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 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.
Barbara Shoup is the author eight novels, including Night Watch, Wish You Were Here, Stranded in Harmony, Faithful Women, Vermeer’s Daughter, Everything You Want, An American Tune, and Looking for Jack Kerouac, as well as the co-author of Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process and Story Matters. Her young adult novels, Wish You Were Here and Stranded in Harmony were selected as American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults. Vermeer’s Daughter was a School Library Journal Best Adult Book for Young Adults. She was the recipient of the 2006 PEN Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Working Writer Fellowship. She lives in Indianapolis, where she is the Executive Director of Indiana Writers Center.
If you could travel in a Time Machine would you go back to the past or into the future?
Definitely the past! I’m fascinated by how we got to be who we are. Plus, there are so many gaps in history, things lost to us that might make all the difference in how we understand a time, a place, the people who lived in them—and, ultimately, ourselves.
If you could invite any 5 people to dinner who would you choose?
I love to talk about writing, so I’d invite five writers I admire—and since Looking for Jack Kerouac is a YA novel, for this particular dinner I’ll go with John Green, E. Lockhart, Marcus Zuzak, Sara Zarr and (it’s a fantasy dinner, so why not!) JK Rowlings.
What is one book everyone should read?
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. It’s impossible to explain what it’s about without making it seem hokey, so I’ll just say that it’s a book about the complicated relationships that develop between captives and their captors that won’t allow you to see an explosive political situation in black and white.
If you could meet one person who has died who would you choose?
The early Renaissance painter, Piero della Francesco. I’m a bit obsessed with him at the moment, imagining a novel that somehow involves him. I’d love to be able to watch him at work and talk with him about…everything.
Please tell us in one sentence only, why we should read your book.
Who wouldn’t love a book about a brokenhearted kid who hits the road for St. Petersburg, Florida to find the author of a book he loves; meets salesmen, truckers, bigots, soldiers, good Samaritans and mermaids (yes, mermaids!) along the way; falls in love with the ocean, makes new friends and, ultimately, tracks down the author, who’s nothing like he imagined, but who eases his heartache and sets him on the path to the next phase in his life?
Any other books in the works? Goals for future projects?
I’ve got two YA books in the works. When It Happened Here is about the aftermath of a brutal murder of two teenagers that occurs in a wealthy suburban community. The Thing about Grace is about a girl who suffers from multiple personality syndrome and ends up in a correctional institution. I know. Grim. But both books explore the meaning of friendship in the most difficult circumstances and how the most unlikely friendships can make a future begin to seem possible.
What inspired you to want to become a writer?
Reading. I’ve loved books as long as I can remember. My favorite childhood place was the library, which was in the basement of a government building. It was dark and quiet, light falling in from small, high windows. I remember standing in the children’s section, surrounded by books, thrilled by the fact that I could read any one I wanted to. When I realized that real people wrote them, I wanted to write books, too. And guess what? The long process of writing a novel is not unlike reading one. The story unfolds as you go, often surprising you along the way, moving toward what feels like an inevitable resolution. Of course, writing, you have to discover the story, manage the surprises, and make the resolution believable—which can drive you crazy at times, but brings the same (only more intense) satisfaction when the book is finished.
Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
This happened before Looking for Jack Kerouac was published, but it meant a lot to me so I’ll share it here. Dan Wakefield, an Indiana writer and good friend, wrote a critically acclaimed book called New York in the Fifties that chronicled that extraordinary period of time. He was acquainted with Jack Kerouac, but developed a lifelong friendship with the composer and writer David Amram, who collaborated with Kerouac on numerous projects and wrote a memoir about their relationship. Dan kindly asked David to read my book, and he agreed.
It’s very tricky to write a work of fiction that includes a real person, especially an iconic figure like Jack Kerouac, who lived in the near past and is still remembered by people who knew him well. I was grateful to David for reading the book; I was also scared to death. What if I’d gotten Kerouac wrong? So I was thrilled at David’s response: “Shoup’s portrayal of Kerouac is astonishingly real and provides a whole fresh look of what it was like for those few of us left who spent time with him.” To say the least, it was rewarding to have the approval from this man who was Jack Kerouac’s friend.
If you could jump in to a book and live in that world, which would it be?
Trying and failing to answer this question made me realize that reading is like traveling to me. It takes me to worlds I love living in for a while, but don’t want to stay in forever. Each book feels like a journey to me. I keep their worlds in my head and heart, like memories of real places I’ve been.
Is there a song you could list as the theme song for your book or any of your characters?
There’s no one song that comes to mind, but I listened a lot to the music that was being played on the radio in 1963 and 1964 as I wrote the book—the music Paul would have been listening to himself. The Beach Boys, the Ronettes, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder (or Little Stevie Wonder, as he was billed then), and the very early Beatles. They’re the songs of my high school years, so listening to them took me back to that time and made me feel a funny mix of nostalgia and…thank God that’s over. High school was not the best time in my life.
What’s one piece of advice you would give aspiring authors?
Learn to love revision. Revision has the same effect on words as the layers and layers of transparent glaze have on the most beautiful paintings. It makes your work deeper and more complicated. Not to mention…clearer to the reader. Tolstoy said, “Clarity is beauty.” He was right.
How did you know you should become an author?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know this. When I was a child, I wrote constantly in blue notebooks I got from the dimestore. Then I wrote my first novel, Slave Girl, when I was in the fifth grade—about a girl escaping from the south by Underground Railroad. I copied the final version very carefully, found the address of a publisher in a library book, sent it off to New York—thus, receiving my first rejection. But the real problem was that I had thought the Underground Railway was a subway. When we got to the unit in social studies not long afterward and I found out what it really was, I didn’t write again for twenty years. Seriously. I felt that dumb.
When I was in my late twenties, one of my students asked me if there was anything else I had thought I might want to do other than teach. Reluctantly, because I thought it was important to tell students the truth, I admitted that I once wanted to be a writer. “Why aren’t you?” he asked. I couldn’t answer the question in any way that didn’t seem a cop-out to me, so I figured I’d better get up my courage and try. I’ve been writing ever since.
Who are your favorite authors of all time?
This question always stumps me because I love many writers, all for different reasons. A very few of them are Tim O’Brien, Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth George, Penelope Lively, and Kurt Vonnegut.
Can you see yourself in any of your characters?
There are bits and pieces of me in most of my characters, but the real me is most evident in Everything You Want and An American Tune. Everything You Want, a YA novel, is about a girl, Emma, whose family wins fifty million dollars in the lottery, complicating her already difficult transition to college life. The family is very much like my own…to an extreme. The mom is a painter with all of my anxieties and distractions and a skewed view of the universe, similar to mine. Jane in An American Tune shares the strains of my upbringing and the experience of my freshman year in college. Neither book is truly autobiographical. (Unfortunately) my family didn’t win the fifty million dollar lottery, and Jane’s life pretty quickly takes a turn, ending up nothing like my own. But they do have a lot of me in them.