Taking the Measure of Jack Kerouac: A Conversation with Joyce Johnson

By Ian SchefflerDecember 21, 2012

Taking the Measure of Jack Kerouac: A Conversation with Joyce Johnson

ONE NIGHT IN 1957, Joyce Johnson was handed the phone in the kitchen of a friend’s Yorkville tenement.

“Hello. I’m Jack. Allen tells me you’re very nice. Would you like to come down to Howard Johnson’s on Eighth Street? I’ll be sitting at the counter.”

With those words, the lives of Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson intertwined, an experience she describes in her award-winning memoir Minor Characters. After watching a number of subpar, occasionally specious biographies appear in the decades since Kerouac’s death, Johnson recently recorded a second entry in the annals of Beat history. The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac was published this September. Last month, Joyce and I discussed the book, which I review in today’s edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books.


Ian Scheffler: You state in the introduction that you waited years for a definitive biography of Kerouac to appear. What made you decide that it was time to make your contribution?

Joyce Johnson: Mainly the fact that I knew that it was finally possible to look at Jack’s papers in the Berg Collection. For about 40 years, you know, no one could get access to those papers. Without those papers, there were all sorts of assumptions made about Jack, and all sorts of gaps — big gaps — in our knowledge of him. Suddenly, it was possible to look at this vast archive. I knew what I was interested in most, which was writing a book where the whole center of it would be Jack’s development as a writer, and I also knew that I wanted to explore the influence on Jack of his French-Canadian heritage, and I felt I would find material in the archive on both those interests of mine.

IS: What was it like to do research in the Berg Collection? Did you discover anything that surprised you? Can you describe the archive for our readers?

JJ: Oh, it was a wonderful experience, going there. It’s a room that probably looks very much the way it did when it was founded. There are long oak library tables and leather chairs, which, of course, were actually quite unsuitable to working with a computer. [Laughs] I’m sort of a short person, and I’m just sort of hunching over these tables. I noticed one — there was a little slant-top desk in the corner, you know, that was small and looked sort of right for me. And I asked one day, “Would I be allowed to use that desk?” And the librarian responded in horror, “No! That was Charles Dickens’s desk!” [Laughs] It was an artifact, you know, given to the library in the 1930s, and it came with a kind of cane seated chair, and evidently the Mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia, who was a rather corpulent fellow, had sat down on the chair, I believe at the ceremony, and gone right through it. [Laughs] So, nobody sat in Charles Dickens’s desk. The collection contains the archives of an extraordinary number of literary figures, and not only contains paper, but stuff called “realia,” like locks of hair and the crutch Jack had after he broke his leg when he was playing football. It contains stuff like that.

IS: Do you have any idea how that crutch managed to survive so long?

JJ: I don’t know! It seems amazing that it was kept. The Kerouac family was sort of constantly on the move, and was in Lowell, and then when [they] relocated to Queens, they lived in very cramped apartments, but somehow, this whole archive was kept together, and maintained by Jack in a very meticulous way. I think we probably have his mother to thank for making sure that it never disappeared, got lost.

IS: Do you have a favorite piece of writing by Kerouac?

JJ: Let’s see, my favorite piece of writing … there are some extraordinary passages in Visions of Cody — you know, just absolutely stunning prose that takes my breath away. This is true all through his work. I’ve always found The Subterraneans a very powerful book, and I’ve come to love Visions of Gerard, which I think is very much underestimated. I find Big Sur a tremendously powerful novel. I don’t think I have a favorite. I find different virtues in different books.

IS: How did writing a biography differ from your past work in nonfiction?

JJ: Well, my past work in nonfiction had been memoir. Actually, when I was young, I never imagined — I had no interest in writing nonfiction at all — I never imagined I would write anything but novels. But when I wrote Minor Characters in the early 1980s, I found it a very satisfying form. There’s something powerful to me about stories that come directly from life. Sometimes I’m sort of dismayed by the tidiness of a lot of fiction. The kind of predictability about it. Some of the stories of real lives are much shaggier and have a lot of surprise and unpredictability about them.

IS: You write in the introduction that your words, when you’ve been interviewed about Jack, have appeared in ways other than you had intended.

JJ: I have, you know, spent time being interviewed by people, and then when I see what they’ve written, I’ve often been dismayed. I think every writer can take the same subject, and every writer will make a different story out of it, putting the emphases in different places, highlighting this, deciding to leave out that. If you’re the subject what you will see when you read that work is something often quite different than the reality you remember. It’s a somewhat disturbing process.

IS: I can imagine.

