Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Interview with Helen Weaver

Hot off the press, here is the e-mail interview granted me by Helen Weaver, author of The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifies. I owe Helen a huge "thank you" for giving me the opportunity to interview her, and, as you'll see, for her care in answering with such enthusiasm and detail. I hope this interview inspires readers to order a copy of The Awakener and revisit some of Jack's writings.


Rick Dale: How would you describe your approach to writing? For example, do you have a special place and time when you write? Do you use a word processor or do you write by hand? Do you pre-write (outlines, visuals, etc.)? Do you have any techniques to overcome “writer’s block”?

Helen Weaver: I like to write early in the morning, fresh from dreams. Afternoons are mostly for revision. My Grandma Hemenway said she could never initiate anything in the afternoon, and my mother always wrote letters in the morning. So I guess I’m a chip off the old block.

Occasionally I take notes in a journal; but my journal keeping has declined considerably over the years as I take pity on my executors. (As it is, my archives of letters, journals, and photos, though well organized, are a bit excessive.)

My usual procedure is to compose on the computer (I love Word Perfect, have resisted switching to Word) and revise by hand, sitting up in bed with a clipboard and a red Pilot Precise Rolling Ball pen (fine).

I don’t write every day. But once I’ve begun work on a book, it tends to take over my life and I sometimes find myself writing all day, and neglecting other business. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and take notes. I’ll mull over the wording of a sentence in the shower. So I like to tie up any loose ends before I get started on, or resume work on, a book.

Right now I’m three quarters of the way through my next book, which will be about my scientist father and our dialogue about astrology. I already have the title: Translation of Light. I had to put that aside when I signed the contract for The Awakener, and I intend to take it up again after this flurry of promotional activity calms down a little.

Except for my self-published book The Daisy Sutra, I’ve never had to do promotion before. As a rule, translators keep a low profile; their job is to be invisible. So this is all new to me, and pretty heady stuff.

Hmmm. . .writer’s block. I’m not sure that what I had–off and on during the nineteen years the Kerouac book was in the works–was writer’s block or not. I think I was just plain not ready to write it. As Allen Ginsberg said (quoting the Bard), “ripeness is all.”

Back in 1970 I began work on a book–I thought it was a novel–which I eventually had to abandon. At the time, the subject was very controversial: the whole May-December thing from the point of view of a woman who falls in love with a teenage boy. I sat down and read it one day and said, This doesn’t work! and put it in my files. I still haven’t given up on that book; it just wasn’t the right time, and not because it was controversial: I wasn’t ready.

So what I think is, if you’re stuck, if you can’t write it, there’s probably a good reason. You’re probably barking up the wrong book, or the wrong genre. So write something else. Write letters, write in your journal, write down your dreams. Warm up your voice.

Rick Dale: What are your thoughts on how Jack portrayed you (as Ruth Heaper) in Desolation Angels?

Helen Weaver: Desolation Angels was one of the unfinished manuscripts Jack had in his rucksack the day we met in November 1956. When the book was finally published in 1965 I felt honored to be included in it and I was touched by his portrait of me.

Jack was very hurt when I asked him to move out but he had obviously forgiven me by the time he finished the book.

I have always been amused by his choice of name for me. Very biblical! The first time we made love, Jack quoted The Song of Songs to me: “Thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies,” and so on. That’s how he came up with the name Ruth Heaper.

Rick Dale: What is your greatest regret and what is your greatest satisfaction about your career as a writer?

Helen Weaver: I’m not sure I have any regrets, except perhaps that it would have been nice if I had made the transition from translator to writer a little earlier. I have at least three more books to write, and I’m pushing eighty!

At the moment I take great satisfaction in having finished my book about Jack. Just the fact that it’s no longer in my files but out in the world is a tremendous relief. Aldous Huxley lost his papers in a fire, and Jimmy Carter lost half a book when his computer crashed. I was lugging this book around for years, always worried that something would happen before I finished it.

I think my greatest satisfaction comes when people tell me that after reading my book, they want to go back and read Kerouac again–or for the first time. Or that they feel they know him better. Then I know I’ve done my job.

Rick Dale: Of the several biographies written about Jack, is there one you recommend?

Helen Weaver: My favorite book about Jack is Joyce Johnson’s memoir, Minor Characters. To my delight, she’s now writing another book about Jack that I know will be wonderful. As a novelist and memoirist herself, Joyce is particularly concerned with carefully tracing Jack’s development as a conscious artist–something he has not been given nearly enough credit for.

Rick Dale: Do you have a response for when people accuse Jack of being a sexist and a misogynist and therefore wonder how you, as a woman, can defend him?

Helen Weaver: I don’t think I defend him; I simply describe him.

If you go by the dictionary definition of misogyny–“hatred of women”–that would be going too far. Jack loved women, beginning with his mother, who was the great love of his life. But he came of age in the forties, when sexism was the order of the day. He was raised Catholic, a religion that denies women both the priesthood and reproductive freedom, and he was capable of saying things like “women must be guided by men.”

But Jack was a mass of contradictions. He was also drawn to Buddhism, and there was a side of him that wasn’t sexist at all: that was deeply compassionate toward, and respectful of, all sentient beings.

