From The 'Fresh Air' Archives: Eddie Bunker, Who Honed His Writing Craft In Prison

Mar 14, 2018
Originally published on March 19, 2018 12:13 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Now we're going to hear an interview from our archive with Edward Bunker, the writer Danny Trejo first met while they were both prisoners in San Quentin. Bunker, who died in 2005 at the age of 71, grew up in Southern California foster homes. At the age of 17, he became the youngest inmate in San Quentin after having stabbed a guard at a youth detention facility. He spent 18 years in some of the nation's toughest prisons for robbery, forgery and selling drugs.

While doing time in San Quentin, he published his first novel, "No Beast So Fierce," about an ex-con who can't get legit work and returns to crime. The novel was adapted into the 1978 film "Straight Time," which starred Dustin Hoffman. Bunker co-wrote the screenplay for the 2005 film "Runaway Train." While that was being shot, Bunker and Trejo met again on the set. And Bunker helped give Trejo his first big break, hiring him to train actor Eric Roberts for the boxing scenes in the film.

Bunker wrote several novels about crime and prison life and in 2000 published a memoir called "Education Of A Felon." In Quentin Tarantino's 1992 crime film "Reservoir Dogs," Bunker played Mr. Blue. When we spoke in 1993, Bunker read an excerpt from his first novel, "No Beast So Fierce."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

EDWARD BUNKER: (Reading) I sat on the littlest toilet at the rear of the cell, shining the hideous bulb-toed shoes that were issued to those being released. Through my mind ran an exultant chant - I'll be a free man in the morning. But for all the exultation, the joy of leaving after eight calendars in prison was not unalloyed. My goal in buffing the Adley shoes was not so much to improve their appearance as to relieve tension. I was more nervous in facing release on parole than I had been on entering so long ago.

(Reading) It helped slightly to know that such apprehensiveness was common, though often denied, by men to whom the world outside was increasingly vague as the years passed away. Enough years in prison and a man would be as ill-equipped to handle the demands of freedom as a Trappist monk thrown into the maelstrom of New York City. At least the monk would have his faith to sustain him, while a former prisoner would possess memory of previous failure - of prison and the incandescent awareness of being a ex-convict, a social outcast.

GROSS: Thank you for reading that. Edward Bunker, do you know that on the author bio on the press release that accompanies the republication of "No Beast So Fierce," it says, Edward Bunker has not been arrested in over 20 years. That's an unusual thing to find on an author bio. Did you want that mentioned on there?

BUNKER: Yeah, sure, I wanted that mentioned - yeah - because, you know, people have the image of the prison - the convict writer Jack Abbott kind of ruined things. And Smith and other people who, you know, have written - people - Buckley went to bat for Smith and Maler for Abbott and, you know, and they got in trouble quick, you know - committed rapes, murders, robberies, you know, somebody that's really been rehabilitated. So yeah, I like the idea that I haven't been arrested for 20 years. That kind of changes things, you know. I mean, don't you think it's salient?

GROSS: Absolutely. You wrote this book while you were in prison?

BUNKER: Yeah.

GROSS: Were you encouraged to write while you were in prison?

BUNKER: When I was real young, I was encouraged to write. There was an old silent film star that used to write me from - correspond with me and sent me magazines and subscriptions to The New York Times. And she encouraged me to write. And I'd read the, you know, I read a lot. And I'd read that - I know that Cervantes wrote part of "Don Quixote" in prison and that Voltaire was in prison. And actually, if you go all the way back to Socrates, you know, that was the first prison writer. And there's been Genet. And so, you know, there's a lot of examples of people who've used time in prison to write books.

GROSS: You were aware of that while you were writing in prison?

BUNKER: I wasn't aware of that when I first started. I don't - all of that much. The first thing that I had was Chessman. And I was up in the hole, which was behind - right behind death row when Caryl Chessman was up there. And I used to talk to him through the ventilators. And I was 18 or 19. And a sergeant brought an Argosy magazine around from death row. And they had excerpted the first chapter of Chessman's book, "Cell 2455, Death Row." That was a chapter about an execution. And it was unbelievable to me that a convict in prison - on death row or just in prison - could get published. And Argosy magazine could accomplish that and mentioned that the book was going to be published. And when it was published, it was a smash best-seller internationally. So that's really what started me writing.

GROSS: How did you get agent when you were in prison?

BUNKER: I wrote this agent and told him that, you know, I was here in prison and I aspired to write. And they had done an issue in Esquire magazine about writer - the New York literary world. And they had a chart of, you know, how they do in magazines and these agents and that agent. And this was an Ayn Rand's agent - originally had been Ayn Rand's agent and was the real old agency in New York, one of the first ones.

So I wrote them and explained my situation and if they'd be interested in reading my stuff. So I sent it to them. And they said, we can't sell this. If you do anything else, send it to us. So every time I'd write one of those novels, every two or three years, I'd send them and they'd say no. And finally, on the sixth one, he said, I think I can sell this.

GROSS: You wrote six novels before the one was published?

BUNKER: Right. I wrote for 17 years before I got published.

GROSS: Did you show it to any of your fellow prisoners?

