Daniel Genis served ten years in prison after politely robbing several people at knifepoint to finance his heroin addiction. He left prison with a completed novel, and an understanding that his time in jail would pique the interest of editors. You only need to read a few of his paragraphs to realize he’s more than a novelty act, however. A decade spent reading the great works of English and Russian literature has a way of improving a person’s prose style. In just three months since his release, Genis’ writing has appeared in Newsweek, Vice and even The Paris Review. With all this success, the fickle and so-often-douchey gods that oversee literary momentum appear to be smiling on Daniel Genis.
You began a career in publishing before being sent to prison. What stage was your career at? Did you have much published before being sentenced?
While I was still a student at New York University, I worked as an intern for Applause Books. I learned to set manuscripts into digital versions using the programs of the day and after almost two years there, ended up with an editing credit on a monstrosity called The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film, which was composed by a man who lived in a shack with a film projector but no telephone. The index was gargantuan. Immediately upon graduating I began work at the Nancy Love Literary Agency as an Agent Associate, which meant I read the slush pile, handled the correspondence and theoretically found new authors to represent, although my literary desires did not match my employers’ taste for self-help books. While I always wrote, I had nothing published before going to prison. The chronology is a sad one, as I became a heroin addict at 23 and went to prison at 25. Just didn’t have enough time. Or material.
Did those publishing contacts show interest in your work while you were in prison? Can you describe the chronology of how you started writing for places like Vice, The Daily Beast, and Newsweek?
I finished my novel Narcotica in 2010 and began querying. Having been familiar with the process, I thought that I would eventually find representation for a ‘product’ which I knew to be absolutely unique. After a ridiculous amount of money spent on stamps, I gave up and decided to wait until my release to go to work on that. I remember during my own days at the Literary Agency; I was told that the good thing about all the mail that comes in from prison is that you don’t have to open it. I always did, however, partly out of morbid curiosity and perhaps because I had presentiment… in any case, the only work I had published while inside was a few letters in odd places and translations that I did either for my father or money. Since I am bilingual, having grown up speaking Russian, it wasn’t hard for me to do in a cell. The people in Moscow who commissioned the translations never knew where they came from. I translated the oddest things, about the excellence of Russian tattoo guns and how village girls get taken advantage of in the big city. The pay was usually a hundred bucks.
Upon my release I immediately got to work writing and haven’t stopped yet. Having a few old friends in the business certainly helps, but so does reliably providing work, on time and on point, and writing tightly. I am a bit of a perfectionist in that regard and try my hardest on everything in an alphabet; my emails employ the subjunctive tense. I was also picked up by an agent after a few articles and one especially viral one, so now that I have representation I am looking forward to getting my memoir out there, and following it up with Narcotica. Also, my contracts with the outlets I write for have improved. My agency represents some people who are much greater writers than I am so I am grateful for their help, when it comes to editing and placement.
Prison gave you time to write Narcotica, but also plenty of time to plot your literary career. Has it gone how you’d imagined? Did you think you’d be racking up credits in The Paris Review just three months after your release?
This question puts me into a tight spot because I do not want to appear either pompous or slavish. But I did intend to do this type of work and knew that the notoriety that I had earned by losing ten years of my life was worth something in the coin of authenticity. I planned to use it as my foot in the door. Let’s hope I can continue walking.
Your journalism often addresses what it’s like to return to a world that’s gotten a decade weirder. This anthropological point of view is an obvious asset. It’s similar to American filmmakers using European cinematographers who see the American landscape with fresh eyes. A possible pitfall is that after some time you’ll be as acclimated to shuffleboard hipsters as anyone. Does that concern you?
Having already mentioned the use of authenticity in the answer to the previous question, I’ll say that I have larger plans than that. Every journalist has a novelist inside of him, I suspect, but I am willing to let mine out. But first I need to work as hard as I can and establish myself as just a little bit more than a novelty. Very little belles-lettres ends up surviving a generation; Karl Kraus’s journalism is sometimes read, but can you imagine how much one would have to plough through to read even a single year’s worth in toto? Although the internet makes sure that nothing ever really goes away, that is not the same thing as writing something that deserves to persist, at least until humanity becomes ‘post-literate.’
There’s a rich literary tradition of incarcerated writers, from Dostoevsky to (William Burroughs’ beloved) Jack Black and the unfortunate case of Jack Abbott. Is there one you particularly identify with?
Very impressed that you brought up Jack Black. As for Abbot, a friend of mine was his neighbor when he hanged himself in 2002. He was a wild beast who had learned to write. My memoir is about prison and reading, so you are asking a question that I will answer with an entire book. Nevertheless, I can say that it was Solzhenitsyn who made a big impact on me, and made sure I never felt sorry for myself in American prison, where there is no cannibalism. There are other, lesser known Russian prison-authors like Shalamov and Sinyavsky that were closer to our time and also important… however, if you are asking about identification in the literary sense, you were correct to bring up Burroughs, the gentleman-junkie. I laugh out loud to his grim work and enjoy his voice immensely. Certainly in an influence, although I also read him before addiction and at that time, he was not an influence for the better.
How soon after your release did you create a Facebook account? What has the whole social media experience been like?
My wife was kind enough to establish an account for me, but it was only close friends until I got home and exploded the page with material and links. Some parts of social media, to be honest, I find boring. Twitter seems especially dry, even though I use it and try to humanize it. But for someone in my position, the establishment of Facebook is a gift from god, allowing me to reconnect with people lost to me for over a decade. I read about social media inside and was quite prepared for it when I was released. At first I was very excited about posting, to my wife’s displeasure. Now I see it as a duty, ‘maintaining a digital presence’. Nevertheless, I’d certainly shake Zuckerberg’s hand if I met him.
Most writers Google themselves, and most would be delighted to see the results that a search for “Daniel Genis” produces. This New York Post story about your arrest remains on the first page. Even though you’re candid about your history, do you look forward to the day when it gets pushed to at least Page 2?
Funny question, you’ve peered into the darkest reaches of my vain soul! Of course I would prefer the Post story to migrate, as the more recent Daily News story tells the tale more sympathetically. However, let’s be realistic. If I’m mining my notoriety for authenticity, then this is part of it as well. I can live with it. In fact, I have no choice, do I?
Photos by Petra Szabo
Interview by Mike Sauve. Follow him on Twitter @mpsauve.