An Interview with Sarah Yaw
by Karin Cecile Davidson
Sarah Yaw’s debut novel, “You Are Free to Go” (Engine Books, 2014), winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize and the 2015 CNY Book Award for Fiction, is told in meticulous and measured layers, which are linked by the intersecting narratives of multiple characters. The novel’s incredible architecture is much like that of its fictional prison, the Hardenberg Correctional Facility: each confined cell containing one, usually two inmates; each row of cells set inside a block from the ground floor to the upper levels of the birdcage; each block a testing ground for society’s incarcerated. Inside, Moses, Jorge, and Georgy attempt to survive this confinement, while Ed Cavanaugh, a prison guard, faces the complication of working inside the prison and living outside its walls in the town of Hardenberg. And outside, adding to the storylines, three young women—Shell, Gina, and Ellen—reveal how growing up in Hardenberg, where the prison has always been a background presence, has defined them.
The novel unveils stories within stories within stories, the structure tunneling in and ultimately untying the bound up relationships of the characters. In the realm of literature written about prison life, “You Are Free to Go” adds to the complex conversation about incarceration by looking at both the lives behind bars and those of the surrounding community. The lives here may be fictional, but their undeniable strength, love, desperation, and determination echo that of true lives outside the novel’s pages.
Moses … feels like there are two worlds. The world where … Ed Cavanaugh, his paper, his typewriter … the morgue where Jorge lays, the prison, its guts and functions, the other prisoners, the outside world, the town, the cars on the streets, the traffic lights, the cawing crows, the river, the dark sky, its clouds, the wetness of spring all exist, and then there is the world in which Moses finds himself. It is a different place entirely. –Sarah Yaw
KARIN CECILE DAVIDSON: Addressing the lives of those within a prison and those of the surrounding town is a difficult and intricate undertaking, one that you’ve handled beautifully by way of the structural elements and the interweaving narratives.
Sarah, what led you to the subject and structure of “You Are Free to Go”?
SARAH YAW: Karin, what a beautiful lead-in. Thank you. I hope my answers are as elegant. The subject and structure grew in concert. I grew up in a town with a maximum security prison at its heart. As an 8-year-old, I received collect calls from prisoners attempting to connect with the outside world, and throughout my life, I’d see prisoners in transport vans gazing out the windows trying to consume everything they saw. Sometimes what they were trying to consume was me, or at least the split-second image they caught of a girl walking down a street. This intersection was haunting. It was also forbidden. There was an implied hush about the prison, and we weren’t encouraged to ask questions about how it affected the lives of the people living in the town. The prison was seen as a good employer, and the people who worked there were respected for their role in keeping the bad guys where they belonged. The reality that there were also children living in our community to be close to an incarcerated parent was seen as a necessary evil suffered by the community in order to preserve good-paying jobs. When I returned to my hometown and began writing the book, I learned quickly that there was a submerged narrative in our community that told the story of the intersections. I wanted to write about that. But the prison captured my imagination for other reasons, too.
When I went to college, I studied political philosophy and examined the changing structure of punishment as we moved from feudal social structures to experiments in democracy. My town’s prison was the birthplace of Corrections—my neighbor’s grandfather, its architect—so the history captivated me. I read Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish,” and the structure of a panoptic prison as a metaphor for social control hit me hard. In a panoptic prison, the cells are built so the prisoners can’t see when they’re being watched. In theory, the inmates police themselves, thus internalizing the surveillance. While I was learning about the history of punishment, I was also beginning to decode the subtle messages written all over my consciousness about my value as a woman, and I realized that the panoptic prison was a particularly apt metaphor for girls growing up in a culture in which femininity was ubiquitously enforced, often in our most private relationships. Mother-daughter. Friend-to-friend. So intimate was the enforcement that it was nearly invisible. I had watched and participated in these prosecutions and these imprisonments. When I began writing the book, I kept saying I wanted to write a panoptic book, if such a thing could exist⎯one in which the reader could look into the small, separate cells of the characters’ lives and watch them responding to the forces that affect our most intimate spaces.
DAVIDSON: A panoptic book—this is fascinating. Your discoveries and connections certainly created insight into the interlocking stories of your characters. In this way, it makes perfect sense that “You Are Free to Go” is written in multiple voices—those of Moses, Gina, Shell, and Ellen. Moses is an inmate, serving a life sentence for murder and sharing a cell with Jorge, Gina’s father, which introduces a father-daughter relationship that crosses the prison gates. Shell is prison guard Ed Cavanaugh’s daughter, and Ellen is Gina and Shell’s childhood friend.
