Stephen Reid, at 60. All images via.
Stephen Reid has excelled at two extremely difficult things in his 63-years of life: writing and high-stakes bank robbery. Several decades ago, he was a member of the legendary Stop Watch Gang, a tactical stick-up outfit that, according to the FBI, made off with over $15 million dollars in over 100 robberies in the 70s and 80s. They lived a luxurious life in the shadow of infamy—garnering media coverage on programs like America’s Most Wanted, Dateline NBC, and in places as far away as Japan. While in prison in 1984, a manuscript Stephen was working on landed in the hands of respected Canadian poet and novelist, Susan Musgrave, then the Writer-In-Residence at the University of Waterloo. She became his editor. Not long after that, their relationship grew from professional to personal. They were married in Kent, B.C.’s maximum-security prison, the Kent Institute, two years later.
When Stephen got out of prison in 1987, he released his first book Jackrabbit Parole, a novel loosely based on his life as a bankrobber. His redemptive story and gritty, frank and humourous writing made him a media darling. He moved to Vancouver Island with his wife Susan, and spent time mentoring prisoners and convicts, while also writing poetry, plays, fiction, and teaching classes in creative writing—and secretly battling a debilitating addiction to heroin and cocaine. The lengthy battle between his old life and his new one came to a head in June of 1999, when Stephen, high off cocaine and heroin, attempted a violent bank robbery in Victoria, BC. He was soon apprehended, but not before a protracted chase and shootout with the police. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
In October of 2013, while serving the 14th year of his 18 year sentence, Stephen’s latest book, A Crowbar in Buddhist Garden, won a Victoria Butler Book Prize. Then, in February of this year, Stephen was granted day parole.
I called him at the Salvation Army halfway house for parolees in Victoria to discuss the perils and pleasures of writing in prison, adjusting to post-incarceration life, and the pitfalls of fame and infamy.
VICE: Even after the success of your first novel, Jackrabbit Parole, you would occasionally dabble in drug use and drug dealing. I read a story on VICE about you dealing E in 1993. What led you back down that path?
Stephen Reid: Well, I would always get along healthily for a little while. I was surrounded by all of these people that loved and cared about me, and I was really trying—mowing lawns, using weed-eaters, the whole nine yards. I loved the family and everything…it just…[long sigh], I just wasn’t able to function like that for long at that time—or be that person.
I needed something else in my life. All of those bank robbery years were quite adrenaline-laced. When you’re living so recklessly, you make your own terms about things—being on the run, escaping the pen, that kind of thing. You’re so far outside of the limits of normative society and culture that you become attached to that excitement.
I was alone in a garden party surrounded by people who really cared about me. I kept trying… then I slipped back into addiction. I would go to Montreal and visit a few of the gangsters and I’d get busy for a little while—that’s when I had that E. When I’d do that, my life would pick up a little bit. Susan would know and not like it, and it would create massive stress. Then I’d start doing lines to deal with the stress… and as an old addict, I can’t do that. Pretty soon I’d be wired and my life would be in disarray.
Yeah, I can imagine.
You never grow up when you live as a bank robber on the run. You never grow up socially… in terms of what it means to be a responsible member of the community.
Prison doesn’t exactly teach those kinds of values, so my value system was the other way around. I had a good system in terms of personal integrity, but my value system set against a community or a society had been turned upside all those years. And I was trying to right it.
It sounds like you almost had an addiction to the adrenaline. Do you remember what you felt during your first bank robbery?
I don’t really remember it as an exact thing, but for years doing bank robberies you go into another kind of zone. It’s so alive. You just feel so alive. Generally, we’re a society that’s asleep. We live in these safe places. We basically always know where we can get food today… and it’s hard to be alive in such a routine. You really got to work to be alive in the way things are in the 21st century, because we’ve figured out how to be so comfortable. And when you go in and throw a bank up in the air, there’s literally life and lives on the line in a huge way…and it’s a very, very alive place to be.
I’m not suggesting that other people do this. There are many other ways of being alive. Of course, as you mature, you try to stay alive in other ways. And you also accept that life isn’t just an exciting place.
The Stop Watch Gang: Stephen Reid, alongside Lionel Wright and his best friend Paddy Mitchell.
What are some of the things that help you feel alive in that same way today?
