Fascinated by Process: an interview with Barbara Shoup (part 2)

This is the second part of my interview with YA author Barbara Shoup about her most recent novel, Looking for Jack Kerouac.  Read Part One.

I wanted to ask you about that scene where Kerouac tells Paul that he'll never get over his mother's death.  And for Paul, instead of being a moment of despair, that's a moment of hope.

I know!

Can you talk about how that can be a hopeful statement?  That you'll never get over a tragedy?

Yeah, I mean, everything that happens to us makes us who we are.  Whether they're good things or bad things.  So when something bad happens, when there's a terrible loss, you know, you wish that it would just go away, but it can't.  So you either have to embrace it or let it kill you.  And I think people say, "You'll get over it. Time heals all wounds," but I think if they were being honest, they wouldn't say those things.  They say those things to make them feel better, but for some people it just makes them feel guilty.  It makes them feel worse, like there's something wrong with them because they can't get over it.  

You know, I've had numerous things in my life, as everybody does, that have been really hard and painful, but they really have shaped me.  Think of my dad's alcoholism.  I'll never get over the effect that had on our family!  I'll never get over that.  But on the other hand, I wouldn't be who I am now - which I think is ok.  That person is ok...  

I always love the Buddhist idea from Ram Dass that everything is perfect, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to change it, or make it better.  To me, it's all about being able to to hold two contradictory things in your mind at the same time, and to live with that.  And to find some kind of balance that makes me able to kind of survive, day to day.

"Kerouac by Palumbo" by Tom Palumbo from New York, NY, USA - Jack Kerouac. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via  Wikimedia Commons  

"Kerouac by Palumbo" by Tom Palumbo from New York, NY, USA - Jack Kerouac. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

I love the scene early in your book when Paul goes to NYC for the first time, and he's also reading On the Road over and over again, and the whole world is just opening up for him.  What was the book or experience or piece of art or album that did that for you when you were a teenager?

Well, I took that New York trip when I was a senior!  You know, amazingly, our city - I grew up in Hammond, IN - they would take 200 kids from all the different highschools to New York and Washington DC every year.  Can you imagine doing that now? There's no way. You'd be insane to try to do that.

I'd hate to be the teacher on that trip.

I know!  I know!  I had that experience Paul has of going to Greenwich Village and thinking, "Oh my God, this is so cool!" And you know, nothing happened as a result for me, but it was a moment.  

My mom was a war bride.  She was English.  And I think partly because of that I always had a sense of wanting to be in the wider world, because I knew that that was where she came from.  A completely different place.  It was very exotic and romantic for me.  We were never able to afford to go there, so I had these big fantasies about what it would be like, and in a way the New York thing was my first taste of the wider world.

Do you think that there is something about being a teenager that makes you more susceptible to-

-to that book?

Not necessarily that book, but works of art and literature in general?

I think that's true, but I think especially that book.  That's one of those books that when you go back and read it as an adult, it doesn't really stand up.  Yeah, I think the things that you read or see or experience when you're an adolescent can have a huge effect on you. I had this amazing experience the other day. I was visiting a classroom - a sophomore honors English class that read my historical novel Vermeer's Daughter. One of the students who had read the book found me and said, "I just wanted to tell you - you made me want to be a historian.  I got so fascinated by what you were saying about the research for that book that I decided that I want to be a historian."

And I thought, that's amazing. I go in there for one day, doing something I've done a million times, and whether that girl will became a historian or not, the fact that it had such an impact on her that she would rethink her future - I think those things happen all the time...

People will ask me what message I want to convey.  I don't have a message.  I'm writing from where I - I can still get to that miserable place.  It's real easy! It's a question that I still have: how does highschool work?  I was a disaster in high school.  Why?  Is it still too late to get that date to the prom? Maybe not, if I could just figure it out!

Let's talk about the mermaid scene.  Is that place real?

It is!  In fact, what gave me that idea originally was Elizabeth Stuckey French has a book that is called Mermaids on the Moon.  It's a wonderful older novel about this woman who was formerly a mermaid, and she's in her forties now, and she goes back.  I just love that book, and it had all this bizarre detail in it, and I thought it would be fun to let them meet up with the mermaid.  That was a fun scene to write.

So we touched on this - your trip to NY, and your mom being a war bride, and you wanted to see the wider world -- but you've lived in Indiana all you life.

I have!  I haven't gotten very far.

So does that kind of wanderlust that Paul and Kerouac experienced...

Well, I have it.  I mean, I've traveled a lot.  And I very vividly remember the first time I was able to go to England.  I was in my early thirties, and the moment I was in the plane and they said, if you look out the window, you can see the land -- I was afraid!  I thought, I don't want this to look like everything else!  And it didn't. It was a completely different looking landscape, and that was a thrill to me.

I'm fascinated by history, andI love to go places where people I'm interested in lived, walked, and so I got real fascinated with the painter Vermeer for a while, and I spent some time in Holland doing that.  So my wanderlust is not necessarily like that urge that some people have just to go away.  I sort of go away to find myself, and I realized at some point that most of my books are about the main characters going away.  Sometimes they come back, sometimes they don't, but that sense that you have to get away from the life you have in order to put things in perspective...

To me, it's let's an impulse to just get the hell out of dodge and more an impulse to try to understand what it's like to be alive, and what the whole world is, as opposed to that one little slice I know.

But I love Indiana!  I think Indiana is beautiful when you get out in to the country, especially in the summer and the fall.  It's a friendly place, and it's a good place to live.  

I am glad I can leave sometimes though.

So it's not so much wanderlust for you but exploring.  When I was reading your book I was thinking of that TS Eliot poem that says that the end of all our explorations will be to arrive where once we started and to know the people and the place for the first time.  But for Paul, you don't get the sense that he's going to end up where he started...

I don't think he will.

But is there some sense in which his exploration has helped him know that place and those people better?

Yeah, I think that's right.  I think one of the things  - I mean, I'm not in exactly the same place where I started, but I do appreciate that place now, and I understand that a lot of the best parts of me come from that place, and those people.  I think that for Paul, he's a responsible kid.  It was out of character for him to do what he did in leaving, and so while I don't think he's coming full circle back to an actual place, I think he's coming full circle to the person that he truly is, only better: deeper, more resolved, and ready to move on.  And I think he'll be ok.

Does he end up with the girl?

I don't know, what do you think?

I don't think it matters.

I don't think it matters either!  In earlier incarnations of the book, he did.  But it seemed too neat to me, and you know, nobody writes about friendship between a boy and a girl, and I kind of liked the idea that he could find a girl that would be a friend that would set him on the right path. I think that the love-marriage-relationship is a charged friendship, and as you get older, the friendship part of it becomes even more important,  I've been married for 47 years. I like the idea that Paul understood that the girl could be his friend, and that was a valuable thing.  


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!