John J. Lennon was born in 1977, became involved in the drug trade as a teenager, shot a man in 2001 and was sentenced to prison in 2004. In 2010, he began to take creative-writing classes at New York’s infamous Attica Correctional Facility. Lennon described the resulting transformation in his life in a 2015 New York Times op-ed: “Though I didn’t have much of a sense of self-worth, I learned I did have some untapped talent. Discovering this has brought with it another set of challenges, though. As I’ve discovered the satisfaction of learning, I’ve realized that I deprived the man I killed of ever discovering his potential, his human essence. I grapple with this shame.”
In the years since that class, Lennon has quietly assembled one of the more fascinating portfolios in contemporary journalism, starting with a piece for the Atlantic on gun control, and continuing with articles for the Marshall Project, Hedgehog Review, Vice, Pacific Standard and elsewhere. Denied many of the customary accoutrements of the modern writer (he works on a clear plastic typewriter and cannot Google), Lennon relies on a network of fellow writers and editors to help with research and email. He does interviews, including this one, from a public prison phone.
Phil Christman: Can you tell us a little about where you come from?
John J. Lennon: I grew up in a housing project, in a decent part of Brooklyn. My mother sent me away to private school, which wasn’t the best for me. And then, I think I was around ten or eleven, we moved over to Hell’s Kitchen, which was this seedy neighborhood on the West Side of Manhattan. It had this history of gangsters running through the neighborhood and that made an impression on me for some bizarre reason. I romanticized the whole lifestyle, and aspired to be one when I grew up.
PC: So did you romanticize being a gangster in the way that some kids want to be a pro athlete or rock star?
JL: Yeah. My stepfather George was a longshoreman—a working man who paid his taxes, and an overall good guy. But I used to hear him tell my mom stories about the Westies, this murderous Irish gang. Without realizing it, he was elevating their reputation. On dark, cold nights, I’d be lying in the backseat, cruising upstate to our hunting cabin, and I’d hear him at the wheel telling my mom nostalgic tales, about some guy walking into a bar and blowing a guy’s head off like it was nothing. And it was around that time I learned my real father had blown his head off, and nobody was talking about him. So my dad was insignificant, but this killer, he was real significant. That’s who they were talking about. And I didn’t make that connection then; it was only years later, in prison.
PC: Some of the college students I teach still have a tendency to romanticize those times through weird obsessions with movies like Reservoir Dogs and The Godfather.
JL: Yeah. It’s even more visceral when those stories are about your neighborhood. It’s your friends’ fathers that they’re depicting—it’s a very real thing.
PC: You’ve written for the Guardian about the difficulties of receiving books in prison. What are you currently reading, and how did those books get to you?
JL: Shortly after I published that op-ed the policy that made it hard for prisoners to receive books in New York was overturned. We can now receive books from anywhere. We can even get books from Amazon. So I’ve been getting a lot of books lately. But for many years, when it was hard to get books, I used to get a boatload of magazines and newspapers (my mom would subscribe for me): the New Yorker, New York Review of Books, Atlantic, Esquire, GQ… That’s why I started writing in that genre. Because of that situation, where it was hard to get books because they’d be scrutinized in the package room, but magazine subscriptions came through regular mail.
Currently I’m reading two classics: The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère, and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (for the second time). I wanted to read them both at the same time and here’s why. The Truman Capote book is arguably the best book of the twentieth century, ushering in New Journalism and a whole genre of nonfiction that is written like a novel. But Capote’s a little weasel. He writes beautifully about these guys that he ingratiated himself with and befriended, but at the end of the book he’s nowhere to be found.
In The Adversary, Carrère writes about a Frenchman who kills his family, but he doesn’t betray his subject like Truman Capote betrays his two subjects. Instead Carrère unpacks his own emotions about the crime. He writes in a first-person confessional style that is meshed with reportage. It’s a similar style that I’m developing as a journalist writing about my peers in prison, identifying with the characters I write about. Capote doesn’t do this. I read a Paris Review interview with Emmanuel Carrère, and even though he acknowledges it’s a masterpiece he resents that Capote betrayed these guys.