The Prison Minyan (Lightning Books), Jonathan Stone’s latest work of fiction, is a sage, droll novel that keeps the reader glued until the final pages. The book takes place at Otisville, the only Jewish correctional facility in the United States. His depiction of the prisoners — those incarcerated for various crimes including bribery, insurance fraud, tax evasion, polygamy and bogus blood testing centers — is vivid.  

Life is going well, the prisoners actually relish their time at Otisville where no inmate is sentenced to longer than ten years. Their days are spent attending a minyan, a Jewish ritual where at least ten men gather, to discuss ironic issues — ethics and the meaning of life. They also take a poetry class led by a female professor, Deborah Liston. Not only does she dare teach at this all-male prison, but she is a true believer who finds a reveal in each poem written by her students. 

The status quo prevails until a newcomer, “The Pisk” arrives, a man who enters Otisville directly from national news headlines. Suddenly for the core group, the joy of eating brisket and rugelach together while contemplating one’s morality fades. Beyond that, the very soul of Otisville, where inmates have more voice than the guards (including one memorable guard called Big Willie), is no longer a given. As our author ratchets up the tension, we realize how clever is his scheme, how carefully honed his characters. We are riveted not only to the plot (no spoiler here) but to the profound dilemmas he spins. What is the price of decency, even among a prison population?  

I am a longtime admirer of Jonathan Stone’s mysteries — Moving Day, Days of Night and Die Next, in particular. Full disclosure — we have been in a writing group together, The Roosevelt Writing Group, for eleven years. When asked to do a Q & A for The Prison Minyan (first workshopped on Monday nights at the Roosevelt Hotel Bar in New York City), I was delighted. He has graciously taken the time to answer my questions below.

Q&A WITH JONATHAN STONE

Q: This is a most original narrative. Tell us how the idea came to you.

A: One morning in January of 2019, I was reading the New York Times and a small article caught my attention. It described a prison I’d never heard of, Otisville, where Michael Cohen, Trump’s convicted attorney and fixer, had requested to serve out his sentence. Wait — a Jewish prison? With a kosher deli? And religious services? Led by rabbi inmates who, let’s face it, should have known better? This is a novel, I thought to myself. I dropped everything else to write it.

Q: Did you extensively research Otisville to construct your story?

A: I knew I’d be using a highly fictionalized version of the real Otisville prison, so no, my research never went much beyond Wikipedia. And no, I never made a visit.

Q: There are poems in your novel that your prisoners write! How did you finesse that?

A: We’ve all heard and read about the enrichment programs at prisons — high school equivalency classes, meditation, yoga, writing workshops. I figured having the prisoners take a poetry class would give me the fun of actually writing their poems — and give the reader the chance to get to know the different prisoners in their own words, as it were.

Q: Your characters are multifaceted and, mostly, men with the exception of one standout female character. What was it like creating them?

A: In a word, fun! My minyan guys are not inherently evil — they’re often well-intentioned, sometimes cornered by circumstance, and more than a little fuzzy on and unpracticed with their moral compass. Although each is unique, in the book they function as a bit of a wolf pack. A genial, lazy, talkative wolf pack, but a wolf pack nonetheless.

Q: When you talk to readers, how will you describe the essence of this novel?

A: This is important because to the small extent that I’m known as a writer, I’m known as a mystery/thriller novelist. The Prison Minyan is different; it’s a comic novel and literary fiction. It’s satire — and like all satire, its jokes and situations serve to make deeper points — about our fraying society, our decaying values, and what’s important and enduring in life, and what’s not.

Q: What writers do you like to read and do you have a new book in the works?

A: I’ve been on a short story binge lately — Kevin Barry, Daniel Mason, and George Saunders’ book about the craft of Russian short stories, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. I just started Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Our Country Friends — so far, hilarious. I’ve just finished up writing a new novel, The Fate Club — about a new insurance product that allows clients to plan and manage their own deaths — gee, what could possibly go wrong?


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Jonathan Stone recently retired from a 40-year career in advertising. He was the creative director at a New York advertising agency and did most of his fiction writing on the commuter train between the Connecticut suburbs and Manhattan.

Of his nine published novels, several are currently optioned for film: Moving Day is set up as a feature at Lionsgate Entertainment, Days of Night has been optioned by New Republic Pictures, and Parting Shot has been optioned by Marc Platt Productions.

A graduate of Yale, Jon is married, with a son and daughter.