Monday, April 25, 2016


Last week we published the first part of Danner Darcleight’s blog in anticipation of our release of Concrete Carnival in September If you haven’t read PART ONE, I’d suggest you read that now. It has gotten more hits than anything we’ve placed on this blog in the past two years.

Besides his prison memoir, he has also had essays published in Stone Canoe, The Minnesota Review, The Kenyon Review, and Fourth City. Let me just add this before turning this blog over to Danner:  On April 21 we submitted Concrete Carnival to the Non-fiction judges at the National Book Award.

DANNER DARCLEIGHT writes from and about prison. His essays have been published in Stone Canoe, The Minnesota Review, The Kenyon Review, and Fourth City.

*         *         *

“Lily's friends each had similar reactions when she brought them into her confidence, one at a time. They raised time-honored objections: What if he's screwing around with men in there? Writing and visiting with other women? Scamming you, and planning to leave if he gets released? Won't you miss the physical intimacy?

“The same objections can be raised in regard to conventional relationships. Any tour of daytime TV will reveal a demented parade of toxic marriages, once-happy couples torn asunder courtesy of infidelity and hidden motives and domestic violence. Trust cuts both ways, especially since Lily is an attractive woman who regularly gets hit on at social functions, and I can't ask her to become a hermit. She's around men who can provide the material things and physical presence that I can only dream of, but Lily makes me feel secure in her love, so there is none of the frothing jealousy that I felt over girlfriends in high school.

“As to the lack of physical intimacy, that seems to be the norm in most relationships—if traditional love lives didn't need spicing up, why are there so many seven-step recipes devoted to just that at the supermarket checkout counter?

“Anyway, Lily shared my writing and drawings with her friends, fleshing out my portrait, as it were, showing that someone guilty of murder can create, not just destroy Mostly, though, it was her new, and lasting, sense of contentment that helped Lily 's friends understand our relationship. Still, there would occasionally come the question, What will you do if he never gets out?

“I now have almost seventeen years in on twenty-five-to-life, and it's no guarantee I'll make parole in eight years, when I'm forty-seven, or in twelve years, fourteen, sixteen, et disheartening-cetera. I have friends doing life without parole, who, because the state considers them ‘civilly dead,’ had to receive special permission from the warden in order to marry.  To people who say those couples have no future, I'd counter in the Eastern tradition, that there is no such thing as future, and they're bringing comfort and compassion to each other in the present moment.

“The think-of-the-future argument is often heard.  Do you think you'll be able to remain with him during his incarceration? Do you worry that he'll leave you once he gets out? Similar  questions could be asked of those married to active duty military personnel, or to someone struggling with a debilitating health condition, or, for that matter, to a corporate lawyer dedicated to an  eighty-hour-a-week climb up the partnership ladder. Can you imagine yourself asking a newlywed if she worries that her husband will start sleeping around soon, and leave in ten years when he gets a promotion? Lily is routinely asked things that no one would deem appropriate if her husband wasn’t in prison, questions that only partially obscure her  interlocutor's  misgivings about us.

“What about having children? some ask.

“What about it? There are plenty of happy marriages that don't bring children into the world.   In fact, research has shown that time spent with one's children rates as slightly less enjoyable as doing housework. Granted, evolution has coded us with a desire  to  procreate,  and Madison  Avenue  butters its bread with the pitch that you  won 't be complete without  2.5 kids, a white picket fence and a minivan, but breeding is overrated, and the world will do just  fine without  my genes living on.  I think I’d prefer to adopt a frisky dog.

“It's the rare relationship that survives one spouse being arrested and going to prison for any length of time. In addition to the stigma of being married to a convicted criminal, there are mouths to feed, and tough decisions to be made.  I have several friends whose wives dropped off the face of the earth shortly after the arrest, years ago, yet these men are still wearing t heir weddings rings, a bittersweet memento from a life before everything came unglued.

“On the other hand, marriages  that  begin with  one partner  in  prison  tend  to be extremely resilient. I'll have to proceed anecdotally, and you’ll have to half rely on me as being a competent observer: the divorce rate is considerably lower than the sixty percent of couples in  the world who  flame  out.

“We come to the  table  with  open  eyes and  a mature  understanding  of what  the marriage  will  be, and  what  it  won 't  be.  We will be  companions, even  if much  of our time  is spent  apart.   Quiet  dinners together  are  out,  so  are  weekend   getaways  and  mundane  trips  to  the  supermarket   and  make-up  sex after arguing our way through the assembly of an IKEA table. Is that hard to deal with for both parties? You bet.  But, is it worth it?  Lily and I, and countless others, think so.

