Friday, July 19, 2013

For Tilia Klebenov Jacobs, it's the right place, right time...

Brenda Buchanan is the winner of a copy of GATHERED LIGHT: The Poetry of Joni Mitchell's Songs. Brenda, email me and Lisa Sornberger will speed a copy your way! (hallie "at" hallieephron dot com)

: 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.

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."


  1. For some reason, “shoplifting a dress to wear to her grandmother’s funeral” makes me want to sit down and cry . . . . Difficult but challenging indeed . . . .

    “Wrong Place Wrong Time” sounds quite intriguing; I look forward to reading it . . . .

  2. Great observation, Joan. It's the kind of thing that you can't make up. Painfully sad and sadly funny.

    I remember reading something Anne Lamott wrote about how important it is to be out in the world (she does a lot of volunteering as I recall) and meeting people different from yourself. It's not only a mitzvah (my word) but it also fuels the imagination.

  3. Tilia, thank you for your work with a truly underserved group. I applaud your generosity.

    I just ordered your book and look forward to reading it.

  4. Tilia, so nice to have you visiting Jungle Red! Congratulations on the book and on your amazing work. I love listening to Wally Lamb talk about his work with women prisoners and how much they teach him. And also Mark Salzman's TRUE NOTEBOOKS is one of my favorites. So you're in GREAT company!

    How often are the classes? do you read everything they write?

  5. Hi Tilia,

    I've been up all night writing but couldn't resist stopping by to say a quick hello to a fellow Div School grad (HMS, HUGSE, HDS '96). Congratulations on your book and an outstanding practical ministry.

  6. The gift that you are giving these women is beyond words, Tilia. You are uncovering new skills and give them hope for the future.

    Very worthy indeed.

    Congratulations of the debut!

  7. Tilia is a treasure, all I can say. We have been friends since the moment we met.

    Yes, tell us more about your book! (Lf course, Ive read it..and I know it's fabulous..but I'd love to hear you tell!)

  8. Congratulation on your debut, Tilia!
    I loved reading about your work with prisoners. We have a group called "Write Around Portland" that does the same work with various marginalized groups, including prisoners. I've donated, gone to the fundraisers...I'm in awe of the volunteers who are actually out there leading the classes.

  9. Congratulations on your debut, Tilia! I just bought your book!

    And such wonderful stories about the work you do with the female prisoners. I can only begin to imagine how rewarding it must be to help these women develop a sense of self-worth.

    And the "shoplifting a dress to wear to her grandmother's funeral, as one does," is heartbreaking and hysterical.

  10. This was a great post -- such important work. The best part is making these women feel like human beings who deserve to be heard.

    I was involved with a program in DC where incarcerated youth had a writing program, and then their words were read aloud for their families and friends by DC high school students. It was heart-breaking -- giving these young people a voice.

    Thank you. The book sounds really scary.

  11. Hi, Tilia! I'm an Oberlin grad, too, but judging from your picture, you're a much more recent grad than I! Several mystery writers I know are Oberliners -- Sara Frommer, S. K. Rozan and I once wrote an article together for the alumni magazine.

    What was your class year?

    Congrats on the book. And keep up the good work with the incarcerated women.

  12. Thank you all for these marvelous comments! I love my work teaching behind bars, but before you get too blown away by my altruism, please realize that I probably benefit from it as much as my students, though in a different way. I love being around people who are genuinely trying to change their lives--and these ladies are. In answer to Lucy Burdette's question, I teach this class every fall. We meet once a week, and if there's enough interest I do a follow-up class in the spring. This fall I will be teaching my novel-writing class in a maximum-security prison, which should be rather different! (Before anyone worries about me, I assure you there will be a very large, bald, muscular guy sitting right outside the open door to my classroom.)

  13. Hallie, since my book is a crime novel I see why you might think it was informed by my prison teaching experiences. Actually, though, it's the other way around. I had already finished the first of several final drafts of Wrong Place, Wrong Time when I asked to teach the novel-writing class. WPWT is a 2009 NaNoWriMo winner, so I knew what a rush it is to write a novel in a month and what a sense of accomplishment it gives. Most women who end up in prison are there for trauma-based reasons, and it's my hope that the new set of skills they learn in my class gives them some tools to restructure their approach to life's problems.

  14. Marcia--I was class of 1988 at Oberlin. Just got back from my 25th reunion! What year were you?

  15. Hank, a big part of my goal with Wrong Place, Wrong Time was to write an adventure whose protagonist is a smart, funny, tough woman who might conceivably live next door to me. She's happily married, she adores her kids--and then she's kidnapped by Hunky McHandsome. Oh, my.

    To write the book I interviewed a lawyer, a town cop, a Massachusetts State Trooper, an equestrian, two psychologists, a shift supervisor at a New Hampshire state prison, a bailiff, an archer, a Marine Lance Corporal, a rabbi, and two FBI agents.