I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I met Kim Wozencraft in 1985 at Columbia University’s graduate writing program. She had just begun her first novel, Rush. The book draws on her experience as an undercover narcotics officer in Texas, where she ran into trouble with drugs and the legal system and subsequently served an 18-month prison sentence. After being rejected by nine publishing houses, Rush became a bestseller and has now been adapted for the screen by Pete Dexter. Directed by Lili Zanuck, the film stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric.
Jill Eisenstadt When we were at Columbia together, I convinced you to go to bartending school with me and then I bailed out, but you actually did it, right?
Kim Wozencraft I got the certificate but I never got a job. I learned that because I’m a convicted felon, that’s something I’m not supposed to do, so I backed off. (laughter)
JE That would have been ironic, serving legal drugs. Of course at that time I didn’t know anything about your many lives. I remember in our workshop people saying things to you like, “This pot smoking scene doesn’t sound realistic.” You must have felt very strange.
KW No, they were looking at the words on the page, and those words didn’t convey it in a believable way.
JE It was that section where the protagonist seems completely naive towards pot smoking.
KW She’d experimented a couple of times, but hadn’t had any real experiences with it.
JE To me that seemed unbelievable, coming from New York. Of course, I had no idea of your past at the time. (laughter)
KW Yeah, it wasn’t something I was quick to point out to people.
JE That’s what I mean, you must have felt strange having these secrets, because showing your work, even if it’s fiction, especially if it’s fiction, makes you so vulnerable. It’s such an intimate thing to do with a bunch of strangers.
KW There was a safety in that because I was exposing myself page by page like everybody did. But some of what I was exposing were things that I thought everyone would have really bad reactions to—like being a former undercover agent. A lot of people don’t like that.
JE In what way?
KW In the sense that people would be reluctant to trust me, to be friends with me.
JE I just thought, “Well, she’s just a really good fiction writer.” That you could have possibly experienced those things was inconceivable to me.
KW Well, it was…(laughter) at times it’s inconceivable to me too, these days. That really was a different life, the mid ‘70s and here we are getting into the mid ‘90s. In some ways I felt like I was hiding out at Columbia, after coming out of prison I wasn’t ready to go back to the real world yet.
JE Did you think that people were going to judge you because you had been in prison?
KW I felt less concerned about that then I did about having been a cop. When you’re in uniform, you get hated by people all day long, every day, it’s part of the job. People don’t see your face, they don’t see a human being. They see the uniform and the gun and the badge and they despise what it stands for because of some personal experience they’ve had. Many times, rightly so.
JE But since the ‘70s it’s changed a lot. I would think people would look down on you more if you were a drug addict than a cop.
KW Yeah, these days, I guess there’s a little more willingness on the part of the police department to admit when they’ve made a mistake—not much—but a bit. There are now programs for cops who develop alcohol problems, but it’s still not as acceptable as it should be. Cops have one of the highest suicide rates, the highest divorce rates, the highest alcoholism rates and one of the highest rates of substance abuse. Because they’re supposed to be these non-human or super human heros, they’re not allowed to have any human weaknesses.
JE Do you think of your book as a period piece?
KW No, it’s not. Two years ago, there was a cop on 105th and Central Park West, a few blocks from where I was living in graduate school. They grabbed this cop out of patrol because they needed somebody who spoke Spanish, and wired him up for sound and sent him in. Nobody told him that he might have to do the drugs. And so, you hear on the tape, the drug dealers saying, “He’s buying coke, do the dope, we want to know you’re not heat,” and this cop’s saying no, “No, I’m not going to do it!” And then you hear a gun shot. They shot this guy in the head, he’s dead, he’s gone. (pause) His name was Chris Hoban. And he was just sacrificed. I know it goes on here, and I know it still goes on in other parts of the country. I got letters, after the book came out saying, “I worked undercover,” and it wasn’t just New York City, Houston, or Washington D.C., but medium and small-sized towns where these people worked.
JE I guess it doesn’t make it any less dangerous if it’s a small town.
KW No, not at all. It does require them to use recruits instead of seasoned police officers, which can sometimes be beneficial—they’re a lot less likely to blow their cover: they don’t talk like cops and they don’t act like cops.
JE So what’s the solution?
KW The solution is to stop putting people undercover, stop making drug cases, get rid of the drug laws, take narcotics out of the purview of the criminal justice system, and treat it the way it should be treated—as a medical and social problem. Prohibition didn’t work. I’ve been watching since I was part of this in the ‘70s and all we’ve done is an incredible amount of damage to individuals, and often times to the disenfranchised, the poor, and the unemployed, who already have enough problems.