Well, at 63, I’m glad to be breathing, you know? [Laughs] I’m grateful to be breathing, let alone anything else. As Eubie Baker said: “If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” I have a different sense of what it is to be alive at this stage of my life. I’m much more placid. I don’t need to feed off high-energy anymore. I find a real place of being alive in my granddaughters’ smile. It sounds corny, but it’s true. I cut myself down to proportion. You have to have a huge ego to be a gangster. It’s so grossly out of proportion. It’s just a part of who we are. You’re so full of confidence.
It seems like a transfixing lifestyle.
It was. For me now, It’s a matter of becoming aware and accepting the things that are around me, and how much meaning I put into them. And really, at the end of the day, it's me realizing how small and petty and meaningless, in some sense, we all are. Yet, the opposite is also true—we're all cherished to have a life.
And so I view family differently now. I’m able to be with family and fine, just sitting there with them talking and connecting. I’m finding life in bonfires, I’m finding life in the smiles of my granddaughters, I’m finding life in the fiction of Don Winslow. Just being able to stay alive and not settling for setting it on automatic and sleepwalking through life. I still need to produce my life.
Tell me about the media coverage after Jackrabbit Parole came out.
The media coverage was intense after I wrote Jackrabbit and got out. That kind of press was a completely new thing to me. Having that kind of attention paid to you for something positive is very seductive. Television reporters and writers and journalists wanting to hear you talk about yourself and hear your thoughts on a variety of subjects is intoxicating. Back then, deep down, I was a very shallow guy. It consumed me.
The new play I’m working on deals with the toxicity of fame and addiction. The idea of what it means to be famous—and I’m even not famous, I’m just a bit infamous—is so toxic. People were romanticizing me as a big, tough guy who escapes from prisons and throws up banks and all of that, and that wasn’t me at all. I was really beaten down, completely riddled with insecurities and doubts. I had a lot of things wrong with me. I was presenting an image—much of it with the cooperation of the people who were covering me in the media—and that was a huge mistake. It took me a few years to get through that. I have nothing but the admiration for very famous people who have somehow come to terms with their fame.
Stephen and Susan on their wedding day.
What are the best and worst things about writing in prison?
The best thing is that you’re so stripped down already—you’ve been degraded and humbled by the place so much that you can begin from the real. I think that the act of writing—at least writing something that’s straight and true to the person who is doing the writing—I think to do that, you have to come from a very humble place. Prison already puts you there. The big misconception people have about writing in prison is that they think you have all the time in the world. Prison becomes like anything else in life—it becomes a little city of industry—people interrupt you, and you need to find time to work. I think part of the reason some thrive writing-wise in that you have to write your story, because you feel so insignificant and so diminished. That’s why prisoners seem to write on the walls and all kinds of things—they’re so diminished. We’re all so diminished in prison by the experience of having gone through the courts, being caught for what we’ve done, and feeling so insignificant because you’re just a number, guards ask you take your clothes off and bend over at whim, and you’re caught up in this very demeaning system that you scream, hey, I’m a real person here. I have real feelings. Even if your punishment is deserved—and mine always has been—it’s still punishment and it still hurts. What was an average day for you like in prison, and what’s an average day for you like now?
The average day for me in prison was waking up with trepidation in my heart. Waking up with the sense of just having to get through a day, not looking forward to what you might be able to do in a day, as I can now. I don’t have an average day out here yet. I’ve just been making myself up as it goes along for the last few weeks, running around doing medical things, getting a doctor, getting a health card, getting a bank account. A normal routine will be kicking in here soon. It should be getting up, driving somewhere, sitting down to write for a while, then making my drums—I make native hand drums.
Stephen's old mugshot.
Your book of prison writings, A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden, just won a Victoria book award. What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel that has a play inside of it. The play I’ve worked on for years. It’s called Heroin and Elvis. So, the novel is a bank robber who gets old in prison and is released and runs into a bunch of rogue cops who are helping heroin addicts off their mortal coil. “A bank robber who gets out of prison"—where do these ideas come from?
[Laughs] It’s a mystery… One last thing, in the National Film Board’s Inside Time doc about you, you say one of the most compelling things about people is “that all humans just want to tell their story.” How do you see your story?
My story is pretty all there, in the public eye. Paddy [bank robbing accomplice] wrote me from Butler, North Carolina, when he was near death and really weak, “we’ve had a life, haven’t we, Dougie?”
I think I have. At the end of the day, I hope I’ll be thought of well by the people who are close to me. I hope I can do whatever I’ve got left—10 years or so—with dignity. And with as much love as I can.