About a year ago, a rather large and imposing man named Jason Breedlove came in to the store to see if we would carry his self-published book. He explained to me that it was a collection of writings he had done while in prison. I admit that I was skeptical of the book's quality at first. For starters I didn't like the title, MYcellF: Prisoner of the Pen. But after reading through parts of the book, I could tell that Breedlove was an engaging, honest, and promising writer.
A couple of months ago he brought in a new book, a more focused memoir named after his prison number, 1065131. It's the kind of book that's hard to put down once you start. It's a clear, almost nostalgic, chronicle of Breedlove's three different stays at an Iowa Correctional Facility from 1998 to 2008 as well as an intriguing look at prison life and its often misunderstood culture. Breedlove often displays a sharp sense of humor and intelligence that makes the book a surprising pleasure to read. After he was released from his third prison sentence," Breedlove left his home state and now lives in Portland.
Jason Breedlove will read at the annual Smallpressapalooza event on March 28th at 6:30 p.m.
Kevin Sampsell: I'm curious if there were more personal reasons that led to your getting in trouble and landing in jail. Were there problems at home or elsewhere that got you on the wrong path?
Jason Breedlove: There was no abuse in the home. I was addicted to making people laugh. I've always been a class clown. In high school I started hanging out with other trouble makers; it was the laughter that pulled me in. The things I was doing were funny — accepted — to them and vice versa. We validated each other through laughter.
When you start breaking the rules to seek out laughter, it has to escalate to achieve the same effect. You cannot tell the same joke daily or do the same prank and expect to get the same laugh. It gets old. We went from breaking rules to committing crimes to chase the laughter. I'm sure there were problems inside of me that made me constantly want to laugh and make others laugh.
Kevin: Were there people you met in prison who urged you to write about your life?
Breedlove: My first book was mostly a collection of random thoughts. I read through pieces of it to several different audiences over the years. People loved it. Their laughter was all I needed to come up with more. I never sat down to specifically write any of it. I just lived my life and wrote things down as they came to me. It spans from 2002-2009.
The idea for the second book didn't strike me until after the first was out. A story is easier to follow and it's what people prefer to read. I am now working on a third, which will consist of fictional short stories under the genre transgressive fiction. I plan to have one of the stories available in a pamphlet by the time of the Smallpressapalooza reading on March 28, 2011.
Kevin: What books or writers did you enjoy in prison, and what do you read these days?
Breedlove: I mainly read newspapers and magazines, but I mean on a grand scale; I read the Omaha, Des Moines, and Sioux City papers, USA Today... I read the bodybuilding and exercise magazines as well as Psychology Today, Esquire, Wired, and Maxim. I had a Merriam-Webster Dictionary and a World Almanac that I used daily. I especially liked the etymology section of the dictionary and I was studying etymology years before I discovered what it was called. People knew I had the almanac and would ask me to look things up for them, which I enjoyed doing. I did read Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and Mitch Albom.
Nowadays, I work as a caregiver for my great-aunt. I read to her in the mornings. We like biographies of people who helped shape the world and country. We also liked the Malcolm Gladwell books. Our last three books were: The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Vintage), Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices, and Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power.
Kevin: You have a nice, almost relaxed way of explaining prison culture in your writing. Is it more pleasing to you to write about your penance than to write about the actual crimes?
Breedlove: I'm not sure. Perhaps it was because I spent more time being punished than I did committing crime. Or, since I was sober, more of the prison sticks with me than the wild life leading up to it. I wasn't in the kind of place you often see on cable documentaries. I wanted to show some of the more simple aspects of prison life.
Kevin: You talk about weight lifting and exercising in prison. Do you think that was a sort of survival activity for you or others there? Are the men who are more physically built the ones who are left alone?
Breedlove: It's something to do, but also something that brings happiness.There are some very fundamental parts of life built into an exercise regimen: setting goals and working toward them. Working toward something is very rewarding and often times an addict never experiences that. When they want to get high, they take a drug. To pay for the drugs, they commit crime.
Being big helps to ward off potential bullies, but if a big guy doesn't want to defend himself, he can be bullied just the same. All it takes is one confrontation for people to find out if he's a fighter or not. If he's not, others will rush in like piranhas. Prison is full of people with varying degrees of problems. It seems to be common practice to put someone else down in order to feel better about oneself.
