Tag Archives: interview

My Q&A with Novelist Ellen Meeropol

10 Jul


I’m so excited to have interviewed Ellen Meeropol, author of House Arrest, On Hurricane Island, and Kinship of Clover for the Hobart Festival of Women Writers. I’m fascinated by the questions her novels pose about where the government should draw the line between keeping our nation safe and terrorizing our own citizens as well as how far is too far when it comes to activism.

Here’s the promotional copy for On Hurricane Island:

As a major hurricane threatens the northeast, math professor Gandalf Cohen is abducted by federal agents and flown to a secret interrogation center off the coast of Maine. Austin Coombs, a young local resident, is a newly hired civilian guard assigned to the detention center. Henry Ames, a man of personal secrets, is the FBI special agent in charge of Gandalf’s case and doubts the professor’s terrorist involvement; Tobias, his second-in-command, disagrees, preferring violent interrogation. As the hurricane slams the shore, conflict detonates and each character must choose a side if they’re to survive the storm.

Told over the five days approaching the anniversary of 9/11, by varying voices on both extremes of the political divide, On Hurricane Island is both a fast-paced political thriller and a literary examination of the sociopolitical storm facing our society. How far should government go in the name of protecting our national security? What happens when governmental powers of surveillance and extra-legal interrogation are expanded? How free are we?

Ellen Meeropol has worked as a daycare teacher and women’s reproductive health counselor before becoming a nurse practitioner. It was in her twenty-four years working at a children’s hospital that she began authoring and co-authoring articles and book chapters focused on pediatric issues and latex allergy. The nursing honor society Sigma Theta Tau honored her for excellence in nursing journalism, and she received the Ruth A. Smith Writing Award for excellence in writing in the profession of nursing. She went on to receive the Chair’s Excellence Award from the Spina Bifida Association of America for her advocacy around latex allergy and spina bifida. In 2000, Meeropol decided to pursue a life of letters in earnest and earned her MFA from the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine. She didn’t leave behind her advocacy though: her novel Kinship of Clover involves a character who has spina bifida.

You can read my conversation with Ellen Meeropol here.

For more Q&As with the Hobart Festival of Women Writers, visit the Festival blog.

Register for the wonderful weekend of writing and community in the Catskills, and sign up for workshops by Ellen, me, and others here.

How much power should the government have to keep our country safe–what if it means less privacy and less due process? What cause would you break the law for? Let me know in the comments below.


My Q&A with Poet Marilyn McCabe

3 Jul


I had the great honor of interviewing poet Marilyn McCabe, who will be teaching a writing workshop this September at the Hobart Festival of Women Writers. We talked about MFAs, her video-poems, and the Adirondacks.

Marilyn McCabe is a poet with a penchant for video-poems, an essayist, a fiction writer, and a singer of jazz and classical music. A Room of Her Own Foundation awarded her poem On Hearing the Call to Prayer Over the Marcellus Shale on Easter Morning the Orlando Prize in the autumn of 2012, and Los Angeles Review published it. Judge Gray Jacobik selected her poetry book Perpetual Motion for publication for the Hilary Tham Capital Collection by The Word Works in 2012. The same publisher went on to publish her second full-length collection of poems, Glass Factory, in 2016. She blogs at https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com.

Check out the interview here.

Read more of my interviews with guest authors at Hobart Festival of Women Writers here.

Register for the Festival here, and don’t forget to sign up for my writing workshop Wild Women on the Road!

What are your thoughts on MFAs? Are they great for connecting with authors, mentors, and agents … or not worth the hefty price tag?

Here are a few of my posts on MFAs:::



I’ll Be on the Radio Today!

29 Aug


The lovely Simona David interviewed me for WIOX Community Radio to discuss the writing workshop — Literary Relationships: Writing In, Into, and To Community — I’ll be leading at the Hobart Book Village Festival of Women Writers. Tune in this Monday at 1pm to hear about why I love Hobart Book Village, why you need literary friendships like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac‘s, and how to deal with jealousy in the industry.

The Hobart Festival of Women Writers takes place September 9th through September 11 in the Catskills. Here’s a description of the writing workshop I’ll be leading:

Surveying famous literary friendships throughout history—Dickinson and Higginson; Lewis and Tolkien; Hurston and Rawlings; Kerouac and Ginsberg …. we’ll discuss the value of friendship among writers from both a personal and professional perspective as well as how writers today can achieve this type of community through such avenues as residencies, writing groups, and social media.

