Q & A
Q: You’ve written two previous books about Kerouac. Why at this point in your life did you feel the need
to write a biography?
A: Because I knew Jack intimately between 1957 and 1958 and because I was present as a firsthand witness
at the very time that his writing and Allen Ginsberg’s ushered in an important turning point in American
culture that has very often been misunderstood, I have always felt I had an obligation to try to set the record
I also know much more about Jack that I did in the early 1980’s when I was writing Minor Characters. At that
time, his letters and diaries had not yet been published or any of his early writings. All that material would
come out gradually over the next four decades.
The Kerouac biographies that were written starting in the 1970’s were largely based on his novels and
on oral history. A tremendous amount of important interviewing was done by various biographers, but
they unfortunately had no access to the vast archive of Kerouac’s papers that is now in the Berg Collection
of the New York Public Library, where it has become a magnet for scholars. The interviews, which were
extensive since so many of Jack’s friends and acquaintances were still alive, actually only tell a fraction of
his story—the Jack that other people saw out in the world and thought they knew. The private Jack, the
man who spent the greater part of his life alone in a room writing, remained a mystery.
Q: You felt this even though you knew him, actually lived with him on and off during a two year period?
A: Absolutely. Well, for one thing, we all remain mysteries to each other. In Jack’s case, although he seemed
unusually open, there were great areas of his life and thinking that he never spoke about.
Q: Can you think of an example?
A: He never revealed to me, or even some of his closest friends, how French Canadian to the bone he felt. To
us he seemed quintessentially American—maybe even more American than we were, when all the time he felt
like an outsider in America—someone with a deep appreciation and understanding of what he called
”American richness” but who felt he did not participate in it.
Q: Do you know now after all your research how he felt about you?
A: That was an area I purposely didn’t look into, but I do have a far better understanding of Jack than I did
when I was 21. During the course of our love affair, his feelings kept shifting in ways I was totally unprepared
for, but I now realize this was typical of all his relationships. I also realize that there was a big invisible cultural
gap between us that I never thought about back then, and that this had an impact on his behavior and his
Q: How closely does the finished biography adhere to the original plan you had in mind when you set out to
A: In some important ways, it’s quite different. What I had in mind five years ago was a complete life of Jack.
What I ended up writing was the story of his first thirty years, ending in late 1951, when after finally completing
On the Road, a book he had been unsuccessfully trying to write for the past five years, he wrote the first sections
of Visions of Cody— the book in which he truly discovered his voice after a series of astonishing breakthroughs
during a two month period. For him this was the culmination of a long quest—a victory that came at the very
moment that his life was crumbling all around him. There was a stunning moment of self-knowledge in
November of that year that he summed up in one sentence of his journal: ”I’m lost , but my work is found.”
When I came upon that heartbreaking but triumphant sentence in 2010, I knew the book had to end there—
all my instincts as a writer told me that. Besides, in all the preceding chapters, I had done the most important
and meaningful thing I had set out to do, which was to reveal the slow, often painful development of a writer.
To go on from there, in my mind, would have been a tremendous anticlimax. The ending of The Voice Is All
completely took me by surprise but I knew it was the right one, and it sheds light upon what would happen
to him in the future.
I saw no need to document the painful details of his decline, which have been exhaustively covered by
previous writers, and I had already written about the impact upon Jack’s life of the publication of On the Road
in Minor Characters, which can now be read as a kind of sequel to the biography.
Q: Had there been other surprises along the way?
A: Constantly. I never knew what I was going to find when I opened a file. Much of what I found confirmed
some of my own hunches about Jack—his obsession with what he felt was his duality, which was manifested
by the sudden radical mood shifts that often baffled his friends; my sense that up until the time he discovered
what he later called “spontaneous writing,” his work, which he did in a steady patient way during the years he
was writing his first novel, for example, had given him a badly needed source of balance. When writing became
an ecstatic act, done in short concentrated bursts of time, he seemed to become unmoored—as if a different brain
chemistry had become activated. When Jack wrote “my life is lost,” I think he was aware of how dangerous and
costly his new creative process, which allowed him to explore his “interior music,” was going to be.
