As a refuge, as a threat, as a place to live
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Author Saint James Harris Wood was released from prison in December 2019 after serving eighteen years for robberies he committed using a toy gun. He tells about his first several months of freedom in his essay “I Still Don’t Feel Free,” published in our March 2021 issue. A prolific writer and musician, he has been a regular Sun contributor for more than fifteen years.
Amy Louise Ouzoonian — poet, mother, and author of Found in Phoenix (Fly By Night Press, 2015) — agreed to interview Saint James for us and learn more about his complicated past and positive attitude about the future.
How are you doing in the free world?SAINT JAMES HARRIS WOOD
SAINT JAMES HARRIS WOOD
Eighteen years in prison tends to raggedly tear one from the fabric of society. I’m not even certain I want to be part of this particular civilization. I live in a constant state of otherness and seclusion. Loneliness has been dogging me for a while. I don’t like it, but I am used to it. I am, however, lucky to be alive and experience flashes of joy, and I intend to thrive. Though I don’t believe in such things, I have lately had a startling run of good luck. Strangely it took prison to teach me the power of positive thinking, which makes freedom tenable.
In your first Sun essay, “Captive Audience: Confessions of a Book Junkie,” you write of reading any book regardless of its pedigree. What are you reading now?
I prefer to read modern literature by living authors, since the dead guys don’t need the money. China Miéville and Nicholson Baker are my current favorite novelists. I am working on several large and small projects, so lately I only have time to read alarming science articles in The New Yorker, which has the best fact checkers in the business, making it all the more alarming and entertaining.
You recently sold your first novel. Any new projects in the works?
I have the opposite of writer’s block. Dozens of songs and poems are in transit or under construction; two novels are in various stages of disrepair and glory; and an unknown number of short articles and stories are struggling to become whole. I recently finished my sixth novel (which is up for grabs), and the first, The Narcotic Field Theory, is coming out with Vinal Publishing in June 2021.
What’s it about?
It’s about three hundred pages. No? OK, it’s about this fellow, Christian Taylor, who, during an emotional free fall, discovers that smoking heroin makes him immune to the laws of humankind and physics. There’s also a trumpet player and an absurd crime spree. It’s a love story.
Speaking of love, have you received any interesting letters from Sun readers over the years?
At one point I had over three hundred pen pals, many of them Sun readers who supported me with letters and stamps. They offered money, but the state would routinely take 60 percent, and I would rather starve than give them that; so I asked only for books and postage. Starting a literary career behind bars requires heroic amounts of U.S. postage. I became a connoisseur and OCD hoarder of stamps. A dozen or more people and couples sent me two books of stamps every month for over ten years. Ordinary people are extraordinarily generous.
I received thousands of letters from all over the world. A man in prison in Africa wrote me regularly, thinking I was an actual saint and asking for blessings and a CD player. Nicole, who worked for Esquire, arranged for me to write a blog on their website, which brought me more work. Sun reader Carol in Montana sent me dozens of fifteen-page typed letters, introducing me to her entire clan and history. David Mason, of the biggest rare-and-used-book store in Canada, would send me any book I requested. Interesting characters from Wales, Ireland, England, and New Zealand published my work in their literary magazines and kept my spirits up with their funny letters and generous souls. All of them are friends I’ve never physically met, good-hearted and sweet.
Any long-distance romances?
There were offers of romance from some readers, both male and female, but I had vowed to become a monk for the duration of my sentence. Cloistered behind bars, I ignored romance, though the loss really hurt. About twelve years into my sentence I almost succumbed to an old girlfriend who was living in Mississippi, until I realized she was on pharmaceutical narcotics. So I stuck to my policy of no love; only literature, meditation, and weekly bouts of onanism. Lonely people — and my mail indicates that there are legions of them worldwide — will reach out for any spark of compassion or validation that comes their way, and Sun readers aren’t shy. Of course, many wrote because they were generous people reaching out to a soul in distress. Women, especially, are spectacularly gracious and good to men like me.
Are you still on sabbatical from romance, to focus on your writing?
Romance can’t seem to focus on me. You’re interesting. What’s your situation?
Luckily I’m a thousand miles away. Now that you are no longer cloistered, have any distractions kept you from your work?
I write poetry, songs, short stories, and novels with little provocation no matter where I am. The world and its people are the same inside and outside the penitentiary. Prison is a microcosm of society: the most aggressive are allowed to run riot over us all, regardless of venue. Normal life doesn’t distract me; wars and violence do.
In your 2007 Sun essay, “Letters of Light from a Dark Place,” you describe confessing your crimes to the police with no lawyer present, which confused the police and sent you to prison. Do you regret having done that?
Absolutely not. The disaster had arrived, and I wanted it dealt with and done, no matter the consequences — which I deserved, by the way.
Do you think that your depictions of prison life have made people more aware of the terrible conditions behind bars?
American prisons have improved fitfully but profoundly over the last hundred years. The problem nowadays is that we incarcerate too many people, even though the scientific community contends that incarceration as a deterrent does not work. Solitary confinement drives some people out of their minds. People need to be advised, fixed, or helped, not put in a cage.
Have other writers in prison inspired you?
Kenneth E. Hartman, author of Mother California, is an incredible advocate for lifers and convicts in general. He gave me a lot of practical advice on selling my writings. Selling and marketing one’s work is far harder to master for us sensitive artist types than the writing itself. Over thirty-five years Hartman literally wrote his way out of a life sentence, and he has changed numerous California prison policies with his articles and muckraking. I also met hundreds of aspiring writers while running writer’s workshops behind bars.
I noticed on your website that you’ve had numerous musical stage names.
I was bluesman Dr. Earl Harris (my grandpa’s name) for a while. In the psychedelic band Noise God, I became Mustafa. I’ve also been Swan Dive, Jimmy True, Lord Mississippi Dub, Joe Producer, and whatever other made-up name struck me as entertaining in any given moment. The police call them aliases.
What interests you more, music or literature?
It’s like being in love with two completely different people, both of whom demand a lot of time and attention. Writing is a solitary, lonely pursuit, while musicians are surrounded by bandmates and audiences. For musicians, gigs mean going out to party. To a writer, a gig means going home alone to piece together a story out of your head. It’s far easier to get someone to listen to your new three-minute song than it is to get anyone, even your own mom, to read a recent lengthy piece. Writing is the lucrative field for me currently, but I cannot bring myself to give up playing music, which I do two or three times a week in Balboa Park and downtown San Diego. As a teenager I was imprinted with the idea that music is my salvation.
I don’t want to ask this last question.
Oh, please. Go ahead. Ask me anything.
It’s one of the questions you wanted me to ask.
OK. If you could be any animal . . . ?
I’d be some kind of misunderstood monster — not the old kind but a new sort of monster that’s . . . necessary.
Monsters are not real.
So you see the attraction.