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Meet the inmate who went viral for “Listening to Taylor Swift in Prison”
How do you publish a story in the New Yorker when your writer is incarcerated with hardly any internet access? Plus, author doppelgangers and Signal Awards news.
Joe Garcia knew that his recent New Yorker essay about Taylor Swift’s music was good. “I am very confident and narcissistic about my talent as a writer,” the 53-year-old journalist says. But Garcia never anticipated that the story would go viral like it did, with readers posting on social media about how the piece had moved them to tears. (“Fully cried in public reading this through,” one person tweeted. “Art and humanity are truly all we have.”)
The reason Garcia didn’t think his essay would make such an impact? “I know that a lot of people are very averse to caring or listening to anything about an incarcerated person, especially a convicted murderer like myself,” he says. Garcia is currently serving a life sentence for second-degree murder; until a July transfer, he was housed at San Quentin State Prison in California. His essay is entitled “Listening to Taylor Swift in Prison.”
In addition to writing and reporting — Garcia is a correspondent for the nonprofit Prison Journalism Project — Swift’s music has been a sustaining force in his life behind bars. “There was, in her voice, something intuitively pleasant and genuine and good, something that implies happiness or at least the possibility of happiness,” he writes. “When I listened to her music, I felt that I was still part of the world I had left behind.” (You can listen to Garcia reading his essay here.)
In separate conversations, Garcia, now incarcerated at California’s High Desert State Prison, and his New Yorker editor, Daniel A. Gross, discussed the logistical challenges of bringing the story to fruition, and the visceral public reaction to the piece. —Mark Yarm
The following interviews have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
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The Story of Us
Joe Garcia: I have such a wide support network of journalists, and they all know, kind of laughingly, that I love Taylor Swift’s music. People would send me album reviews of Midnights when it came out. Reading them, I was like, I can totally write better than this stuff. So I wrote an album review of Midnights, but from the rehabilitative, transformative perspective, because so many of her songs, like “Anti-Hero,” are about self-reflection and self-awareness. And I sent the album review to Prison Journalism Project.
Daniel A. Gross: Joe’s very early draft arrived in my inbox, by way of Monica Campbell, a former colleague of mine [who was working for] the Prison Journalism Project. There was something special in it. It had never occurred to me that there was a Taylor Swift fandom in the prison system. Joe had a really personal story to tell, and he just had an obsession, which often is a sign that something should be an essay.
“Yes, I got your letter”
Gross: I would send Monica or one of her colleagues an email for Joe. And they would print it out, as I understand it, and then mail it to Joe. And then he would physically write a letter and mail it to PJP, and then PJP would scan it, transcribe it, and send it back to me, which is just this incredibly laborious process. Eventually, I suggested that I speak directly to Joe. And in the later edits, we were talking directly through an app that he has access to, and also over the phone.
Garcia: I got thrown in the hole [solitary confinement] at San Quentin on December 15. I was an advocate for the incarcerated population, so basically I got thrown in the hole to shut me up. One day you’re on the phone talking to people like, “Yeah, I’ll come up with a new draft,” and then the next day, you’re in the hole, with no phone access. Nothing.
Gross: There were a couple times where I sent Joe some notes, and weeks, or even months, would go by, and I wasn’t sure whether I’d hear back from him. I was lucky to be in a place where we have that kind of time. If I was in a different sort of place where I needed to rush to hit the deadline, maybe it wouldn’t have gotten published, or maybe it would have been published in a more raw form.
“Who you are is not what you did”
Gross: Swifties and just so many people who are indifferent to Taylor Swift are earnestly coming to the story and being moved. When you publish incarcerated writers, which I’ve done quite a few times, there’s usually some portion of readers who say that it never should have been published or who come at the writer with attacks on their character. I was surprised by how little that happened on social media.
“I know that a lot of people are very averse to caring or listening to anything about an incarcerated person, especially a convicted murderer like myself.” —Joe Garcia
Garcia: There’s absolutely no internet access [allowed] here, but I’m in contact with so many people, and they read stuff to me. So I’m aware of the buzz, but I’m not, like, fully aware of the buzz. One of my friends, a younger person in their mid-20s, told me that Chrissy Teigen posted a Story where she quoted my story.
The impact of this is in some ways vindication, because there are people at San Quentin right now that are like, “Goddammit, that guy again.” I’m still getting published, so I can thumb my nose at them a bit.
“Ask me what I learned from all those years”
Garcia: Always stay true to your own voice. I would say if you love writing, if that’s your jam, then just write and don’t let other people try and change what you write — but you have to be open to improvement and feedback. Also, like any job, any career, you’re so much better at it if you actually enjoy it, because then it’s not really work.
Gross: Something that Joe reminded me is that a level of passion that is hard to find in other writers can make a pretty unlikely idea succeed. If the writer has a really good reason to be the person to look into that thing, or they have a personal connection or a personal story, or a level of access that someone else didn’t have, that is very often the thing that tips an idea over into working out.
“Joe had a really personal story to tell, and he just had an obsession, which often is a sign that something should be an essay.” —Daniel A. Gross
Gross: When I think about unforgettable personal essays, I think of “When Things Go Missing” by Kathryn Schulz. It starts off so innocently, with such humor and good cheer, and then covers so much emotional and intellectual territory that there is always something new to find upon re-reading.
The other story, which could not be more different and kind of randomly floated into my head, is the quite weird and totally engrossing profile of Yashar Ali that Peter Kiefer wrote for LA Mag a couple years ago. I wanted to shout out a bit of longform from a publication that isn’t one of the usual suspects, and if I had a Jealousy List like Bloomberg [Businessweek], that might be on it.