Q: What new insights will Kerouac aficionados find in your book?
A: In general, I set out to correct the various misconceptions created by the Kerouac legend and the public’s
obsession with the Beat Generation—a movement that was never well understood. Many of Jack’s fans and
even some scholars have been as mistaken about him as his detractors. They don’t give him credit for being
a conscious, unusually dedicated artist.
People have been fascinated by the idea that Jack sat down at his typewriter in the spring of 1951 and wrote
On the Road nonstop during a 3-week period, without ever stopping to change a line. “He just spewed his
words on paper,” Patti Smith, one of his admirers, has said. The truth is, that the idea of doing a road novel
first came to him in 1946—a year before he met Neal Cassady. From 1947-1951, he made innumerable attempts
to write this book, putting one version after another aside after he had worked on it, unsatisfied and frustrated
with what he had written. This was indeed the most brutal kind of revision. During 1950 and 1951, he even tried
to write the book with a cast of French Canadian characters. When I read La Nuit Est Ma Femme, a handwritten
novella composed in French the month before Jack wrote On the Road, I realized that in the direct first-person
voice of his Franco American narrator, Jack had found the voice in which he would shortly write On the Road.
The book also contains material he had used over and over again in earlier versions—the famous scene where
Sal Paradise wakes up in a strange hotel room and feels he doesn’t know who he is, for example.
I also feel that the influence of Neal Cassady has been over emphasized. Jack would have developed into an
extraordinary writer even if they had never met. They actually spent relatively little time together—brief visits
punctuated by long periods of separation, when even their letter writing stopped. In On the Road, Dean Moriarty
is in many ways a fictional, imaginative conceived character, used by Jack as a vehicle to express his own
deep sense of duality; he expresses his own ideas and perception in Dean’s voice. Perhaps the major literary
influence upon On the Road, as I discovered by reading Jack’s journals, was Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night,
which Jack first read in 1945—there the two road companions, Bardamu and Robinson, function as alter egos,
with Robinson as Bardamu’s Dean Moriarty. There are numerous references to Robinson in Jack’s journals.
I also show in my book that as far as Jack was concerned, the idea of the Beat Generation, as he originally
conceived it in 1947, very much had to do with the group of people he knew in the postwar period, people
who had achieved their enlightenment through undergoing. extreme experiences. These were American
outsiders and even people on the wrong side of the law., whom Jack called “furtives.” Jack believed that
if there were a Beat movement, black beboppers would be its vanguard, and that this movement would
have the power to change the world. A decade later, shortly before the publication of On the Road, Jack
wrote in his journal that by 1950 there was no such thing as a Beat Generation, because the original
members of it had scattered, disappearing either in domesticity or jails. Ironically, he would shortly
achieve fame as the avatar of a Beat Generation, which the public perceived as a sexually liberated,
unmaterialistic, and essentially irresponsible life style available to any white middle class person for
adoption—typified by a set of bongo drums and a black beret.
Many of Jack’s American readers, are completely unaware that English was his second language, and
that usingit to write in many ways involved a process of translation—“refashioning English words to fit
French images,” as Jack put it. I hope that after reading my book, they will look at him in a new way as a
hyphenated American writer, and arrive at a deeper understanding of his achievement. I have emphasized
this aspect of his story far more than any of previous biographers. I also show that he was a writer created
to an important degree by a wide-ranging reading and study of literature that began in his early teens and
continued throughout his lifetime. He was by no means the primitive, uncultured person that academicians
assumed him to be.
Many writers have been baffled and even angered by the contradictions in Jack’s personality, especially by
the substantial evidence of ideas, prejudices and life choices that in no way seem to fall within the definition
of Beat. When I first met Jack in 1957, I had been led to believe he was a wild character who spent his life on
the road. In actuality, as I was soon stunned to discover, he was a man who spent much of his adult life living
with his mother, holing up with her for long solitary periods in which he did much of his writing, then emerging
for brief frantic immersions in the world. Tragically, he was never able to find a middle ground between ascetic
solitude and binge — two diametrically opposed states of being. When approaching his story, I feel that a
biographer must not question Jack’s contradictions but accept his lack of consistency as the key to his