How did you decide on these four characters in terms of who would tell the story? And why did you distinguish only one voice from inside the correctional facility while including three from the outside?
YAW: Moses, Shell, Gina, and Ellen are all imprisoned in some way. Moses is the only inside point of view because his imprisonment is structural. The women’s imprisonment, however, is relational. My friends know I’m having a hard time because I “wall myself off” from them. The willingness to be authentic and vulnerable and, thus, connected is a struggle for the female characters in the book, as well. They each represent some essential part of the female experience: a middle-class girl whose father did a life sentence in eight-hour shifts so she could have a better life; the child of a prisoner who struggled finding friendship because of her association with prison and, of course, poverty; and the daughter of privilege who was cut off from authentic connection because of social position. Each woman is subject to social enforcements that call for certain behavior based on her class. But as friends, they once experienced intimacy, and the quest for that is what breaks down the barriers built by social forces. Getting back to the previous question, if the book is a panoptic, the point of view allows the reader to look into the lives of the prisoners and participate in the surveillance. You know, like we do to each other in life.
The cell is already crowded and simply can’t fit three men, two cots, the locker that doubles as a desk, the comby, a seatless john and sink in one, and at least ten sparrows. Birds fill the room and fly playfully just over their heads; the cell is just seven by seven by seven. Jorge sits slumped by a weight of a great and recurring worry for his daughter. A small sparrow with a red thread tied to one leg sits on his shoulder, preening and chirping a sweet chirp that is returned by another sparrow sitting on the locker. –Sarah Yaw
DAVIDSON: Papito, the little sparrow that wears the red thread around his leg, is drawn to Jorge, a man of gentle but worrisome nature. Moses, who shares the cell and cares nothing for the birds, is attached to his typewriter and attempts to write a paper on Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice.” Together, Jorge and Moses bring to mind the notorious Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” who contributed to avian pathology while in solitary confinement.
The idea of freedom while under life imprisonment is a hard one to fathom, and yet the birds coming and going give a sense of freedom, and the prisoners’ day-to-day survival may have to do with finding ways of feeling less interned.
Would you speak about Moses and Jorge, how you came to create them, whether from influences or research that was literary, historical, current, or perhaps from your own background?
YAW: I did a lot of very cool research, from going into the prison undercover as a Criminal Justice student to visiting a church knitting circle of women who spent whole careers working on the inside. Also, Thomas Mott Osborne’s work is required reading for anyone interested in the lines we draw to define guilt and innocence. Everything he wrote one hundred years ago about corrections and rehabilitation is relevant today. I should note, his work uses my hometown and prison as evidence. Our prison, historically, is one to know.
As for my book, none of the research I did was sanctioned because I didn’t want to submit the book for Department of Corrections’ approval, and the truths I was after were less about the functions of prisons and more about the universal human struggle to feel free. As for Moses and Jorge, I had little difficulty knowing the prisoners in this book. I come from a line of physically abused, hurt men—Moses is a family name. I guess it’s this family history that gave me a heightened sensitivity to the structures and inequities that land one in jail (as opposed to inherited privileges that might land one in a judgeship, like Ellen’s father).
Jorge is a victim of poverty and otherness. He was convicted of crimes and given a life sentence in a language he didn’t even speak. This isn’t hard to imagine when we look at the living conditions of people in this country. Poverty and chaos are realities for very many people. Incarceration is a matter of course for whole communities. It just made sense that there were men aging on the inside of this prison who were defined by a youthful tragedy, but who possessed intellect and curiosity. It’s a well-known truth that maximum security prisons with lifetime residents are safer, calmer facilities; cell blocks with long-time residents are safer blocks; and age mellows people. I wanted to know, what happens when you age and get mellow in prison?
I happen to adore “Death in Venice” and loved the idea of seeing it through the eyes of a prisoner who must come to terms with his own age. So it wasn’t hard to imagine prisoners settling into a life on the inside and one day finding some modicum of unexpected liberation through books, or birds! In fact, I think prisoners are probably uniquely aware of the kind of emancipation that comes from creativity and pursuits of the mind since the mind’s incarceration is the individual’s doing. I’m reminded of the fascinating case of the recent Dannemora prison break. If you want an exquisite example of the freedom found in a long, creative endeavor, read the New York Times article outlining that escape. The freedom was in the year-long quest, not in the break through the wall.