JJ: This has happened to me over and over again. Now, there was one biographer who even made up stuff about me! For example, he concocted a whole physical fight between me and a woman named Helen Weaver, who had been Jack’s girlfriend before Jack met me. And this is something that Helen and I often laugh about, because we’re very good friends. But that was one instance in that book, which was based very much on interviews and so on. And once you see one thing, one invention, you wonder how much else there is in a book.

IS: Which biography was this?

JJ: This was a book called Subterranean Kerouac.

IS: By Ellis Amburn?

JJ: Yeah. Dreadful.

IS: Considering your experience, how do you weigh resources about Kerouac that rely heavily on interviews, like Jack’s Book?

JJ: Well, I think I rely on Jack’s Book much more than others because it consists of verbatim transcriptions. They’re presented as they were recorded. They’re not mediated by a biographer who may have an agenda on his mind. With oral history, you always have to think about it with some degree of skepticism. You know, what motive might prompt someone to remember something a certain way. What might someone be holding back? Where might someone’s memory, after many, many years, be playing tricks on them? Jack’s Book was taped, and a lot of it was racy, and colorful, and salacious — put it all in, right?

IS: Do you have a favorite line in your book? I think the first sentence is particularly haunting and powerful: “There’s a dead child buried in the pages of Jack’s Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City.” That one.

JJ: I don’t have a favorite line.

IS: What was it like to research Kerouac’s life before you met him? Was this a period that you knew something about, or was what you found new to you?

JJ: Well, of course I knew something about it. I had read the various biographies. I had read his collections of letters that appeared. I had read a very useful collection of his early writings, called Atop an Underwood. I had also read a book that contained some of his journals from the late 1940s, up to about 1951. So I knew a good deal, and yet felt there was more to know. One book that had a great deal of influence on me was a book I read in the 1980s by a French-Canadian writer, Victor-Lévy Beaulieu, called Jack Kérouac: Essai-poulet — a “chicken essay.” Which was really about Kerouac, the affinity the author feels with Kerouac as a French-Canadian. And there was something about the way he was writing about Kerouac’s French-Canadian life that resonated with me. I mean, Jack had never really very much discussed his ethnicity with me. He referred to it, you know, but I began to feel that it was a huge, unexplored subject, and that I felt closer to Jack in that little book by Victor-Lévy Beaulieu than in any of the books I had ever read about him. I felt this was an area that should definitely be explored by someone.

IS: Did your sense of who Jack was change as you wrote the book?

JJ: It expanded. I had certain hunches that certain things would be important, and, you know, that was sort of validated as I looked at his papers.

IS: Would you mind sharing any memories that you enjoy of Jack?

JJ: I have a memory of Jack, which I write about in my book, of him lying on the floor as my cat was eating from his bowl with his chin practically in the same dish. [Laughs] And, you know, talking to the cat in French. And I was very charmed by it. I found it very endearing. But until I read Visions of Cody, where there’s a scene where Gerard does this, I didn’t realize the full significance of it. When I was doing research, I sort of decoded little things Jack had said that I remembered and wondered about. For example, he had for a while suggested I call my first novel Pay Me The Penny After, which I thought was a very, very, very strange sort of sentence. But he was really quite insistent about it. And it wasn’t until I did my research and read an abandoned manuscript of his that I found out that that’s what the proprietor of a candy store in Lowell used to say to him, when he went in there when he was a kid to look through the pulp magazines he couldn’t afford to buy. I realized he’d given me a little piece of his past, although he hadn’t explained it. He’d just said that this would be the perfect title, you should really think about this! The one thing I appreciate tremendously about Jack is that he gave me a great deal of encouragement for my own writing at a time when few male artists took what women were doing seriously. It was important to me, and it helped keep me going.

IS: Did he ever read your fiction?

JJ: Yes, he did. He did. And he liked it. And he told me I would be really a good writer, you know, if I didn’t get sidetracked by having babies. [Laughs]

IS: One of the things that most struck me about your biography was the suggestion that Kerouac’s decline in middle-age may have been related to cumulative head trauma, some of which he received playing football. When did that possibility occur to you?

JJ: Over the last few years, we’ve had more and more information about cumulative head injury, which wasn’t even thought about years ago. I began to think of all the head injuries in Jack’s life, the head injuries he must have sustained playing football when he was a kid, where they were wearing these sort of thin leather helmets, which couldn’t have offered much protection. There’s one place where he writes about sort of being knocked out. He was also in an automobile accident in his late teens in Vermont, and had a head injury that landed him in the hospital for about a week or so. And his mother always said he’d never been the same after that. There were fights. People went for his head. In the spring of 1958, when he was still involved with me, he had a very, very bad beating in the Village, where he was attacked coming out of a bar, by these guys who kept beating his head against the curb, and came back to me all bleeding. I had to take him to the hospital. And he claimed that he was never the same after that. He seemed to go through a sort of change in personality, almost, that was very palpable. And he had difficulty writing. He’d been planning to write this novel called Memory Babe, which he very much wanted to write — a book about growing up in Lowell and his French-Canadian family. But he couldn’t, he just couldn’t get it going, and there’s a very telling sentence in a letter to me that he wrote, about his frustration over this book, and it was very unlike him to say, for example, “I just don’t care to remember the details.” And maybe he couldn’t really remember the details. Maybe something had happened to his brain.

