One Indianapolis-based writer hopped in her car and hit the highway to research her latest book. Its story is creatively built around one of the best known road trippers ever to a pen a novel.
Indiana Writers Center
Director Barbara Shoup, who's published eight novels, had seen the famed On
the Road scroll when it was displayed in downtown Indianapolis before.
Shoup was not really a fan
of Jack Kerouac at the time.
But she grew to appreciate his work more while researching and
for Jack Kerouac, which fellow
Indy author Dan Wakefield says in a
blurb "brings alive the magic of the man who created The Beat Generation and
dramatizes his perennial appeal to youth."
Courtesy of Barbara Shoup
Looking for Jack Kerouac is Shoup's eighth novel. Her short fiction, poetry, essays and interviews have been published in numerous magazines as well.
The book is a young adult coming-of-age novel fueled by a road
trip Shoup took to St. Petersburg, Florida. A colleague of Shoup's came up with
the premise. Her friend had wanted to write a screenplay about a young man's
journey in 1964 to see the Beat pioneer of spontaneous prose who "opened a
million coffee bars and sold a million Levis," but she abandoned the idea and
told Shoup she could use it if she wanted.
The concept: A teenager makes a disillusioning pilgrimage to see
Kerouac near the end of his 47-year life, when he was no longer productive and
succumbing to alcoholism.
"It's about a kid who lived in Northwest Indiana, in the Calumet
Region, and didn't want to just finish school and take a job in the steel
mill," says Shoup, who won the 2012 Eugene and Marilyn Glick Regional Indiana
Author Award and has co-authored two books on the craft of writing. "He was
inspired to track down Kerouac after reading On the Road, and he finds
that he's living in St. Petersburg in this horrible little house, where he's a
sad wrecked person. He was an alcoholic, a bigot by that time, just a mess who
lived with his mother in a tiny house."
click to enlarge
Courtesy of Barbara Shoup
Paul Carpetti, the protagonist of Barbara Shoup's novel Looking for Jack Kerouac, discovers On the Road in Greenwich Village while on a class trip to New York City.
Shoup, who's also penned Stranded in Harmony and Vermeer's
Daughter, noodled around with the idea for years, but couldn't make it
go anywhere. The teenager would travel to Florida to see Kerouac, be
disappointed and find the girl who would make his life better, but she wasn't
sure why readers would care or how they would get emotionally invested.
Then Shoup's sister developed terminal brain cancer. They spent a
lot of time together before she died.
She says it was just awful to watch her nephews lose their mother.
"I was writing during that time and had a weird moment where I saw my
sister -- in my mind's eye -- with wild blonde hair and saw her standing behind the
counter of a diner. She was the girl I was thinking about for the book."
Then Shoup had the idea to give her main character, Paul Carpetti,
the experience of her nephew and make the road trip to see Kerouac fueled by
grief. After coming across On the Road during a class trip to New York
City, he would hit the road himself because he was heartbroken and didn't know
what to do. With that framework, the rest of the novel started
to unfurl before Shoup like a ribbon of highway.
Shoup read more of Kerouac's work as research, and her
appreciation for him deepened when she delved into Visions
of Gerard, a fictional meditation on the loss of his older brother, who
died from rheumatic fever as a boy. She saw Kerouac in a new light.
Her personal loss informed her writing of the book, which was
recently published by Lacewing Books.
"Every book has a piece of the writer in them somewhere, whether
it's identifiable or not," she says. "Every book is going to cost the writer
something, but they emerge on the other side with insight."
While she was writing the book, Shoup won a grant from the Indiana
Arts Commission that she used to take a 1,000-mile trip to St. Petersburg for
verisimilitude's sake. She took the back roads her characters would have in
order to glean as many details as possible. The journey triggered ideas for
scenes, such as to have Kerouac watch a spring training game in St. Petersburg
since he was a big baseball fan.
Courtesy of Barbara Shoup
Looking for Jack Kerouac tells a coming-of-age story, as well as the story of a journey. Shoup's research on the novel's main character's trip from Indiana to Florida was funded through a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission.
When the protagonist finally meets Kerouac, he sees how he's
changed but also receives life-changing advice. Shoup did not want the novel to
just be a tale of disillusionment -- she envisioned it more as of a
coming-of-age story about growth and maturation that could make a difference in
her readers' lives.
"Young adult books are coming-of-age stories in one way or
another, because they're about who the characters are when they start their
life," she says. "In my opinion, Catcher in the Rye would be a young
adult book. Young adult books are about immediacy and rawness and are right at
the age when you get a new perception of things."
Young adult books are having a cultural moment -- they've dominated bestseller lists and lately the Hollywood box office; they've sparked backlash and debate in some quarters over whether adults should read them. For Shoup, it's clear that Y.A. novels are literature that happens to be about adolescence, a period of journeys and discovery, just the sort of questing exploration she sought to capture in Looking for Jack Kerouac.
Joseph S. Pete is a Peter Lisagor and Hoosier State Press Association award-winning journalist who has been known to hang around museums and make the rounds on First Fridays. His literary work has appeared in Flying Island, Punchnel's and elsewhere. He has no known aliases.