We’ll also consider the notion of dialoguing with writers past, present, and future through parody, homage, collaboration, and criticism. In-class writing exercises will explore these ideas and more.

Tune in to WIOX Community Radio today at 1pm to learn more!

Two Love Stories Inspired by Jack Kerouac

14 Feb

“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk- real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.” ~Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Happy Valentine’s Day! I just want to take a moment on this sappy holiday to say how thankful I am for each and every one of you who reads my blog, leaves comments, and forwards it to friends. The life of a writer can be quite solitary at times, as we hole ourselves up in a room with our notebook or computer, and I’m so thankful for the community I’ve made through writing, researching, giving readings, and social media. Maybe I’m a big old nerd for spending so much time in front of a computer, but through blogging, I met my coauthor and made friends along the way so that has to count for something!  Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules to read and support my writing!!

If you’re looking for a Valentine’s Day read this weekend, here are two great love stories inspired by On the Road.


Beatitude by Larry Closs


Mañana Means Heaven by Tim Z. Hernandez

Will you be my Valentine?

Tim Z. Hernandez Gives a Behind-the-Scenes Look at Manana Means Heaven

16 Sep

TimTim Z. Hernandez photo courtesy of the University of Arizona Press

I’ve often thought that poets make the best prose writers, and I was reminded of this once again as I read award-winning poet Tim Z. Hernandez’s novel Mañana Means Heaven. The story is about Bea Franco, the real-life woman who inspired Jack Kerouac to write one of the most poignant passages in On the Road—the story of “the Mexican girl,” Terry. Mañana Means Heaven is by no means a work of fan fiction. It is beautifully crafted and painstakingly researched, and stands on its own. Even as I got caught swept up in the story, I kept wondering how Hernandez did it—how was he able to write such a captivating story about a real person, one he’d met and interviewed, one whose children he’d met, who for so long seemed mythical herself yet was perhaps overshadowed by Beat mythmaking?

When the University of Arizona Press asked me if I’d be interested in participating in a blog hop with Tim Hernandez, I jumped on the opportunity. Special thanks to the University of Arizona Press for arranging this interview and for being great to work with. And, of course, a big thanks to Tim for so thoughtfully answering all my questions.

* * *


How did you first come across Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and how old were you?

I first read it when I was around 17. I believe a friend of mine from Sweden, Jonas Berglund, turned me onto it. He was the poet back then, while I was mostly into painting. He was trying to get me to go backpacking with him in Europe, and he kept telling me how cool it would be. He told me I should read “On the Road,” so I did. That summer I split with him to Europe.

What did you think of it at the time and how has your perspective on the novel changed over time?

I’ve read OTR three times now. At age 17, and then in my early twenties, and then later at around 30. At age 17 I identified with the desire to break free, to adventure and take risks, to get away from the place I called home. In my early twenties I began questioning whether or not these guys, Kerouac and his crew (The Beats), were just completely insane. Also, the idea of a threshold appeared. I related more with the underlying question Sal Paradise was seeking to answer, that is, do I continue on this path of wild abandon, this path as perpetual seeker of truths, by whatever means, OR, do I fall in line with the rest of the world and live a “normal” life clocking in day to day and having a family? It was a matter of maturation. Not that I decided to let go of that desire “to seek” but just that I would go about it differently, in my own way. And then by age thirty, I was reading the book less for its subject and more for the writing itself, the technique and process, and also the idea of lineage. This is what sparked the initial seed for Mañana Means Heaven.

In the introduction to Manana Means Heaven, you say that you became interested in the story of “the Mexican girl” Terry/Bea Franco because it was the part of Kerouac’s novel that you could relate to. I understand that your parents were migrant workers near where Bea’s family worked as migrant workers. I know you also worked for the California Council for the Humanities interviewing immigrants about their lives and struggles. Were your parents immigrants? Can you talk a little about your relationship to and interest in the migrant worker experience and how it relates to your writing?

