Eric Lotke has spent his career driving change in the prison system. He’s spent time providing legal counsel to people incarcerated under DC law, working to reduce violence in neighborhoods, and researching how to create progressive economic change. His work with the census bureau’s treatment of prisoners has lead to integral changes in state law in New York, California, Delaware and Maryland and hopefully many more. His lawsuit over the exploitative price of phone calls from prison also led to new rules by the FCC.
The National Criminal Justice System commissioned him to write The Real War on Crime. He is the author of two novels, 2044 and Making Manna. He lives in Washington, DC.
A Q&A with Eric Lotke, author of Making Manna
1. Who is your favorite author? Favorite book?
I don’t really have favorites. My tastes are diverse and changing. I enjoy biographies by Doris Kearns Goodwin and political science by Jacob Hacker.
The best novel I read lately was The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich. It’s copyright 2002 but the setting is America post WWI and the characters are timeless. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward was a highlight of 2015 and I expect it to last a while. It’s the memoir of an African American woman in low-income America. All of the men important in her life disappear over a couple of years — shot, drugged, suicide or jailed. But somehow the police who happily patrol the neighborhood every night with searchlights can’t manage even to arrest the drunk white driver who kills her brother.
I’ve also been delighted to re-read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. The first time was on my daughter’s recommendation. The second time was voluntary after seeing the movie.
2. What book are you reading now?
I just started Viral by Emily Mitchell. It’s a collection of short stories and I’ve only read a few so I don’t have an opinion yet. But it came highly recommended and the first story is terrific. It’s about a small business where the staff are measured, marked, ranked and made miserable because they aren’t smiling enough.
3. What inspired you to write Making Manna?
Trigger warning. This story has a really bad beginning.
Twenty years ago I was working on a death penalty case. The young man on death row was the product of an incestuous rape. I wrote those words in his social history — “product of an incestuous rape.” The phrase was so distasteful that I horrified even myself. The case came and went but those words stuck with me.
Years later, I wanted to write something hopeful and uplifting. The world is a mess. I wanted to say something nice.
So I went back to that kid. I started there but gave him a different ending. I took the worst beginning I could imagine and turned it into something positive.
4. What was your particular process in terms of outlining, plot and character?
I had a beginning in mind, from that death penalty case. And I had an end in mind. But I wasn’t sure how to get there.
I found that I could always and only see a few chapters in advance. So I would tell the story that far, then taking that as the baseline, outline what happens next – with the endpoint in mind. The characters and internal details developed as they went.
5. Where is your favorite place to write?
I am opportunistic in time and space. I work full time and I have two kids. I drive them to practices, lessons and activities – and have an hour or two to write while I wait. When I was lucky, I’d have a whole half-day at home on a weekend. It mattered that I wasn’t on deadline. If I needed time to figure something out or went a month without a free minute, that was okay. I always keep a notebook handy. My creativity is better than my memory.
6. What was your favorite part about writing the book?
This was really interesting. When I wrote a scene that was happy and light, I was in a better mood at bedtime. When I wrote a scene that was dark or dreary, I wasn’t as joyful in real life. Putting myself into the mood to create the scene expanded beyond the page.
I suppose it went the other way, too. One weekend I had a lot of time to write and I was looking forward writing the scene that came next. I expected it to be happy and triumphant. As it turned out, I was a little blue that weekend. Maybe I had a cold, something was wrong at work or the kids were annoying. Whatever. I don’t recall. But I remember being a little down as I started … and it is quite clear that this fundamentally happy scene has a melancholy undertow. I always wonder if that undertow was inherent in the material and it would have been there anyway, or if it reflects my temper over the weekend.
In any case, I quite like the complexity and I never sought to iron it out.
7. Why did you decide to write from the perspective of Libby rather than her son, Angel?
The book begins from Libby’ point of view. Angel is a baby. Yes, he’s occasionally cute, but he’s more of a prop than a character. Mostly he’s a logistical problem that needs diapers and daycare. Starting in Part Two the story moves to Angel’s point of view, and it ages with him from kindergarten to high school. In the end the two points of view come together. Now they’re equals.
One smart reader described it as a “coming of age” story of both the mother and son at the same time. I think that’s exactly right. Libby was so young when he was born! She has so much to figure out, and so does he. I think changing the point of view helps bring that development to life.
8. Libby comes from a tough background but manages to work hard and support her family. How accurate do you think her life is compared to a real-life girl in her situation? What research did you do to keep the novel grounded?
All of her problems are real. She has a bad boss and not enough money, and she’s (justifiably) afraid of the police. She solves her problems in ways that are always credible and based on real world experience. I readily admit, however, that her success is unlikely. Does one in five people like her succeed? One in twenty? A hundred? I want to show the hopeful possibility – while also making it clear that life is hard and the odds are against her.
Good luck makes a difference, too. Libby meets Sheila at the outset, and her health stays good. She gives the good luck back, though, doing favors for others. I think it’s honest to show that luck makes a difference. That’s not a novelist’s trick.
9. Sheila and her husband have a bad experience with the prison system. Does this aspect of the plot come from your experience as a lawyer?
Absolutely. That’s the heart of the story. Typical fiction shows us courtroom dramas with cutting cross examinations and explosive closing arguments. My personal experience brings you people with really bad lawyers who accept really bad plea bargains. Justice on TV is about crime labs and DNA exonerations. The real justice system is about kids who miss their parents in prison, and cops who book you so they can bill overtime on your court date.
10. How else did your career influence the book?
Can you tell that I once earned my living as a chef?
More importantly, my life as a parent influenced the book. It would have been a different book if I weren’t a dad.
11. Libby talks about one day getting her GED and maybe even going to college. What would be her major in college?
Heavens! I don’t know. I’d have to put her in college, have her meet some people, take some classes and live some college experiences … then she’d be in a position to decide.
During the story, a supporting character decides to go to college. As an author I was struggling to decide what college she should go to. So instead of thinking, I worked it out as a story.
First, I knew she was on a tight budget and could only afford a small number of application fees. Second, the logic of her situation defined her choices, for example, her state school. Third, her profile as a candidate determined which schools would admit her and under what terms. In the end she made a choice that followed naturally from the options available.
The point is that instead of deciding where she should go to school from a big fat Barron’s book, I just followed the situation to its conclusion. It feels real because it is.
12. What do you hope readers will take away from Making Manna?
First, I want readers to have a good time. Escapism is okay. You deserve a break today. You bought my book: I owe you a good time.
But I also want readers to reflect on the understory and worry about the injustice, especially in the justice system. The obvious problem is bad cops and excessive prison terms. The subtler problem is that people who need protection don’t get it, and people who’ve been hurt don’t get help. That’s a different failing of our justice system. I explore those failings and show a different way out.
13. Do you plan to write a sequel?
I hadn’t planned to, but people have asked and now I’m tempted. A plot is starting to take shape. I have another book in mind, too. It depends, of course, on how this book is received.
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