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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Orange Is The New Black’s Natasha Lyonne on two books that capture prison life

Illustration for article titled iOrange Is The New Black/i’s Natasha Lyonne on two books that capture prison life

The fan: Natasha Lyonne worked steadily as an actress in her youth, but her first major role came in 1999’s American Pie as the well-connected Jessica. She followed that up with a series of livewire performances in American Pie 2, But I’m A Cheerleader, Blade: Trinity, and others, before personal and health issues slowed her career in the mid-2000s. She’s seen a renaissance in recent years, appearing in the most recent film in the American Pie franchise, as well as several guest roles on TV series, including Law & Order: SVU, Weeds, and New Girl. Her newest project is as part of the expansive ensemble of Orange Is The New Black, Netflix’s new, riveting drama from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan about the inmates at a women’s prison. As Nicky, one of the initial cellmates of the series’ main character, Lyonne brings a sense of snark to the proceedings, but she never lets audiences forget that Nicky’s road to prison was a hard one, lined with many regrets and hardships.

The fanned: Thomas McFadden and Rusty Young’s Marching Powder, an account of one man’s trip to a Bolivian prison where the world’s best cocaine is produced, and Jack Black’s You Can’t Win, a classic memoir of hobo life published in 1926 and beloved by William S. Burroughs. Both books deal with the realities of prison life.

The A.V. Club: How did you first come across Marching Powder?

Natasha Lyonne: Well, I was dating a tour manager at the time, and he had that book. Things were pretty awkward, and I remember being on the tour bus and reading, I think, three-quarters of the book that night while in my sort of single sleeper and just being so grateful that I had found it. I guess it was something that people were reading on the road, and it’s got to be one of the best times I’ve ever had reading a book in my life; it would not be an exaggeration.


I definitely I bought these two books as compendium pieces, if that’s the right phrase, for most of the major characters on this show. It’s like, “Here’s the deal with prison: You have to read Marching Powder and You Can’t Win. Now we can start shooting.” [Laughs.]

I’m going to level with you; I don’t think anyone read them. I know that our directing producer definitely read Marching Powder, but I haven’t heard a ton of book reports, which I’m a little disappointed with.

AVC: How did you come across You Can’t Win?

NL: You Can’t Win… Oh yeah, I used to know this guy named Robbie who in his youth was sort of running buddies with [New York Dolls’] Johnny Thunders and I think was like a waiter at Max’s Kansas City and was a musician on the Lower East Side. He had it on his book shelf, and I sort of grabbed it and opened it, and he said, “Do you know this is [William S.] Burroughs’ favorite book? You should read it.”


I promptly became obsessed with that as sort of a great manifesto. In fact, speaking of manifestos, Nabat Books, who I guess published the reissue of it, included a few sentences when you open up that copy talking about how power, wealth, and fame are a poison cocktail, and we’re here to give voice and support to the misfits and the underdogs and the dregs of society, the derelicts, those who really matter, you know? Which, really, I was already good to go. Then came Burroughs’ introduction, then came the book itself. I was like, “You know, I could be buried with this book.” [Laughs.]

AVC: This one’s a little more about the old hobo lifestyle, the old drifter lifestyle from the ’30s and ’40s.


NL: Yeah. It’s sort of the Wild West of the hobo underworld. I guess the guy was like a safecracker and a bank robber and accidentally shot a guy and got 25 years. Ultimately, I didn’t really remember that much about [that part] because the other parts are so enticing. I guess, in a lot of ways, he was also speaking about prison reform and don’t get yourself in trouble. Yeah, toward the end of the book, it becomes more about keeping your nose clean, advice I never heard. [Laughs.]

And there’s a sort of horrific story about him in a straitjacket, and it’s so brutal, the treatment in prison, that he starts bashing his head against the wall in the straitjacket. The guard comes in and moves him to the center of the cell. He’s just given up the fight, and he’s just there in writhing pain. The end of Jack Black’s life is just very sad. Clearly, I don’t mean the comedian/musician/actor. They suspect that he tied weights to his feet and jumped into the Hudson River. I remember after working with Abel Ferrara, I gave him a copy of that book and was like, “Abel, trust me; you’re really going to enjoy this.” And he called me afterwards and said, [imitating his voice] “I don’t understand; there’s no happy ending. It’s just really depressing.”


That made me laugh a lot. I really wanted him to make that movie, but I’m hopeful about this Michael Pitt situation.