Yes, all of this was very influential to my wanting to write about Bea Franco. My work with CCH, and even the Colorado Humanities today, has been very instrumental in the research and process for the making of this book. It’s the experience of working for them that has emboldened me to walk up porches and knock on the front doors of total strangers, for the sake of stories. Not to mention, having these two entities as a resource throughout my research has been invaluable. As for the other part of your question, my parents were migrant farmworkers, but they were born in Los Angeles and Texas, so they weren’t immigrants. I’m the third generation in my family to be born here in the United States, and I think this is also why I related to Bea so much once I finally met her. My first question to her was, “What do you think about being called the Mexican Girl?” She laughed and replied, “I’m not from Mexico, I was born in L.A..” So she was very conscious of her own identity in this way too. She was not an immigrant by any means, and I believe that it’s possible this assumption about her is what kept Kerouac biographers from finding her, or even looking. In any case, having come from the same background as Bea Franco, the farmworker experience, living among the labor camps of the San Joaquin Valley, this was all part of my growing up. My parents and grandparents used to travel all over picking crops, grapes, hoeing sugar beets, so I knew the people from this place very well. When Sal Paradise entered the San Joaquin Valley in “On the Road” I felt he was now entering my world, a distinct place that is in every fiber of who I am, and I knew I could write about this with some authority.

Similar to your experience with Bea Franco, part of what continues to draw me to Kerouac is his ethnic experience and how he writes about feeling a duality within him. I was born here in New York City, but my father is an immigrant. He moved here from Greece when he was in his thirties, and he felt embarrassed because sometimes people couldn’t understand him because of his accent. Kerouac’s parents were immigrants from Quebec, and although he spoke English as a child he really didn’t feel comfortable with the language until he was a teenager. I think our immigrant experience was much different, though, because of our skin color. Kerouac is seen as a quintessential American novelist while Bea got pegged as “the Mexican girl” even though they were both born here in the States. Was Kerouac’s portrayal of the immigrant experience something you were interested in or were you mainly interested in telling Bea’s story?

Yes, all valid points here. Bea too was in that strange purgatory of “immigrant born in the U.S.,” and she too was very light skinned with green eyes, and because of it was sort of an insider-outsider, similar to Kerouac’s and your own situation. In some of our conversations she talked about how she was treated differently, sometimes cruelly, while growing up because of her complexion. In many ways, hers was a real “Chicana” experience, before the term was popular. She was balancing between two cultures at once, was educated in Los Angeles public schools, spoke fluent English and Spanish. She loved both the Mexican classic songs, and the big bands of her time. In 2010 she still had stacks of records by Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, folks like that. When I first met her she had a portrait of Ronald Reagan in her dining room. It took my aback for a moment, until I asked her about it. I was afraid she’d say something like, “He was our greatest President.” But instead, she said, “He was a great actor and I loved his movies,” and then she chuckled. Bea loved being American, and even though her father was from Mexico she clearly identified with aspects from both sides of the border. In regards to the last part of your question, yes, I was mostly after Bea’s story, about who she was/ is. As a fan of Kerouac’s writing, in the beginning it was tough for me to distance the two, but it was necessary to do so. If I was to write about Bea’s life, to fill in that “missing link” about who “The Mexican Girl” was, I had to start from scratch. That is, I had to, in some ways, reject what other biographers had written about her, and even reject what Kerouac himself had written about her, and go straight to the source—Bea and her family—and start there. So then the question of what she remembered of her time with Jack was no longer significant. Instead I would ask her, Tell me who you are? Where were you born? Who did you love? Approaching it this way would allow readers to enter the book on her terms, not based on anything else written about her previously. This is what I was after.

The Beats have often been criticized for the way they treated and portrayed women. In fact, I have been criticized in the media for being a woman who likes Beat writing. You’ve given voice to one of the most influential women connected to the Beats. The story of “The Mexican Girl” was the first part of On the Road Kerouac got published in a lit magazine. Some might argue that Kerouac used her for her body or for gaining experience for his book. Your depiction of their relationship was quite tender and sympathetic toward both of them. It reads like a beautiful love story. What was your thought process in writing about Bea striving to make a change in her life and cheating on her husband, and Jack leaving and never reconnecting with her?

Yes, my initial idea, as I started to envision the book, was that I’d somehow have the opportunity to “even the score.” That I would make Jack out to be this womanizer only after his own “kicks” or “experiences.” Of course, this was still before I had ever met Bea. Too, I think in order to write a good story, an honest or authentic story, at least in this case, one has to suspend those kind of judgments about their own characters. This occurred to me after I had met Bea and began speaking with her. She never viewed herself as the “damsel in distress,” and in fact, was a woman who took responsibility for her own decisions, in her early years and even now, yet was also very much a romantic. After speaking with her I quickly saw that she was not the naive “Mexican Girl” that Kerouac made “Terry” out to be in “On the Road.” Nothing in our conversations told me that for Bea, at least in her own mind and heart, ever doubted their relationship was a real possibility. Of course, she was aware that this could also mean a new start for her and her children. And this is the sense I get too from reading her love letters to him. In the end, the relationship had to feel like a very real possibility, for her mostly, but for Kerouac too. Because if he didn’t believe in it, then going by what I know about her, she would not have wasted her time.

