Jack Kerouac, interviewed by Liam Pieper

Illustration by Inés Estrada.

Death has been kind to Jack Kerouac. Half a century after the fact, there is little trace of the angry, disappointed alcoholic of his waning years. The guy who drank himself to extinction in his mother’s house is gone – in death, he is both corporeal and ethereal, a strange, shifting tableau of fact and fancy. At last, he embodies the duality of spirit and flesh—what he chased through his writing—that eluded him in life. When viewed from some angles, he still resembles the zombie he became even before death: querulous, confused, puffy with drink, sluggish with self-loathing. But then he’ll catch you with a turn of phrase and his blue eyes will spark and suddenly he’s evergreen again, the perfect embodiment of Sal Paradise, King of The Beats, father of the counterculture, Kerouac’s autobiographical avatar, dreamy all-American hero from his immortal roman-a-clef of On the Road.

“It’s not so bad, being dead,” he assures The Lifted Brow, grinning the weary-jock half-smile that shines from a million book covers. “Although, of course, there is the miserably weary fact of dying itself, and the feeling that everything is dead.”

Jack Kerouac

So what is going on here, exactly?

The Lifted Brow

Well, The Lifted Brow wanted a new interview with a famous dead writer, and nobody in recent memory is more famous and dead than you.

JK

What sort of dumb punk idea is that? Why don’t you just write about your own life?

TLB

Well, that’s complicated. You see, in 2014, all anybody writes anymore is memoir, and the literati are super pissed off about it. It’s like this dystopian future where the only books people will buy are personal stories of redemption and struggle against adversity.

Also, there’s this thing called Twitter and everyone on it is all in a lather about folks writing about themselves. The Lifted Brow wants people to do, you know, interviews and research. In fact, that’s the rule of this interview. First person pronouns are strictly forbidden.

So actually, Jack, if you could avoid referring to yourself in the first person, kind of like you did in your writing, it’s gonna save us a lot of editing.

JK

You know, this cat actually digs that. You gotta take a stand somewhere. It gives you room to pivot. That’s how you become a great poet: slipping your bonds like Houdini. You know Neal Cassady? Brilliant man, terrible typist – one time, just kids in New York, he says, “Jack, teach me how to type,” and he’s writing a story using just two fingers, BAM, BAM, BAM on the keyboard, and here’s what, sipping a beer in the next room and hear Neal stop and go all thoughtful quiet and what’s up; he’s hit the wrong letter, starting a word ‘P’ instead of ‘L’, and so now rather than go back and erase it he’s thinking of a new word that would carry the story, one that starts with ‘P’. He never went back, just kept moving it on, in all of life.

TLB

That’s a lovely story. It’s true?

JK

Who knows, man? Who knows. The lines blur after a while.

TLB

Which leads to the next question. Your novels, for which you are best known, are hugely autobiographical, from The Town and the City to On the Road, the latter of which is known as the book that broke you into the big time.

JK

Funny you should say that, that it “broke you”. Like, destroyed. Maybe, huh. You know, you ever hear that the author disowned huge parts of that book? Malcolm Cowley, editor of it, made endless revisions and added thousands of needless commas. Stripped all the goddamn feeling out of it, hid it behind craftiness. You’d think that the ‘King of The Beats’ solicitude would’ve had the power to tell his editors to leave his prose exactly as he wrote it. Sure, people didn’t always like it. You know what Truman Capote said about On the Road? “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” At the time it deserved a sock to the head, but you know what? Maybe he was right.

Anyone who listened was told that On the Road got wrote in three weeks in 1951, in a bennie sweat, typed on a 120-foot roll of teletype paper. True, but only half true. Work on it had begun in 1948, and most of it was written in notebooks while actually on the road. The idea to call it ‘spontaneous prose’ was stolen from a letter from Cassady – shit, even huge chunks of Cassady’s letters were plagiarised straight into the manuscript.

And that was only the first draft. There were another six years of revisions and cuts before it ever got published: the names changed, the facts checked, the feelings stripped damn near out. What you got to do always is look back over all the books and see what time has done to the writer’s life. This, after all, is the only thing a writer has to offer: the true story of what he saw and how he saw it. But, you know, gee, there’d never been anything like it before.