“For me, the sun rises and sets with Lily, my never-ending fount of happiness. Unlike the superficial relationships in my past, I have in Lily a partner, a companion. The love I feel for her registers as a fluttery warmth in my chest, or the involuntary smile that appears whenever I think of her. We're more than just the plot lines of a Lifetime movie. The bond we share continues to make each of us better, stronger people—the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. We are, in a word, happy.

“So, finally, after all the layers have been peeled away, we get to the festering core of negativity: irrespective of prison, people look down on happy marriages, yet the reasons that unhappy people look down on them are numerous and unspoken.

“With the majority of conventional marriages ending in divorce, and a large swath of loveless couples sticking together until the kids are old enough to move out, I can understand why people make snap judgments about men and women who marry prisoners. Rather than looking in their unhappy mirror, they proclaim us to be delusional, dysfunctional, or possessed of lower standards.

“I'll let you in on a secret:  I used to harbor similar beliefs about my peers and the women who went for them.  In retrospect, I wasn't conscious of my jealousy of these people who wouldn't have to walk through life alone. Now one of them, I know our standards aren't lower — we have simply come to value those traits heralded in marriage guides: understanding,  involvement, empathy, passion, devotion.

“We work on our communication skills, because we have to. The silent treatment doesn't work with collect calls. Access to the phone is limited, so if we don't resolve an issue, it could be another twenty-four hours, or a week, before we reconnect. There are times when Lily has had a rough day, and is not really in the mood to talk, when she’ll say, ‘I wish we could just sit together quietly, with my head on your shoulder.’  In those moments, we both feel the distance, and I long to be there for her, to cook dinner or scratch her head. But what I can do is emulate that kind of presence, and bring her comfort. l channel my inner NPR host, and tell Lily lighthearted things and funny stories. We've learned that what’s necessary for making a marriage work isn't having money, or children, or date nights. It's being emotionally available for each other. Doing little kindnesses. She sends me pictures of puppies, and adorns the page with glitter stickers; I pass along or summarize articles relevant to her interests. She and I part company with the quick messages written on each other's arm.

“That’s the thing about us: we're willing to work on the relationship, and keep working on it. Many of my married peers are the same way. We're grateful that someone sees us for the person we are, not simply as the criminal act we senselessly, regrettably committed five, ten, twenty-five years ago. And like a dog rescued from the pound, we show our gratitude daily. You can usually tell when a guy in here is in a loving relationship: his head is out of prison, and he knows there are far more important things than the slights of guards and pettiness of peers. Having someone who actually wants to hear from you, and listens with compassion, does more to turn a life around than all the rehabilitative programs combined. Being loved like that turns your life on.

“I can imagine that this transformation in me was outwardly apparent when, one by one, Lily's friends accompanied her on visits. The ice quickly broken, we sat together, talking, laughing, eating greasy food, and washing it down with sugary drinks. Consistently, when I would reach Lily in the evening, she'd report that her friends enjoyed the day and want to return. They say they get it, now that they've seen us interacting.
“It's nice validation for us, but unnecessary.  We knew very early on that what we have is special. She's taught me that everyone deserves a shot at love, even me. As to the people who’ll never open their minds long enough to think objectively about couples like Lily and me, that's their loss. If they did, they might learn something, because though I may be in prison, at least l don’t view my wife as a ball and chain.”

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I WELCOME YOUR COMMENTS on this site—or directly via email ( —as there is no way to reach Danner currently who is serving time in a Maximum Security Prison. But I can send your comments or questions off to him via his wife, Lilly, who can deliver them when she visits. I also hope you will share this blog with others.


Monday, April 18, 2016


Danner Darcleight is the pen name of a 39 year old serving 25 years to life, in a maximum security prison. His crime? Homicide. It was committed 17 years ago. He had a good education, became addicted to drugs, and was fortunate enough to come in contact with Doran Larson, a writer whose novel, Marginalia, we published 19 years ago. For the past 10 years Doran has been working with prisoners, offering a workshop writing program. 

Doran is a Wolcott-Bartlettt Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Hamilton College, editor of Editor of Fourth City: Essays from the Prison In America; and Director of The American Prison Writing Archive, and he was the one who sent us Danner’s memoir, Concrete Carnival, which we are publishing this September.