You tracked down the real Bea Franco and got to know her. How did she feel about being a character in Kerouac’s novel and how open was she when answering questions for your book?

When I located her in September 2010, she nor her children had any clue about the legacy of “The Mexican Girl.” She was just about to turn 90 years old, and when I did tell her, I said something to the effect of, “Did you know you are a famous character in a famous American novel?” Her children, Albert and Patricia, laughed out loud. Bea just sort of nodded and said, “Oh really. I didn’t do nothing so special.” The next thing I did was take out a list of over 20 Kerouac biographies that mention her name. She just shrugged, like it was no big deal. Her son though, Albert Franco, who Kerouac dubbed “Little Johnny” in On the Road, he opened up his laptop and started typing stuff into the search engine. There he was now at age 70, blown away by it all. I can’t describe the feeling of it, but the word “surreal” comes to mind. I just sort of sat there praying they wouldn’t kick me out of the house. A couple of visits later, while interviewing Bea, Albert asked me, “After all these years…how can so many people mention my mother’s name in their books and never tell us about it?” I didn’t have an answer for them. But I knew right then that I had already done a couple of interviews and still had not formally asked their permission. I felt, symbolically at least, that this was necessary. So I asked her point blank, “Bea, can I write the book about your life?” She said, “Sure.” I replied to her, “What would you like the world to know about you?” She answered, “Oh, I guess that I tried hard to be a good person.” Albert was sitting with us too. At the time he looked reluctant with the idea of yet another book. I told him, “People will continue to learn about your mother from all these books, or I can write the only book with her input, her own words, from her perspective, and after that everyone will no longer guess at who she is.” I think it was after he did his research on me and saw that I was a kid from Fresno whose parents were also migrant farmworkers, did he finally begin to trust me. Of course, Albert and I are now great friends.

How did her children react? You uncovered Bea’s affair and described her and Jack’s relationship in pretty sensual terms. Did you feel any awkwardness writing about any of this or any responsibility toward her and her family for how you portrayed the events?

Patricia and Albert are both very proud of the book. As are the rest of their family and friends, many of who are the children or grandchildren of some of the background characters in my book. As for the “sensual” aspect, this is probably where I had the toughest time writing the book. Which seems weird coming from me, since both of my first two books have been called “raw,” “graphic,” “sexual,” in past reviews. But here I was dealing with someone else’s life, not purely my own imagination. My first attempts with the love-making scenes were horrible. A good friend who was a first reader told me, “You’re writing as if Bea herself is standing over your shoulder.” And this was true. I was worried about losing the trust of her and her children. I didn’t want it to come across as distasteful. But still, in order for anyone to be convinced of this romance, an affair where two adults holed up in a hotel room for several days, then the range of intimacy had to be present—everything from long talks in the wee hours of the night, to the ebb and flow of emotions, sex, regret, risk, liberation, all at once. I’ve long considered myself to be the kind of writer who doesn’t shy away from “the real,” and in fact, this is what I returned to as the book was being written.

Manana Means Heaven is categorized as a work of fiction. How much of it is true? In literature, where do you think the lines are drawn between fiction and creative nonfiction?

This is the kind of question that would require many pages to even scratch the surface, so I’ll try and give you the brief version. “Fiction” and “Creative Non-Fiction” are genres, and I treat them as such. Neither are qualified substitutes for “the actual.” Isn’t this part of what Kerouac’s own legacy is built on? The idea of writing it as he lived it? If I had to put it into a percentage I would say about 75% of Manana Means Heaven is “true” from Bea’s perspective. The other 25% is authored by me, but also rooted in truth, about the life of farmworkers in the 1940’s, about the history of that part of California and the people who worked the land. Like I told Bea herself, even though it’s called “fiction” it’s still closer to the truth about who you are than anything else out there. Which is odd when considering that most of what is out there can be found in the “Non-fiction” books shelves. Reason being is that biographers have only counted on Kerouac’s version of events. One of the first biographers I contacted when my research began was Paul Maher Jr. This was because his book, “Jack Kerouac’s American Journey” had the most unique pieces of information about Bea than any other book out there at the time. I wondered how he knew certain things, so I asked him. Turns out he had read Bea’s letters to Kerouac, which were housed in Kerouac’s archives at the New York Public Library. So Maher had dug a little deeper than most in regards to Bea. And now only recently, Joyce Johnson’s new book “The Voice is All” has echoed some of what Maher had discovered. I imagine now that my book is out we’ll start to see more accurate information about Bea Franco, which is also a big part of why I wrote this book.

