The critically-acclaimed Netflix original series Orange is the New Black is inspired by Piper Kerman's memoir about her 13-month sentence in a minimum-security prison in Danbury, Connecticut. The author recently participated in a Q&A session as part of Bryant Park's Word for Word series and discussed her writing process, the differences between the show and the book, and much more.
1. Her Meeting With Jenji Kohan Was Very Organic
Kerman and Kohan, who adapted the show for Netflix, met in the summer of 2010, right after the author’s book tour. Since there was already talk about adapting her story for the screen, Kerman wasn’t too surprised when Kohan stepped forward. “We had a long lunch [but] Jenji didn’t pitch me,” explains Kerman. “[She] just asked questions, [which proved] that there is a point of inquiry at which she works creatively instead of [forcing] her point of view.”
2. She Wasn’t Thinking of Writing a Book While in Prison
Although her bunkmate urged her to chronicle her 13 months of imprisonment (“Bunky, go home and write a book”), Kerman made the decision to work on it only after her release. Despite not having kept a journal or any notes during the experience, “I wrote hundred of letters to my friends,” says the author. Once she started writing, the recipients made copies of the letters and sent them over.
3. Men Are Just as Interested in the Story as Women
“I get a lot of letters from male prisoners,” says Kerman.
4. She's Happy the Show is a Bit More Humorous Than the Memoir
“The single most provocative choice that [Kohan] has made is to use humor to discuss the issues,” says Kerman. “My opinion is that humor is necessary. Bluntly [speaking], I think that few people could have stuck to the material without the humor.” Plus: “Jenji thinks straight drama is bullshit,” she says.
5. Asking an Inmate About Their Offense is Considered Bad Manners
Apparently, “How much time do you have?” is the appropriate way to address the subject with a fellow inmate. Hence the lack of specific backstories in the book.
6. Kerman Takes Full Responsibility for Her Actions
Kerman served time because she carried a bag of drug money from Chicago to Brussels at the request of her now ex-girlfriend. “I take full responsibility,” she says. “She [her then girlfriend, Nora] asked me to do it but didn’t put a gun to my head.” The author also rushed to explain that she understood “in a true and lucid way the harm of my actions” through the relationships and bonds she forged while in prison.
7. She Was Anxious About the Response to the Show
“Larry [her husband] and I watched the show together and thought it was good,” she recounts. “But [we] didn’t know if other people thought it was good.” Clearly, they did.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JP YIM/COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES (KERMAN AND SCHILLING); CRAIG BARRITT/COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES (PLAYFEST)