Mesha Maren's novel Sugar Run opens as Jodi McCarty is getting turned out of prison on parole after serving 18 years for manslaughter.
She shot her girlfriend when she was 17, so Jodi has lived most of her life in prison, and now must make a new life in the real world that she has never known. Soon, she'll meet someone, and they'll try to make a life together in a small West Virginia town where they are outsiders in every way.
Sugar Run is the first novel from Mesha Maren. She's a visiting writer at the University of North Carolina, and a writing fellow at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution in West Virginia. She also grew up visiting prisons.
"My dad worked for a nonprofit, and part of the work that he did is he volunteered to visit women in the federal prison camp in Alderson, W.Va. — women who hadn't received a visit from family or friends in more than a year," she says in an interview from West Virginia Public Radio. "And I would often go along with my dad. And so as a very young child I think it was exciting to me because I got to eat candy out of the vending machines. But those experiences stuck with me. ...
"When I started writing Sugar Run and started realizing that my character Jodi had spent a significant amount of her life in prison, those impressions that I formed when I was young came back to me. I specifically remember overhearing my dad speaking with women at the Alderson prison who were soon to be released. And later as an adult I realized just how strong their joy was, you know, to be released — but also their fear of what it meant to make a life on the outside."
On coming up with the character Jodi
Jodi came to me very strongly before I even realized that I was writing a book. I was hanging out with Jodi, and she kind of took up residence in my mind, and I became a little infatuated with her. I started thinking about her all the time. And then the plot and the rest of the story sort of fell into place. I really actually kind of felt like I was getting to know her. And so it was a process of "realizing" what she had been through.
On when Jodi meets Miranda — a woman who has three children, a failing marriage to a has-been country singer and an addiction
She's just gotten out of prison and she knows in many ways that taking up with Miranda is a bad decision. I mean, she kind of looks at her the first night that they're hanging out and tells herself: "Don't do this." But at the same time she's drawn to her — I mean, she's physically attracted to her, but she's also, I think, attracted to the fact that Miranda is bound and determined to enjoy life despite everything that's going wrong. So it's the sort of love of life and determination to make something joyful out of life.
On what we misunderstand about West Virginia
So I get asked a lot, you know, "Why not just leave West Virginia?" you know, or "Why would a character like Jodi go back to West Virginia?" And I think that for those of us who love places that are sometimes difficult to love, we love them with this extra fierceness ... But there's so much that's so interesting and beautiful, both in the people and the landscape. ...
One of the things that's difficult about West Virginia is that it is a place where — a lot is extracted from here, right? Coal, lumber, now fracking for natural gas. And it's devastating on the land here. But I also think that that's part of where we get the conversation of "why don't you just leave," is that people kind of envision West Virginia as a place to take things out of.
On her work teaching writing at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution
I think there's a great story in every human being. And ... the same is true: There's a great story in every prisoner. But the thing that I love about teaching there is just how obviously how much it means [to] the guys who are in my class, being able to sit down once a week for two hours and focus on their writing. And they've told me just to be in a quiet room, too — where, you know, I'll give them a writing assignment, and then we're quiet — they've told me that that, in many ways, is one of the things that is most valuable to them.
On "finding" the end of the book
I think that at least for me the way that I write is: I have this sort of foggy idea of the ending. I need to have something that I'm working towards, right? But I don't want it to be too sharp, actually, in my mind because then I might write towards it at all costs, and I might miss something along the way. And actually, this book ended slightly before I had planned. So I had this kind of idea. And then when I reached the place where the book does end now, I thought: "You know, I think that's the end."
Sarah Handel and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.