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Joe Loya had it rough. He was a bookish kid growing up in the East Los Angeles Maravilla housing project, and he suffered through a violent, peripatetic youth — his family moved from Pico Rivera to Montebello to Burbank. After his mother died when he was 9, his father found solace in religion, becoming a stern minister who took his God and his rage out on his children. At 12, after a particularly severe beating, Loya retaliated, stabbing his father through the neck. This was the beginning of his life in crime. He went on to rob nearly 30 banks before finally getting caught and sentenced to eight years of maximum-security hard time. It was during his prison years — two of which were spent in solitary confinement — that he re-discovered books and began to seek salvation through writing. Loya has since built a successful career as both a journalist (the L.A. Weekly actually published his second piece) and a stage performer, becoming one of California’s more respected men of letters. He recently spoke to the Weekly about his new memoir, The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell: Confessions of a Bank Robber, from his home in San Francisco.
L.A. WEEKLY:Is robbing banks hard?
JOE LOYA: No. They make it easy. The FBI instructs tellers to hand over the money, to let robbers walk out the door. L.A. has the most bank robberies in the country, but there’s also a 92 percent conviction rate. That’s because bank robbers don’t quit. It’s too easy. We just keep going until we get caught. The hard part is actually deciding to do it. You have to fight against your body. That’s the discipline. You’re terrified of death and going into a place with a gun, where other people have guns. Your stomach aches, you tremble, there’s an unbelievable fatigue. I learned to subjugate that with my rage.
Prison is sometimes looked upon as graduate school for criminals. Did you learn anything new in the joint about robbing banks?
No. The only thing I ever learned, outside of my experience, was from a report written by the U.S. Department of Justice. It talked about bank robbers’ patterns. Typically, they start with banks far from home and move closer. Bank robbers also tend to shorten the time between robberies. What started out as two weeks, turns into a week, turns into a few days. I did the exact opposite. I started with banks very close to my home in L.A. and spread out. Before I got caught, the cops thought they were chasing a guy who lived in San Diego or Mexico.
You morphed from childhood book nerd to street thug to published writer. Do people find it hard to accept these conflicting sides of yourself?
That’s one of the things people find surprising. I didn’t start out a Neanderthal who went to prison and discovered words. I was a nerdy bookworm who became a bank robber. I was raised with books. My father loved language, and I inherited it from him. Growing up, I wanted to be a writer. It was stabbing my father that was the turning point.
What was it like to be raised with such a violent version of Christianity?
It was a lot like the Christianity that Benicio Del Toro’s character had in 21 Grams. Very martial — like being one of Hitler’s youth, only we were Christian soldiers. The world was a battleground. You were either on God’s side or Satan’s side, with zero tolerance for the middle ground.
You spent two years in solitary confinement — an incredible stretch — how did you survive that?
It didn’t help that at one point in solitary I got out of my cuffs and stabbed another guy. But yeah, two years is a long time. You create tests for yourself. How long can I go without talking? How long can you stare at one spot? If you stare at a spot for an hour, the walls move, you hallucinate. I thought the universe was static; this taught me it was fluid. It made me realize I needed to change my life.
And you changed your life by becoming pen pals with author Richard Rodriguez.
I spent two years practicing writing. I subscribed to the Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic and The New Yorker. I would highlight words, sentences, paragraphs, and would practice rewriting them. I’m a literal writer; I practiced taking more chances with words. I practiced everything I could think of to practice. Then I sought out Richard for two reasons. He looked like me, and his writing was lush and subtle. The combination of his words and his appearance made me think he’d understand both my journey and what I was trying to achieve in my sentences.
You got out of prison in 1996. How long until you really felt reintegrated?
A long time. After five years, when I got off parole, I threw a big party. I looked around and realized that I was no longer the antisocial loner, that I could finally connect with people. And then, last summer was the clincher. I did seven years in, so last summer was seven out. That was a big deal. It felt like I could actually put that to rest.
THE MAN WHO OUTGREW HIS PRISON CELL: Confessions of a Bank Robber| By JOE LOYA | Rayo | 368 pages | $24.95 hardcover
Joe Loya will read from The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell on Wednesday, September 15, 7 p.m., at Borders, 475 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena.