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.
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.
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.