing his first novel. He was born and raised in Canada. His travels have taken him to Southeast Asia, Indonesia, India, Israel, the UK and Switzerland, and he has lived in Japan and the Czech Republic. He currently resides with his wife and sons on a farm in Wisconsin.