I only saw the inside of a prison once – it was when I took a tour of Alcatraz near San Francisco. I strolled by clean and empty cells as a recorded voice relayed the history in my ear. You had to imagine what it would have been like back then – noisy, confusing, dangerous. Author Sara Lunsford didn’t have to imagine prison life at all. She saw it, lived it, took it home with her. Her gritty memoir Sweet Hell on Fire: A Memoir of the Prison I Worked in and the Prison I Lived in doesn’t mince words. Neither does she.
Lori: You’ve written romance and urban fantasy novels under the name Saranna DeWylde. How does writing nonfiction differ for you – both in style and in what you felt as you wrote it. Which do you prefer?
Sara: Nonfiction and genre fiction are two very different creatures. I did think that writing my memoir would be easier than fiction because I didn’t have to wait for the story to unfold. It had already happened, all I had to do was write it down. Talking about the memoir in theory was easy. It felt like it had happened to someone else, until I started writing and reliving all of it. Then every word made me feel very naked and vulnerable. It’s definitely easier to see my fiction as a consumable product whereas the memoir feels like I cut open my chest and invited people to poke at my guts.
I enjoy both and still have things to say in both mediums, so I can’t say that I prefer one over the other.
You open your book “Sweet Hell on Fire” with quite an attention-getter: “There is no stain remover in the world that will get human brain matter out of a poly-cotton blend.” What lessons can writers learn from that lead paragraph? Was it your first choice for the start of your book?
It was, actually. In any sort of writing, you have to immerse the reader in the environment immediately and cause them to become invested. That paragraph was the best way to make the reader curious as to how I knew that information and to demonstrate the brutality of the world in which I was living. It was harsh and ugly, but it set the tone for the rest of the book and let the reader know it was going to be a bumpy ride.
It was harsh and ugly, but it set the tone for the rest of the book and let the reader know it was going to be a bumpy ride.
What was the toughest thing about being a corrections officer at a maximum security prison?
Leaving the job behind the walls. It was hard not to see villainy everywhere in my daily life. I still see it. I never sit with my back unprotected, I don’t drink anything from a container I’ve left unattended, I check the backseat of my car before I get in…
There are so many things that happened to me and they’re memorable because it’s like they’re all rated “R” for really? This happened? If I had to choose one, I’ll say it was the very last day because that’s when I started my new life. I shed everything that was holding me back and really starting living the life I wanted to live.
How about characters? Is there one inmate you won’t ever forget?
There are a few. I grew up in a corrections environment, my dad was a federal corrections officer. So when I was a kid, inmates were part of every day life. There was one, he went by Doc and he was at the work camp. He taught me how to play darts.
And I’ll always remember the one I thought was going to try to escape from the hospital. I was sure I’d have to shoot him and that was very intense. It taught me a lot about myself.
You live in Kansas. What does that surrounding give to you as a person who has been through so much and as a writer now doing what she loves full-time.
I do live in Kansas. I’d never planned on that being long-term. When I was in high school, I wanted to get out of here before the ink was dry on my diploma.
The storms here feed my muse. Kansas weather is insane. It can be a beautiful day, blue sky, bright sun and ten minutes later the sky looks like burned marshmallows and the temp has dropped twenty degrees and suddenly there is thunder and lightning like all the fury of Hell. I love that.
The most important thing about living here though is my family. I’ve come to realize how lucky I really am. I’d still like to move, I’m all about the view and would love a mountain retreat somewhere, but I’d have to pack everyone up and take them with me.
Who are you favorite authors/books?
I will read anything that has words on it. Although, I will admit in recent years, I’ve become the East German Judge. If something doesn’t grab me in five to ten pages, I put it down and move on. I think because I have to catch an editor in that frame, if I’m going to devote myself to something, it should catch me like that as well. Plus, life is too short to read books you don’t enjoy.
Some of my favorites are Phantom by Susan Kay, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Baigent, Lee and Lincoln, The Truth About Beauty by Kat James, Rumi, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and anything by Angela Carter.
I have book ADD. I always have at least two projects on my plate. Because I do what I love, it’s never really work.
Are you working on anything presently?
I have book ADD. I always have at least two projects on my plate. Because I do what I love, it’s never really work. I have a nonfiction proposal I’m working on about human trafficking and I’m in the planning stages for a book about the “She” culture in the American prison system. Men who live as females, take female names, but don’t identify as gay or transgendered. I’m working on some sports themed romances, and more paranormals for my Saranna nom de plume.
Hobbies? Interests? What do you like to do when you’re able to be away from the keyboard/notepad?
If I’m not writing books, I’m reading them. Since becoming more actively involved in my own health, I’ve discovered I love cooking. I always feel a bit like a mad scientist playing in my laboratory. Or a wicked witch, that’s always fun. I like doing touristy things, even near where I live. I try to catch the haunted trolley tour in Atchison every year. When I travel for writing conventions, I like to schedule in time for sightseeing and meeting friends. I also enjoy psychology, true crime, conspiracy theories and alternative history.
Lori M. Myers is a New York-based award-winning writer and Pushcart Prize nominee of creative nonfiction, fiction, essays, and plays. Her work has been seen in more than 45 national and regional magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. Her plays have been produced overseas, in Canada, and across the US, three are published, and one was a Broadway World Award nominee. Lori has a masters in creative writing from Wilkes University and currently teaches at Dominican College in New York.