IS: The Village in which Jack Kerouac could get his head bashed against the sidewalk is obviously very different than Greenwich Village is today. Have you lived in New York all the years since then?

JJ: I’ve lived in New York my entire life.

IS: What’s it been like to see the city change so much?

JJ: Well, I feel very lucky to have been downtown in the late 1950s, the 1960s, when there were so many extremely talented artists all converging on a few downtown blocks, and living in the East Village and the lofts and so on. It’s a sort of scene that’s really dispersed and disappeared. You know, there was a very flourishing bohemia, and it all depended on cheap rent. Cheap rent made lots of artistic activity possible. It saddens me to see large wonderful loft spaces, the kind that artists need, taken over by very rich people, who have this sort of conspicuous consumption of space and aren’t doing anything with it.

IS: How did you go about writing the book? How did you turn your research — all the hours in those leather chairs — into sentences and chapters?

JJ: I wrote the book by working my way forward in the research chronologically, writing as I went along, while my memories of the material were still fresh, and also my own reactions were very fresh. Which I think imparts a certain air of discovery to the text. And almost as if I were writing a novel, I found myself living within Jack’s story. It was on my mind constantly. I would wake up in the morning with new insights. A lot of writing, you know, is this unconscious process, but I was just sort of living within his story very, very intensely. I would even often dream about him. It took me over in the way that writing a novel takes one over.

IS: Was that unexpected?

JJ: Not necessarily. At the beginning I thought I would write a much more formal, more academic book than the one I ended up doing. But it took me a while to find the right voice for the book. Especially the first section of it, I wrote and rewrote.

IS: Speaking of finding a voice, I was particularly entranced by your description of Jack’s attempt when he was living in Chelsea to write a novel entirely in French. Was that a text whose existence you’d known of? What was it like to come across that and to read it?

JJ: I had heard that there were texts in French, because when I looked ahead in the catalogue, I saw that they were there. I worked my way up to them. But I was really very surprised after I read that novella that Jack was working on — La Nuit est ma femme — just a month before he wrote On the Road. I realized that it was in that book that he had found the voice, the kind of voice that he was going to give to Sal Paradise in English as the narrator of the novel. And that completely took me by surprise.

IS: Do you think La Nuit est ma femme will ever be published?

JJ: Oh, I hope so! There’s a big clamor for it to be published up in Canada. It should certainly be published up there. It should be published here, too. It’d be great if there were a bilingual edition, with a very good translation. I certainly hope that happens. I saw a lot of terrific stuff that’s never been published in Jack’s papers, which should be gathered together. He was very prolific. The case of La Nuit est ma femme — I doubt he ever even showed it to anybody. It’s just all in handwriting in his notebook. I think it’s a real gem.

IS: As you just said, and as you write in the book, there’s a big appreciation for Kerouac in French-speaking parts of Canada. Have you gone to those parts of Canada and met people who are interested in Kerouac?

JJ: No, I haven’t. Later this month there’s going to be a big sort of gathering of French-Canadian scholars talking about Kerouac up in Quebec. There’s a lot of interest up there, and they regard Jack as one of their own, you know.

IS: One of their own in the sense of “He’s just one of our writers,” or “He’s one of our great writers?”

JJ: One of our great writers.

IS: Do you think he’s more appreciated as a writer in that part of Canada than he is in the United States?

JJ: No, I don’t.

IS: I think you were speaking earlier about Windblown World, that selection of journals from the late 1940s.

JJ: Windblown World, yeah.

IS: I read that recently and I was amazed to see that one of the blurbs on the back cover was from Johnny Depp and another was from Kurt Vonnegut. What’s your sense of Jack’s popularity, and how do you think that our culture’s reverence for him has changed or not changed since you met him?

JJ: Well, he’s still surrounded by the original legend. You know, “King of the Beats,” this notion that he wrote — dashed off — On the Road in only three weeks, and a lot of that serves to obscure his real achievement as a writer. One reason I wrote my book is I think we have to get beyond that legend and take his full measure as a literary figure.


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