I’m very excited to introduce you to my friend, Melanie, and her upcoming book, GRACE GOES TO PRISON: AN INSPIRING STORY OF HOPE AND HUMANITY!
Here’s some info about the book, followed by two of Melanie’s favorite quotes (which might help shed light on why she’d write this book) and then the meaty part — a chat with Melanie herself!
In 1975, a 37 year-old homemaker and former Avon lady named Marie Hamilton started visiting a group of prison inmates every week as a volunteer with one simple idea: to look for and affirm the good in them. In the 30 years that followed, she expanded her prison volunteer work, creating unique programs to educate, empower and support inmates to be successful when paroled. Everything she’s done challenges conventional wisdom about how to deal with criminals. She’s had no formal education in criminal justice. She isn’t part of the “system”, yet she became a trusted insider in many of Pennsylvania’s prisons. Wardens, corrections officers and inmates all came to rely on her. Programs she created by collaborating with prison administrators and inmates have become an integral part of Pennsylvania’s prison system.
How did she overcome barriers of mistrust, hostility and shame to bring hope, humanity and grace into prison? What does her experience reveal about shortcomings with our current criminal justice system? And what can her approach teach us about how to achieve true justice in our society? Grace Goes to Prison provides the answers.
Melanie’s favorite quotes:
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 -1882)
“When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?” – Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 – 1962)
OK, time to chat!
Kathy: Melanie, can you tell us a little bit about your road to publishing?
Melanie: In a word, that road has been “meandering!” I’ve written, off and on, since age nine, when my best friend, Janine Wenger, and I had a “writer’s club” and held weekly meetings in the coal bin in the basement of her house. I wrote a bit in high school and college for the student literary mags, then nothing until my children were born. I played around with children’s fiction for a few years, completed the Institute for Children’s Literature and Long Ridge Writer’s Group courses, then really started getting serious, writing non-fiction articles for parenting, education and business publications about 10 years ago. Two-thousand-word feature articles were the longest thing I’d written until the opportunity to write this book came along.
Kathy: Wow, starting in a coal bin–now THAT’S a great story! How did the idea for this book come about?
Melanie: Right after the Virginia Tech shootings, I was asked to teach conflict resolution classes to teens who had been in trouble with the law. When I was first asked, I thought, “Sure, why not?” I had taught conflict resolution classes when I worked in the corporate world and thought, it’s not rocket science – how hard could it be teaching teenagers? WELL . . . HA! Was I in for a shock! Those kids were TOUGH!! After about a month of teaching, in desperation, I stood up in church one Sunday and asked for prayers for myself and these teenagers, because I felt like I just wasn’t getting through to them. A friend from church came up to me afterward and said she had met a woman named Marie Hamilton years earlier who taught conflict resolution to prison inmates (!!!) and that surely Marie could give me some tips for reaching tough teenagers. Long story short, I eventually met Marie and she agreed to give me some pointers. Turned out she had retired from her prison work and was looking for someone to write a book about her work!!! My friend who had introduced us (Jean Moyer) and I met with Marie to discuss the possibility of collaborating on a book about her – and after hearing a few of her incredible stories, we thought this was a book that absolutely HAD to get written! So, that’s what we did. Jean eventually decided that she preferred to do background work rather than being a coauthor of the book and she has been a tireless behind-the-scenes partner, a constant source of inspiration, and a fount of knowledge. So I’ve been blessed to work with TWO beautiful, inspirational and wise women through this project. Marie and Jean have both become treasured friends and mentors to me – what a gift!
Kathy: How fortunate to have such wonderful resources right there. If you could tell your readers one thing about the story to convince us to buy the book, what would it be?
Melanie: Marie Hamilton is just an ordinary woman who, without any formal training, without any significant resources (financial or otherwise), and without being part of the criminal justice “system”, nevertheless was able to have an enormously positive impact on the lives of thousands of incarcerated men and women, as well as prison staff. Everything she’s done has challenged conventional wisdom about how to deal with criminals, yet she was able to overcome barriers of mistrust, hostility and shame to bring hope, humanity and grace into our prisons. To find out how she was able to achieve all of this . . . well, you’ll have to read the book!!
