Q&A: The Real-Life Alex Vause Discusses Prison, Memoir 'Out of Orange'

Laura Prepon
Laura Prepon's character Alex Vause in 'Orange Is the New Black' is based on the real-life Cleary Wolters, who has written a memoir. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Memoirs are confessional by nature. But when one has already been up on the stand, forced to fess up to involvement in an international drug-smuggling ring, served time for said crime, is there much the written word can continue to say?

In a new memoir by Catherine "Cleary" Wolters—the real-life inspiration behind Laura Prepon’s character Alex Vause in Netflix's prison drama phenomenon Orange Is the New Black—it's clear that volumes remain to be said about this tale of crime and punishment. In her book Out of Orange, out today from Harper Collins, Wolters provides, in gritty detail, the shock of seeing her life and criminal history played out on-screen in the show. Particularly, it outlines the avenues that led her first to be involved in a drug-smuggling ring, how she and her lover Piper Kerman became involved, and through both women's arrest and subsequent incarceration.

Infamously, Piper Kerman detailed the pair's relationship and her 13-month stay at a minimum-security prison in Danbury, Connecticut, in her memoir Orange Is the New Black, the basis for the Netflix show. Wolters served nearly six years in a Dublin, California, prison until 2008, when she was paroled. She had no idea her life would be co-opted for the binge-watching pleasure of Americans everywhere. Currently Wolters lives in Cincinnati, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in information technology, assurance and security.

Out of Orange is different from Kerman's work. While there are overlaps in the tale, there are new revelations, written in wry, honest prose like, "There is nothing ambiguous about an erection." In Out of Orange, one can see Cleary now, and fans of the show won't be disappointed.

Newsweek spoke to Wolters about prison wives, distinctions between the show and reality, and, of course, about Piper.

Florence-20140930-00298 Kerman, left, detailed the pair's relationship in 'Orange Is the New Black'; while Wolters's 'Out of Orange' offers new revelations, written in wry, honest prose. Courtesy of Harper Collins

How are you feeling about the book’s release? Nervous, excited?

Yes and yes, and about ten other emotions. Scared. Mostly just numb.

So why publish this now?

I’ve been waiting forever, you know? I got the work done. I was inspired by Piper’s bravery and [was] prompted into reversing my apathy, paralysis and hiding-under-a-rock mentality. When [Orange Is the New Black] came out it sort of pried the rock off of me anyway. The series is based on the memoir; it’s not by anyone’s stretch of the imagination intended to be factual.

But fans who love the story also have…incredible curiosities. So they found me. Of course, the extortionists found me first. The first thing I noticed was my mug shot coming up online and them saying, “We’ll take this down for you for a price.” And then as soon as you pay them to take it down in one place it popped up in five others.

It seemed to me like my efforts to remain anonymous and let this horrifying past quietly slip away into the darkness was ruled out. Then it occurred to me: Piper’s not the only one shining a light on stuff that needs an illumination. So I wanted to join in.

What exactly did you want to illuminate?

I think the most important thing is that the prohibition of drugs has led to our current horrifying statistics on incarceration, and the sad thing is that the War on Drugs doesn’t work. In fact, it does just the opposite. Look at where heroin addiction is today. It seems as though the more energy that’s put into prohibiting drug use and drug sales, the more drug use and drug sales occur, the more treacherous the market gets.

I’m sure it’s impossible to watch Orange Is the New Black just as a viewer, but did you feel especially drawn to any of the characters?

Well, Alex [Vause], of course. And Taylor [Schilling's]. Oh my god! If they were in my prison, I would have stayed. Natasha Lyonne’s character, Nicky, is awesome. And the one who is her sometimes-on, sometimes-off [Lorna]—there was woman just like her where I was. It’s so funny. You meet these people and sometimes it’s hard to keep track of the fact that you’re all in prison and guilty of something spectacular, whatever it is. That character cracked me up. I thought that was wonderful.

Did [Orange Is the New Black creator] Jenji Kohan ever reach out to you for your side of the story?

No, I just saw it all unfold. She didn’t contact me at all.

What was accurate about the show versus what actually happens in prison?

Most American citizens have some kind of Hollywood version or made-for-television movie version of what prison is. There is no singular answer to that; it’s different in every facility you go in. But the one common thread that does exist is corruption. And the lack of rehabilitation. And the emphasis on punishment and the impunitive.

The illicit relationships between guards and prisoners absolutely occurs, and it’s just such a strange relationship to see blossom. When the relationship comes to an end, which is inevitable, it can be a very ugly thing…: charges against the man or woman who was working for the prison, solitary confinement for the woman who is in the prison.… Human beings are sexual creatures; put them in a small space and lock them in that space with no outlet, it’s going to happen.

That said, do you think Orange Is the New Black is important for culture?

I think it’s incredibly important for culture. It’s putting the plight of, specifically, women in our prison system into the living room of everybody in the United States. It’s something they need to look at. And the fact that we've increased our female [prison] population by 800 percent since 1987. I was in prison and I didn’t even know that fact until Orange Is the New Black came out and got everyone talking.

The book features a lot about how you came to be involved in the drug-running scheme that got you incarcerated, but I was surprised by the lack of detail about your actual prison experience. Was this conscious?

Well, I had 20 years of time to get through in 320 pages, and my first pass on the book was 150,000 words. And it did have a lot more in-prison scenes, but that was a little more than my publisher wanted. I basically had to cut it in half because I didn’t want to rewrite Piper’s book—or Piper’s story. And my prison experience is entirely different from hers. We were in different types of prisons. But there’s room for another book [about it], so maybe that’s next. I intend to do that.

Why did you choose to exclude that part?

I wanted to tell the story of how taking one tiny misstep at a time can lead to your downfall. Because right and wrong are sometimes really hard to distinguish from each other. I never made a conscious decision and said, “I am going to be a drug-smuggling criminal—now!” I don’t come from the kind of background that would even anticipate producing such a creature. My downfall was just having broken up with someone, being emotionally a basket case, and you get into this strange space where new things can happen.

In the end, I didn’t want my story to be what they’ve turned it into. I want it to be what it actually is, which is a cautionary tale to anybody who’s young and naive and stupid as a box of hair. And I’m not singling out Orange Is the New Black, but, if prison really were like that, I would be in line with about 10,000 other lesbians to get in there. But it’s not someplace you ever want to go.

Are you still in contact with your prison wives?

They weren’t wives. They were just my lovers. The woman who interviewed me for Vanity Fair coined that term, and I just can’t seem to get rid of it [laughs]! But anyway, I am in contact with one of them. Tatiana. She’s back in her country [Russia], and we talk very frequently. And I still absolutely adore her. I’m also in touch with the other one, but not very frequently.

So what’s the difference between a prison wife and a prison lover?

We would often have faux marriages occur where one of the women was the man in the relationship and the other was the woman. One thing that does happen is that there’s a lot of “gay for the stay” relationships, and I find that the women in order to do that, pick a role. So they’re basically mimicking their relationships on the outside.

Are you sending Piper a copy of the book?

Oh, she already has a copy of the book.

Has she said anything to you about it?

Nope. Not a word. I don’t know what that means! But I hope it’s good. She got the book in February. I figure it took me a few months to churn through my own emotions about her book, and she’s certainly more front and center in my book. So I have to give her the time she needs to digest the fact that I took our very personal relationship and made it everyone’s.

What do you hope that readers will take away from your book?

I think it gives them a more rounded story. I can watch the show and pick out little bits and pieces like, "Oh, Alex has my glasses!" But it's knowing more about the character that inspired Alex Vause.