BUNKER: Oh, yeah. I was - I used to - yeah, I had, you know, yeah, I used to write dirty stories that I'd rent for sale in the joint. That's where I made my cigarettes, you know, and coffee. And I'd write reports. I always had - after a while, after a couple of years, I had a very, you know, powerful clerical positions in the state prison. And I was like, you know, associate warden's clerk because I could write so well. And, you know, those reports that go to Sacramento and the district attorney's office and things like that that I, you know, so I did a lot of that writing, you know, report writing. And I would write letters for guys. And then I got into law. I studied law. I worked as a law librarian for three or four years.

GROSS: What - your novel is about an unrepentant criminal. I imagine that that didn't really help your reputation among prison authorities.

BUNKER: No. In fact, I once wrote an essay on how to commit an armed robbery, a primer on planning and commissioning a successful armed robbery. They found it in my cell. They didn't - they really didn't like that. But I don't think they paid any attention to this book. I don't think they read very much, the prison authorities.

GROSS: The novel, "No Beast So Fierce," was first published in 1973. I believe you were paroled that year also?

BUNKER: Yeah.

GROSS: Was that before or after the publication?

BUNKER: No, I was in when it was published.

GROSS: And when were you paroled?

BUNKER: I was paroled later on, about a year and a half later.

GROSS: What was it like for you that time when you got out of prison? You know, you had a novel. You could have gone to a bookstore and bought, you know, looked at your book there.

BUNKER: It was very different. I left in a limousine. They sent a limousine for me. And we were going to make a movie. I was in preproduction on making "Straight Time." And so they sent a limousine for me. And that was a far different situation. Of course, they could take me around the block and dumped me out. I didn't care after I got away, you know. But yeah, my relationship with the world changed.

GROSS: Was that the last time you were in prison?

BUNKER: Yeah and the last time I was arrested.

GROSS: In the introduction to your book, you thank Dustin Hoffman for carrying you for six months. You're referring to the time you worked with him?

BUNKER: Oh, another book. That's in...

GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry. That's in your other book. That's right.

BUNKER: ...In the dedication of "Little Boy Blue." Yeah, he did. I mean, they hired me when I got out. They hired me as a technical consultant and, you know, and paid me all the way through preproduction and production, gave me - I did an acting job. I played a role in the movie, got a SAG card. And so it changed my life. I mean, it didn't change me, but it changed my relationship with the world.

You know, I think I've changed. I've changed kind of over time by virtue of the family. I've been with the same woman for 15 years. So I changed slowly. But when I got out, I didn't have any different attitude than I'd always had. But my relationship with society changed. I've been on the cover of Harper's Magazine. I had a book published. I had another one in production. I had a movie being made. That's a whole lot a different situation than getting out, you know, with $40 in your pocket.

GROSS: Tell me about one of the days when you got out with $40 in your pocket.

BUNKER: Well, I got out one time with 40. I had - and they'd given me the dress-out shoes. I was trying to get a job. And I remember this very clearly in Los Angeles, one of those hot LA days, you know, that really gets smoking - 100 degrees. And I was walking around. And I had blisters from these shoes, these new cheap shoes that they'd given me, these dress-out shoes. And I'm walking from job application to job application trying to get a job. And it was so bad that I had blisters on my blisters and no money, you know, and a little furnished room. And the rent's running out. And the parole officer's on my case. Yeah.

GROSS: You were on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list for a while?

BUNKER: Once upon a time - yeah.

GROSS: What got you on there?

BUNKER: It was really some forgeries. Those were the - for the - was the charge.

GROSS: Were you proud in a way? Did you feel like you'd made it to the top?

BUNKER: Well, yeah, it's kind of a, you know - I wouldn't say proud. But it scared me, I know that - but - because it puts a lot more heat on you. They usually put you - they used to only put you on the 10 Most Wanted when they knew they were going to arrest you the next day.

GROSS: (Laughter) To look impressive?

BUNKER: To look impressive - that's true, you know?

GROSS: Did anybody recognize you from your 10 Most Wanted FBI photo that appeared in post offices?

BUNKER: No, but I was afraid that they would. I didn't know it. And I was in Florida. I was in Miami. And I went into a post office. And I saw my - you know, my picture there. It scared me to death. And that's really the reason I didn't go, you know?

GROSS: Did you run out of the post office?

BUNKER: No. I didn't quite, but I left quickly. You know what I mean? I don't think I quite ran. But it was - I got out of there.

GROSS: Was it a good photo?

BUNKER: No. It was a bad photo. But still, who knows, you know? You'd be surprised how many people, you know, recognize you.

GROSS: Right. So it's been 20 years since you were in prison. What have you been doing for the past 20 years? How have you earned a living? What's your day-to-day life like?

BUNKER: I live the life of a writer. I do all right. My books do fairly well. I get some movie-writing work, rewriting work. I get a little acting work here and there. I live a very kind of - very quiet life. It's pretty good. I have a great life, actually. You know, I sleep. I get up. I go to eat breakfast. I clean the house. And I write. I write seven days a week. And I have good friends. I have a good wife.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

BUNKER: Yes, dear.

GROSS: Edward Bunker recorded in 1993. He died in 2005 at the age of 71. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.