Kathy: Well said! How long did it take to write the book?
Melanie: My friends who have had books published tell me that my journey to publication has been unusually SHORT! I first met Marie in October, 2007. By June, 2008, I had a publisher (Brethren Press) and by December, 2008, I had submitted the finished manuscript to the publisher. The book will be in print by September, 2009, just shy of 2 years from the date when I first decided to commit to writing this book.
Kathy: Yup, that’s a quick turn-around, all right! What was the most challenging aspect of writing Grace Goes to Prison?
Melanie: I have to admit that writing this book has become infinitely more than I ever imagined. As I’ve gone into the prisons, to talk with some of the men and women whose lives Marie has touched, my own views about crime and punishment have been seriously challenged. Learning about crime and those who perpetrate it and those harmed by it has really opened my eyes to the capacity of the human spirit, for both good and evil. I’ve felt both shocked and saddened as I’ve started to get a rudimentary grasp on the realities of our so-called criminal “justice” system. This book certainly isn’t the story I thought I’d be writing when we first met Marie back in 2007. And, if someone had told me 2 years ago that I’d be getting deeply involved in prison work, I would have thought they were crazy. Yet, here I am . . . doing what feels like the most meaningful and important work of my life, and I don’t regret one moment of it.
Kathy: How did you come up with the title for the book?
Melanie: Ah, this is one of my FAVORITE stories!! One of the prisoners I’ve gotten to know, a man named Jerry, has been incarcerated for 22 years. Jerry has known Marie Hamilton for most of those years. I once asked Jerry how he’s been able to keep going, day after dreary day in prison.
He told me, “There are 2 definitions I always keep in mind that help me:
Mercy is when God DOESN”T give you what you really deserved to get.
And GRACE is when God GIVES YOU what you DON”T DESERVE.
We didn’t deserve Marie Hamilton here in prison, but God sent her to us anyway.”
I said, “Jerry, do you know Marie’s real first name?”
“No,” he replied.
Well, the tears just flowed down Jerry’s cheeks . . . and mine. It was a real “God-moment” for both of us there in that prison visiting room.
When I first met Marie, I hadn’t known either that her real name was Grace Marie. When I found out, I asked her why she went by her middle name instead of by her beautiful first name.
She told me, “I don’t feel I’m worthy of the name Grace, so I don’t use it.”
But the more I learned about her work, the more it seemed that BOTH “grace” (as Jerry had defined it) and “Grace” had, truly, gone to prison.
Kathy: OK, I’m crying now, too — thanks a lot! That’s really beautiful. So, what has it been like, working with the publisher, Brethren Press?
Melanie: I feel so blessed to be working with the team at Brethren Press. They’ve all been a true JOY to work with. My editor, James Deaton, must surely be the most gentle, thoughtful, collaborative and conscientious editor in the entire publishing industry! Wendy McFadden, the publisher, embodies the ideal combination of practical, down-to-earth business savvy and visionary leadership. And Jeff Lennard, BP’s book marketing guru, has incredible creative energy and enthusiasm for what he does to shepherd the books they publish out into the world. They’ve re-defined “dream team” for me!
Kathy: Excellent! Melanie, what’s the one thing you want readers to take away from your book?
Melanie: I hope that reading the stories of the incarcerated men and women who have been a part of Marie’s life will challenge readers to think about crime and justice, prompt them to ask probing questions about our current criminal justice system, and inspire them to get involved at whatever level and in whatever way might feel right for them in addressing the issues in that system. (and by the way, at the end of the book, I provide a lot of ideas for people to take action, if they feel so inspired!)
Kathy: What or who has been the greatest inspiration for your writing?
Melanie: Wow – this is a tough one. I know it sounds clichéd, but I really find inspiration in lots of places – in people I meet, in nature, in daily life. I think peoples’ stories are so powerful – and every person has stories. I love the process of drawing stories out of people, and of seeing how transformative that can be, for them, for me and for those who then read their stories and see the world through another person’s perspective. THAT’s powerful – and incredibly inspiring!
