In August, word came that Oprah’s Book Club had picked That Bird Has My Wings, a HarperOne backlist title, as its 97th selection. I received this news with deep gratitude, since when That Bird Has My Wings was first published in 2009, I was the marketing director at HarperOne. At that time I immersed myself in the campaign for this book out of passion and professional intrigue. For the first time in my experience, we were publishing a living author who could do very little to help promote the book in all the traditional ways.
The reason? Jarvis Jay Masters was an innocent man on death row in San Quentin State Prison. At age 47 he’d already been in incarcerated for 28 years.
Masters, who went to prison at age 19 in 1981 for armed robbery, is now in his 60s. Four years into his 20-year prison sentence for that crime, he was charged with creating the instrument used in the fatal attack on a prison guard. Though he maintains that he had nothing to do with the latter incident, he remains on death row for it. And Oprah, who read the book years ago after it was recommended to her by the American Tibetan Buddhist (and former nun) Pema Chödrön, continued to think about Jarvis and what she might be able to do to spotlight and support his case, ultimately leading to her September Oprah’s Book Club selection. And, while sales have jumped accordingly—we have seen paperback sales more than double over a 12-year period since the Oprah news—the hope is that this will be about much more than sales.
For my one and only author meeting with Jarvis, I visited San Quentin with Eric Brandt, the acquiring editor for That Bird Has My Wings. At the time, I had a one-year-old at home and was too busy and overwhelmed by work and life to pay heed to the email with instructions about visiting the death row wing of this maximum-security prison, so I showed up woefully unprepared. I had to take off my denim jacket (you can’t wear any colors that prisoners wear) and my bra triggered the metal detector (underwires can be contraband—it had to be removed!). I was quite thankful for Eric’s jacket as I entered the visiting section. It was a series of small rooms with very thick but fully transparent walls. We bought food for Jarvis from the vending machines, as we were told that this was better than anything available to him inside.
When we met Jarvis in the visiting cell, he greeted us with a beatific smile. We proceeded to get to know him, learn more about his life, and discuss his autobiography and plans for its promotion. There were moments when the rhythm of conversation and content felt like any other author kickoff call, and then I’d pause, check my surroundings, and remember the real and dire circumstances of Jarvis’s life.
Jarvis lacked any outward indication of the unfathomably difficult life he’d endured, and the multiple ways the juvenile protection and criminal justice systems had failed him. He was warm, joyful, and kind, and he was invested in the success of his book and eager to help in any way possible.
I was reminded of this when recently revisiting files from this time: emails between myself and the editor, the video we made of our visit, and letters we wrote as part of our campaign. We worked with organizations like Death Penalty Focus, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, and the Prison Dharma Network to raise awareness of the book, and by extension Jarvis, his case, and the larger social justice issues of which it was emblematic. I found an original essay that Jarvis wrote for Barnes & Noble, a q&a with him, and glowing reviews from the San Francisco Chronicle and Lion’s Roar.
When we were in the thick of the campaign it was hard to tell if the work was having much of an impact. Jarvis’s circumstances didn’t change, but his supporters were optimistic and, most remarkably, so was Jarvis. Some of the metrics of this business can at times seem intangible—like how a 13-year-old book can eventually make its way into Oprah’s Book Club and how Jarvis’s appeal is now pending before a federal judge in California.
For several years after we launched the hardcover and paperback editions, I kept my ear to the ground about Jarvis’s case, but eventually other commitments and books took center stage. I consider the full-circle moment of coming back to this book and Jarvis’s story more than a decade later to be one of the great gifts of my career—to get to play even a small part on a team working to bring greater awareness to this incredible person, his worthy story, this remarkable book, and the larger issues at play.