Penguin Canada publishing director Diane Turbide fought two other publishers to acquire North American rights to journalist Ann Walmsley’s debut, The Prison Book Club. (A five-way bidding war for U.K. and Commonwealth rights went to Oneworld.) The book, slated for fall 2015, documents the 18 months Walmsley spent volunteering with book clubs at two Ontario prisons.
“It was the contrast of the deprivations of a penitentiary with the freedom to explore and express ideas in the book club that gives the book an intriguing tension,” says Turbide, a former colleague from Walmsley’s stint as a contributing editor at Maclean’s. “They have every aspect of their life constricted, but a book gives you the inner freedom to explore anything.”
Walmsley began volunteering at the non-profit Book Clubs for Inmates at the request of friend and program director Carol Finlay. “She was in my book club in Toronto, and said, ‘I’m running a book club in a men’s medium-security prison and we need help with book selection,’” Walmsley says.
Finlay asked her to come to a meeting at Collins Bay Penitentiary in Kingston. Walmsley, however, was understandably hesitant, having been the victim of a violent mugging in 2002 while living in the U.K.
“It took me a while to get over that, and I had to make the difficult decision to [go]. But I was curious about the project and excited to go into the prison with a challenge,” she says. “It was a few months later when I thought it was really worth writing a book about.”
Walmsley accompanied Finlay to monthly meetings in Kingston and, later, at the Beaver Creek Institution near Muskoka, where the two started a club with former Collins Bay prisoners who had been moved to minimum security. Walmsley interviewed inmates during their transitions to halfway houses and back into the general public. For three months, the women even bridged the Collins Bay book club with their own, transporting comments between the two groups on pieces of paper.
“There are articulate voices coming out of prison … that are able to capture that experience and make people we tend to fear more human, recognizing they can have wonderful insights about books just as we can,” Walmsley says. “I feel incredibly privileged to have met them because they’re dignified, insightful, and great leaders, and I don’t think most people would expect that. I really hope the book will convey the humanity of these men.”
“People are always looking for some sort of redemptive aspect, always looking for that kind of story,” says Turbide. “I don’t think Ann’s making any grand claims that each of these men [was] saved by a book club, but many definitely underwent positive changes and that helped them to carry on their lives in some cases.”