I am so excited to share my interview with Paul Maher, Jr. He has such incredible insight on Kerouac and the writing process in general. I think you’ll see why I enjoy working with him so much on Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
How did you first become interested in Jack Kerouac?
I remember one of the first books I ever picked up of Kerouac’s, it was Dr. Sax. I didn’t buy it at the time, I just looked at the back cover and read its blurb: “In this haunting novel of intensely felt adolescence, Jack Kerouac tells the story of Jack Duluoz, a French-Canadian boy growing up, as Kerouac himself did, in the dingy factory town of Lowell, Massachusetts.” That was the exact same sentiment of myself at the time, I must have been about 18 or 19, and my adolescence too was “intensely felt” as well as growing up in Lowell. I also grew up in Centralville in a French Canadian enclave for about the same time period as Jackie Duluoz. Soon afterwards, when I did buy Dr. Sax, I related to Kerouac’s capturing of the whole scene, the sense of hauntingness; the dialects, the sensibilities, and the mystery of Catholicism. I attended Saint Louis de France school like Jack did, and attended masses there. My last time in the basement of that church, it was for my father’s funeral. I remember sitting in those little wooden pews, smelling the burning candles, and the hushed yet amplified sounds of murmurings, sneezes and the priest standing before us all. It brought me right back to my boyhood when I used to walk there every day. Except, of course, the cycle was complete for my father who had also attended that church as a boy, as well as his parents.
So, dipping into Kerouac was easy for me. That was my introduction, not, like many, On the Road. After reading Dr. Sax and Visions of Cody, my first Kerouac books, On the Road seemed a bit tame. A disappointment really, and it still ranks lower than those aforementioned visionary masterpieces. It is no wonder Dr. Sax was a novel that he was really proud of.
You grew up in Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, MA. What was that like and how does it inform your understanding of Kerouac and his work?
I can’t objectively say what it was like, it just was. There was also a lot not to like about Lowell, like any other town or city. Growing up in Lowell was as natural as anything else. My home address was less than a quarter-mile from three of his Centralville addresses. His house in Dr. Sax was next to the Hildreth Street cemetery, and walking by that cemetery, as a child, the stone wall was high and there were iron gates surrounding it. It was padlocked with a chain. We never got in, so we wondered what was in there, and so that naturally retained a mystery for us. Adjacent to that house was a funeral home, and my father and grandfather were waked there (among others). There was a mystery to all of it, and I easily made those associtations captured so perfectly in his Lowell writings. However, I didn’t feel it so much with Maggie Cassidy or Vanity of Duluoz, because I didn’t grow up in Pawtucketville or attend Lowell High School. Those two books do more to capture an era than a certain mystical reverence for childhood.
I have a high regard for Visions of Gerard as well, because it captures more of the Franco-American sensibility of Centralville, and that sort of insular vibe common to the city. Like Kerouac, I was friends with kids named Plourde and Beaulieu, for all I know they were grandsons of his friends.
Which is your favorite of Kerouac’s books?
In no particular order, any of those books written between 1952 and 1954, especially those that have more of a mystical nature. I love The Subterraneans and Tristessa. The Lowell novels, Visions of Gerard and Dr. Sax; Book of Sketches and Some of the Dharma. I always carry Visions of Cody with me, though I am no admirer of Neal Cassady, I am fond of how Kerouac transmuted that person into his artistic sensibility to create a portrait of bygone America.
One of your greatest skills as a biographer is the thoroughness of your research. Do you have any tips for aspiring biographers on how to track down hard-to-find material and incorporate the information into a work without it sounding like a Wikipedia entry?
I’m not a trained researcher. I took courses for my degrees on how to conduct research and much of it was rote, based on archaic practices and for the most part, teaching us to dispense with the piecemeal detective work of newspapers and archives, and instead operate backwards by working through secondary sources. For my Kerouac biography, I made it a point not to use the existing biographies as a resource. On the other hand, I had already retained much of what was written and having that knowledge, I could work on another level.
I also operate out of a sixth sense, almost intuiting where material might be, or something that may exist and is worth pursuing by surmising that it might be there. It may be as simple as spelling a name wrong, and then doing searches for it. The Internet has made it awfully easy to do much of it, especially in regards to newspapers and magazines. However, there is also room to abuse it, so that it does sound like a Wikipedia entry.
Per incorporating it, that can be tricky. You always want to use it where it adds to the narrative and doesn’t seem like filler material. I could have easily added anecdotal information on every town Kerouac passed through when he traveled across America. However, the emphasis is on Kerouac, not the town. However, if it was a documentary on the Travel channel, then it works.
