OH: Your work has long been driven by a passion for doing justice on behalf of those denied it, and your commitment to Jan has often meant placing yourself on the front line—most notoriously in bitter battles with the Kerouac Estate. “The Last Days of Jan Kerouac,” however, seems equally driven by a desire for Jan to be given her dues as a writer, not just a writer’s daughter. So can you say something about the place of Jan’s work? Most people probably only know Baby Driver, so what kind of writer is she more broadly?
GN: Jan had a tremendous natural gift as a writer. When I met her, I was impressed both by her articulateness and by her love of words. She would spend hours reading dictionaries and encyclopedias; and as Bay Area poet Carl Macki once observed, she would literally get mesmerized by some words, “as if she could watch them spinning in the air in front of her,” as Carl put it. Oftentimes she would stop a speaker in mid-sentence to ask if he or she knew the derivation of a particular word they had just used. As is well known, she was fascinated by Lewis Carroll, especially by his Jabberwocky; and a lot of her poetry shows the influence of her inventing and deliberately misusing words in a similar manner. She could quote many lines from Jabberwocky and would sometimes interject them into a conversation when she was having fun with someone she considered pompous or square, or someone who prodded her one too many times to talk about her father. As for her novels, they came in large part from her storytelling ability, which was prodigious. Uncannily like Jack in many ways, Jan tended to be quiet at a gathering if sober; she would often plant herself in a corner to listen. But if under the influence of alcohol, her tongue could be loosened marvelously, and she’d recount a whole host of her past adventures. I sometimes had the impression that she would have certain adventures just for the joy they would give her in recounting them. Obviously, never having finished high school, there were large gaps in her learning, but she had read an impressive amount of what’s called “serious fiction.” She loved James Joyce, and (again like her father) could actually recite lines from Finnegans Wake. She had also been greatly influenced by Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which she read at a young age, and the sort of exotic richness of his language and descriptions were something I think she unconsciously imitated a little bit in her own writing. I remember reading a letter that Ishmael Reed had written to Herb Gold, in which Reed talked about meeting Jan in New York when she was nearly 16, probably just before she fled to Mexico, and how impressed Reed was with the number of important books Jan had already read.
OH: The coverage of Jan’s writing in the field of Beat Studies remains extremely limited, despite the numerous major books that have come out on Women Beat writers in the past decade. Does it make sense to call Jan a “Beat writer,” and what hopes do you have of her work being more widely recognised?
GN: Jan was a post-Beat writer, just as I myself am. Beat was a specific generation, people who came of age largely in the Depression, or a little beforehand. World War II was one of their principal influences. The generation that came after, myself born in 1949 and Jan in 1952, were influenced by the Cold War in the Fifties, the weird combination of material prosperity with rigid values and mores, which led to the Flower Children rebellion of the Sixties, the whole counterculture madness of Vietnam War protests, free sex, widespread drug usage, and so forth. The Sixties Counterculture was the principal formative influence on my and Jan’s generation. Of course, in America, that counterculture had a strong lineage to the Beats–hence the title, post-Beat, which I believe was coined by poet George Dowden but was picked up by a lot of other people in the small press scene, and which made a lot of sense to me. Billy Burroughs, Jr., of whom more later, was also a post-Beat writer. I do believe Jan’s work will eventually be read and studied far more widely than it now is, although she already has a sizable number of fans, many of whom have already contacted me on the internet or at readings. Her reputation and prominence would also have been helped if her heirs had not blocked the publication of the third novel, the capping work, in her autobiographical trilogy: Parrot Fever.
OH: One of the most striking aspects of “The Last Days of Jan Kerouac” is your degree of identification with Jan. In terms of background and upbringing you shared certain things, and it’s obvious that you respond with great empathy to a woman who was extremely vulnerable. Can you explain a little how the relationship worked?
GN: It’s impossible to analyze all the dynamics of a friendship, though with most of the people I’ve become close friends with, the friendship developed very quickly. I can feel very quickly that I’m “in tune” with someone. I felt that way about Jan the day I met her, and clearly she had the same quick, instinctual judgment about me. We did have a lot in common–more than most people would have guessed. We both had the experience of growing up in poverty in big cities–her in New York and me in Chicago, though her experience was poorer and more directly inner-city than mine was. We both had a sort of unconventional Catholic upbringing—my attachment to the Church had a lot to do with Latin, chants, art, and incense, and hers with robbing the poor boxes on the Lower East Side. But we also both loved the mystical side of the Catholic Church. Jan lit candles for people, living and dead, till the end of her life–as I still do today. And we both had a kind of black, satiric humor, and enjoyed making fun of all the goofy, strange people we’d encountered in our life.
