Fascinated by Process: an interview with Barbara Shoup

Normally, I ignore requests from publicists asking me to review books on this blog.  I love reviewing books for other sites, but this blog is a personal space, not a marketing space.

But this summer I got a request I couldn't turn down. And I think many of you will enjoy hearing about this book as well as the long and winding publishing path that its author traveled.

Barbara Shoup is the executive director of the Indiana Writer's Center and the author of eight novels, including a School Library Journal Best Adult Book for Young Adults, Vermeer’s Daughter, and two others – Wish You Were Here and Stranded in Harmony – selected as American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults.

She's an accomplished author, clearly; but what really captured me was the title of her latest book: Looking for Jack Kerouac (Lacewing Books, 2014). As many of you know, I've been a little obsessed with On the Road at certain points of my life. Here's the description of her book from the press release:

When Paul Carpetti discovers “On the Road” in Greenwich Village while on a class trip 
to New York City, the world suddenly cracks open and he sees that life could be more 
than the college degree his mother is determined for him to achieve, a good job and, 
eventually, marriage to his girlfriend, Kathy. But upon his return, his mother is 
diagnosed with terminal cancer and his world falls apart.

Set in 1964, Looking for Jack Kerouac tells the story of how Paul’s dreams of a 
different life and his grief at the loss of his mother set him on a road trip with his rowdy 
friend, Duke, that includes a wild night on Music Row in Nashville, an all-too-real 
glimpse of racism; and an encounter with a voluptuous mermaid named 
Lorelei – landing him in St. Petersburg, where he finds real friendship and, in time, Jack 
Kerouac. By then a ruined man, living with his mother, Kerouac is nothing like the 
person Paul has traveled so far to meet.

Yet, in the end, it is Kerouac who gives him the key that opens up the next phase of his life.

I met Barb in a Starbucks north of Indy one Sunday afternoon and we chatted for an hour about writing process, wanderlust, and brain cancer. I've edited our conversation and will present it here on the blog in two parts. (And P.S., doing this was so fun and made me really wish that I were one of the interviewers for Longform!)

Lots of my blog readers are also writers or aspiring writers.  Can you talk about your journey as a writer?  Is it something you always wanted to do?

Yeah, it is.  When I was a little girl, I would make little squiggles on my paper, writing "stories" before I knew how to write.  Once I learned to write, I wrote all the time,  but I was kind of a secret writer.  I had these little notebooks I stashed away.

Then I had this experience in which I wrote my first novel when I was eleven, and it was about a slave girl escaping by underground railroad.  Except that I thought the underground railroad was a subway.  So, you know, it was forty pages, and I sent it off to a a publisher that I found in a library book, and I of course received my first rejection.  Later, in school when we got to the unit on the Underground Railroad, oh my God, I was so mortified that  I didn't write again for nearly twenty-five years.

By that time I was teaching, and a kid said to me, "So did you ever want to be something other than a teacher?" And you know, you should be honest with your students, so I told him that once I had wanted to be a writer.  And he said, "So why aren't you?"  -- nailing me in the way that high school kids do.

I was really lucky.  I published a novel within a couple of years of that, and I had no training as a writer. I had no idea what I was doing.

How did you get your first publishing deal?

Again, I was just really lucky.  I discovered the Writer's Center, which had just started up, and so I took a class there, and I was working at the time for a different degree that I eventually abandoned, but I went to see if I could get into a creative writing class.  They wouldn't let me in, but I had finished the draft of the novel by then, and I talked to this guy about the possibility of doing an independent study, and he looked at the novel and said, "This is really good!"  He helped me find an agent.  I got an agent, but the novel didn't sell.  

But then the second one sold.  And then it took me twelve years to publish another one.

Did that first one ever get published?

No.  I ended up sort of mining it in some form for another book that did get published, but it never got published, which I think is true of a lot of first novels.

But anyway, I went twelve years, and it was kind of like I had done it in some combination of instinct and dumb luck, and I didn't know how to do it again.  So I did that 10,000 hours thing they talk about.  I didn't do anything but write.

You were just writing for those twelve years.

