Piper Kerman was a comfortably settled member of the Manhattan creative class on the day in 1998 when two police officers knocked on her door, telling her she’d been indicted for her brief but fateful involvement in a drug-trafficking operation years earlier.
By the time she finally went to prison six years later, she was engaged, in her 30s and desperate to get her 15-month sentence over with.
“The beginning of the sentence was the beginning of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Kerman said this week, over a late lunch of heirloom tomatoes at the trendy New York City gastropub the Breslin -- a far cry from the iceberg lettuce and mystery meat she subsisted on while locked up at a federal prison in Danbury, Conn.
Kerman wrote about her experience in the bestselling 2010 memoir “Orange Is the New Black,” now adapted into a Netflix series by “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan. Starring Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, a flightier and more hapless character than the one in Kerman’s book, the series debuted Thursday to almost uniformly positive reviews. (“Netflix may wind up changing the world after all,” wrote Times critic Mary McNamara, calling the series "fine and feisty.")
We spoke with Kerman, who now works as a communications consultant for nonprofits, about the series, her future writing plans and the fascinating world of prison literature.
Your book got a lot of attention when it came out in 2010. How does it feel making the rounds a second time with a TV show?
Out there talking about the book, it’s just me and my experience, and the show is so much more than that, which is why I was so thrilled to do it for television. I think the reason that people liked the book isn’t just because of my trajectory as a protagonist but because of all these other women’s lives. These characters that you maybe just get the tiny details about in the book, in a TV series they can create characters and blow out their back stories and make them so rich.
At what point did it dawn on you there might be a book to be written about your incarceration?
I came home in 2005, and almost every single person I knew wanted to hear about the experience in ... detail. Clearly, people had this real interest in this very, very hidden world. It’s just apparent the story had this currency that made it a good story to tell, and I was encouraged to try my hand at some writing.
You shopped your book around before settling on “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan. What about her take on the material appealed to you?
More than pitching me, she asked me questions. She had this hunger to know even more than what was contained in the book. That was much more compelling to me than some of the other meetings where people were like, “This is how we see it.”
To what extent were you involved with the development?
I read all the scripts in the first season, and my point of view has always been that what I have to contribute is trying to make the show as real as possible. I always try to limit my feedback to "This is a detail that you might not think of adding." Like when [one character] loses her glasses. If you lose your glasses in prison, you’re screwed. Those little telling details that make the thing such a complete world.
You’ve watched the whole series. Did you find anything surprising or revelatory in Jenji’s version of your story?
I am really impressed with how they built the comic elements. I am so so impressed with that tone, how they balance really serious themes with really, really funny moments. It’s dark material, and there’s nothing funny about much of the reality, but there is humor to how people navigate every day to get through there.
How does Piper Chapman, the character in the series, differ from you?
She makes some choices that are very different than mine. I made many mistakes when I was locked up, but she makes some real doozies.
It seems like books were an essential part of your prison experience.
They were complete lifelines. They were the only legitimate forms of escape. I actually avoided the TV rooms because they’ll suck you into some weird places. There was no prison library in Danbury. We just had informal book shelves, but it’s very interesting what books are popular. Serial romances and mysteries, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton. There’s the whole genre of street fiction -- “Dutch,” “The Coldest Winter Ever.” Ann Patchett is big.
“Random Family” [by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc] was hugely popular at Danbury. There were these dog-eared copies that kept getting passed around. There were some women who were reading, and they were like, "This is my life," and there were other women who were from middle-class backgrounds who were like, "This book is explaining where we are."