When an Author Visits a Book Club, Feb. 2016

Robert Hough visits Joyceville Institution

On the 24th of last November, I took a morning train to Kingston, where I was picked up by a volunteer named Lindsay Morgan, a diminutive whirlwind who then drove me to Joyceville Institution. Inside the front gate, I surrendered my cell phone and keys, passed through a metal detector, and then walked through several locked doors and a prison yard before entering a small, windowless room where the Joyceville book club was meeting that day. 

 After putting out some chairs and turning on the coffee machine, we greeted about fifteen inmates as they entered the room. All of them were holding copies of my books and smiling.  I was happy to be there myself: it was the sixth time I’d visited a prison book club, my novels The Stowaway andThe Man Who Saved Henry Morgan being popular reads within the Canadian penal system. I think it’s because one happens to be about escape, while the other is a morality tale.  Both subjects, I have gleaned, are of inordinate interest to inmates.

Normally, when I’m a guest at a prison book club, there are a few minutes of slight awkwardness at the beginning.  Not so today. The guys had barely taken their seats before they started peppering me with questions about the two novels – questions dealing with character motivation, plotting decisions,  theme, you name it.  “Gentlemen,” Lindsay interjected after a bit. “You must let me introduce our author!” They quieted down, though only for a minute or two.

Of all the events I participate in as an author, by far my favourite is visiting prisons, if only because the consideration paid my books on the inside is much keener than on the outside. Having given this some thought, I’ve come up with a couple of reasons why this might be. The first is boredom. Prisoners have a lot of time to kill and, if they like a book, will read it more than once; I’ve grown used to hearing, “when I was going through your book a second time, I noticed that ...” The second is shared experience. The protagonists in novels tend to have huge problems, which is necessary to fuel three-hundred pages of narrative. People living on the outside tend not to have suffered problems as formidable – I know I haven’t -- while men living in prison almost always have. So their experience of my books is more experience-based and less English 101-based, their insights more soulful.  At Joyceville, we’d started talking about the nature of moralitywhen a long-time inmate started talking about the time he escaped from prison. I’m paraphrasing a little, but this was his description of being on the lam: “I was breaking the law just by waking up in the morning. Ya see what I mean?  I was outside of the social contract, with no rules governing every single decision I made. Why would I behave myself given I was breaking the law just by being free?”

So it’s fascinating. It’s also therapeutic, and not just for the inmates. During meetings, I often feel an ease take over the room, the prisoners dropping a facade that they have to muster, day in and day out, during the rest of their time behind bars. This letting-down-of-their-guard is infectious; I relax totally during the meetings, which is an odd thing to say given I’m locked in a room with men who’ve committed serious crimes. Yet it’s true. “You know what I like most about book club,” a prisoner once told me. “For those two hours, I can be me again.” 

And then, my visit to Joyceville was over, ninety minutes passing in a flash. I shook hands, signed books, and finished my coffee, which by that point had grown cold. Then, they gave me a card. It had flowers on the cover, and had been signed by each member of the club. Thank you, they’d written, over and over.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.