Piper Kerman interview: ‘It’s important not to be in denial when we screw up’
The Orange is the New Black author opens up about the television show’s success, criminal justice reform and learning from her failures
Wed Jul 23 2014
Photograph: Sam Zalutsky
It’s difficult not to admire Piper Kerman. After serving 13 months in prison for money laundering and drug trafficking, she took that experience and became a top advocate for criminal justice reform. And if you somehow haven’t heard, she also wrote a bestselling memoir about her time in prison, which, in turn, was adapted into an award-winning television show. I caught up with the eloquent and passionately engaged writer to discuss the latest season of Orange is the New Black and her current projects.
Can you tell me a little bit about your involvement with the television show, especially the new season?
I am a consultant to the show, which basically means I answer questions from Jenji [Kohan] and the writers room as they devise the season. I read scripts and offer feedback to help make Litchfield a realistic federal women’s prison. Sometimes I get a question I can’t answer, and so I say “Well, I’ve never robbed a bank, but I know someone who has…”
Why do you think your story has translated so well to television?
I think that Jenji made really smart creative choices in the adaptation—a wide array of compelling female protagonists, and of course prison has a lot of inherent conflict. And the show reveals a world behind bars that is very intentionally hidden from public view, so of course we are fascinated.
Your book is a bestseller, and the TV show just received 12 Emmy nominations (congratulations!). Did you ever expect that your story would reach and affect so many people? What has that experience been like?
I am stunned by the way audiences have responded, and so grateful. When I was sitting on Con Air in shackles I could not have imagined this (though that was a pretty weird experience too). I think that the book and the show help make real this abstract fact—the United States imprisons more of its people than any country in the world, the most prisoners in human history. And that’s why people care, because there’s a much bigger story going on.
You’ve been deeply involved in criminal justice reform. Did that feel like a natural step after your time in prison? And do you think the show is helping to bring it more into public consciousness?
I don’t think I could have walked away from the senseless waste of taxpayer dollars and human potential that I saw in prison—we have created human warehouses with an enormous percentage of nonviolent offenders, and they don’t make us safer. I also couldn’t forget the extreme inequality that plays out in the criminal justice system every day—different Americans will be policed differently, prosecuted differently and sentenced differently. I hope that seeing these stories in new ways makes a difference in policy. I am optimistic.
It’s incredibly inspiring that you’ve taken this experience and turned it into a positive outlet in your life, a way to help others. Any advice for others dealing with adversity?
I think we learn a lot more from our failures than our successes. So it’s important not to be in denial when we screw up—you take responsibility, you try to fix what you’ve done, you try to learn to be better.
Any plans for a new book?
Yes! But it’s still in the works.