TLB

The critic Morris Dickstein said that On the Road is more important as a myth or a cultural marker than as a novel. That fair, you reckon?

JK

It changed things, that’s for sure. It made heroes out of everyone, which, you know, is what was meant to happen. Let’s be clear: there was a time when America was proud of the things it did. When it was proud of the things it made. Now it is proud of the things it sells – marketing is king in America.

TLB

You sound like Bob Dylan or Clint Eastwood in a fucking Chrysler car Super Bowl commercial.

JK

Dylan? Eastwood? Chrysler car commercials? Super Bowl?

TLB

Yeah. Long story.

JK

Okay, man? Anyway, On the Road was part of the start of the shit slide. It was, on its surface, an autobiographical novel, and under that a manifesto for the Beat Generation, but under that it was really a triumph of marketing. Kerouac, Ginsburg, Burroughs: all made each other famous, and it started with the cannibalising of Cassady, taking his vital force, this wild-man-angel-headed-hipster thing and sucking at his tit.

Sure, it’s natural for an author to distance themselves from their work as they age, even though you’re obliged to love all your children, even the disappointments. That book is dangerous irresponsible. If you’re a certain kind of person, say a young man entering adolescence who reads it at just the wrong moment, that book can seriously fuck your life up.

If you look back far enough, it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that On the Road alone is responsible for much of the bad writing of the latter half of the 20th century, and perhaps beyond.

TLB

Care to give an example?

JK

You can see echoes of it in your book, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year. Don’t know why you said to read it before doing this interview, though.

TLB

Oh, let’s not talk about it…

JK

But you see it too, right? Apart from the subject matter, which is the cultural fallout of the libertine Beats, who evolved into beatniks, and then devolved into hippies—their irresponsible hedonism, the facile spiritualism and dishwater philosophies, the vapidity and emptiness of which are only really hinted at in On the Road’s coda—but also in the way you write, Pieper: those long, pointless, self-indulgent sentences.

TLB

Yeah, well.

JK

It’s the height of self-indulgence. It’s an act of onanism to write like that. Did you ever think of readers having to wade through your self-indulgent bullshit? What did that reviewer call it? You said it just before. What was it? “Grating performative irony”?

TLB

Yes.

JK

Not the nicest of him, admittedly—although who wants niceness in a book review?—but right there, something in that egotistical self-indulgent pronoun-heavy false-modesty you affect triggers an antipathy in readers, especially in types who like to think of themselves as discerning.

TLB

Seeing as you’re dead, let’s talk religion. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to just how important an important part Catholicism played in your life, and your writing. Everyone plays up Kerouac the libertine, but only the more thoughtful of your many biographers delve into “Ti Jean”, the little French–Canadian boy you were, tortured by nuns for the first few years of his life.

JK

Man, those nuns. Terrible. They were monsters. Pissed against the wall under the porch of the house. Got a special little kick for that, you know. A nun once asked if Ti Jean ever played with his petite saucisse and, thinking she’d caught him pissing on the wall, he said yes, and all hell rained down. Kids were taught that they were doing the work of God. Splits you right in two, like an axe. Back then, Ti Jean only spoke French, and all the classes were in English, and the punishments were terrible. It turned that boy right off English until his teens.

TLB

You write in English, even though it didn’t come naturally to you. Do you think that the way you write, the freedom and inventiveness with which you throw down your sentences – do you think that comes from having to refashion English to fit French ideas?

JK

Have you heard the theory that the best writers in English are Russian – that there’s something in the marriage of English opportunism and Russian fatalism that leads to perfect books?

TLB

You think that duality of being is important to being able to write?

JK

Well, yes. You? In your book, you write yourself as a troubled reprobate who, deep down, is trying to do the right thing, yes? That’s the same trope: bouncing between these gritty, horrible adventures and then back to levity to show that it’s all no big deal, that you’re at once a primordial, predatory creature, and a cerebral one. It’s a neat trick, a cheap one, but easy to pull off, no?

TLB

This isn’t about The Feel-Good Hit of the Year. Let’s get back to On the Road.

Did you have any idea during your lifetime that the book would still be such an influential cultural text so many years after you passed away?

