What I’m Doing at Kirkus This Week,
Plus What I Did Last Week, Featuring Jack Gantos

h1 July 8th, 2011 by jules

This morning at Kirkus, I’ve got a short Q&A with graphic novelist, author, and picture book illustrator George O’Connor, and we primarily discuss his latest graphic novel in the Olympians series from First Second Books, Hera: The Goddess and her Glory.

This Q&A is an abbreviated version. I’ll have much more from George—and will showcase some of his art—next Friday here at 7-Imp.

The Kirkus link is here this morning.

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the one. the only. jack gantos.Last week, I weighed in on the latest novel from Jack Gantos, Dead End in Norvelt, to be released this September from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Yup, I’m primarily focused anymore on illustration and picture books here at 7-Imp, but in Kirkus’s Book Blogger Network, I’ve got the “children’s” category to write about, which is more than just picture books, so I make an attempt to cover middle-grade novels over there as well.) That link is here, if you missed it last week and are interested in reading more about the novel. I asked Jack to join me for breakfast this morning, a short Q&A of his own on this novel and what’s next from him.

Jack visited in 2007 as well, and that interview is here. That would be when he said, after I asked what he’s working on next, “I’m working on a series of books that are making me very uncomfortable, which is a good sign. When I write a book that I think everyone is just going to love, then I know I’m on the wrong track.” That right there would be one thing I love about his writing.

Also, when I read his response below about reading a book slowly, I quite literally jumped up and cheered. I know I write in hyperbole here at 7-Imp and you very likely DO NOT BELIEVE ME, but no really, I jumped up and cheered and high-fived an imaginary Jack Gantos and might have even done an imaginary fist bump with an imaginary Jack, too. This would be during the part below where I use the phrase—for about the googleplexth time in one month (how’s that for hyperbole?)—“a day and age of increasingly rigorous standardized testing,” another entry in my Grumpy Old Woman series.

I thank him for visiting today. Without further ado, I welcome Jack with a strong cup of coffee (maybe just a bit of this thrown in — why not?) …

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{Note: Click on the Norvelt cover below to super-size and see the full book jacket.}

Jules: Tell me about your decision to name the protagonist “Jack Gantos.”

Jack: In various ways I’ve been writing about myself—in self-serving and self-challenging ways—for most of my writing career. When I was a boy, I always wrote about myself in my journals. This was the same when I was a teen. In college almost all of my stories, poems, and bits of novels were from my personal point of view. Perhaps this allows for a very sure-footed narration, since every sensation of the text is filtered through me. Fiction, at times, can be such a slippery construction, because the story, in the blink of an eye, can run wild over the terrain and create more chaos than order. So even though I weave fact and fiction in my books (not Hole in My Life, which is pure memoir), I find that having Jack Gantos as the narrator provides the true north for the compass of the story. In the Jack Henry books of short stories (all five volumes), the only reason I used the last name “Henry” is because I was writing about my family and I was attempting to give them some breathing room and an opportunity to deny that I was writing specifically about them. Now I regret using “Henry,” as they don’t read my books.

The Joey Pigza books are pure fiction and written from Joey’s point of view, which so strongly carves out every nuance of his character that I was relieved not to have to step in front of him and get in the way of his voice—a voice which would have run me down.

Hole in My Life is a memoir so that was purely my voice, my story, and my turn of mind between drama and humor.

Then when I wrote Love Curse of the Rumbaughs, even though I was writing about family members, the story was best served by a young woman’s voice, so as I did with the Joey books, I just stepped off of center stage and wrote from the wings—her voice carried the gothic and tender bond between daughter and mother far more effectively than I could have.

For Dead End in Norvelt, which is semi-autobiographical, I didn’t want any confusion with the Jack Henry books, and since I am from Norvelt, and the themes, history and circumstances of much of the book are genuine (and there is companionate fiction throughout), I just decided to put myself front and center. I wanted to tell this story. Also, as a reader, I love a good first-person narrator, because when it is convincing I allow it to capture me so entirely that I become that narrator and see what he sees, and feel what he feels. I think my readers like to slip out of themselves and be JACK GANTOS, just as I like to slip out of myself and become someone else: Ishmael from Moby Dick, for example. I love being him.

Jules: So there are elements of this story which have their basis in truth? In fact, the Kirkus review (not mine) categorizes this as “autobiographical fiction.” (Or does that question make you weary? Do you think we readers should simply stop wondering already and just run with it?)

Jack: Yes, Norvelt is a real town started by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1934. We lived there. My father had Japanese souvenirs from World War II. My mother was community-minded and socialistic and would have stayed in Norvelt, and my father was more ambitiously capitalistic and eager to make a fortune beyond Norvelt. My mother did loan me out to Miss Volker to help her around her house and with her typing and chores. I did love reading history, which both captivated me, frightened me, and caused me to question the world around me from my limited historic knowledge. And yes, I did have a lot of nose bleeds. Every now and again I’ll get one.

But Dead End in Norvelt, through the chemistry of this bog of facts, is a story spontaneously generated and the question of what was real or what is not so real are very secondary questions to reading, absorbing and being consumed by the text.

Jules: You work many fascinating historical tales into this novel. Was that as fun to incorporate as it was to read? Or was it challenging to weave those into the narrative?

Jack: I think you have the pulse of this part of the book. It was both fun to work the history into the book and obits, and challenging at the same time because each obit had to take place on a certain day in history which could then be ‘glorified.’