You’re also an award-winning poet. I think poets often make the best writers. Can you talk a bit about how you approached this novel as a poet or how the writing process differed?

Yes, ultimately, I feel at home with poetry. For me, prose is like going to work, slinging a hammer from 6am–5pm. Poetry is like the ice cold beer you crack open when the day is done. Poetry was my focus throughout my undergrad and graduate degrees. But I do love telling stories too. Why can’t both happen? In writing I don’t begin by saying “I’m going to write a poem today.” Or, “I’m going to make this a story.” I write and allow the muse to tell me what it is. Even then I’m skeptical, or open about it. I keep writing until I get to a point where I go, okay, now I have to make a decision here. In the end, my main goal is tell a damn good story. It so happens that for me a good story is one that works on multiple levels. Not merely subject, but on the line level. For me a good story also has language that sings, that isn’t afraid to dig deep in the crates, use fresh turns of phrase, make rhythm, use imagery that evokes emotion.

Can you talk a little about the literary device you used in opening and closing the book in the same way?

Yes, there are two ends to the book, Bea’s story, and then my search for Bea. The idea of starting the book at the second ending emerged somewhat organically. I had to figure out how to let the reader know that this book is rooted in my interviews with Bea, and I had to address the one thing that I knew would be on the minds of Kerouac fans, that is, what did she remember of her time with Kerouac. And then there was one big wrench in the machine that I also had to figure out how to get around. By starting from the very end of what is considered the “non-fiction” portion I was able to set these three things up so that when the reader finally enters the “fictional” portion of Bea’s story, they have suspended their idea of “fiction.” The book went through something like twelve drafts before I could figure this part out. There was a lot of shuffling chapters around and reconfiguring the whole thing…in fact, there were times when I thought to myself, who am I kidding? It’ll never work. But I finally found a combination that did work.

* * *

Tim and I will be continuing this conversation this Thursday night at La Casa Azul.

New Image

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Meanwhile, join Tim Z. Hernandez on the rest of his blog-hop!

Tim Z. Hernandez Blog Tour:

Tuesday, September 17 | The Daily Beat http://thedailybeatblog.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, September 18 | La Bloga http://labloga.blogspot.com/

Thursday, September 19 | The Big Idea http://www.jasonfmcdaniel.com/

Friday, September 20 | The Dan O’Brien Project http://thedanobrienproject.blogspot.com/

Saturday, September 21 | Impressions of a Reader http://www.impressionsofareader.com/

Clip: Green Wedding Shoes

7 May



The lovely editors at Resource Magazine asked me to cover a story on indie, DIY weddings for their Spring 2013 issue. I got to interview Jen Campbell of the blog Green Wedding Shoes, who is so sweet and creative.

You can pick up a print copy at your local Barnes & Noble or keep sitting where you are right now and get the digital edition.

Blues.Gr Interviewed Me about the Beats and Greece!

27 Nov

What mistakes of the Beat Generation would I most like to correct?

What role did Greek immigrants play in Jack Kerouac’s life?

How would I spend a day with Gregory Corso?

What does Greek philosophy have to do with Beat writing?

Am I a Beat??

Find out my answers at Blues.Gr!

Athens-based writer Michael Limnios has been interviewing people associated with the Beat Generation for Blues.Gr.  He has an impressive catalog of interviews, featuring such names as Amiri Baraka, Helen Weaver, Levi Asher, Dennis McNally, and so many other fascinating figures.  I don’t know how I ever got lucky enough to be even remotely associated with these people, but I’m honored.  Michael asks unique questions so the interviews touch on aspects of the so-called Beat Generation that aren’t always addressed.

Next time I’m in Greece, I’ll have to see if he’s available to sit down in the platea and chat about the Beats and jazz and rembetiko over a glass of ouzo!