JK

A book, as a big zeitgeisty thing—the same as any piece of art—if it’s a big enough part of pop culture, becomes a cultural mirror for the current generation to extract whatever view they need refracted at them in that moment. For example, when the baby boomers were teenagers, they latched onto On the Road as instructive to the counterculture; Neal Cassady, as Dean Moriarty, was aspirational – a fantasy to emulate, a way to live. Now that the boomers are the establishment—now that they are older and sadder—Moriarty is a cautionary figure. People re-read On the Road as an adult and pick up on all the things wrong with it they missed the first time around – the way Dean knocks up women and abandons them, and the final scene where Sal ultimately turns his back on Dean. When you are young that scene is hopeful, but when you are old, you feel that Moriarty is being punished for his hubris, and that makes those who have grown more conservative feel better.

There’s also a scene very early on, during Sal’s first road trip, when Sal decides he needs a healthy meal and orders apple pie and ice cream, then walks away eating it after all smug like he’s done something intelligent. Here was an era when smoking while pregnant was thought to be beneficial, when people ate butter to soothe heart palpitations. The technology, the culture, the understanding of the world – they’ve all progressed, but for some reason this book continues to strike the same bum note in the culture again and again. How many clues do people need that the book is not fucking prescriptive, that it’s time to move on?

TLB

You’ve been called, by more than one biographer, a prisoner of your legend.

JK

Yes, sir, that’s very true. At first, when success struck, escape seemed the best option – more specifically, taking off for the mountains to find inspiration in solitude. Of course there was no resisting turning that into a book either. Shit escalated.

As night fell on the sixties, living with mother and the third wife, neophytes to the whole Beat phenomenon would turn up at the door with whiskey and want to drink, drink, drink. Success can turn any artist into a performing monkey.

TLB

You once told a reporter that you wrote your books so you would have something to read in your old age, but then in 1969 you died, forty-seven years old. Indeed, you drank, drank, drank until your oesophagus ruptured and you bled to death. What an awful death for a literary hero…

JK

Died sitting in front of the TV, hating everything on the screen. By the end the counterculture was despicable. Instead there was drinking, and writing novels nobody wanted to read, and fighting. A Tuesday, around eleven in the morning, sitting in a chair, drinking whisky and malt liquor, trying to write. Started throwing up, which was nothing new, but then it was all blood. Took a while to get to the hospital, but they couldn’t do anything, no matter how much new blood they put in. Liver was long gone, blood couldn’t clot, dead.

TLB

Jesus.

JK

Please don’t blaspheme.

TLB

Sorry.

JK

That’s okay. Tradition, you know.

TLB

A few weeks before you died you were arrested. Did this have anything to do with your death?

JK

Didn’t help. The arresting policeman, when asked to name the crime, said he was arresting “for decay”. A fight, you see, the other joe throwing rabbit punches. Doctors reckon that’s what finally finished off the old liver. How about that, some punk in a bar killed Jack Kerouac and the guy wouldn’t even have known about it. Talk about unexpected outcomes! What a trip!

TLB

You know, you don’t always talk the way one would expect.

JK

The whole ‘Beat Generation’ thing was coined only because everyone was worn down, victimised, terrified of the options available. Something similar is happening today: class warfare, disunity. It’s endlessly recursive: a generation resents their elders for infantilising them, and these elders, jealous of youth, infantilise and victimise their children.

Writing about being free-spirited and full-hearted is always packed with half-lies. Self-censorship was a huge part of the Beats. In Vanity of Duluoz, the section that describes the first joyous dash across the country away from home leaves out the panic attacks felt on reaching the destination, the bed bugs, the feeling of letting family down. Similarly, in the first draft of On the Road there was a passage about dealing with an incident with a pregnant girlfriend – abandoned and unsure what to do, she has an abortion on a kitchen table in the Bronx. That didn’t go into the book, of course—crossed it all out with a pen—because at that point in the story the heroes are dashing across America, eating apple pie and ice cream.

Liam Pieper is a freelance writer whose recent credits include The Monthly, Meanjin, Going Down Swinging and The Sleepers Almanac. His first book, a memoir, The Feel Good Hit of the Year, was recently published by Penguin Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @liampieper.

This piece originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #23. Get your copy now.