Criticism & Features


In Retrospect: A Q&A with Joyce Johnson


With the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road fast approaching (it was published on September 5, 1957), it is only appropriate to speak with Joyce Johnson, author of Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir, winner of the 1983 National Books Critics Circle Award for Best Biography/Autobiography. For her book is both an intimate portrait of Kerouac at the moment his groundbreaking novel was published and and a moving memoir of the Beat women, the “minor characters” who struggled to live as freely and as intensely as the men they loved. 

Q: When I first read Minor Characters in 1983, little bits of the 1950s New York you describe still existed. The Cedar Tavern was in business and the East Village retained a bit of an edge. But rereading the book 24 years later is a very melancholy experience as that Bohemian world is now completely gone. Is there still a place in New York for young artists who want to live as freely and as spontaneously as you did 50 years ago? 

A: New York today is evolving in very different way. What enabled people to live that way, just sort of getting along and not thinking too much about jobs except as a means of subsistence, was the fact that New York in the Fifties was full of available cheap apartments. But that is long gone. The city today is being buried under relentless gentrification, which is going to make up everything the same. I know a whole number of painters squeezed out of Williamsburg (they were among the first people to go to Williamsburg), who have relocated up the Hudson River to Beacon; they are all exiles from Brooklyn but it is not the same. They thought they would find this vital art scene. It just hasn’t happened. There’s not enough of a critical mass to support it. I think you need a large urban area to stimulate this cultural scene.

One of the exciting things about the late Fifties was that there were all these people, not just writers, but painters, dancers, actors photographers, and jazz musicians all converging and getting to know each other, and this was all happening within a few blocks of each other downtown. It was an extraordinary moment and it was very open and very unhierarchical. A young artist could have a chat with de Kooning; it wouldn’t be a big deal. Of course, that couldn’t last. 

Now all these cultural worlds are segregated. There is the literary world and the art world and the dance world, etc.

And each world has its world within worlds. 

Q: In your preface, you attribute the initial inspiration for writing Minor Characters to a 1981 visit to a London Jazz Club called Pizza Express where you listened to pianist Jay McShann perform. Why did you decide then to write about your experiences?

A: I hadn’t been really planning to write that memoir at all. In fact, I had the opening pages of a novel, and that is what I had planned to do. But suddenly I had a train of thought watching McShann. He looked so great. He was in his 70s and his men were beautifully dressed with diamond rings on their hands. And they were still on the road and enjoying themselves playing. I thought how MacShann had survived but his contemporaries like Charlie Parker were all gone. And I asked myself how was it that some people survived and others didn’t? I then began thinking of Jack Kerouac and other people I had known, and I suddenly realized I wanted to look back and write that book. So I started immediately. It became an urgent feeling that was the time to write about it. 

Q: But as you acknowledged in the book, you hadn’t taken notes while you lived your Beat life.

A: Oh, not at all. I am not a note taker. Sometimes I have regretted that but I am not a journal keeper for the most part.

Q: But how did you recall your life so vividly and in such detail? 

A: I mostly went back into my memories of the time. I was very anxious at first. I thought at first maybe I will only remember enough for 75 pages, but I found that working from memory you go into one room and concentrate hard and evoke something from the past, and then a door opens into another room and yet another room and another room. The memories keep expanding, one out of another in a kind of organic way. And that’s what happened when I wrote Minor Characters.

Q: How long did it take for you to write the book?

A: It took a year and a half. At the time I was working as executive editor at Dial Press and I was also a single mother. I had learned the only way to get any writing done was to write before I went to work. So I would get up early every morning and write a page or two. And in that matter I wrote the book. 

Q: In your memoir, you described your growing estrangement from your parents as you moved into the Beat world. You wrote that “they’re as prewar as their living room. Their innocence is the great achievement of their lives. It asks to be protected, and ultimately I will have to protect it by leaving.” Which you did, by moving out of their house at age 19. And your memoir is very frank about your life after you left home: your love affairs, the abortion. Was your mother still alive when you published the book? Did you give her the book to read? 

Q: No, I didn’t give her the book. I told her she wouldn’t like it. There is always that problem when you write a memoir that people are going to be deeply hurt or upset by what you write. I told her it was a book I wrote just for the money. She appreciated that part of it, but I also think she didn’t want to know about my life then. As far as I know, she never read it although I did find after she died a copy of the New York Times review among her stuff.