As for romance, that was a sticky matter. A male editor who knew Jan opined to me once that every man (non-gay) who’d ever met Jan had fallen in love with her to some degree, and I think that perception was pretty much on the mark. I certainly fell in love with her–as much for her extraordinary vulnerability as for her stunning good looks. But Jan, on the other hand, was really bothered by all the men who kept coming on to her–it was a huge nuisance in her life, which was only worsened by the increased attraction some men found in her because of her being Kerouac’s daughter. Coming from such contrary places, there was bound to be some boy-girl friction between us, at least when we were in our twenties; but despite that, a little bit of romance between us managed to flame up briefly. As soon as Jan saw me starting to get serious about her, she took me aside for a “heavy” conversation. She patiently explained to me that I was “too nice” for her (ouch), and that most of the guys she’d fallen for were abusive creeps whose manner of neglecting her feelings and needs reminded her of her father. I suppose she could have been trying to let me down gently, but I honestly think had I been some kind of classic “bad boy” we might have had a full-blown love affair. But I also wouldn’t be sitting here now writing a book about her and trying to get the world to remember her.
Early on, I also became a literary adviser and coach to her. It’s safe to say that over the years I evolved into more of a father figure to her, a role that suited both of us, since she badly needed someone she could trust, and I very much wanted to see her fulfill the enormous potential that was evident in her from the beginning.
OH: To most people, Jan is simply, reductively, “Jack Kerouac’s daughter,” and I wonder if you can say something both specific to Jan about what such an identity did to or for her, and more generally about the burden she had in common with Billy Burroughs, as the child of a famous Beat writer, and why it seemed almost inevitable they would suffer as they did.
GN: I’m not sure if you knew this, but I knew Billy Burroughs, Jr., too, as I also know John Cassady. I have even known some of the other Beat kids, like Parker Kaufman. All of them, including Jan, suffered enormously by people’s expecting them to be some kind of special surrogate representative of their bad-boy genius fathers. The male Beat writers in general were terrible fathers, but you didn’t have to be a Beat writer for that. I remember how many horrible stories Aram Saroyan told me of his father, and I’ve also heard that John Steinbeck IV was partly driven to alcohol and drugs by the chaotic parenting from his Nobel Prize-winning novelist father. For that matter, I’ve read Ianthe Brautigan’s memoir You Can’t Catch Death, and she too bears some deep scars from a father who too often wasn’t there for her. I remember talking with Aram once about how writers have to make an extra effort to be good parents, because it is too easy for them to get lost in their mental worlds and neglect the necessary attending to the here-and-now of their children’s lives.
But with the Beat writers like Kerouac and Burroughs, I think there was an added curse for their children. In the early years of their fame, those writers were stigmatized, if not actually hated, by large portions of American society, and yet it is an unwritten rule that children are supposed to defend and stick up for their parents. Children like Jan and Billy were put in the position of having to defend to the world fathers who were, in essence, treating them like shit. That tightrope act set up a kind of cognitive dissonance in both of them, of knowing what was true but having to articulate that truth so that it sounded like something different, something more acceptable, to the outside world. In Jan’s case, she took the tack of trying to see inside her father–often by following in his footsteps, both to physical places like Mexico and Tangier as well as to reckless, often drug- and alcohol-fueled psychic leaps into the unknown–to try to find justification for the sort of man Jack Kerouac had become. In the end, that compassion and empathy for her father enabled Jan to put her life on the line trying to preserve his literary legacy, but that quest took a heavy toll on her. I still remember how only a few months before her death she smashed the small altar she had always kept to him in her house, running through the house as she threw the shards about and screamed that he had destroyed her life (a story she told me on the telephone just after it happened).
OH: Three decades ago you wrote the first great critical biography of Jack Kerouac—Memory Babe—and you’ve written the “untold story” of On the Road—the story of Lu Anne Henderson—as well as being fantastically prolific with a host of other publications, from your own poetry to a history of Vietnam Veterans; what’s left in the Beat field that you want to do?
GN: I long ago reconciled myself to the fact that Jack Kerouac would not be done with me as long as I lived, nor I with him. My own life and work is permanently entwined with that of the Beats, which became a formative influence on my writing from the time when I was still in graduate school at the University of Illinois, arguing with professors who refused to teach Kerouac in any of their classes there. First, I have to finish the biography of Jan that I am currently working on. Then there are all those interview tapes, which I finally obtained copies of after a costly 12-year legal battle with the University of Massachusetts, where I had placed the tapes for study in 1987, but which had been locked up in 1995 after threats from John Sampas. Listening to those tapes again recently, I discovered enormous amounts of information on them that had not been incorporated in Memory Babe. For instance, when I interviewed poets like Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Kenneth Rexroth, and others, they often talked about their own work as well as discussing their experiences with Kerouac. But when I wrote Memory Babe, I only used the material that had to do with Kerouac. Yet those tapes tell the intimate story of many of these writers and other people in Kerouac’s world that would be of interest in its own right, without reference to Kerouac. I therefore hope to do a book someday using the previously untouched material from the interview tapes. I also spent many years working myself as a poet and writer among the Beat writers, mainly in North Beach but also sometimes in Boulder or New York, and many of these people–such as Bob Kaufman, Jack Micheline, Harold Norse, Ira Cohen, Janine Pommy Vega, and others–became my friends, with whom I had my own significant interactions. I’d like to tell some of those stories in an anecdotal book, because there was an active and exciting post-Beat literary scene which the Beats moved in and out of, and whose story really has not yet been told, at least not fully. That may just be the tip of the iceberg of what I need to do, or would like to do, before I die, and it all depends on how much time and energy I have left!