JE Have you gotten letters from policemen?
KW A few, not too many, mostly they tend to call in when I’m doing radio call-in shows to express their outrage and indignation that anyone could be impugning the police department. What they don’t understand is that I’m not impugning the police department. I’m speaking honestly from my own experiences about something that is incredibly damaging to cops as well as to the victims of the drug laws.
JE Are you still interested in writing about these themes?
KW Yes, I just finished an article about media and the drug war for the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia, who do a quarterly journal. In doing research for the article, I realized that the media helped create a supposed crack epidemic in 1985. That’s when they discovered it, although, crack had been here for years before that. It started with freebasing in the late ‘70s. Around the same time, Ed Meese told the Washington Press Club that they should use their influence as journalists to make people aware of the war on drugs. He was saying to the press, “You guys are here to serve our purposes, to espouse our viewpoint to the public. You’re not here to ask any kinds of questions.” He expected them to put out drug war propaganda. And then I saw it happening.
JE When was it that you decided to become a writer?
KW Ninth grade. That was something little girls from Dallas didn’t do. It was so far removed from any sort of reality that I had any experience with that it never occurred to me that I could do this and get away with it. But I used to write really bad poetry late at night.
JE (laughter) Yeah me too. Did you read really bad poetry, too?
KW Yeah, I guess I did. (laughter) But, well before that I was into The Black Stallion and The Black Beauty books late at night, under my covers with a flashlight. “Turn those lights out!” So I turned them off and read in secret. And then there were times when I could actually read by moonlight, when the moon was full and it was coming right through the window in the middle of the night.
JE Do little girls from Dallas become police officers?
KW I was one of three women in the department.
JE Did you write then?
KW I stopped writing shortly after I became a cop because the job involves emotional shut down. I can’t write if I’m not alive inside. It’s a genuine shut down of emotions because that can’t be part of your being when you’re walking into a house where people are at each others’ throats and you have to calm everybody down, and make sure that all the kids are okay, and come up with some sort of solution short of taking someone to jail. You can’t allow yourself to feel anything for those people or you would be a basket case by the end of a single shift. You have to turn it off completely.
JE Can you imagine yourself in another occupation?
KW Actually, I’ve got another big job coming up and that’s Mom.
JE What are you going to tell your son about drugs?
KW I hope that by the time he’s old enough to have any curiosity about drugs, we’ll have a sane and rational policy toward them in this country. I don’t know if that’s possible. But I’m going to tell him the truth about them: That alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana. It does a lot more damage. That the difference between using a drug and abusing a drug is crucial. That heroin and cocaine are very dangerous, they can destroy your life. That when you start using any substance as a substitute for communication and love with human beings, there’s a deeper problem. It’s not drug addiction, but a personal or psychological problem.
JE I think you’re qualified for the Mom role.
KW (laughter) I pass?
JE You married another writer. How’s that working out?
KW We argue about grammar.
JE Do you read each other’s stuff?
KW Yeah, it’s great. He looked over this article that I was working on and found some things that were wrong and needed to be fixed. He calls me the grammar police.
JE You’re not worried about competition?
KW I’m really not. I don’t think you can compete in writing. In something that is so personal and so individual, there’s no way to. There’s not really any objective way to evaluate.
JE I’m married to a writer too, and people were always warning us. But it’s great, you know, to talk about the work.
KW Yeah, writers are readers, too.
JE My brother wants me to ask how you feel when you see a police officer on the street?
KW When I first got out of prison…they just send you out the front door, you get a taxi, and you go the airport or bus station or whatever. I was at the airport waiting for my flight, and I went into a coffee shop. I was sitting there when these two local Lexington cops sat down in a booth across the aisle. I was feeling such rage and such anger toward them. I couldn’t believe it, and for a long time I had that kind of reaction. Not to the individual, to the uniform, to what it meant, to me, and what it stood for. Now, I’ve reached a point where I’ve gotten over any bitterness or anger I feel about how I was trained and I’ve accepted responsibility for my own decisions.
JE Was there a time when you felt sorry for the younger…
KW When I see the recruits out there on 2nd Avenue, yes. They look 12 years old, and they have no idea what they’re getting into. I know what kind of lives they’re leading, what kind of pain they see every day, and what kind of hatred and abuse they take every day. It is a truly thankless task. You get on a train late at night and you’re happy to see a cop. If you just ran a red light, you’re not so happy to see one. And that’s what they deal with day in and day out.