Writing Wednesday: Building Your Book Before You Even Begin Writing It

5 Sep

David Krell’s article “From Book to . . . Blog? Inspiration for the Aspiring Nonfiction Author,” published in Publishing Perspectives is jam-packed with great advice for nonfiction writers.  To sum it up succinctly: start garnering interest in your nonfiction book before you even publish it.

Krell offers five tips on how to build your author platform before you’ve even published books.  He advises that you can score interviews and forewords for your book as well as lectures at conferences before you’ve even finished writing your book.  This, in turn, will improve your chances of writing a well-informed book, obtaining a reputable agent, and selling your book successfully because you’ll have taken the time to build up your reputation as an authority on the subject and gotten other authorities on the subject to contribute to your book.  You should read his tips on Publishing Perspectives for more insight on how to begin building your platform and become a successful author now, even before you’ve written a book.

In relation to Krell’s advice, here are a few questions I think a nonfiction writer should start thinking about as early as possible:

Who is your target audience?

What are the sub-themes of your book?  What are the various angles you can use to market your book?  (Krell’s book is about the Brooklyn Dodgers, but his friend suggests it’s also about urban history.  One of my books is a memoir about growing up Greek American in New Jersey.  It touches on family dynamics, coming-of-age stories, New Jersey, Greece, identity, and the immigrant experience.  Another of the books I’m working on is about Jack Kerouac.  Looking at it through a broader lens, it could appeal to anyone interested in the Beat Generation, the 1940s and 1950s, travelogues, and American history.)

Who would you like to interview?  (Approach them now.)

Who would you like to write your foreword?  (Approach them now.)

Who would you like to blurb your book?  (A blurb is the endorsement on the back of a book.  Approach people now.)

What associations are there for your subject?  (Sign up for the mailing list, get to know its leaders, volunteer to help with an event or to write a guest blog entry.)

What conferences are held on your subject—or on your sub-theme?  (Begin attending, meeting people, speaking.)

What websites are about your subject or sub-theme?  (Sign up for their newsletter, leave comments on their posts, offer to guest blog.)

What books are similar to yours?  (Read them to get ideas.  Also, read the acknowledgements to find out who their agent is.  Begin following the agent’s work to see if you’re interested in signing with them.)

Are there any other questions you would add to the list?

By thinking about these questions now, you’ll have a clearer vision of where you’re headed.  You’ll also be more motivated to continue writing because you’ll have people who are already invested in your success.

Happy writing!

Exclusive Interview with J. Haeske, Author of Retracing Jack Kerouac

7 Aug

Jack Kerouac is the type of author who inspires pilgrimages. People don’t just read his novels. They endeavor to live his novels. And because much of Kerouac’s work is based on actual places, it’s easy for fans to track down not just his birth home and the bars he wrote in but the very places he describes in his books. J. Haeske did just that. He traveled around the country, visiting places that Kerouac visited, photographing places Kerouac described with words. He records these literary landmarks on his blog, Retracing Jack Kerouac. Each blog entry offers a photograph and some background information to situate the reader. Haeske is currently writing a book based on the material from the blog, entitled Anywhere Road.  Below is my exclusive interview with Haeske, which is interesting for those who are fans of the Beat Generation writers, those with wanderlust, and writers interested in going from blog to book.


Photo via J. Haeske


How did you first become interested in Jack Kerouac?

I believe it was a friend recommending On the Road (what else?) to me about 20 years ago. The main attraction in the beginning I suppose was the description of travel and seeing the US, its landscapes, cities and people, that made the book so fascinating to me. I come from Europe, so an US road trip is appealing as it is so different landscape- and place-wise from what we are used to over here, and of course all the films, songs and books you see, hear and read. The notion of traveling somewhat apart from the usual tourist routes and in a unsual kind of way as portrayed in the book held a special appeal to me, as I guess it held and still holds to most people that care about the book.

What made you decide to physically go on the road and retrace Kerouac’s steps?

As I said in the previous question, a road trip through the US seemed a fascinating idea for a long time, but it took me until 2009 (you know how life is) to decide to finally undertake the trip. The catalyst was actually the record One Fast Move Or I’m Gone (as part of the DVD/CD project by the same name from Kerouac Films) by Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard. When I first listened to the song “California Zephyr,” describing the train journey from New York to San Francisco, it clicked. I knew that the time was ripe to do it, and I set about planning the trip I did take in October of 2010. So you could say it was 20+ years in the making. I also knew that I had to do something a bit more with the photos I would be taking then just load them up onto Flickr, so I came up with the idea of the blog and book. I also like to see both as my own small contribution to work related to Kerouac, as I haven’t had the chance to gather and add any new and first-hand information to all the information about his life that are out there already (and still appearing in books such as yours).

