A while ago, a friend did me the great favor of introducing me to Joe Loya, author of The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell: Confessions of a Bank Robber -- and now a television writer. Joe is, without question, my all-time favorite bank robber. As with all the best people, we had no time for pleasantries and started immediately gabbing about things like, oh, skulls, mortality, prison and identity. What else do you talk about over (virtual) tea? We jumped in mid-conversation. Joe was in the middle of advising me about highly devastating comebacks that I could deploy in future instances of dealing with an ex-lover. -- Simone Grace
Joe: Prison was good to me. It kept me sharp. It’s a paradox; prison was the worst and best thing that ever happened to me.
Grace: Life has a way of doing that! I am not implying that the two experiences are even on the same plane, but my divorce was like that for me.
Joe: Of course they are the same thing. Bondage is bondage, sister. Marriages on the brink are their own kind of solitary confinement, like foster homes or asylums. Maddening as hell and stressful as fuck, but able to offer sublime emancipations if you tilt your head the right way and reframe some shit.
Grace: Wow. I think you just broke my brain.
Grace: That is exactly how I felt without being able to convey it to anyone else, let alone my ex-husband. There was this vast gulf between me and him, and even between me and my own self-knowledge. I felt both incredibly alone and incriminated.
Joe: Smarter people than us have had better language to explain history and the world, but also lacked language to describe the landscape of their heart to others or to themselves.
Grace: Amen! So how do you tilt the head the right way? That is the million dollar question.
Joe: First, change our metaphors. Second, go in search of better questions, not different answers to the old ones. I put a question mark behind all my certainties before I got out of prison.
And, like an actor who had stumbled their lines, I walked off the stage and walked back on with better access to reinvigorated language.
I titled my head and stopped raging. No more picking up a gun or stabbing people. And I am known as a sweet decent man to everyone who knows me, even my old pals from the joint. Oh sure, I have a few rough edges, but none of my stuff spills onto other people. I changed radically by changing my language. I reframe the shit out of my experiences.
That is some serious swizzle. Autocorrect turns shizzle into swizzle. So what are you writing nowadays?
Joe: I write for a TV show called Queen of the South.
Grace: Wait, wait, like… La Reina del Sur? Because I’m a raving fan of the Spanish original.
Joe : Yeah, the American version on USA. That’s crazy that you loved the original; we are different obviously.
Grace: I mean, the original was just so campy and glorious. It was my first real foray into the telenovela world and I enjoyed how different it was from North American shows.
Joe: The book was amazing. I love writing a story for a bad ass female protagonist. Do you write stories?
Grace: My story-writing career consists of a 2-page short story I wrote in college, and 3 pages of a murder mystery novel that I wrote in Sri Lanka a few weeks ago. Unclear where that will go.
Joe: Do you think in story?
Grace: No, that’s the thing. I always felt that I don’t have that fiction writer chip.
Joe: The great thing about now is all the genre bending.
I’m a memoirist who also creates fiction, which is what our sturdiest identities are anyway on lousy days.
Grace: That’s so fascinating. How do you like TV writing? You’re the first TV writer I know, not including a guy I dated for 3 days.
Joe: On one hand, I was made for this. Sit in a room and get paid to invent story. I’m having fun learning how to make TV, learning the format for story. And as a writer I love watching the experiment of putting self-conscious writers together and watch them handle writer’s room politics with their very naked insecurities.
Grace: Whoa, this is some meta shit, sir. You’re observing the story in which the story is created.
Joe: I love listening to people talk to, since they reveal so much about themselves by the way they construct sentences. Everything is story. Every. Thing.
Watching story get made up close helps me understand religion and politics better and helps me not take us all so seriously. We once worked on an episode for ten days, only to discard it for another. We kept the story up on the board since we put so much effort into making it; surely it will be valuable and can be repurposed later in the season. But no. Never happened.
All that time and energy.
It made me think of those stories in our lives that we hold onto even though they’re way past their usefulness. Because we enshrine that effort (partiality) and can’t handle thinking that our time was wasted, or that the value or purpose of a relationship (story) was only intended to get us to the next one.
Grace: What a metaphor! We are bad with sunk costs. It is really astonishing to me how bad we are at being curious and creative about the stories of our own lives.
Joe: Because we take them too personally. We are too invested in them. Means we can’t imagine innovating with them like I did my episode all week. Vanity of vanities, homegirl. That one the Good Book got right. The stories of our lives are malleable material.
Grace: So wise!
This Q&A was edited for publication. It first appeared in the blog Grace Under Pressure.
Simone Grace, who has degrees from Wellesley College and Columbia University, is a South Korea-based writer.