JE How do you feel about being labeled a “crime writer?”
KW The same way I feel about being labeled a felon, it doesn’t apply. It’s someone else’s perception. I guess that’s human nature, to categorize things, label things, put things in some kind of order.
JE Do you write with themes in mind?
KW Love, sex, and death, that’s pretty broad. You can go in a lot of different directions there.
JE So you don’t think of yourself as tied to any certain themes?
KW No. I hope there’s always political content to what I write. It’s one of the reasons I was so happy about the film. It doesn’t make moral judgments, but by simply telling the story it causes the viewer to walk out of the theater asking some serious questions. When people were reading the book, they said they hadn’t thought about it but it makes perfect sense that a cop working undercover would have to take drugs. Maybe now people might think twice when they read an article in the New York Times denying that any of this ever goes on.
JE How involved were you in the movie?
KW Not too. Jennifer Jason Leigh had a lot of questions about the effects of drugs and the physical manifestations of being under the influence of cocaine and heroin. Questions about the fashions of the ‘70s, (laughter) what it was like growing up in Texas, what it was like being one of very few women on the police force. And Jason had questions about drug use, how it looks, how it feels. They sent copies of the screenplay to me as it was progressing and I would make notes. They took some of the suggestions and didn’t take others.
JE But you were happy with it?
KW Yeah, pretty much. The film departs from the plot pretty drastically but it doesn’t depart from the core of what I was after which was to give the reader the experience of what it was like to work undercover in Texas in the ‘70s. The film doesn’t blow it out of proportion. They didn’t go Hollywood, they stayed with a gritty, realistic feel. I was very happy about that.
JE There’s the novel, which is a fictional account, then there’s the movie, twice-removed. It must feel very strange for you to watch that.
KW The first time was tough. Emotionally wrenching and draining, the “fight or flight” response was very much there. I’ve gotten to the point where I can enjoy all the little nuances, like Jennifer’s performance which just blew me away. Wonderful. All the actors bring their personal experiences and realities to the characters. But the essence of the film is true to the reality of what it was like to work the streets in that time period.
JE Do you ever get confused about what really happened? Because, in writing fiction you have to believe in order to sound convincing.
KW I believed it when I was writing it. But I didn’t sit down and try to recall what happened to me, personally. I sat down and became what I was writing, Kristen. Kristen isn’t me, but Kristen is a person sitting in a jail cell recalling how she got there.
JE Do you feel an obligation to show people what really goes on?
KW A desire, desire.
JE I’m thinking of your essay, “Notes from a Country Club,” about your time in jail.
KW Prison was a very liberating experience, in a certain way. The enforcement arm of society, the makers of rules, plucks you up, put you back down inside a prison and say you have to stay here for this period of time, we’ll tell you when to eat, when to sleep, when to recreate and when to work. The only freedom you have is intellectual. It was the first time I really realized how precious that is. And it was the first time I was around people from other parts of the country, so it was a very freeing experience for me. It enabled me to start writing about things that I would never have allowed myself to write.
JE Were you frightened there?
KW For a while, yes. It was very scary going in. It was more scary coming out, and in between it was pretty tedious. I didn’t tell anybody I was a cop for a long time but then the rumor mill started. When I told them, these women said, “Why didn’t you tell me before? I used to date a cop.” “My brother’s a cop.” “My cousin’s a cop.” (laughter)
JE How did your family deal with it? They didn’t know you had become addicted?
KW No, no. At least, I don’t think so. I tried to hide it. I didn’t go around them that much. It was a 24-hour-a-day job.
JE It must be hard for them to understand, even though they probably felt…
KW I’m still their little girl, you know. I think they, to a degree, and rightfully so, blamed the situation and the job for what I got into. They’re glad it’s over. It’s very hard for my mom, it makes her angry. She was great. She and my sister smuggled a pair of tennis shoes in to me. You weren’t allowed to have stuff like that.
JE Once it’s smuggled in, you can have it?
KW It’s not like they look very closely to see if someone has on new tennis shoes. You’re allowed two packages a year of clothes. But it can only weigh ten pounds and has to be so big.
JE Are you still friends with anybody from prison?
KW Oh yes, when I went on my book tours I always stopped. In Chicago, I had dinner with a woman I worked on landscape with at the prison. When I was in Santa Monica I met my old roommate and when I was in Minneapolis I saw a pal of mine who had been locked up…
JE How are all these people doing now?
