A Conversation About The Captives

Can you talk about the interesting history to The Captives publication and your unusual journey as a published author?

DJI: Yes, my literary path is a wild and winding one. It’s been 26 years since Random House published my story collection, Private Property. After that, I wrote a novel that didn’t find a publisher. I was discouraged. Then life happened—marriage, motherhood, money woes, cubicle jobs. I kept writing too, in my cubicle when the boss wasn’t looking, in once-a-week writing groups. Some years, I walked away from it—being a working mom felt like more than enough. But the joy and challenge always lured me back. I didn’t seriously pursue publication, though, until I was laid off from my magazine job in 2015. The cultural climate was beginning to heat up around issues of gender and justice, and I sensed the moment had come for this story. I spent a year heavily revising, infusing my prison novel with my deeper life experience, tightening the plot with the help of an amazing new agent and honing the language. Two days after my agent submitted it, it sold to Ecco/HarperCollins and then in almost a dozen countries. And I know without a doubt that I am a much stronger writer having a lot more road—and experience, reading, and writing—behind me.

The Captives explores the tangled, dangerous bond that forms between Miranda, serving a long term for serious crimes, and Frank, her prison psychologist, who secretly recognizes her as his long-ago high school crush. What inspired this story?

DJI: I think all old loves leave their traces on us. When friends reminisce about former romances, those stories always have an ending—comic or tragic. But if someone mentions an unrequited crush, the shift in energy is palpable. This sort of romance can truly linger in a kind of strange, eternal present. That was the genesis of The Captives: I started daydreaming about what might happen if one encountered a school-era object of desire in an extreme setting, where power and social dynamics were completely recalibrated—such as a prison.

As I became increasingly interested in the prison setting, I began to think about how the story could offer a chance to shine a light on the lives of people who’ve been relegated to the very fringes of American society—as if they have nothing to offer. In fact, through teaching in correctional facilities, I’ve discovered that the opposite is true. Talking to people in prison, I’ve learned so much about choice, chance, redemption, how accidents of birth steer destiny—all key themes in this novel. There’s no other place where the workings of fate and justice—and injustice—are so starkly on display.

As much as it is a literary psychological thriller, The Captives is also a story about female and male power. Can you talk about how that plays out in the novel?

DJI: In a setting that is all about constraint and control—a correctional facility for women—the prison psychologist, Frank, clearly has the upper hand: he is a free man, in charge of his own destiny, backed by all the authority of the system and his own upbringing as the favored son of a renowned scientist. But though she’s locked down by the system—a woman who has all too often acquiesced to male control—Miranda also has power over Frank. As she gradually awakens to this reality, she plots a course toward self-determination. The dynamic is in constant flux, the balance flipping back and forth. And both of these souls are equally powerless against the personal demons that drive them.

Both Miranda and Frank are offspring of accomplished men—her father was a one-term Congressman, his is the author of a famed psychological test. What’s behind that?

DJI: Both characters are bedeviled by their upbringings, still feeling aftershocks even though they are into their thirties. And both of these fictive dads happen to have real-life antecedents. When I was very young, I lived in Iowa, right next door to the creator of the Iowa achievement tests, still widely used. I remember playing with his testing toys. Then we moved to the suburbs of Washington, DC, where I grew up around adults who worked as civil servants and lobbyists. Most kids are eagle-eyed when it comes to spotting hypocrisy, but in Washington, those observations were perhaps multi-layered: these grown-ups were tasked with serving the public, after all, but I often sensed them putting self-interest first. I wanted to explore all the moral ambiguity that seemed to swirl around that world.

How did you first get interested in the lives of the incarcerated?  

DJI: The first incarcerated person I ever met was a woman I tutored in writing at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut in the mid 1990s. She’d been part of the last gasp of the radical leftist underground. She has some traits in common with my protagonist, Miranda—white, privileged, and serving a long term—and while she is not the model for my character, she certainly was my introduction into a realm that has grown exponentially since then–over 2 million people are now incarcerated in the U.S. I went on to write journalism about prison issues and now I’m teaching in a men’s prison.

Did your journalism about prison particularly inform The Captives?

DJI: The story that left the deepest impression was a piece I wrote for New York magazine about a summer camp at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. The camp was run by a very diverse group of incarcerated women, and it was attended by their children. Seeing these women at work was profoundly moving and enlightening. The camaraderie between the women definitely shaped my portrayal of Miranda’s intense friendships at Milford Basin Prison, which I loosely based on Bedford Hills.

Now you teach at a men’s prison in your home state of Massachusetts. What have you learned from these students?

DJI: The essential lesson for me— from all my work in prisons— is that people are people. These incarcerated men are flawed, as are we all. They may suffer from depression or anxiety—as so many of us do. More often than not, I have found them to be smart, funny, winning, hungry to engage their brains. But so many of these guys have been shamefully short-changed by our public institutions. They’re typically nonviolent offenders under 25, come from the state’s worst school districts, and often seem to have undiagnosed learning disabilities. Even so, I’ve seen them show up to class eager to master fine points of punctuation, read Civil Disobedience and write about Schindler’s List.

Is teaching in prison ever frightening?

DJI: Entering can be a bit daunting at first—security is tight, with rules about what you can wear and carry, and those heavy steel doors really do slam shut and lock behind you as you make your way in. But I’ve witnessed only one moment of even mildly violent behavior: a conflict between two students flared during a donut break, and a stack of paper cups was overturned. These men live in stressful conditions on the units, and they seem to see the classroom as a refuge and a place to bend their minds toward something positive.

What authors or books influenced the writing of The Captives?

DJI: I am completely enamored of an attention-grabbing premise and a tightly wound plot, freighted with weighty ideas and dressed in gorgeous language. In my view, few authors do this better than Ian McEwan. He is a touchstone for me, and I had his work in mind as I wrote The Captives. For additional research on life inside the system, I turned to survival guides written by formerly incarcerated peopleusually called something like “So You’re Going to Prison!” I also read prison memoirs. Soledad Brother by George Jackson is a collection of incredible, radical letters written from behind bars in the 1960s. For insights into a privileged woman locked up for a crime of passion, I read the memoirs of Jean Harris, convicted in 1981 of murdering her lover, the so-called Scarsdale Diet Doctor. She served time at Bedford Hills.

What is next for you?

DJI: I’m nearly finished with my second novel, which will also be published by Ecco and centers on a forty-something woman literally haunted by the specter of her younger self. I mix in some fun stuff like quantum physics and infidelity. I’m working hard to craft it with the most masterful versions I can muster of the ingredients I name above—premise, plot, ideas, language.