There on the ledge of the roof … is the starling. It is dazed. It is free to fly away but it does not. –Sarah Yaw
DAVIDSON: FREEDOM: Crows, sparrows, a single starling. CONFINEMENT: The prisoners, their routines, keeping heir heads down, avoiding attention and violence. Finding a way to be hopeful, to continue life inside.
Tell us about the novel’s use of metaphor in terms of freedom and confinement.
YAW: First, the real. When I visited the prison, I discovered a population of sparrows living inside. They flew freely throughout, fought over scraps on the mess hall floor, and fouled the seats. I was surprised and delighted to find them. The educational offerings in our prison are taught by Cornell instructors. Since Cornell is famous for its ornithology program, I loved imagining Jorge discovering himself as a student through these birds. He’s a tender man, and the birds were marvelously light and tender, too. It just fit. Though, I know it immediately recalls the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” and all that. Really, the origins were much more local. Same goes for the crows. My town is famous for its crows. (I love how macabre we are.) In the winter, 60,000 crows flood the skies and roost along the river that runs outside the prison walls.
But, you’re right. The metaphoric play in the book is about freedom. And the birds help connect the inside and outside world, minimizing the conceit of separation symbolized by the walls. In the early drafts of this book, I was writing with a view of those walls, and I felt confined by my circumstance. I was obsessed with freedom and how it is achieved. I wanted to believe that when a body is confined, a mind can still be free. I wanted to believe that anyone could adjust to the most radical life changes and, through routine and curiosity and love, achieve a new liberation and, hopefully, some happiness. All of the characters in “You Are Free To Go” are imprisoned, and all of them, to some degree or another, experience freedom by adjusting the framework through which they see their lives. This is not to diminish the devastating effects of incarceration on people and families, but life can go on both inside and out, and it does. The modern prison narrative doesn’t include nuance, it doesn’t include old people aging in prison, living quiet lives. So imagining that this is possible messes with our stark notions of good and bad, right and wrong, guilt and innocence, freedom and imprisonment.
DAVIDSON: Gina, Shell, Ellen. Each woman is introduced as the novel progresses and as Gina reaches out after her father Jorge’s death. Gina is a high-powered NYC television news executive producer who engages in sexual power games with men. Shell has focused her life on a filmmaker, marrying him and making his film a success, and ends up back in Hardenberg, living with her parents. Ellen, once artistic and now materialistic, lives in Manhattan, married and surrounded by wealth and beauty.
Thinking thematically about imprisonment, how is this trio of women and their friendship affected by Hardenberg, the town in which they grow up together, as well as the prison where Gina’s father is a prisoner, where Shell’s father works as a guard, and where perhaps Ellen’s father has sentenced people to life imprisonment from his judge’s seat?
YAW: I think anyone living in a prison town is walking around with a giant metaphor in the background. I’m sure this could be said of mountains and coal mines or whatever landscape helps form the identity of a place. But a prison reveals so much about a culture. It draws the everyday into a case study about freedom, and in America that matters, you know, since we’ve co-opted the concept of freedom and think we know what it is. But freedom is not as simple as it seems. It’s not defined by who’s on the inside of the wall and who’s on the outside of the wall. It’s complicated. And it’s complicated for women.
I’ve always been haunted by the collect calls I received as a child and wondered what would happen if one said, “Yes, I accept the charges.” So I placed such a scenario in the middle of my characters’ friendship. And, of course, I had to know why they would do this. When I moved back to my community as an adult, I discovered there are many women who have relationships with prisoners. I asked a family friend why she dates prisoners, and she said, “Because you know where they’re at.” The relationships between prisoners and women are highly potent places to examine the social success narrative internalized by women that says she is most valuable when she is supremely cherished by a man. You don’t have to date a prisoner to be at the mercy of this force. A lot of women are still waiting for someone on a white horse to come along and adore them, thus, giving them value. And many women still enjoy the consumptive gaze, no matter how many viral street videos rail against it. The intense power of heterosexual relationships can seriously derail female connections. The women in this book are all affected by this to different degrees, both in and beyond Hardenberg. In the end, all are struggling with the fact that sometimes authenticity is irreconcilable with lovability. I can’t think of a better metaphor for this struggle than a prison.
“Hello?” says a woman and he is stunned into silence. “Hello?” she says again and an automated voice says, “You have received a collect call from Hardenberg Correctional Facility from Georgy Smith. Will you accept the charges?” –Sarah Yaw
DAVIDSON: One of the ways the prison and the town of Hardenberg are connected is via telephone. Depending on rules regarding their sentencing and behavior, inmates may call those outside the prison walls. Georgy possesses a phonebook that holds one Laughlin, L.’s phone number, a woman he calls with Moses’ help. And on the outside, Gina calls both Shell and Ellen, in hopes of speaking with her childhood friends after her father’s death.