I feel like you and I have worked really well together on Burning Furiously Beautiful, but collaboration is not desirable to many people or can be intimidating for those interested in it, particularly artists who want to leave their personal imprint on a work. However, there is a grand tradition of collaboration; Kerouac himself collaborated with Burroughs on And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. What would you say to someone who is contemplating collaboration?
You just have to operate on blind trust and intuition. I like collaborating, but I can certainly understand the desire to want to have your own book, with just your name beneath the title. I am past that; it doesn’t matter to me if my name is on there at all. Films are created in collaboration with others, books are no exception.
In addition to various biographies on Kerouac, you’ve written Tom Waits on Tom Waits, Miles on Miles, and One Big Soul: An Oral History of Terrence Malick. You’ve recently started writing your first novel and are documenting the process through your blog Scrivener Notes. Why are you documenting the writing process? What do you think are the positive and negative effects of lifting the curtain to expose the work that goes into writing, especially this early on when the work is still at its nascent stage?
I have always been very open about my work, sometimes to my detriment. To write inside a vacuum, to sit on your idea and let it gestate in isolation doesn’t seem like fun at all. I feel with this little adventure, that the book can just as well bloom when it is fostered by a like-minded community. I think there is something perilous and reckless yet strangely beautiful in throwing your ego out the window and letting the world watch you try to invent something out of nothing.
I have finally arrived to the point in my life that I don’t care about how any book of mine is received, because they are written out of a pure volition of wanting to do it, not having to, and in wanting to do it, once it is done, the act of creating has already been accomplished. The rest is just grist for the mill.
Documenting it just seemed right to do. I always wanted to see someone else do it, and I haven’t found it done to my satisfaction. I could write an entry how thrilled and elated I am to finish a chapter, and the next day write how much I suck. There is a reality television vibe to it. I do understand that it will only appeal to maybe 1% of the people out there, if anyone at all, but since I am doing it for myself, it doesn’t matter to me who reads it in the end. At the very least I will eventually get a novel out of it for better or for worse.
In happenstance, I could say the negative thing is that someone can lift your ideas and run with it. This has already happened with a reputable person in Kerouac studies. However, I think once the writing on the blog is exposed enough, it is more or less on public record so if someone does lift from it, then they are pretty much hurling themselves and their work into disrepute.
You write a little on your blog about why you wanted to make the leap from biography to novel. What I want to know is how, if at all, do you think your biography work will influence your fiction?
I’m not sure that it will. The work ethic is already ingrained in me. I wanted to free myself from the world of facts and I have started resenting having to prove myself to publishers any longer. I have come to recognize that it isn’t an art form, it is a business, and I do not have a business mindset.
Also, a recent incident when my research and ideas were stolen from me has totally killed the spirit of writing biography, though I do admire others that are more honest in their profession. Operating out of my own intelligence and imagination keeps my ideas and impulses sacred and pure. I guess that’s it.
You also are a photographer and a filmmaker. While these are notable in their own right, as a writer I am curious if you see any correlation between those art forms and the literary arts? You and I have spoken before about how the narrative of film has influenced your scene-setting in your books. Can you talk a little more about this?
The only correlation for it is personal, in that I am creating out of my own impulses to satisfy me. Taking a photo is immediate gratification, writing keeps me constantly busy, and it keeps my depression at bay. It keeps me in books and it serves to keep my mind occupied and focused since it is always burning at both ends.
Through chance and not design, I have a natural tendency to see things cinematically. That takes in imagery, dialogue, and creating a setting. This is how our collective minds are trained, and to bombard a reader with minutiae just for the sake of being all-encompassing with the facts is just an exercise of indulgence. We live in new times, where the facts are available if we want them, within a few keystrokes. I think pointing to the heart of the matter, isolating a biographical scenario like it was a storyboarded scene adds to the appeal of the book tremendously. I think Kerouac also had that in mind with his “bookmovies.”
How do you find time to do everything? How do you balance all these various projects?
If I had to itemize my time, I couldn’t do it. I live this stuff. I breathe it. If we were taught at the beginning of our lives that we had to make sure we breathe at least eighteen times per minute, and it wasn’t automatic, that we had to go about our daily lives having to count, then we would crumble, sooner or later, under the pressure of it all. It would be too stressful. Instead, it comes to us automatically; we don’t have to make room for it. I just do it because it is all I think about. If I don’t do it, then I feel like shit. My mind turns to mud. I get lethargic. Unbalanced. So, like I said, it has become a survival mechanism for me, whether it is a book, a blog entry, an email or a photograph, all of it is tied into the daily phenomena of my being.
I never have considered how it is all balanced other than I keep my own schedule. When I need a break from one project to let it breathe, I move to another. Eventually I return to all of them.
Actually, managing writing projects is a lot easier than trying to manage a practical everyday life for me. To that end I am a colossal failure.
9/7/12, 10:28am: Several minor edits were made to this interview.