Meet Guest Blogger Theo Gangi

Hi all!

I’m traveling to the Palmetto State today to attend the South Carolina Book Festival. Lots of familiar names and faces to play with, including our darling Dusty, upcoming guest blogger Cara Black, and friends of Murderati Tasha Alexander, Marcus Sakey and Jim Born. Plus, I get to have a ridiculously cool fan girl moment — Harlan Coben is going to present on Sunday. Cross your fingers that I don’t make too big a fool of myself. If you’re attending, I can’t wait to meet you!!!

So in my spot today is a wonderful new author I’m sure you’ll enjoy. The story below shows some of the darkness we mystery writers mine for our work, and shows that hope can be found, if we look hard enough.

Give a warm Murderati welcome to ITW debut author Theo Gangi!

—————

The Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center wasn’t the first prison I’d been to. But it was the cleanest.Bangbang_2

I sat in the congenial waiting room beside snack and soda
machines, bright like a hospital. Amy the librarian came out of the heavy,
reinforced steel doors to greet me. She was blonde, down to earth and seemed
like she could laugh just about anything off. The first set of doors led to a
small hallway that led to another set of doors. I was reminded of the Eager
Street prison where I used to work in Baltimore—cameras everywhere, door after
door, and you had to wait for the first door to close before they’d open the
second. Amy could see the door operators through the transparent hallway and
she waved, smiling.

The main hallway was eerily quiet, aside from our shoes
clicking on the hard, white tiles. We passed doors to our right and left with
bars behind the small porthole windows. In Baltimore, the hallways reeked of
either filth or ammonia. This smelled pleasantly like nothing at all.

Amy brought me to the library first. It was a small room
with tables and chairs in the center, surrounded by books organized by theme.
Amy complained about the size if the room, the number of books. She walked me
through the stacks, explaining her rationale for each purchase, how she thought
they might connect to Richard Wright but didn’t, how they always went for the
street lit.

“They were really excited when they saw your book,” she told
me, that the four copies she had ordered were in the cells with the inmates.

I noticed she had two copies of The Great Gatsby. “Do they go for this?” I asked.

She shook her head. I ran my fingers over the two, uncreased
bindings of the books.

She brought me into the maximum-security hall. Cells
surrounded the massive mess area like cages around a Roman amphitheater. A
large, black corrections officer greeted me, asking the inmates in bright
orange milling around if they were coming into the classroom. “These are my max security kids,” the CO told
me. “Murderers and rapists.” The juxtaposition of the words ‘kids’ and
‘rapists’ startled me.

The classroom looked like any classroom— rows of desk chairs
facing a dry erase board. The CO called to the mess hall again and the room
filled up with over 30 orange shirts with young black and Latino faces. Four of
them had my book; tattered, worn copies that had been passed around. Their
chorus commenced:

“How I get
published?”

“How I stop
people stealin’ my work?”

“You know
Teri Woods?”

“She cool?”

“How much
you get paid?”

The CO yelled for them to calm down. I wondered what he
would do if they didn’t, but they settled. In the quiet they looked less like
children. Though their bodies slumped with young agitation, their faces
betrayed a life-weary cynicism that aged them. Many of them would go straight
to adult jail.

I read a passage about Izzy, my main character, and his
first encounter with violence as a nine-year-old boy. He witnesses a
convenience store robbery where the robber shoots several bystanders and the
clerk. He tries to shoot Izzy but the gun jams, so the murderer leaves,
confused.

The kids were sincerely quiet this time. I discussed how
Izzy was frozen by this event, how he grows up to be a 38-year-old ‘Stickup
kid.’ The story comes full circle, and Izzy finds himself committing a robbery,
his partner demanding Izzy kill an innocent bystander.

“In this book, Izzy is faced with a choice. The code of the
streets makes a demand of him, asks something of his humanity this time. He can
chose to reject that code. He can either be the man he has been or the man he
would like to be. That’s a choice we make every day—will we let the actions of
our past define our future?”

The old-young faces averted their eyes, tapped on their
desks and restlessly adjusted themselves. Two returned my gaze flush—a light
skinned black with a serious face and short dreads, and a skinny darker skinned
kid who still resembled a kid. I realized then that some of them had no choice
about their future. No matter what they would like to be, the actions of their
past had already fixed the road ahead.

I wondered if I was somehow insulting them by suggesting
they could change. Now that they were locked up, the behavior that got them
there would be needed to survive. Still, they were so young, I figured if I
could send any message at all, reform had to be it. Even if they couldn’t quite
get my words, the sound might seep through like music sung in a foreign
language.

The serious kid raised his hand. “You like first person or
third person?” he asked. “My book is both.”

I smiled. “It’s best to pick one and stick,” I told him.

“What’s the difference?” asked the kid kid.

And just like that I was having a conversation about
narrative, perspective and voice with five or six young, aspiring novelists.

“Who should
we read?” one asked.

I turned and wrote a list on the dry-erase board of the
untapped resources in their library, beginning with Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

We talked up until their
lunchtime. As I left through the mess hall and out of the belly of the
institution, I thought of the sheer endurance of the stories lived in the tiny,
hidden cells all around.

 Theo Gangi is a
novelist who’s first book, Bang Bang (Kensington) was released in November 2007. Hailed
by Mystery Scene Magazine as “The hip-hop Elmore Leonard,” his stories have
appeared in The Greensboro Review, The
Columbia Spectator
and The Kratz Center
Sampler.
His articles and reviews have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Crimespree Magazine, 3AM Magazine and Crucial Minutiae.com, where he has a
weekly column. The son of a prisoner’s rights advocate and graduate of Columbia
University’s MFA program, Mr. Gangi currently teaches writing at John Jay
College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. His second novel, Twist the Trees (Kensington) will be released in 2009.

Wine of the Week:  How about some suggestions from you this week??? What’s your favorite?

10 thoughts on “Meet Guest Blogger Theo Gangi

  1. cj lyons

    Hi Theo!!! Great post–I’ve dealt with a lot of juvenile offenders (doing their in-take medical exams, follow up care) and always hated to see that “gee, I’m kind of scared, but this really isn’t happening, is it?” expression be replaced with the “life’s a bitch but I’m not gonna let her win” attitude that came after reality hit.

    Did any of them mention how your book changed their thinking or affected their life in prison?

    Reply
  2. pari noskin taichert

    Theo,Welcome to Murderati.

    I loved your post and enjoyed the transition from adult judging the kids to the conversation between creative peers (at least in a way); sometimes we have to abandon our own missions in order to get through, to have that impact that CJ mentions, more profoundly.

    From what you’ve written here, I’m certain you did.

    Reply
  3. Louise Ure

    Great post, Theo. And what an experience, for you as well as for them.

    It’s a pleasure to learn more about you.

    (But I’m still mixing first and third person when necessary.)

    Reply
  4. billie

    Great post – I love that they’re writing.

    (and Louise, I was relieved to read your paren about mixing 1st and 3rd, since I’m doing that in a current revision!)

    Reply
  5. Josephine Damian

    What a welcome and refreshing change!

    Theo, great post: vivid word pictures and insights into the troubled mind and soul of lost youth.

    Hope to see more of you here on Murderati and looking forward to reading your book!

    Reply
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