Prison is supposed to be “correctional,” in the sense that the people who enter it should emerge with a new and preferably more law-abiding view on life. While no one wants to go to prison, when writers are sentenced to stays in the slammer, they often use the boredom, terror, and truly bad food of the system as grist for their creative mills. Here are 10 books you might be surprised to learn were at least partially composed while their authors were serving time.
The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo
So you’re Marco Polo, and you’ve just spent 15 years traveling a world few people have seen. Upon your return to Italy in the late 13th century, you discover that there’s a war on between Venice and Genoa. You’re captured and tossed in jail simply because you’re a prominent Venetian. What do you do? You tell your story to your cellmate, who happens to be a writer, and who jots everything down in French and later publishes it. Debate rages as to how much imagination Polo added to his travels, but his stories remain an invaluable glimpse into a world erased by time.
At least 14 short stories by O. Henry
William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the pseudonym O. Henry, is one of the most famous short story writers of all time. Remembered for his surprise endings, O. Henry was a nimble wordsmith whose tales would stand the test of time even without the twists—but Porter’s life had a bit of a twist itself. In 1891, he took a job at the First National Bank of Austin, where he was fired for what was either really, really bad bookkeeping or serious embezzlement. Oddly, no one pressed charges until a Federal audit of the bank revealed the problem; Porter fled to Honduras for a few years before returning home and going to jail—where he wrote 14 of his famous short stories.
De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde
One of the longest letters ever written, De Profundis is fascinating and heartbreaking. Imprisoned for “indecency” in a less-enlightened time, Oscar Wilde’s stint in prison was unpleasant, filled with hard labor, isolation, and constant supervision, but he was eventually allowed writing materials when the warden decided it might be therapeutic. The papers were taken away every day, however, and Wilde wasn’t allowed to revise or even re-read what he wrote until he was released shortly before his death. The letter is addressed to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, and recounts their relationship and its consequences before segueing into Wilde’s spiritual revelations, which amount to a sort of self-actualization. In a modern age in which people still have to fight for their most basic dignities, De Profundis retains its power.
Our Lady of the Flowers, by Jean Genet
Genet, a petty criminal in his youth, wrote this novel while in prison so he would have something to, um, pleasure himself to. The story of his journey through the Parisian underworld, the book is populated by drag queens, criminals, and other undesirables, and the erotic sections are balanced by a pervading sense of dread and the hovering specter of death. Genet wrote a first draft on stolen paper; when the manuscript was discovered, the guards burned it. Genet then wrote it again, so the least you can do is read it.
Cantos, by Ezra Pound
Ezra Pound was in Italy during World War II and made several broadcasts on the radio expressing opinions on a wide range of subjects, including his belief that America should stay out of the war. Based on these broadcasts, Pound was indicted for treason, and in 1945, when he captured by Italian partisans, he was imprisoned by the U.S. Army—initially in an open-air cage. Eventually he was able to start writing, although he had only four books to read for inspiration, and the end result were Cantos LXXIV to LXXXIV of his 120-section Cantos poem. These are the most intimate and accessible parts of the work in some ways, as Pound had only his own thoughts and memories to work from, and remain some of the most frequently-quoted.
Couldn’t Keep it To Myself, by Wally Lamb and inmates at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut
Wally Lamb is the famous author of She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, and since 1999, he’s run a writing program at York Correctional Institution. Couldn’t Keep it To Myself is a collection of essays written by the prisoners, often detailing the brutal conditions of their early lives, their experiences in prison, and their hopes for the future. The result is 12 powerful and moving stories that capture life in a modern-day women’s prison that isn’t anything at all like the one on Orange is the New Black.
Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts
Roberts was famously a heroin addict who robbed people in the most polite way possible, always saying “please” and “thank you.” He escaped from prison in 1980 and lived in India for almost ten years, was recaptured in 1990, and claims he escaped again but returned before anyone noticed, as he’d decided to serve his sentence and start over with a clean slate. He began writing Shantaram while serving his second term. It’s a fictionalized version of his own story. Where facts end and imagination takes over remains debatable, but the fact that any of it is true is absolutely amazing.
Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell
One of the most restless minds of the modern age, Russell was often at odds with the British Government for his anti-war and anti-imperialist stands, and he spent six months in prison for speaking his views in 1918. As one does, he spent the time thoroughly enjoying a Life of the Mind, writing Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, and reading widely. In fact, he said of his prison experience, “I found prison in many ways quite agreeable. I had no engagements, no difficult decisions to make, no fear of callers, no interruptions to my work.”
In the Belly of the Beast, by Jack Henry Abbott
If you’re writing in prison, it helps to have a famous author championing you on the outside. Such was the case with Abbott, who began a correspondence with Norman Mailer while serving time for forgery, bank robbery, and manslaughter. His letters focused on what he saw as the inherent brutality of the American prison system, and Mailer was impressed enough with his writing to help him get those letters compiled into a book, with Mailer himself writing the introduction. In the Belly of the Beast was published in 1981 and received critical acclaim; Abbott, however, was convicted of murder shortly afterwards and sent back to prison, where he killed himself 20 years later.
Conversations with Myself, by Nelson Mandela
There are few prisoners as famous as Mandela, a man who served 27 years in captivity due to his righteous political beliefs, only to go on to serve as president of a much-changed South Africa after his release. This remarkable book is a compilation of writings Mandela composed over the years, many of which were written while he served his legendary sentence. The book serves as an inspiration for anyone seeking to overcome injustice or doubtful of their ability to remain committed to their ideals, and a stark reminder that no matter what your circumstances are, you could be writing a book right now.