Q: And how did you feel when you won the National Books Critics Circle award?

A: It was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. It was totally unexpected.

Q: Minor Characters is not just a fascinating look at Jack Kerouac and the other male Beats but also a moving portrait of the women artists and writers, like Elise Cowen, Hettie Jones (wife of poet and playwright LeRoi Jones), and Mary Frank(married to photographer Robert Frank) who struggled between their doing their art and their relationships with men, sometimes putting their art on the back burner. Even you put aside your novel when Jack stayed with you. Have things changed for women artists and writers since then? 

A: I seem to write only when I am alone. When I have somebody else around, I get very distracted. Of course, conditions have changed a great deal for women writers and artists but I still think there is a way to go as far as their reception out in the world. I have become extremely aware of the fact although there is supposedly a total acceptance of women’s books, these books are very much promoted in terms of the youth and attractiveness of the writers. It also helps if you come from some exotic background. Those are the books that get promoted. It’s harder if you are an older writer and just an ordinary American. I hope I am not sounding unfair but it is a really bad situation. Women have to be attractive and exotic. I don’t think the same standards apply to male authors. 

The prejudice against women writers and artists have taken another subtler form but I am very aware of it when I walk into Barnes and Noble and see which books are up front on the tables and which aren’t. And frankly I get furious. Now what is called “women’s fiction” has been relegated to chick lit and the more serious stuff doesn’t move. 

Q: But publishing is a field in which women play major roles. 

A: Oh there are a whole lot of women working in the field but I am talking about the marketing process and the way books are promoted. And what’s considered marketable and what’s not. 

Maybe the problem is that people aren’t reading in general. People are still spending an enormous amount of time online. They are attached to their cell phones every minute. All their personal space is invaded. There are so many things competing for people’s attention, and that whole process of sitting down with a book seems very slow. People are very impatient. They are visually oriented. There has been a definite change in the way people read. 

At the time On the Road was published, books were so important. A book like On the Road was major news. A novel having that impact today? 

Q: With the exception of the Harry Potter books.

A: There are very few exceptions. Books no longer occupy that central place in the culture. They have been pushed to one side. And I think that is a tremendous loss. 

Q: And yet 50 years later there is still interest in On the Road, what with a front page review of the scroll edition in the Sunday New York Times Book Review and a major Kerouac exhibition this fall at the New York Public Library. When you meet Jack, did you ever get a chance to read the scroll edition, which Viking is finally publishing, or did you read the book after it was published? 

A: Jack arranged to have me read a copy of the book a month before it was published. I didn’t read the scroll edition. I heard about it. I just read it this year. I have written a piece for that is going online on Monday about the whole history of the scroll and Jack’s feelings about it. I read the scroll line by line against the book text. 

Q: How did the experience of reading the scroll differ from reading the novel?

A: In a wonderful way that whole unbroken paragraph almost duplicates the experience of being on the road itself. It’s like a big road unfolding. Of course, if the book had been published in that form, it wouldn’t have had such a large readership. The book was muted to a certain extent by the Viking editors. A lot of sexual references was taken out or handled in a euphemistic manner. A couple of important characters were virtually cut from the book. And a lot of editorial damage was done to some of the prose. On the other hand, Jack himself did some good revisions over the years deepening the message of the book and reflecting his growing preoccupation with mortality. So there were things gained as well as things lost. 

Q: Did you show Jack Kerouac the draft of your first novel (Come Join the Dance, published in 1962), which you were working on when you met him? 

A: Yes, I did show him the novel and he was very encouraging. He told me that I shouldn’t keep going back and keep revising. I was always a big reviser and I am still am. I’ve always revised and revised. I can’t go on until I get something right. Jack told me I should write in a totally spontaneous way, that I should give up my job as a secretary and go on the road like him. And of course that was very difficult for a young woman to do. I almost met him in Mexico. We had plans to meet in Mexico City in the late summer of 1957, and that might have been an interesting experience. Or it might have been awful. It would have been a huge experience for me but it never happened. Instead Jack came to New York in time for the publication of On the Road. 

Q: Can anyone go on the road today, the way Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady did 50 years ago?

A: I don’t think so. Not in the same way. 

Q: Why is there still such interest in the Beats today? Is it because we are living in a new McCarthy era of mean-spiritedness? Instead of Communists, we now fear terrorists and illegal immigrants.