KW They’re doing well. One of them hasn’t yet let herself out of prison, and she’s been out for a long time. She hasn’t let go of the life she had before it, and I don’t know what to tell her.
JE They must be thrilled with your success.
KW A guy I was locked up with called the other night. I hadn’t heard from him in six years. He said, “Just wanted to let you know we’ve been following your story and we’re really happy for you,” and it’s genuine.
JE What about people being angry with you?
KW My ex-partner is really angry.
JE He thinks he should get money or something?
KW Yes, and I’m sure he’ll pursue it, but we’ll see what happens. I’m not going to let him intrude upon my life yet again.
JE Is he suing you?
JE Are you afraid for your physical safety?
KW No. That’s been a big step, but I’ve gotten over that.
JE Did you come to the conclusion that it’s irrational?
KW It’s not really a danger anymore. All this happened so long ago. The situation is now that if he tried to hurt me or if anybody else who’s pursuing anything tried to hurt me, they’d be the prime suspect and they know that.
JE What does he do now?
KW He works for a landscape company in Texas.
JE That’s kind of odd that you were in landscaping—in prison…(laughter) Well, it must seem like a whole different life now.
KW It is.
JE Your third life.
KW It’s like what our friend Betsy was doing at my wedding shower, flipping through an imaginary photo album saying, “This is Kim running track in high school, this is Kim working at the ice cream parlor, this is Kim as an undercover narcotics agent, this is Kim in prison, this is Kim on her first book tour.” (laughter)
JE Besides financially, has Rush really changed your life?
KW In a much more important way, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I wasn’t writing for therapy, but finishing it, having this physical thing that I could look at and say that part of my life is over, done…
JE Shut the book.
KW Yes. Close the book, exactly. It feels wonderful.
JE What are you working on now? You don’t have to answer that.
KW Another novel. A woman in for competency evaluation to determine if she can stand trial. She murdered her abusive husband. We’ll see where it goes from there.
JE Feel any pressure, second book pressure, like they talk about?
KW Yes. I try not to though. I’m just trying to get the right sentence on the page.
JE What about writers you admire?
KW Don DeLillo’s still up there as one of my favorites, Toni Morrison, and Larry McMurtry.
JE What do you want for Christmas?
KW Oh…peace in the New Year. That would be nice. Peace on Earth. Wouldn’t it be great—just three minutes. Everything would get real quiet, and you could hear all these billions of hearts beating all over the world.
JE But isn’t all art based on conflict?
KW It would be dull if there weren’t any conflict. But debate, you know, that’s different than blowing somebody up.
JE Nobody wants a melting pot.
KW The people who really want a melting pot are the advertisers and major manufacturers so that they’ll know exactly what products to put out.
JE When you were in prison, did you feel like you deserved to be there?
KW I don’t know if anybody deserves prison. It’s a pretty barbaric place. On the other hand, what do you do with somebody that repeatedly kills people? You’ve got to disable them. But most of the people that I was locked up with…I suppose if I subscribe to the concept of the law, yes I deserved to be in prison, and it certainly got my attention. The fact is, I had rehabilitated myself before I went, and I had punished myself a lot more than prison ever could. All in all, I guess it was good for me. But I don’t consider myself a victim of the system. I consider myself a victim of my own ignorance about how the system worked.
JE Something like shame doesn’t come into it?
KW No, there was guilt though. There was guilt for a long time. Until I realized I was 21 years old and I didn’t know what I was doing. I grew up in a very conservative, traditional household, and I was a good Catholic girl. They teach you never to question authority. I didn’t question authority, and I bought the hype. I thought that narcotics enforcement was the way to deal with drugs, that drugs were a horrible, dangerous, evil monster instead of what they are. They are substances and powders that can either be used recreationally or abused and some of them are dangerous but drugs don’t have any willpower. They don’t have any maliciousness, they’re just substances. Once I realized that, the guilt went away. And also, realizing there weren’t any victims in what I did. The people who were involved in it, were on their own path toward whatever damage and destruction there was that we all ran into. I didn’t pull anybody into it, I didn’t trap anyone. So, I feel okay about it.
JE I suppose people don’t pay enough attention to the writing and keep asking you about what happened and how much is true?
KW They’re always asking how much, as though I could put a percentage on it, well three pages are true and…whatever. And I can’t answer that question. Anyone who writes fiction knows that you use your life and your experiences in doing it.
Jill Eisenstadt is the auhtor of two novels, From Rockaway (Knopf, 1987) and Kiss Out (Knopf, 1991).
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee