Summer Fiction: 'The Captives' By Debra Jo Immergut

Jul 5, 2018

After years of editing a lifestyle magazine, Northampton, Massachusetts, writer Debra Jo Immergut has published her first novel. 

"The Captives" is a thriller about a prison psychologist and the inmate he treats and obsesses over.

For our Summer Fiction Series, Immergut read from the first chapter, when we learn the doctor has met this woman before, as a lovesick teenager.

Debra Jo Immergut: "She's not the kind you forget all that easily. Especially not the face. I might compare it to the variety of flowers my mother used to tend in beds alongside our house, pretty in an unsurprising, backyard-grown way, but giving glimpses of inner complexities, if you looked carefully enough. If I were the kind of guy who attended reunions, I would have sprung for a ticket and pinned on a name tag just to get news of her, to see what had become of her. Now I saw. She sat in the aqua vinyl chair across from me with New York State Department of Corrections stamped in blurry black ink across her heart."

Karen Brown, NEPR: I felt that this book had an interesting take on the unreliable narrator -- at least when it comes to that prison psychologist, who's the first person that we meet. Is there an art to creating a character that the reader slowly begins to lose confidence in?

There is an art, and the character Frank is one that really took me a long time to fully develop, and add just the right amount of questionability, or maybe just a slight degree of menace. But still, I wanted to retain empathy, and really have the reader feel his struggle as he is. He tries to contend with the situation where he is re-encountering his high school dream girl in this very extreme setting, and being in a state of crisis in his own life.

You've taught writing in women's prisons before, where much of the plot of this book takes place. So what did you learn in your own experience that sort of filled in the details of daily prison life? And did you ever encounter a story that was in any way similar to the one in your thriller?

The first time I ever entered a corrections facility, I was working with a woman who was white, from a fairly privileged background, and who was an inmate. So that certainly did influence this character. However, she was different in all other respects, truly, from her crime to the type of time she was serving.

Another really formative experience I had was as a reporter, and I went to [the] Bedford Hills women's prison in Westchester County in New York, which really served as the model for the prison in 'The Captives." And what impressed me so much was their friendships, the bonds they had with each other and how they worked together. It was surprising and kind of beautiful.

The issue of professional ethics comes up often. It seems as though the person that someone would assume to uphold ethics is the one who ends up failing in that area. And the other person who is supposed to be more of a broken person ends up being more ethical over time. So what were you trying to say, if anything, about the slipperiness of ethical behavior?

What I found is we all are on a continuum as far as ethics and morals go. And it's really been borne out in my volunteer work that the people I meet inside [prison] have flaws. They have made mistakes. They've taken major missteps. But people on the outside [of prison] do the same.

Now let's talk about the journey of this book. Several decades ago you published a book of short stories, but it took another 25 years for your novel to come out. So what are the advantages and disadvantages of publishing your first novel in your 50s?

The disadvantages are obviously you're never going to make the "20 Best Under 30" list. And your career has to move pretty quickly if you're going to be a debut novelist in your 50s. The advantages: I have so much more life experience, so many more stories, so many more people I've met in my life. And age gives you a certain distance.

It's almost like now I have this drone that I can send up into the air, and I can see a large part of life from this vantage point. And as a novelist, I can then zero in on age 11, age 24, age 43, and I have all those options at my disposal. And that feels amazing and very different from when I published the book of short stories, which I wrote in my 20s.

Catch up with all of NEPR's Summer Fiction Series.