Kathy: Let’s take a moment for you to have the chance to give one piece of advice to readers. What is that?
Melanie: I teach writing courses at a local college (Elizabethtown College), and I always tell my students that I’ll share with them the “Two Great Secrets To Becoming A Better Writer”. Those secrets are:
They often laugh when I write this on the blackboard. But I explain that it’s really true. READ everything you can get your hands on, examine how it is written and think about why and how those written words affect you, and
WRITE at every opportunity – it’s all about practice!
Kathy: Why do you write?
Melanie: Well, for one thing, I can’t imagine NOT writing. It helps me to process things that happen in my own life and things that happen in the world. I have to say, though, that the common advice to “write about what you know” has never seemed quite right to me. I like to “write about what I DON’T know, but WANT to know.” It’s the very best way I’ve found to broaden my horizons and perspectives on the world: to interview people, do research and learn new things by writing about them.
Kathy: And when do you write?
Melanie: The short answer is: not as consistently or in as disciplined a way as I’d like! I’d love to be able to tell you that I awake at 5am, sit down at my computer and write non-stop until lunchtime…but of course, that would be a fairy-tale. I write when I can, between errands and emails and the daily interruptions of life. When I was in the most intense phase of writing the book, I DID get up early (5’ish) every morning, hang a sign on my office door that said, “Unless someone is bleeding or has stopped breathing, do not interrupt me until at least noon!” and my family respected that. (though they teased me mercilessly about it later!) But, once the manuscript was off to the publisher, I fell back into much less disciplined patterns with my writing. I’m thinking I may need another book project to focus on if I want to get back to that type of disciplined writing schedule.
Kathy: What is your greatest source of comfort?
Melanie: Hugs from my kids, my husband and treasured friends.
Letters in the mailbox. Yes, real ones . . . in envelopes . . . with stamps . . . remember those? I have been corresponding with quite a few incarcerated men and women over the past year and a half, and every one of those letters is a real treasure!
And mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Okay, I guess that’s MULTIPLE sources of comfort…
Kathy: :o) Are you religious?
Melanie: I think people have very different interpretations of what they mean by “religious.” So, what I would say is that I’m a deeply spiritual person. I believe there is awesome power and mystery in the universe and in nature. I believe that miracles happen right under our noses every day and part of our responsibility as human beings is to NOTICE. I believe that every single person on the planet has a unique purpose, that each of us has value and importance, that each of us deserves to be loved and respected, and that our lives are all intertwined in ways we cannot even fathom. And when I think about the miracles of a tiny seed sprouting into a flower or a tree or a human being, I have to believe in a Higher Power (who I happen to call “God”) who has created all of this. It’s all too perfect to be the result of random chance.
Does that answer your question?!
Kathy: Very nicely, yes. I think I might have to quote that! What are you working on now?
Melanie: Trying to figure out how to do a cross-country book promotion tour next spring (2010) on a shoestring budget (and I’m talkin’ cheap nylon “shoestring budget”, not leather!) I’m picturing 3-4 months in a camper van or small RV, driving from place to place, talking about Marie’s work in the prisons, about restorative justice, and about the need for change in our criminal justice system. Just have to find someone willing to loan or rent their camper van or RV and many “someones” willing to have me come and speak to their church, school, civic group, book club or other organization. Any takers? Give me a call or email me – 717-361-2722 or Melanie@MelanieGSnyder.com.
Kathy: So, if anyone has ideas or contacts for Melanie, please contact her! Well, that was a fun, informative interview on a very fascinating topic. Thanks! Please visit Melanie’s website at http://melaniegsnyder.com/ and you can order her book now at http://www.brethrenpress.com/
Note: Melanie’s book reminds me of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid and, more recently the peace and reconciliation work in Rwanda after the genocide there. If you’re interested in reading more about those, here’s a great blog: http://earthmother7thgen.blogspot.com/ and a radio interview with the Friends Peace House in Rwanda: http://www.northernspiritradio.org/index.asp?command=programInfo&id=1
Next interview: a rollicking good time with CROCODADDY and author Kim Norman!