Darcleight began attending  Doran’s workshop ten years ago and here’s what Doran had to say about him:  “Concrete Carnival instantly places Danner Darcleight in the very top tier of writers working among the 2.3 million Americans held inside prisons and jails.  But this is not simply a prison book.  Darcleight’s verbal dexterity and streetwise insights, his honesty, humor, his narrative skills and unyielding search for the humanity in all of his subjects announce a writer who deserves a place upon the broad contemporary literary landscape.  Like Jack London, Chester Himes, Nelson Algren, Malcolm X, George Jackson, Edward Bunker, Angela Davis, Patricia McConnell, Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim, Malcolm Braly, Mumia Abu-Jamal and many others, Darcleight shows once again that any distinction between American literature and American prison literature perverts our understanding of what America is as a literary enterprise. 

“Prison walls quarantine bodies and minds.  They also incubate thinking and writing that strip bare the human costs of the contemporary order.   In an era of unprecedented, mass-scale incarceration—with nearly three quarters of a million citizens released from prisons and jails each year, and more than one-in-five citizens marked by a criminal record—we need this book in order to help us understand the very nature of the American experience today.”

Danner Darcleight’s Concrete Carnival is a moving portrait of one man’s long journey from hopeless and addiction to love and redemption. And the following blogs are about his relationship with his wife,  Lilly, who he met in 2009 and married a year later. Lilly has given workshops and lectures in all 50 states about autism. 

With that I turn you over to part one of Danner’s blog.