In terms of writing with pleasure—I think writing the obits and honoring each person in a very specific way gave me great joy. And, of course, sitting in the library day after day and reading history is about the most fun I can have. Miss Volker takes a strong position when it comes to learning history, and I agree with her one hundred percent.

Jules: I like your newly-designed site — and the bookmobile-parks plan in your biography. What would you tell the Bluebird readers today {Ed. Note: Dear 7-Imp readers: Go read Jack’s entertaining biography} about reading and books in a day and age of increasingly rigorous standardized testing?

Jack: The new website is very sleek and useful and easy to navigate. People can now go on it and easily contact me for school visits or other speaking events. Teachers can download guides to the novels and other useful information. Students can pull up my bio and get a chuckle—like me wanting to live in bookmobiles. While on the subject of bookmobiles: Peter Sís and I were at ALA and walking the floor when we came upon a bookmobile which was being displayed, as some library systems still use them. Peter and I went inside and instantly decided that when we retired, or just needed a break, we would purchase a bookmobile, fill it full of books and drive across the country giving books away to readers in a Johnny Appleseed kind of way (and not in a Pied Piper scary way).

As for being a “Bluebird” reader when I was a child—which was the slow reading group—all I have to say is that I have not been underserved by being a slow reader, because the result of being slow is that I fully consume a book when I read it. I poke my head in the white space between the words, and in the horizontal space between the lines, and sniff all along the margins like a dog taking a walk. I love taking the time for the book to cook in my imagination. I feel in no rush to blast through a book, because how then could you possibly fully imagine every little fantastic detail which is taking place in a novel. Yes, everyone loves riding the plot line, but the true imaginative marrow of a book is found off the plot—for instance, when you read the description of a wicked character standing in a kitchen and how that character breathes and carves up a fist of cheese with a knife and swallows without chewing and moves his eyes in a mean way as he tears bread apart with small hands and thinks of someone he loathes–it is important to fully see this unfold in your mind as well as the thousands of other off-plot details which make up a true book—and by ‘true book’ I mean the book that you create in your own mind, the book that you keep in your mind long after you have finished running your eyes over the printed text. It is the imaginative imprint on the paper in your own mind that is the truth of that book to the reader. So if you read too fast and rush through the book like a trained monkey, you may be able to answer a few questions on a test—but that is not the same as being captured for life by the pleasure of a good book.

Jules: What’s next in terms of your writing? Any works-in-progress you can talk about now?

Jack: At the moment, I’m working on a new novel, which is giving me fits because it’s good, and I’m determined to make it better than good. I’m one of those writers who doesn’t feel comfortable talking about the novel in progress. I keep to myself. I don’t belong to a writers’ group. I don’t even give my great editor the full picture of what I’m up to. I like to cook the books up by myself and that way the mistakes are all mine and the glory is all mine. l can live with that. I have, in the past, made changes within my books which did not serve the book. Those changes never heal over and I always feel so apologetic, even shameful, when I look at one of my books and know I should have defended it from really bad plastic surgery.

Jules: You have a devoted following of librarians and teachers who love to hear you speak. Where are you heading next?

Jack: For the next two months, I’ll be writing while hunkered down in the Boston Athenaeum—my usual writing haunt. Norvelt is released in September and at that time I’ll be sent on tour by my publisher: I’m not sure of all the bookstores I’ll be visiting, but I do know that I’ll be speaking in Washington, DC, at the National Book Festival on the 24th of September. While in the area I’ll be speaking and signing on the evening of the 22nd of September at the Bethesda Public Library—that is in conjunction with the great book store, Politics and Prose. But check out the www.jackgantos.com website for a calendar of the full tour. After that, I go on my usual school-speaking tour, which this fall will take me literally around the country — and the world (Hong Kong, Jakarta, Dhaka).

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Photo of Jack is copyright © 2011 Jack Gantos and used with permission.

9 comments to “What I’m Doing at Kirkus This Week,
Plus What I Did Last Week, Featuring Jack Gantos”

  1. I love the cooking references jack has for writing, reading, immersing in text, for making sense. . . but then, I’m cooking up a batch of black bean soup right now, with onions, peppers and cilantro I’ve grown in the garden! Keep ’em coming, Jack!

  2. I LOVE his grand tribute to slow reading. How wonderful.

  3. Yes, isn’t it grand? High-five again.

  4. I’d like to read that passage on Bluebird readers over and over – very slowly. And where can I find out more about the wicked, small-handed character eating bread and cheese? Thanks for bringing this wonderful writer to my attention!

  5. Carin, RIGHT! Maybe Jack will write more about him one day…

    If he’s new to you, Carin, boy HOWDY and howdy BOY are you in for a treat when you delve into his books.

  6. […] What I’m Doing at Kirkus This Week,Plus What I Did Last Week, Featuring Jack Gantos July 8th, 2011 &nbsp&nbsp by jules […]

  7. Sounds like some super-cool stuff. My girls are SO into Greek themes right now (thanks, PercyJ)…I bet those graphic novels will hit the spot.

  8. […] Jack Gantos (July 8, 2011): “As for being a ‘Bluebird’ reader when I was a child—which was the slow […]

  9. […] however, tried to write one myself (except that time in grad school when I took a course from Jack Gantos, and HOO BOY, was it one of the hardest things I’ve ever been asked to do, but I digress). […]

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