HALLIE EPHRON: Author Tilia Klebenov Jacobs has just published her first novel, "Wrong Place, Wrong Time." It tells the story of a woman who leaves her husband and two young children for what she thinks will be a quiet weekend visit to her estranged uncle, little dreaming that she'll discover he's holding several children captive on his lavish estate. Soon, she becomes a pawn as the father of one of the boys kidnaps her to trade her life for the children’s.
While the fictional world of her novel is as fascinating, what Tilia does in real life is pretty exciting, too. For a law-abiding person, she spends a lot of time behind bars.
TILIA KLEBENOV JACOBS: I teach a novel-writing course at a Massachusetts women’s prison. It is modeled on National Novel Writing Month (“NaNoWriMo”), and it’s very popular because believe me, these ladies have stories to tell.
The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words of fiction in one month, but since my students have demands on their time that are completely beyond their control, I offer a 30,000 word option.
HALLIE: Even that seems really ambitious. Do they make it?
TILIA: Some do; some don’t. But all of them write something, and since they are determined to better themselves through their efforts, the results are fascinating and often deeply moving.
HALLIE: Tell us about your students.
TILIA: Some of my students are ordinary, middle-class women who never imagined themselves behind bars. Others come from a stratum of society where, tragically, a certain amount of prison time is normal, and the reasons usually have to do with either drugs and alcohol, financial malfeasance, or and helping loser boyfriend commit crimes.
One of the inmates wrote a darkly hilarious story about the time she was arrested for shoplifting a dress to wear to her grandmother’s funeral. As one does.
HALLIE: What are the challenges of teaching in a prison?
TILIA: Just for example, here's what happened one day.
Two students dropped out because, gosh darn it, they have this crazy idea that completing their drug programs…is somehow more important than my class. A third…promised this was absolutely the last class she would be late for, as she is about to graduate from her drug program and thus become eligible for parole. Novel-writing is her favorite class, though, despite the fact that it won't give her time off her sentence. (Three to five years; heroin possession.)
I sent one student out to get an eraser for the board. She came back fifteen minutes later with a roll of paper towels, apologizing for having taken so long. A guard had stopped her in the hallway and strip-searched her. (It was a female guard.)
I needed a LONG walk when I got home.
And yet, I love teaching in prison. My incarcerated students end each class with a chorus of thank-yous and a murmur of astonishment that they can do this. “I never knew I had a creative side,” one told me. Another said, “I now know I can use my mind toward anything positive.” Yet another took me aside after class and said, “Of everything I’ve done here, this is what’s helped me the most.” Then, leaning forward as if afraid to be overheard, she whispered, “It’s the only thing that’s helped me at all.”
HALLIE: Wow. Challenging but incredibly rewarding.
And I wanted to ask Tilia if anything from her prison teaching experience had crept into her novel, even the emotions that she gets to experience first and secondhand. So Tilia, hoping you'll share in the comments.
Tilia Klebenov Jacobs holds a BA from Oberlin College, where she double-majored in Religion and English with a concentration in Creative Writing. Following an interregnum as an outdoor educator with the Fairfax County Park Authority in Virginia, she earned a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a Secondary School Teaching Certification from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Despite lacking the ability to breathe fire except in the strictly metaphorical sense, Tilia has taught middle school, high school, and college. She has also won numerous awards for her fiction and nonfiction writing. She is a judge in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, and she teaches writing in two prisons in Massachusetts. Tilia lives near Boston with her husband, two children, and two standard poodles. Her first novel is "Wrong Place, Wrong Time."