*         *         *

“In a few months, Lily and I will celebrate our six-year anniversary, years that have passed by as if in a pleasant dream. Hokey as it may sound, I have the incredibly good fortune to have married my best friend, a smart, caring, gorgeous woman. Our paths crossed in such an unlikely and serendipitous fashion, that, looking back on it, I can't help but see our courtship as if it were the early scenes in a romantic movie I'd actually watch. After getting to know each other for a year, we were married by a friendly justice of the peace in a small ceremony - that took place in the foyer of a prison's visiting room.
“Take a breath, and listen to what you're thinking. Are you happy for me, and imagining Lily as a good person?  Or, are you shuffling through a host of possibilities that explain why Lily would marry a prisoner?  Theories abound. Perhaps she's deranged, mentally feeble, or wildly insecure - and, I' m likely a devious con artist, telling Lily what she needs to hear while I slowly bilk her out of her l life savings.
“That’s a gentle paraphrasing of the comment threads one can find, I'm told, on the Web site of the reality show Prison Wives. And by no means does that constitute a monopoly on such morally-superior passing of judgment. Granted, one must control for a certain amount of fat-mouthing on any issue, from gun control to the upcoming film adaptation of a sci-fi classic. Still, any story of someone marrying a prisoner will inevitably draw comments that could have come from voices of fifty years ago, openly disapproving of interracial marriages, airing their rancid prejudices, and assassinating character.
“I'm apt, however, to be more charitable in my estimation of you, reader. And so, together, we can unpack the deeper emotions that may be hidden within this issue. For starters, why the rabid negativity and hate?  While we, as a nation, have made great progress in our attitudes regarding race, gender, and sexual orientation, one form of bigotry that remains socially acceptable, and so common as to escape discussion, is the fear and loathing of prisoners. We are misfit toys and wayward boys (and girls), the castaways who live in your midst, on concrete islands fortified with concertina wire.  If we are thought of at all, it is as the Other, a homogenous group lacking all the traces of humanity— fears, loves, disappointments, desires, talents - possessed by those in the world.
“There was a time, in eighteenth century England, when the public made good spoil of joking about the twitching legs of the men and women condemned to death by hanging. Such humor has kept up with the times, embodied by cultural shorthand like ‘ride the lightning’ to blithely depict execution by electric chair.  And today, rarely does prison show up in pop culture without a reference to the new inhabitant winding up on the receiving end of a (black and burly) Bubba.
“It's little wonder, then, that the local news will quote from the grieving family member of a crime victim, who, without a t race of irony, hopes that the perpetrator gets criminally victimized when he gets to prison.  The newly aggrieved can be forgiven their revenge fantasies, but what can be said of the news outlets that perpetuate the ugliness, or the off-camera producer who solicits such a reaction?  Politicians and the media —in a quest to garner votes or viewers—know exactly which buttons to push to scare citizens into overestimating the amount of crime that takes place in the community, exaggerating the likelihood of a recent parolee violently interacting with unsuspecting citizens.  
“Emphasis is placed on the otherness of this thing that has broken the law and can never be redeemed.  The person is de-personified with labels, and becomes the defendant, the accused, then, the guilty, the prisoner, inmate, convict, offender, and, eventually, the released ex-convict.
“In this media-saturated landscape, where we know so much, but understand so little, it’s easier to have our primal emotions —anger, indignation, outrage—triggered than it is to experience the more fragile and complex fellow feeling brought about by human interest stories. Unless you know someone who has done time, your source is the same poisoned well from which most of the public drink. So, after your day at work and myriad other responsibilities, you're not apt to do much thinking about the 2. 2 million people in America's criminal justice system. File us under  To Be Avoided, and carry on with your life.
“But then you hear that one of you has married one of us, and something doesn't compute. To make things jibe with your inner narrative of the way the world works, you can either rethink your perception of prisoners, or make a character judgment about the person who chooses to be associated with one of us. Let it be said that the brain doesn't like to let go of a firmly held belief, it easily makes snap judgments, and it's lazy. Rather than thinking, maybe prisoners are people after all, and capable of redemption, or, at least the prisoner in question is, the woman is deemed to be a defective unit.
“Even my family, who loves me, thought there must be something wrong with Lily that she would choose to make a life with their black sheep. It felt like a betrayal when I would casually drop her CV into conversations with my brother, as if lines on an impressive resume would quell his cognitive dissonance. Family members I hadn't spoken with in years suddenly wanted to hear from me, and I could practically hear them puzzling it out: She has a successful career, financial stability; perhaps she had a psychotic break-down.
“But they’ve come around, and see how good Lily is for me. Perhaps that's the way toward more tolerance on this issue: Instead of looking at the woman who marries a prisoner, and seeing 
 her as your friend or sister, better to focus on the prisoner, and imagine that he is your brother, or the friend of a friend  because, I assure you, in the jailingest nation on Earth you are not more than three degrees of separation from someone living in a cage.
“On visits with Lily, when she goes up to the vending machines, I take a mental inventory of the people visiting my peers. There are some young women in their late teens and twenties, girls from the neighborhood who probably won’t stick around for the long haul; several women who seem to embody the crude stereotypes traded in by Internet trolls; but the majority appear dignified and composed.  I have many married friends in here whose wives, like Lily, are smart, compassionate women. They are tough and driven —some are teachers, nurses, lawyers, professionals—and none have made this life choice lightly (no drive-thru wedding chapels here).
“They wake up early and drive long hours to see us in far-flung reaches of the state, where the cost of admission is a TSA-grade screening.  In some prisons, visits take place behind glass, with literally no physical contact While Lily and I can hold hands the entire day, we can only hug and kiss for a prescribed period of time at the beginning and end of each visit.  On semiannual facility ‘picnics,’ held in the gymnasium, we are allowed the rare pleasure of walking together hip to hip, our arms snug around each other 's waist Since relatively few inmates have access to e-mail, letters—hand-written or typed—snail their way back and forth, carrying love, pictures, and news from home on perfume-scented pages. Prison profiteers don't scruple at price gouging the loved ones of a captive audience, and the cost of daily collect calls can easily surpass a hundred dollars a month.
“How does one explain the lengths to which these women go to make the relationship work—are they dumb, desperate, or self-deluding? I know that not to be the case, but don't take my word for it: go to On many of its comment threads, you can find a person who will confirm the stereotypes—naive, delusional, and worse—but the plurality, the women telling her what's what, offer a litany of savvy, mature wisdom.
“The fact that thrives is a testament to how marginalized these men and women are made to feel for loving one of us. They speak of not being able to tell their family and friends about the relationship. The guilt they feel for keeping it under wraps sometimes causes t hem to wonder aloud, if what I'm doing isn't wrong, why am I hiding it?
“Yet, who can blame them for keeping the relationship quiet rather than dealing with guff from know-nothings. After it was made known that Lily and I were an item—on no less a bastion of high-minded tolerance than some asinine local radio show—complete strangers had shifted their narrative of Lily, once a pillar of the community, into the trope of Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The mere connection to me prompted more than a few moralizing jackasses and some complete reprobates to sanctimoniously question her judgment, and suggest that consorting with a prisoner in her private life would perhaps lead to criminal behavior in her public capacity. It made me sick with grief when she was made to resign from her job. She kept her head down, learned who her true friends are, and wisely chose not to dignify the gossips with an answer. Lily landed on her feet, and, in some ways, the episode was a blessing in disguise.
“The drama, however, resurfaces every now and then, when a guard from the prison shows up in one of the local bars, and divulges prison gossip about me and Lily, interspersed with his opinions on the type of woman who’d marry a prisoner. Five and a half years since the story of us became public, every time Lily goes out to one of the bars, there'll be someone for whom the clock is turned back, and because they have little else going on in their lives, they'll whisper. Just as bad are those who, out of a desire to ingratiate themselves, will tell her that they, for one, don't believe the idle talk, and, as one guy said to her recently, ‘We knew that was all  garbage, because you 're not that  stupid.’”  