A: At the time of the Beats, things were bad here. People were very frustrated. There was all this pressure to conform. There were all these repressive morays having to do with sex. Women were supposed to marry very young and not to lead independent lives, and certainly not to have sex lives outside of marriage. So when On the Road and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl came along, here suddenly were two powerful voices articulating all the frustration and restlessness that people felt. There was all this pen-tup feeling so audiences were ready for something like that. 

And I am sure today there is that tremendous pressure for conformity going on all over this country. You don’t feel it in places like New York, but elsewhere young people must really feel it. 

Q: I found Minor Characters and Hettie Jones’s own marvelous memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, equally groundbreaking in their portrayal of women struggling to become themselves and to lead full, independent lives despite the pressures to conform. 

A: It was very difficult back in the Fifties for a woman to lead the kind of life that is taken for granted now. Just to move out from under your parents’ roof and get a place of your own if you weren’t married, get a place of your own and supporting yourself. Supporting yourself wasn’t easy because the pay was ridiculous. I was supporting myself on $50 a week. And just about getting by.

Q: What would you like readers today to take from On the Road and Minor Characters? 

A: Everybody’s time today is so programmed. There is a message in Jack’s book that speaks to men and women, which is to open yourself up to experience. Look around. If there is an inner search that you have, go for it. That message of opening yourself up is a very powerful one. And On the Road is a very anti-materialistic book, which is also something people ought to think about. 

At the time that On the Road was published, the 1950s was a tremendously misogynistic period. Within Bohemian circles, although I can’t say women were treated especially well (you would have relationships with men who would take no real responsibility for you) but if you were a certain kind of woman, those relationships gave you a lot of space because you really were on your own. I would have been suffocated at that time by a traditional marriage 

Q: The Beats were the forerunners of the countercultural movement of the 1960s yet you write in your book that the Sixties was not really your period. Why is that? 

A: For me the 1950s had so much more of an intensity and meaning. I was a jazz person and I never related very well to rock music. That was the dominant art form of the Sixties, and writing books during that time seemed like a secondary thing compared to the music scene. I somehow couldn’t locate myself in there. A lot of what was going seemed narcissitic and self-destructive. I related to the politics of the time. I was working as a book editor. I got very involved in getting books published about the civil rights movement and books of that sort. That was important to me to be doing that. I also managed to get Jack’s last book, Visions of Cody, published after his death. 

Q: In your memoir, you note that the only woman Jack Kerouac actually ever took with him on the road was “ Gabrielle L’Evesque Kerouac, age sixty-two, with her bun of iron-grey hair and her round spectacles and her rosary beads in her old black purse.” As you so movingly depict, the tragedy of Jack Kerouac was his inability to break free of his mother’s psychological and emotional grip. Why was that? 

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A: I don’t think he could have broken his mother’s grip. It went back to his early childhood and the death of his older brother. And also he was a French Canadian Catholic. He grew up in the French Canadian enclave in Lowell, which was a little world unto itself, almost like a foreign country. He never was fully fluent in English until he was in his teens. So he always carried Lowell with him wherever he went. He never felt totally at home or at ease in New York circles, with what he called the jaded intellectuals. I think one reason Jack related so well to Neal Cassady was that Neal Cassady was someone from a working class background. Jack Kerouac was an anomaly on the publishing scene, which was such a white-glove, upper-class WASPy industry at the time. Even Jack’s publishers didn’t treat him with a great deal of respect. 

Q: This November the New York Public Library is hosting a major Kerouac exhibition. including the original scroll of On the Road. What do you think he would think of all this attention? 

A: I think that would please him. And I am sure he would be pleased that people are still reading him. All his books are in print and that the scroll, which meant so much to him, has finally been published. It’s a great act of publishing justice. 

Q: You wrote Minor Characters before the James Frey affair threw a taint on literary memoirs. Where do you think the genre is headed? 

A: There is a lot of interesting writing in memoirs, but there is also a lot of bad stuff. I think the appetite in this country for people with violently dysfunctional lives has created monsters like Frey. Again if you have these extreme things happen to you, you become very promotable. And then you can get on Larry King and Oprah. There’s a taste for the memoir of dysfunctionality. On the other hand, there are people writing really good literary memoirs. Memoirs are a wonderful form because real lives are stranger than fiction. Their stories are shaggier; they are not as shaped and predictable as a lot of fiction. I think that is what keeps the genre fresh and people keep inventing new forms to tell their stories. 

–interview by NBCC member Wilda Williams