I wrote and wrote and wrote.  Novels and drafts of novels, and they were all rejected.  And then I finally wrote Wish You Were Here. It was sold as a young adult novel, which was interesting to me.  That was 1994, and it was kind of like the beginning of what we think of now as more modern YA, and I had mixed feelings about it, because people were, why don't you write a book for real people... and some people still feel that way...

But as it turned out, it was a good field for me.  I think that book - it didn't make much money -well, it didn't make any money - but it was a Best Book for young adults, and got some other recognition, and I don't think it would have gotten any attention at all as an adult novel.

So then I published another YA novel, and then - I've done kind of every kind of publishing.  New York stuff, super small press, Indiana University Press. I've managed to keep going since that really big dry period.

Publishing is kind of interesting right now. I mean, it's kind of traumatizing and discouraging, but in some ways it's really not.

Can you share the story of how you got the idea for this book?

Sure! A friend of mine had the idea originally, and when he told me, I sort of jokingly said, "If you don't use that, can I have it?" and he said, "Oh yeah, sure."  And then a couple of years later he said, "If you want it, you can have it."  So I started working on it.  You know, it was a road trip book, kind of a classic thing, but I just couldn't get it to go anywhere.  It was boring me. A kid decides he wants to take off, so he goes, and he finds Jack Kerouac, who is not what he thought he would be.  Who cares?  

But then my sister was diagnosed with brain cancer, and died about fifteen months later.  She had two teenage sons who were a freshman and a senior in high school when she was diagnosed, so that was - as you can imagine - a really awful experience for everyone.  

And then later, after she died, I had this weird moment where I saw her at 18, in my mind's eye, and she was this little person, real blond and blue eyes and freckles and fierce, and I saw her at the counter of a diner.  And I thought, she's the girl in the book.  And then I thought, Oh!  What if I gave my character that experience of losing his mother? At which point the book became something completely different.  It really became about a kid who is heartbroken, who takes off because he doesn't know what else to do.  He's gotten himself in a relationship with a girl who he doesn't want to marry, but who wants to marry him, and he doesn't have the courage to break it off.  So he lets his goofy friend talk him into taking off.

But you know the interesting thing to me about the process - I'm fascinated by process - I mean, I wasn't a fan of Kerouac.  I don't like that kind of writing.  And as a child of an alcoholic, I didn't think the way that Kerouac behaved was ok!  So I wasn't sure what I was going to do about that. But you know I read and re-read, and I began to really see that he was this very complex guy.  I began to feel sympathetic toward him, especially when I read this book of his called Visions of Gerard.  It's an autobiographical novel about his older brother who died when Kerouac himself was five, and the brother was nine, and it was insane.  

The nuns believed that his brother was a saint, the mother had visions, I mean literally, and he... he was a pretty hard act to follow.  He became this kind of icon in the family and in the neighborhood.  The mother, of course, never got over the loss, and so when I read that, I saw something that seemed to explain things.  I had looked at that lifestyle, and the driving, as totally self-indulgent, wild, and crazy, reckless -- but it seemed to me like it was really something else -- a reaction not so different from my character's reaction, which was - how do you deal with that kind of loss?  You run away from it.  You never get over it.  And it can kill you!  Which it did Kerouac, in the end, because he was a sad case. He died of alcoholism.

I also realized that if the book was really going to work, there had to be something more than "Oh my God, there's Jack Kerouac, what a jerk."   So the book Visions of Gerard is what really led me, sort of subconsciously, to the part in the book where Kerouac tells Paul the thing that Paul needs to know, which is you'll never get over it.  Why would you?  Would you even want to? To me, that was what I needed to hear too.

And that's what writing is to me, a way of looking sideways at something in my life or the world that I don't understand, and that I don't think I'll ever understand, but I feel the need to try to get a better handle on it than I have.  And that, I think, in the end, is why the book worked, because in that weird way it was my own processing of what I felt with my sister's death and with watching those boys lose their mom.  

There was just a heartbreak every place you looked, and for a long time.  


Come back to the blog later this week for the second part of our conversation!