You began your first trip in 2010.  Where did you go, and how long were you on the road for?

I only had 3 weeks for that trip, so I had to leave out a lot of places I ideally would have liked to visit. My first stop was San Francisco and I planned on checking out places I was aware of at that point, such as North Beach, 29 Russell Street and the old Six Gallery. Fortunately I went to the City Lights bookstore on my first day and discovered Bill Morgan’s invaluable guides The Beat Generation in San Francisco and The Beat Generation in New York, so I got to know of many more locations in both cities (not to mention the fantastic time I had in that magic place; it felt overwhelming to sit upstairs in the poetry room reading for a few hours). From San Francisco I took the California Zephyr train to Denver, where I spent a few days, mostly wandering up and down Market, Larimer and Wazee streets in what is now called LoDo. From all I read and saw, I have to say that the area looks much different than what it must have looked like in the 1940s and ’50s, so I didn’t find any of the pool halls and bars Kerouac wrote about in books such as Visions of Cody. Fortunately Union Station apparently looks pretty much the same as the time Kerouac dropped off his mum there when she got on the train back east after his failed 1949 attempt to make a home for them in Denver. I then took another Zephyr train to Omaha, a city which didn’t actually play a big part in Kerouac’s life and is only mentioned a few times in his books, but I went there anyway and found it to be very much (with my limited experience) a typical Midwest city, so it was definitely worth going there. Due to time constraints I took a plane (rather then a train) from Omaha over to Boston and from there a commuter train to Jack’s hometown Lowell, where I also spent a few days. I probably should have stayed longer, and I also wasn’t aware then of quite a few houses he lived in, so another visit to Lowell in the future is due. From Lowell I took another train down to New York where I, again with Bill Morgan’s books’ help, checked out and photographed some more places, such as the area around the Columbia University campus.

Since then, how many other trips have you taken to retrace Kerouac’s travels?

I only undertook one other trip so far, to New York, in March of this year. Although that was a rather short trip, it proved to be very worthwhile, as I got to go to Northport were he spent a number of years in the late 1950s/early 1960s, as usual living with his mum. Compared to the early 1940s he was by that time home much more often and mainly went into New York for business meetings or to go on parties. I found Northport to be very charming and a lovely place, no wonder they stayed there for that long. This being Kerouac, he was of course always planning on moving to various other places, such as cabins in upstate New York or closer to his hometown Lowell, and Florida, where they moved to eventually, after another brief stay in Lowell, when he was married to Stella Sampas.

But there are still quite a few more places I will have to check out at some point: the house he lived in for 3 months in 1949 in Denver and Central City for example, all the places in Florida and North Carolina he and his family lived in, as well the area around San Francisco, such as Bixby Canyon and Marin County and a few others.

How do you think traveling cross country has changed from Kerouac’s time in the 1940s and ’50s to the present day?

Of course most people travel by plane nowadays, which is a shame in my opinion and that’s why I prefer to take trains, simply because it allows you to “read the landscape” as Kerouac loved to do himself. I do not think that it really is a good idea to sleep on the hood of your car in the middle of Mexico nowadays, as Sal, Cody and Marylou did in On the Road. I guess hitchhiking is much more cumbersome nowadays, and I’m not even sure if riding freight trains is even possible anymore nowadays with all the security measures and stuff, but Kerouac has been complaining about this as early as the 1950s.

What did you learn about travel from Kerouac?

I have to admit that my method of traveling is rather boring compared to the trips described in On the Road: no long drives from North Carolina to New York in one go with a wild gang and all that. That said, I will be trying out riding a Greyhound bus on my next US trip, just to find out what that is like, although I can’t imagine I will be enyoing that very much. I also try to be more open-minded when traveling, (I am a bit of a control-freak and tend to plan my travels rather thoroughly). And I try to speak to people I meet more nowadays, which is a something of a challenge for me, as I am rather shy and introverted – so I guess you could say the last two things I mentioned are what Kerouac has told me about travel. Perhaps most importantly though is the urge to actually want to go and see the world as much as I can. Kerouac definitely infected me with the travel bug. I also have to add that the aspect of “reading the landscape” and getting to know places I see has always been the most fascinating aspect of his works On the Road and Lonesome Traveler. I’ve never been all that much into all the drugs and “wild” times Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg and Huncke had, as colorful and intriguing that is to read about, it’s just a bit too destructive for me. I guess I’m too normal/boring for that.