Some of the core issues and ways of dealing with those issues don't go away with the absence of drug use. The drug use is a coping mechanism in itself. Exercise is part of my support system to stay clean and sober today. In a lot of ways, I'm still in prison with my routine. I go to the gym, Safeway, and the library five days a week.
Kevin: Since you moved to Oregon in 2008, have you had any trouble with the law? Does your reputation in Iowa follow you in any way?
Breedlove: I got a reprimand by Trimet inspectors when I first moved here. I did have a ticket, but it wasn't for the amount of zones I was travelling through. I've been turned down for employment because of my record.
I've used my past to write two books and help integrate myself into Portland. Those two books are my platform to write more books. I've become addicted to accomplishment.
Kevin: Are you still adjusting to life in the Northwest?
Breedlove: Yes, I miss sunlight. With an absence of outside activities, I've identified four potential behaviors to fill that void: A person could get lost in drug or alcohol addiction, excel in business, read or write books, or become very health conscious. We have an abundance of all of these. Our library system gets the most circulation of any library system in the country. We also have an epidemic of drug use. Opposing the rampant drug use, we are one of the healthiest cities. One thing that stuck out to me when I moved here was I saw more joggers than I did smokers.
I've done the drug and alcohol thing and I'm not interested in following that path ever again. I can't drink or use just once. It becomes a lifestyle very quickly.
Kevin: When your first book came out, you were promoting it yourself and even bought ads in local papers. One of them was Just Out, the gay newspaper. Is there a reason why you thought those readers would be interested in that book?
Breedlove: As you may remember, the Breedlove name was in the news a lot during that time. I was trying to capitalize on it. I did ads in Just Out and the Willamette Week. I thought my ads in the Willamette Week were cute. In the first I dubbed myself "The Other Breedlove," then it was "Portland's Favorite Breedlove," and, finally, "Portland's Greatest Breedlove." In my hometown we were the only Breedlove family. Out here, there's obviously more than one.
Kevin: You write about how smoking marijuana makes you paranoid, but you drank a lot when you were between your stays in prison. Has alcohol been a problem for you lately?
Breedlove: Not at all.I love drunk people! I enjoy going to happy hours. I either get lemonade or coffee in order to get whatever cheap food they're offering. It doesn't bother me at all to be around people who are drinking.
I wish people were as open and friendly during the day in the city. I spend my days downtown and it seems no one gives a shit about one another. Everyone is either buried in their electronic devices or they're wearing headphones tuning out the world. I'm just as guilty. In our ultra-liberal city, if someone does talk to you in the street, chances are they want money.
Kevin: Do you think marijuana should be legalized?
Breedlove: I am on parole for a marijuana charge. First I'd like to say that I deserved my trouble with the law. I knew it was illegal, and I chose to do it anyway. It's not my job as a citizen to pick and choose which laws to follow. If I don't agree with a law, I can work to change it, but I need to follow it in the meantime.
Yes, I think marijuana should be legalized. Legalizing marijuana would cause much less detriment to society than either alcohol or cigarettes. I am grateful that it is at least legal for people who need it for medical reasons. But, it is a shame that the voters decided one thing and the federal government says their voice doesn't matter.
Kevin: What else do you want to do, writing-wise?
Breedlove: I do a zine once in a while. It's set up like a newspaper. I do stories on local people and issues and I distribute them around town for free. I usually drop a few off at Reading Frenzy.
As I mentioned in one of my earlier answers, I'm writing short stories now. If all goes well, one of them will be available the day of the reading. It's like a musician releasing a single before the album. The title of the first story is "The Junkie Manifesto." It's about a drug counselor who believes in eugenics. He details his idea of a perfect society and states how he changed from caring to not caring about certain groups of people. I have an idea for writing a nutrition book. It's deeper than just basic nutrition. I don't want to give the idea away, but I'd like to collaborate with someone on it.
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Kevin Sampsell runs the small press section at Powell's and is the publisher of his own micro-press, Future Tense Books. His books include Creamy Bullets, Portland Noir, and the memoir A Common Pornography.
Books mentioned in this post
Kevin Sampsell is the author of A Common Pornography: A Memoir