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Prison Novelist Edward Bunker

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Prison Novelist Edward Bunker


Prison Novelist Edward Bunker

Prison Novelist Edward Bunker

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

We remember Edward Bunker, who died last week at the age of 71. In prison, he learned to write, and went on to pen several successful novels — among them, Education of a Felon, and No Beast so Fierce. He also adapted some of his books for film, including The Animal Factory.


A life from the movies now. At age 17, Edward Bunker became the youngest inmate at San Quentin State Prison in California, after he was put there for stabbing a guard at a youth detention facility. He spent a total of 18 years behind bars for check forgery, robbery and other crimes. He died last week at the age of 71.

It's not his criminal record he'll be remembered for; it's what he did in prison. He taught himself to write and started a career as an acclaimed crime novelist and film writer and actor. In his autobiography "Education of a Felon," Edward Bunker says his love for literature sprouted while he was in prison after someone got him a subscription to The Sunday New York Times. He read a passage from the book a few years ago on NPR's "Weekend Edition."

(Soundbite of "Weekend Edition" broadcast)

Mr. EDWARD BUNKER (Author, "Education of a Felon"): (Reading) `It arrived the following Thursday so fat it barely went through the bars. It took two evenings to read, even though I skimmed most of it. The book reviews got most of my attention. And although the new books being reviewed were unavailable, reviews and columns talked about other writers and other books. My library day was Saturday. We were allowed to have five books checked out at one time. I tried to read all five in seven nights so I could get five more. I was no speed reader, but I had six hours every night and half an hour in the morning. Sometimes if I was entranced, as with a sea wolf, I came back to the cell after breakfast to read some more.'

CHADWICK: Edward Bunker, from his autobiography "Education of a Felon."

He made his literary debut in 1973 with a novel from prison, "No Beast so Fierce." It's about a paroled thief who has trouble re-entering society. Edward Bunker helped adapt the book for the big screen five years later with the movie "Straight Time," starring Dustin Hoffman.

He drew from his life in crime and prison for several other books, including the "Animal Factory," "Little Boy Blue" and "Dog Eat Dog." Twenty years after he was released from prison for the last time, he spoke with Terry Gross on WHYY's "Fresh Air."

(Soundbite of "Fresh Air" broadcast)

TERRY GROSS (Host): Do you think that although you don't commit crimes anymore, you'll be writing about them for the rest of your life?

Mr. BUNKER: Oh, yeah, because that's what I know about, you know. I write about other things, too. I got a dog story, too, that I'm trying to hustle, you know. But essentially, I write about criminals. That's what--you know, Dostoevsky wrote--I mean, you know, after he went to prison for seven years, that's what he wrote about, you know. That's what they tell you--you know, rule number one of creative writing: `Write about what you know.'

CHADWICK: It helped him become an actor, as well. He performed in more than 20 films, among them "Tango and Cash" and "Reservoir Dogs." But it was writing he loved.

(Soundbite of previous interview)

Mr. BUNKER: I mean, to be a writer was to be the greatest--it was being the magic man--I mean, at that time, more so then than today. And I don't think that I had any talent. If you read the first things that I wrote, they were pretty bad. I wrote six novels and hundreds of stories before I got published. I really think that more than talent it was perseverance.

CHADWICK: Edward Bunker, novelist, screenwriter, actor, ex-con. He died last week after complications from surgery. He was 71 years old.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us as DAY TO DAY continues.

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