Describe how lines of communication are central to the novel, particularly in emphasizing freedom and the lack of, whether from within or outside the prison.
YAW: The book grew from a short story in which a woman accepts the collect calls from a prisoner. This central conceit lived in the book for years and caused all kinds of trouble, until a wise woman told me to take it out. So the notion of lines of communication are at its heart. Removing the direct contact and then playing with this theme in the narrative between the friends helped modulate the ideas of connection and isolation. What I love about Georgy’s obsession with Laughlin, L. is how his attempts to associate with the outside world foster love and connection with Moses, someone who is right there by his side. Conversely, when the girls huddle around a phone to receive a forbidden call, they sacrifice each other for some dark promise on the other end of the line—male adoration, the opportunity to be everything to someone. It’s never the thing you’re after that matters, is it? (Like the guys who escaped from Dannemora. I’m a little obsessed with the perfect story of that escape.) And it’s so easy to live in isolation and miss connection when we’re focused on the wrong things.
Along the river, they’d stop and throw stones into the trees, sending crows flying up in black clouds, and Gina would ask, “Do you think my dad can see those birds?” –Sarah Yaw
DAVIDSON: There is sad irony to the novel’s title, “You Are Free to Go,” for within the prison’s confines, the main characters—Moses, Jorge, and Georgy—are never released, and outside its walls, the trio—Gina, Shell, and Ellen—are confined emotionally, defined by the town in which they were raised and the nearby prison.
Tell us about the paradoxical nature of this title and how it applies to the characters.
YAW: Oh, I don’t see the title as paradoxical at all. I see it as the point. Freedom isn’t defined by the state of the body. We all live in some sort of confinement—we make new little prisons every day, silly syllogisms that restrict our thinking and our love—and yet even in the worst circumstances a shift in thinking, a realignment with our purpose, an authentic connection, can free us. I think all the characters get there in the end, even if it’s just a subtle move or understanding.
DAVIDSON: What was it like to write “You Are Free to Go”—the day-to-day writing and discoveries along the way? How did it feel when you received the news that the book won the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize, and what were your experiences in working with the Engine Books editors to arrive at the final version of YAFTG? And finally, from all that you learned along the way, is there anything you’d like to share with emerging writers who have yet to publish a first book?
YAW: I wrote this book side by side with Claudia Zuluaga as she wrote her glimmering debut novel, ”Fort Starlight.” We had just graduated from Sarah Lawrence, and we were both afraid that life would overtake us and we’d never become “writers.” So we set up a schedule that went something like this: Every Friday we would talk on the phone about our books, and we’d force each other to pick a task or a deliverable and then report back on it the next week. Sometimes a lot of work got done in between Fridays, but mostly it didn’t, and the forced check-in served as a lifeline thrown out into the storms of our lives. A lot of jobs were sought and secured, a lot of fertility discussions were had, a lot of babies were born, a lot of happiness and torment filled those years of check-ins. But we kept each other’s books alive for nearly a decade. I get lost in the calculations, but I think it took both of us eight years to write the books.
She submitted to the Engine Books contest in 2012 and published her book as a result of it. I watched in awe and submitted the next year because she told me to. I do everything she tells me. And like that, we continued on parallel paths. We are well into our next books working together as we always have. It’s been amazing and has inspired us to write about our partnership. Writing is a collaborative experience. The lone nature of it is a myth. We want to dispel it.
Engine Books rocks. Victoria Barrett is an intuitive editor with laser-focus on the story. I can only hope my next editing experience is as lovely. I knew it was a good fit when I received my edits and she had returned the book to an earlier structure (much improved by her work, of course). It was really empowering and taught me to trust myself more as I draft. Winning was traumatizing to my self-doubt. That was Claudia’s observation. I’m still working through the effect that had. I’d had thirteen years of not winning in a lot of ways, and suddenly I’d won at this perfect and special thing.
To emerging writers, I’ll offer this (though, I’m pretty sure I’m still emerging): Find someone you can share really shitty work with, use them and let them use you, be a bottomless well of generosity with each other, and LOVE writing. It’s where the magic is. And reread everything I wrote about the Dannemora prison escape. Glorious moments like this when you get to talk for a long time about why you just had to write your book, these are few and far between. But the years of sharing with a trusted writing partner are as fruitful and fulfilling as a damned good marriage.
Karin Cecile Davidson, Interviews Editor