What were some of your own memorable experiences from your time on the road?

There are so many I can think of–the whole trip has definitely been the best one I ever undertook so far in my life. The train journey from San Francisco to Denver especially was the most overwhelming travel experience yet, so this is not easy to answer. But If I have to choose one it would be the lucky break I had in Lowell. I was standing in front and taking photographs of his birthplace on Lupine Road, when this pickup drove up and these two guys got out asking me if I was a Kerouac fan. When I told them yes, they asked if I wanted to come inside and have a look around. One of them was the current owner and they were in the process of renovating the apartment before renting it out again, so I had the chance to stand in the room he was apparently born in and check out all the other rooms too – the apartment looked pretty old-fashioned so it is possible (although not very likely, so it’s probably just wishful thinking) that bits in it were there when he was born there in 1922 (maybe the chandelier in the main room, that looked very old). Unfortunately, I was too shy to ask if I could take some photographs from the inside of the apartment, which is my biggest regret about the trip.

The other outstanding experience was my visit to the Kerouac archive at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library in March this year. Browsing through some of his old family photographs, his correspondence and the travel maps he used was fascinating. I especially loved the hand-drawn map of the US on which he marked the places and cities that were playing a part in On the Road and a short snippet of a draft of the opening paragraph on the back.

The book you’re working on will contain the photographs you’ve taken while visiting places Kerouac has been.  Will it be a photography book or are photos just a portion of your book?

It will to a very large part be comprised of photographs with only a short introduction and an index listing places and/or explaining the reasons for including the photographs I chose, just to give a bit of context. I don’t really feel comfortable enough as a writer to include more text and describing my experiences, so yes it will mainly be a photography book.

What do you think of the Beat photography—for example, work by Fred McDarrah, Robert Frank, and of course Allen Ginsberg—that exists? 

I have to admit that I so far only had the chance to get Allen Ginsberg’s Beat Memories. I am still trying to get hold  a copy of Robert Frank’s The Americans and don’t really know much of Fred McDarrah’s work, so I can’t really comment about those two in detail, especially the latter. However, I like Ginsberg’s photography work a lot. Of course it’s a whole different aesthetic to the photos I take, and he was mainly photographing people, which I don’t really do, but I like the grainy black-and-white style of those photos a great deal. But incidentally my favorite Kerouac photograph is the one taken by Allen Ginsberg on the fire escape of his partment at 206 East 7th Street in the East Village. He also took the saddest one of Kerouac in 1964 in Ginsberg’s apartment at 704 East 5th Street, in which Kerouac at 42 looks about 65 years old, slumped in a chair and marked by his alcoholism – heartbreaking.

What are the top 3 places fans of Kerouac should visit?

  • One can’t really do without Lowell. I especially enjoyed the Centralville part of the town, as I believe it is probably the area that has changed the least since then, whereas, as far as I can tell, the Pawtucketville area has been transformed quite considerably, mainly by all the UMASS buildings.
  • San Francisco, simply because it is such a great city with all that lovely architecture and gorgeous landscape around it. As much as I felt a bit freaked out wandering down Market Street and the rest of the Tenderloin, the image of the (now sadly gone) “redbrick area behind the SP (Southern Pacific) station” and the bum hanging around there is still one of the most memorable images in my mind when it comes to Kerouac’s work.
  • In and around New York: The Columbia University campus, mainly because it played such an important role in his life and brought together the Beat Generation main players. Also the houses in various parts of Queens, such as the one on Cross Bay Blvd in Ozone Park, where the family lived for a few years and in which his dad died. Also the three houses in Northport – as I mentioned before, it’s a lovely little town and the houses he lived in there look very nice and New England-ish, and as such hard for me to understand why he wanted to leave it for a place like Florida, especially considering he couldn’t stand the heat (much as I can’t). I know it was mainly for wanting to escape all the attention in and around New York he’s been getting after the publication of On the Road, but as it turned out, the move didn’t actually prevent his unfortunate and sad early decline.

For more on Retracing Jack Kerouac and Anywhere Road, visit J. Haeske’s blog.