Garcia: I read this years ago, but Jason Fagone wrote a really in-depth, cool feature story about a weed grower named DJ Short. That resonated with me, because when I committed my crime, I was a marijuana grower. It was so ironic that Jason interviewed me for a story [about Garcia’s New Yorker piece]. It’s just really weird how things work out.
A Story America Needs to Hear
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In this podcast, host Garrett Graff asks the existential questions: How did America get the far right so wrong? And what will it take now to get it right?
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This week, Parker Molloy’s recommendations cover the beauty and fragility of human relationships, including an inside look at the role a notorious crypto scammer’s parents played in heightening his power, as well as an examination of health professionals fighting back against a system prioritizing efficiency and profit over humanity.
This week’s picks also profile the man behind the new Elon Musk biography and chronicle the chaos behind the scenes at Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. If there’s one thing these stories have in common, it’s the notion that for better or for worse, we’re all connected.
“The Journalist and the Billionaire: What did an old Establishment guy like Walter Isaacson learn writing Elon Musk’s biography?” by Shawn McCreesh, New York’s Intelligencer (Sept. 11, 2023)
New York’s Shawn McCreesh explores the complicated relationship between Elon Musk and his biographer Walter Isaacson, who had previously written biographies of geniuses and innovators like Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Leonardo da Vinci. McCreesh’s piece provides an interesting additional layer of context for readers of Isaacson’s latest work, whether they be lovers or haters of the enigmatic mogul.
“Adorable Little Detonators: Our friendship survived bad dates, illness, marriage fights. Why can’t it survive your baby?” by Allison P. Davis, New York’s The Cut (Sept. 11, 2023)
At its core, Davis’s story is about the fragility of human connection and the nature of friendship. As we age, as we move, as we change careers, find new hobbies, and start families, elements of our lives that predate those changes are put to the test.
Becoming a parent is one of the most jarring life shifts of all, for everyone involved. Babies are new to the world, and their parents suddenly are responsible for the successful upbringing of their little ones, which can mean anything from keeping them clothed and fed to making sure they learn how to interact properly with their new surroundings. This arduous task means that sometimes there just isn’t enough time or energy left to nurture old friendships. Friendship’s delicate nature is what makes it so beautiful, even if it can’t last forever.
“How Sam Bankman-Fried’s Elite Parents Enabled His Crypto Empire” by Max Chafkin and Hannah Miller, Bloomberg Businessweek (Sept.13, 2023)
On X (or as we still call it, Twitter), co-author Max Chafkin describes his Bloomberg Businessweek cover story as one “about privilege, and who is trusted with other people’s money.”
Sam Bankman-Fried, the face of failed cryptocurrency exchange FTX, was raised by Joseph Bankman and Barbara Fried. Bankman and Fried were both professors at Stanford law school, specializing in taxes and ethics, respectively, who, Chafkin and Miller report, allegedly acted in questionably ethical or legal ways to help SBF grow his business. What role did SBF’s parents play in FTX’s creation? Chafkin and Miller pull back the curtain and provide some overdue scrutiny in their quest to answer the question.
“Best Practices: How doctors across the country — fed up, burned-out, and disillusioned — are trying to reclaim the soul of medicine” by Emily Silverman, Virginia Quarterly Review (Sept. 11, 2023)
It’s been an especially difficult few years for medical professionals, and Emily Silverman does a superb job of shining a light on what some doctors and nurses are doing to try to “reclaim the soul of medicine” by creating a more human-first health care experience for patients and providers alike.
Hailed as heroes at the start of the pandemic, doctors saw that attitude fade as anti-science conspiracy theories grew louder. Suddenly, they were working long hours, surrounded by death and disease, and vilified by a sizable swath of the country. Some health care professionals understandably headed for the exits, while others refused to give up. Silverman shares the stories of those who stayed and have been trying to improve the world of medicine.
“Chaos, Comedy, and ‘Crying Rooms’: Inside Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Tonight Show’” by Krystie Lee Yandoli, Rolling Stone (Sept. 7, 2023)
Jimmy Fallon has been on our TVs for a quarter of a century. In Yandoli’s Rolling Stone investigation, she reveals a side of the Tonight Show host the public has never really seen.
Current and former employees dish on Fallon’s alleged alcohol use on set along with his outbursts and bullying, and they discuss how NBC human resources department ineffectual action led some staffers to abandon their “dream jobs” of working in late-night TV.
I just finished reading Naomi Klein’s latest book, Doppelganger, and loved it. Inspired by the unfortunate confusion and conflation of cultural critics Klein and Naomi Wolf (“Other Naomi,” as Klein would go on to refer to her), Klein incorporates ideas found in her earlier work to shine a spotlight on this particular moment in history. Once a liberal author, “Other Naomi” became a right-wing media darling for pushing wild and implausible conspiracy theories related to vaccines and COVID itself, allying herself with Steve Bannon. In this book, Klein set out on a journey to understand diagonalism and how to address it.
Misinformation and hate can be profitable. Truth can be easily ignored. Criticism can inspire society’s worst actors to somehow get even worse. Conspiracy theories can even lead to political upheaval, as Darren Loucaides covered in Long Lead’s Querdenken Everything.
If you spent the heart of the COVID era feeling as though everyone on earth was losing their minds — or if you feel as though you’ve been losing your mind — then Doppelganger is well worth the read. —Parker Molloy