As always, I welcome your comments.


Monday, April 4, 2016


Last December, Kathleen Novak wrote her first blog for us (I AM ALWAYS WRITING), even though her first novel, Do Not Find Me was not released until the beginning of March. This latest blog has a lot to say about successful marketing and it is charming, funny, unique, and true, and I heartily recommend it to one and all. With that I turn you over to Kathleen:

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"Wake up: You are under lucky star. 

"This is my fortune in the cookie and exactly what I say to myself about Do Not Find Me, my first published novel. I am not, however, simply waiting for good things to happen. Six months before the book’s release I gathered a small group at my house, offered up a great lunch and plenty of prosecco and asked for input on how to launch my book locally. One of the women is a veteran novelist, a complete pro, and she said – throw a party. Make it big. Rent the VFW or any large space and invite everyone, friends, relatives, neighbors, work colleagues, gym buddies, school moms, everyone. Send invitations via mail and have food at the party.

"So that’s what I did. I rented a room on the top floor of our contemporary art museum and sent out a hundred postcard invitations that showed off Lon’s beautiful cover of the book on the front and the invite information with a Kirkus review excerpt on the back. The result was a warm, happy event with about one hundred and twenty-five people, who all seemed to be having a grand time. My dental hygienist was there, my old dad in his fishing hat was there and the couple whose bookstore I managed back in the 1970s were there. It all worked – and I sold seventy books in an hour.

"Around the same time that I invited “advisors” over for input last fall, I started scribbling a plan of what I needed to do month by month, including reaching out to stores I hoped would carry the book and local literary stars I hoped would review it. Using my stash of preview copies from TPP (a most generous and brilliant gift from publisher to writer), I sent out personalized packets. I saw in a web search that Tattered Cover Books in Denver is considered number one among indie booksellers, so I called them and sent a packet. It turns out that they have a high regard for TPP and liked my letter, so they accepted the book. This made me happy and had the added benefit of impressing my high school boyfriend who lives there. Not all outreach yielded results, of course, and I hate rejection as much as anyone, but I do believe it’s important to give these things a try.

"A month before the book release date, I wrote press releases to our two large newspapers here. TPP printed these on their letterhead, Marty signed them and I sent out packets with a personal note to the reviewers. I am a total nobody, so I doubted my book would rise to the top of their stacks, but I was wrong. Both papers published glowing reviews beyond my wildest expectations. (The St. Paul Pioneer Press reviewer essentially said my book was worth reading twice!) And because of those reviews the libraries have overwhelming requests for the book and have had to order more for their shelves.

"The above-mentioned veteran writer (Faith Sullivan, author of Goodnight, Mr. Wodehouse, which was one of the Wall Street Journal’s ten best novels of 2015) also told me to have my friends host small gatherings of people I don’t know, where I may extend my audience, read an excerpt and sell a book or two. I love this idea. My first one will be next weekend, a cocktail party late on Saturday afternoon. So far, I have four other friends who have offered to host such gatherings and two women at the gym an hour ago who thought it a grand idea to host one too.

"I’d like to get a bit of visibility through my efforts and hope that some of these ideas work for others as well. I also want to underscore Victoria Alexander’s recent blog about the Dactyl reviews for literary fiction. I am eager to participate in that ingenious idea and thank her for sharing the opportunity.

"My brother the doctor told me last week that he loves fortune cookies, but never reads the fortunes. Too much hokus pokus. But how about these:

You Will Get The Recognition You Deserve and      
You Have Much Love

"Who would throw those away? Not me. I’m hanging onto them. Just in case I really am UNDER LUCKY STAR."

*         *         *

I hope you’ve not only enjoyed Kathleen’s blog but that it also raised a unique way of selling books. Do feel free to contact Kathleen directly at knovakhome@comcast.netI ask, as always, that you post your comments below, and—if you will—send a copy of her blog to all your friends and acquaintances who might find it helpful.

And for those of you awaiting Danner Darcleight’s two part blog, I’ll be postponing that again...this time, it’s cross my heart and not my fingers. I can only say it will be worth the wait.