[Pitt is set to star in an upcoming film adaptation of You Can’t Win. —ed]

AVC: Were there any comparable stories or things that you heard from Marching Powder that you were just sort of blown away by?


NL: Marching Powder has got to be one of the most shocking books. The author finds out from a buddy who’s like, “If you want, you’ve got to go try the best cocaine in the world, and it was made and cooked at this prison called San Pedro. Go to see this guy.” So I guess they were giving these tours where you could go do the best cocaine in the world at this prison and spend the night getting high.

And the prison was, like, wildly corrupt; it was sort of like a village or even more like a city, and the richest drug dealers or whatever, drug lords, lived there with their families and had Internet and giant televisions and Jacuzzis. I remember what was really graphic about it was then you have the slums, which were just sewage and shoeless children cooking homemade, strange drugs. And it’s just so wild. I guess that’s what is so great about both these being true stories. It’s really wild to think that there are shenanigans like that going on in this world of ours.


AVC: At least, in one respect, in Marching Powder, the Bolivian prison seems very different from the U.S. in that you actually have to buy your cell from a real-estate agent.

NL: Yeah. But I do imagine that—I don’t know how real [it is]. I’ve never done actual prison time, just a couple of stints in holding cells over the years—like with Goodfellas or whatever, it does certainly seem that prison trade is a pretty common practice. Negotiating shit with guards, who gets a better mattress, I want to be in a cell with so-and-so, can I also have access to such-and-such? [Laughs.] So it does seem like pretty common practice. I don’t know if there are actual real-estate agents that you can buy your cell from, but I do think a lot of these themes track.


AVC: What were some other things that you drew from these books when you were preparing Orange Is the New Black?

NL: Well, you know, these are books I sort of just read in my life that really came to mind. There’s always new stuff, but there’s that like, [mutters to herself] what was it, like a theoretical physicist or something. Did you read that article in the [New York] Times, the New York Times Magazine or whatever, recently about that physicist, the bikini model, and the briefcase?


That was another great article that I read after the show was done, but I do feel like you’re hearing all the time about wild situations that happen, about people’s gullibility or their imagining that they can sidestep the law. Ultimately, I think people are so hopeful for having some joy in life that is really hard to find. You can’t make a living, and the idea of doing one small bank robbery or something, just trying to find your way in a life, finding your footing and ending up behind bars. I don’t remember your question. I didn’t answer it. What was your question?

AVC: Was there anything you drew from these books when you were preparing this show?


NL: I read those books before and, frankly, my life has been good research and experience to draw on from my personal adventures. So I feel like I was just drawing on all of it. Music, in a lot of ways, the kind of music a person listens to. This is definitely a kind of character who probably prefers Lou Reed, let’s say, to whatever the kids are listening to. I guess what I drew on in a way without realizing it was, again, from my own personal experiences, it’s sort of like the community that builds up around a different, more underworld way of life.

That, like many themes, sort of holds true; a different set of rules apply. I mean, I think that was one of the more fascinating aspects of my trip into the belly of the beast—incidentally another great book about prison, In The Belly Of The Beast—was discovering that there all of these other worlds happening. Now, as this sort of healthy, high-functioning person again, I find that there are certain rules that society functions by, you know? I’m going to wait on line for coffee and say, “Hello,” and of course I’ll give the guy at Starbucks my name, even though it’s really irritating. [Laughs.] I don’t want to give you my fucking name, I just want you to give me a cup of coffee. But there’s other worlds that just have totally different rules and standards and relationships. I definitely think I drew on that and that sort of thematically tracks with Marching Powder and Jack Black’s hobo story.


AVC: In both instances, it sounds like you just walked into a friend’s apartment or a friend’s tour bus and picked the book up. Is that something you frequently do, just grab stuff off your friends’ shelves?

NL: [Jokingly.] Are you trying to imply that I’m a kleptomaniac? [Laughs.] I may or may not be, but, the thing is, I don’t want to go to jail.


Yeah, it’s sort of fun to have stuff vetted for you. I’m known to wander into St. Mark’s Bookshop and buy a bunch of things, take them home, and read them. I think it works all kinds of ways.

I sort of miss that about being a teenager—not that it doesn’t still happen—but when I think back to being a teenager and how much one thing would connect to another. Like, the first time you got to see Apocalypse Now or A Clockwork Orange, you know? Or first discovering The Velvet Underground and how much you really have to go down a rabbit hole of discovery and investigation. I guess with the Internet now, it’s almost harder because you feel like you have access to everything.


But, yeah, look, I recommend these books very, very strongly.

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