New podcast chronicles the violent crimes of literary greats

Writing about crime is something a multitude of writers have done over the years. Committing crimes, on the other hand, is somewhat less of a popular activity among the literary community. But in New York City in 1981, the lives of three writers unexpectedly converged when one stabbed a man to death. The writers were Norman Mailer, Jerzy Kosiński, and Jack Henry Abbott, and the first season of a new podcast hauntingly documents their lives and the horrors each left in their wake.

The podcast is Penknife, hosted by writers and booksellers Corey Eastwood and Santiago Lemoine, and narrated and edited by Ramona Stout. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Eastwood for several years.) Its first two episodes focus on the life of Jack Henry Abbott – most of whom was incarcerated – as well as his parole from prison and the subsequent publication of his memoir. In the belly of the beast.

What seemed like a triumph for rehabilitation and the arts quickly turned into a nightmare for everyone involved. One morning, Abbott stabbed actor and playwright Richard Adan to death in a Lower East Side cafe following a bathroom argument. From there, the scope of Penknife unfolds in several ways, tracing the literary ascents of Mailer and Kosiński – and documenting the horrific acts they committed.

“It’s cliché, but we did Penknife because that was the podcast we wanted to hear, ”Eastwood told InsideHook. “I had no interest in starting a podcast, but as a podcast listener I had literally searched Google for” books / literature / real-crime “a dozen times and had never found anything that attracted me.”

When Lemoine suggested starting a real crime podcast, Eastwood rushed to join us. As of early 2020, the two were living in detention in Valencia, Spain, which meant that much of their research was being done online. (Eastwood cites his New York Public Library map as an essential part of making the podcast a reality.) And the first season covers a wide range of media, from interview clips to reenactments of some of his life’s events. topics.

The result is often fascinating, even if it remains stimulating. Hearing Kosiński joke with David Letterman, or watching Mailer try and fail to fight feminism at a live event, is both captivating and often frightening in its implications.

The collaborators noted that Abbott’s case was what initially attracted them. “When we started looking for perpetrators for the first season, Abbott immediately stood out as a very interesting case – criminal who wrote, writer who committed crimes, abuser, victim, etc. – and his life and his crimes led us to the other two, “Lemoine explains.” We didn’t even know the full extent of Mailer and Kosiński’s criminal careers when we started looking at their biographies. “

Some of their actions are better documented than others. Mailer’s horrific attack on his wife Adele Morales in 1960 has been the subject of much writing; Lesser known are Kosiński’s crimes. That’s not to say he hasn’t done terrible things, however. There is a moment worthy of a gasp at the end of the season when the full significance of Kosiński’s actions is brought to light. As for the public perceptions of the three writers at the center of Penknife the first season, which also affected how the podcast came together.

“To be honest, I think the fact that [Mailer] is largely rightly vilified these days, it has been easier to write about him, his overrated books and bad behavior, ”Eastwood said. “We’re already working on season two, and an early issue that we ran into was that a lot of writers like Jean Genet or Miguel Piñero that we think of as subjects were actually really cool, likable people whose positive impacts on the movie. society far outweigh their negative.

The relationship between creators and their subjects is a relationship that evolved during the manufacturing process Penknife. “I was definitely the most sympathetic to Jack Henry Abbott when I finished editing and reading,” Stout says. “Jerzy Kosiński fascinated like a specimen. And I never really embraced Mailer, not even as an example of “toxic masculinity.”

“What we tried to do was paint a full picture of these complicated, imperfect and often terrible human beings in order to try to better understand: A) human nature itself, B) some of the ways we work in as a society and C) The culture and history of the United States during the second half of the 20th century, ”explains Lemoine. “It took us a lot of research and rewriting, but we hope we managed to describe it fairly and honestly.”

Warren Beatty and Jerzy Kosinski circa 1981 in New York.

Sonia Moskowitz / IMAGES / Getty Images

Talk to the creators of Penknife also involves talking about the podcast’s relationship to its genre. “When you take a close look at the narrative structure of the true crime genre, the tension of almost every story depends on portraying the author as a ‘bad person’, even when it zooms in and gives context by exploring the motivations behind it. their crimes, ”Eastwood says. “This idea of ​​violent criminals as ‘bad’ or ‘other’ is something that we try to challenge and separate in the first season.”

Whether or not this is possible remains to be seen. “[S]until our narrative relies on the same ‘bad guy’ framing as almost every other true crime podcast, ”he continues. “When you’re dealing with people whose crimes were clearly the result of poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, or some other societal oppression (as Abbott’s could be said to have been), the perspective changes and it becomes much more difficult to maintain the tension. “

And, as Lemoine points out, Penknife makes plenty of room for the multifaceted elements of his subjects. “People are a lot of things: Mailer was one of the most public intellectuals and most respected American authors of the 20th century, and he was also a female stabber who often used physical violence to achieve his ends and churned out the most horrible opinions to put himself in the limelight, “he says.” Kosinski (part) wrote one of the most important Holocaust novels, he was funny and adorable, and he was too a violent rapist, creep, thief and plagiarist. Abbott was a murderer in cold blood, but he was also a victim, and he wrote one of the most powerful books in prison literature. People are complicated .

For now, collaborators have set up a page on Patreon and have started work on a second season. What will it be? Eastwood and Stout both said content will dictate form, rather than vice versa. “Believe it or not, there are actually quite a few writers who have committed murders,” Eastwood said. “Season two seems to be gelling around some of them.”

Lemoine added that the second season “will likely have a thematic focus, allowing us to cover more ground and explore the lives and crimes of writers around the world.” It’s confusing in its implications, but it’s also captivating and stimulating listening.

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