In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Kathleen Coskran
1. Tell us about your fiction piece in Volume 20. How did it come to be?
When I was teaching at Hamline in 1994, Jimmy––an inmate at Oak Park Heights Maximum security prison––took two classes from me, one in the MALS (Master of Arts of Liberal Studies) program and the MFA core class which I co-taught with Quay Grigg. Each week we taped the class, mailed him the tape, and then he called one of us from the Education Director’s office. Quay and I visited him in the spring of 1995 and then my husband and I started visiting him every six weeks or so. We became friends. Years later, when he was at USP (United States Prison) Coleman in Coleman, Florida, he told me that he had been feeding the gulls. The guards weren’t happy about it and told him to stop because the gulls were pooping (he used another word) on their cars. Then, all the inmates began feeding the gulls. He laughed and laughed when he told me. It is my practice to write a quick, flash fiction story every morning, so it is not surprising that soon after, the image of a convict feeding the gulls appeared, but with what I believe was the true inspiration for Jimmy feeding those birds, the yearning to be connected to something on the outside, to be over that wall and free.
2. What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
I don’t think there was any single experience. I was a voracious reader as a child and particularly skilled (or should I say distracted?) as a daydreamer with stories always unfolding in my head. I lulled myself to sleep each night by telling myself a story (in which I was usually the central character). Also, I was and am quite shy and writing comes more easily to me than talking.
3. How has writing shaped your life?
I don’t know that writing shapes my life as much as it informs it. Writing is a way for me to discover what I am thinking, what I am wondering about, what I am interested in. That said, you would think that I would have stacks of journals, but I am not really much good at writing in a journal; my real life isn’t that interesting. That is why I started writing quick little stories first thing every morning, just making something up quickly without much, if any, forethought or planning. I love the surprise and the discovery of those stories, people and events that didn’t exist moments earlier until I started writing.
4. What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work?
I like writers who cherish language and take me to worlds I’ve never known. Louise Erdrich inspires me just now. She is so prolific, such a beautiful writer, and writes about people and stories that I could never imagine, but who I know are part of Minnesota and thus part of my life. I am awed by Marilynne Robinson‘s use of language and depth of character. She writes of extraordinary people in ordinary situations, which, perhaps means that we are all extraordinary in some way.
5. What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I am writing a book about Jimmy, the inmate who inspired “Gull Man,” telling his story against the backdrop of our broken criminal justice system. It is my first venture into nonfiction, and for me, much more challenging––I can’t just make it up! His is a long and complicated story beginning with his detention as a juvenile at age 13 for skipping school and running away from home. When he was sentenced, the judge said, “Now you will learn how to behave.” What he learned was how to be a tough guy, how to fight in order to survive the extraordinarily difficult and dangerous environment of juvenile detention in the 1970s. He called it “gladiator school” and that is indeed what the juvie system at that time turned out, young men groomed for conflict without any mediating influences, without anybody who believed in them as worthy human beings. In 1982 he was sentenced to 80 years without benefit of pardon, parole or commutation of sentence for a robbery of a deli with a fake gun in which nobody was hurt. His lawyer was disbarred a few months later for incompetence. Jimmy has repeatedly tried to appeal the sentence based on numerous errors committed at the original trial, but…it’s complicated. That’s my project now: following one man’s forty-five year journey through the morass of what we call justice in the United States has been both informative and discouraging.