Discovering Jack H. Abbott

The following will appear as the introduction to Jack H. Abbott’s book In the Belly of the Beast, to be published by Random House in June.

Some time in the middle of working on The Executioner’s Song, a note came from Morton Janklow, the lawyer and literary agent. He was sending on a letter that had been addressed to him for forwarding to me. He assumed it was because our names had appeared together in a story in People magazine. In any event, the communication was by a convict named Jack H. Abbott, and Janklow felt there was something unusual in the fellow’s letter. After I read it, I knew why he thought so.

A writer will receive as many as several hundred letters a year from strangers. Usually they want something: will you read their work, or listen to a life story and write it? Abbott’s letter, on the contrary, offered instruction. Abbot had seen a newspaper account that stated I was doing a book on Gary Gilmore and violence in America. He wanted to warn me, Abbott said, that very few people knew much about violence in prisons. No author he had ever read on the subject seemed to have a clue. It was his belief that men who had been in prison as much as five years still knew next to nothing on the subject. It probably took a decade behind bars for any real perception on the matter to permeate your psychology and your flesh. If I was interested, he felt he could clarify some aspects of Gilmore’s life as a convict.

There are unhappy paradoxes to being successful as a writer. For one thing, you don’t have much opportunity to read good books (it’s too demoralizing when you’re at sea on your own work) and you also come to dread letter-writing. Perhaps ten times a year, a couple of days are lost catching up on mail, and there’s little pleasure in it. You are spending time that could have been given to more dedicated writing, and there are so many letters to answer! Few writers encourage correspondents. My reply to a good, thoughtful, even generous communication from someone I do not know is often short and apologetic.

Abbott’s letter, however, was intense, direct, unadorned, and detached, an unusual combination. So I took him up. When you got down to it, I did not know much about violence in prisons, and I told him so and offered to read carefully what he had to say.

A long letter came back. It was remarkable. I answered it and another came. It was just as remarkable. I don’t think two weeks went by before I was in the middle of a thoroughgoing correspondence. I felt all the awe one knows before a phenomenon. Abbott had his own voice. I had heard no other like it. At his best, when he knew exactly what he was writing about …

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