That Jack was incapable of having a sustained relationship with any woman (other than his mother) was something he freely admitted. In Windblown World he wrote, “Maybe I’m too wild for protracted love affairs. It’s the world I need most. . . .I want to live. . .and see more of the world, and God knows why, a woman’s love is only one of many wild loves.”

Rick Dale: What actors can you see playing Jack and Neal in the (hopefully) upcoming movie adaptation of On the Road?

Helen Weaver: My dream cast for On the Road–which is a complete fantasy, as you will see–would star the young Mel Gibson, who is the only actor who actually looks like Jack. (If you think I’m crazy, check out a scene in What Women Want where Mel Gibson dances by himself in a sort of forties musical sequence. He looks so much like Jack, it’s uncanny.) Alas, Mel Gibson is too old to play the young Jack, even if he wanted the part. It’s also too late for my choice for Neal: the young Paul Newman, who looked like photos I’ve seen of Neal.

(For the movie version of The Awakener, I’d be Julia Roberts and Joyce would be Renee Zellweger. Dream on, Helen!)

Getting real: In the recently released documentary One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur, passages from Jack’s novel are read by John Ventimiglia, the actor who played Artie Bucco in the HBO series The Sopranos. Ventimiglia catches the rhythm of Jack’s unique speech pattern but sounds a bit hoarse, and doesn’t quite nail those Massachusetts vowels, as Johnny Depp does in an earlier film called The Source.

That was a real eye-opener: Johnny Depp on voice-over read Jack’s words with such devoted fidelity to the Kerouac timbre, accent, and rhythms that until Johnny’s image appeared on the screen, I thought it was Jack.

Either Depp or Ventimiglia would probably do an outstanding job of playing Jack. I don’t have a clue who should play Neal.

Rick Dale: You didn’t speak of Neal Cassady much in The Awakener. Could you elaborate on him from your own perspective? Did you ever meet?

Helen Weaver: I never met Neal Cassady, and frankly, I never had any desire to meet him. From all reports, and from the portrait Jack paints of him in On the Road, he sounds like a sexist and a misogynist of the first order!

Rick Dale: Have you read Visions of Cody? If so, what are your thoughts on it? (I’ve been finding it a difficult read.)

Helen Weaver: You’re not alone. I had a hard time with it too; when I worked briefly as an editor at Chelsea House, I actually rejected it. Even Allen Ginsberg had found it “incomprehensible” on first reading. Later he changed his mind and when it was published in 1972–it was Joyce Johnson who published it as an editor at McGraw-Hill–Allen wrote the introduction.

Joyce says it’s full of some extraordinary prose–difficult, yes, but brilliant, in a Joycean way. Between the two of you, you have convinced me to take a second look.

Rick Dale: We know Jack took meticulous care of his writings, letters, etc. You describe him digging manuscripts out of his rucksack. How did he keep them from getting torn and tattered in there? Were they in portfolios or manila folders, or were they just crammed in there “as is”?

Helen Weaver: That was fifty-three years ago! It’s true I do remember many details of that first meeting vividly, but I’m going to have to pass on that one.

The interesting thing is that at the end of his life his letter files, anyway, were apparently in apple-pie order. Ann Charters would know all about that, as she worked with him on a bibliography. When I met John Sampas in 1994, I was amazed to learn that Jack had kept every one of my letters to him in a folder marked with my name.

Rick Dale: Do you have any advice for us aspiring writers? How did your publishing contract with City Lights come about?

Helen Weaver: Read constantly. Read the classics, read detective stories, read about wizards and vampires and dragons, but read! Harry Potter and Marcel Proust sit side by side on my fiction shelf, just waiting for the next time through.

I don’t know anything about writing fiction, but if memoir is your bag, keep a journal. Take notes on your life. Don’t assume that a subject that has already been written about–say, addiction–is no longer of interest. Every life is different. Every voice is different! Your authentic voice is unlike anyone else’s, as is your experience.

If you have a dark and guilty secret, explore it. Respect obsession: it’s the foundation of art.

The life really is in the details. The weirder your experience, the more idiosyncratic, the more personal the stuff you put out there, oddly enough, the more universal will be its appeal. And, of course, the worse the experience, the better the copy.

When writing, if you come to a place where you can’t decide between two ways of saying something, put them both down and decide later which to use. As Yogi Berra put it: When you come to a fork in the road–take it!

I first contacted City Lights in October of 2007. I didn’t know anyone there so I wrote a letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti which, not surprisingly, went unanswered. He was eighty-eight!

In June 2008, Joyce Johnson urged me to try again. She said to contact her friend Nancy Phillips at City Lights. I turned out Nancy had retired, but she spoke to Bob Sharrard, senior editor there. He agreed to look at the book, he liked it, and that was it.

Unfortunately, in today’s publishing world, it does matter who you know. Especially if, like me, you don’t have an agent.

Join the National Writers Union. Their free contract service alone is worth the price of admission. Keep in touch with your colleagues.

Above all, keep writing. If you’re a writer, you don’t need to be told to write. You have no choice. You’re in good company. Enjoy the process!

1 comment:

Jonny Ross said...

really enjoyed this interview! i share her view on writing habits, best times to work, and also about depp as the ideal sal paradise. but too old? who's to say. cool to learn about joyce johnson's new book on kerouac.