Interview with Newbery-Winning Author Jack Gantos
Jack Gantos was born in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania. He has written books for people of all ages, from picture books and middle-grade fiction to novels for young adults and adults. His works include Hole in My Life, a memoir that won the Michael L. Printz and Robert F. Sibert honors; Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, a National Book Award Finalist, and Joey Pigza Loses Control, a Newbery Honor book, and his latest novel, Dead End in Norvelt, which won the 2012 John Newbery Medal and the Scott O’Dell award. For more information on Jack, check out his site here.
Your new book Dead End in Norvelt won the prestigious 2012 Newbery medal. What was your initial reaction upon getting the call?
I was surprised, as there are always a short shelf of great books published each year and I didn’t dare indulge in the overly delicious fantasy of being awarded the Newbery medal. Once I did receive the call, I felt pretty giddy and I knew that my day was soon about to change in ways I hadn’t anticipated. So I fed the cats extra treats, and my wife and I waited for the announcement to be made public and then the phone rang and the emails were nonstop and I was off to the races.
I absolutely love Dead End in Norvelt. Can you share a scene that was particularly fun to write?
There were quite a number of fun scenes. The waxy hands. The grim reaper. The flattened Hell’s Angel. There is a lot of ‘physical’ quality to the fun in those scenes. I really enjoyed writing the obituaries as many were just descriptive fun, especially the description of the dead letters lining the walls of the ex-post mistress’ house like the scales of a fish, or when Jack is sitting in church looking up at the white screen of the ceiling and he begins to imagine what heaven must look like and all the fancy bread images come into his mind. I liked that a lot.
What gave you the idea to write a book based on your life growing up in Norvelt? Was it harder or easier than you expected?
The moment of inspiration to write a book is actually pretty common. I always walk around thinking to myself, ‘I could write about this, or that.’ Now having written quite a number of books I know that the moment of inspiration is just a self-seduction mechanism—and the real work—both the complications and exhilaration–always begins after you have wedded your energy and commitment to the opening lines of the inspiration.
In Dead End in Norvelt, Jack yearns to be on his dad’s good side. Was that true for you?
Yes. I always wanted to be on his side. I wanted the easy manliness which he embodied, his ability to just assume his ideas were superior to any other, and the confident way in which he went about his business—right or wrong. I was always conflicted, double thinking every thought, worrying through my life as if it were a math problem to be solved either the right way or the wrong way. I felt tested all the time, and I often came up short in his eyes.
What was it like writing you as the main character?
Pretty smooth, really. All the ‘Jack Henry’ books of short stories are narrated by me, and ‘Hole in My Life’ is my voice, so I’m very comfortable navigating the prose and storytelling from the first person point of view. It allows me to swing smoothly from exterior narration to interior exploration.
How long do you wait before diving into the next novel?
I suppose I wait a few weeks or more. Sometimes months as I may be busy with a speaking tour and other duties. But when I feel the need to settle into a book, I give myself over to the impulse.
Describe your writing journey, from aspiring writer to published author?
Nothing too dramatic after the teen years. Once I was paroled from prison I ended up at Emerson College in Boston where I enrolled in their creative writing/BFA program. This was tremendously beneficial as I found myself in a small program with a lot of other young people who charted their lives through reading and writing. Then, I met Nicole Rubel who was a painter and illustrator. She was enrolled at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts. Once we both revealed our interest in children’s books we began to collaborate on writing and illustrating books. About the first dozen of these full ‘dummy’ books were deservedly rejected, but each rejection taught us something new about the craft and we felt we were becoming wiser with each attempt and rejection. Then we came up with ‘Rotten Ralph’ and that was sold before my Junior year in college. After that book, we just kept going and as a team have always worked together on picture books. In the meantime I’ve written the ‘Jack Henry’ series, the ‘Joey Pigza’ series and other novel length books, which lead up to ‘Dead End in Norvelt.’
Can you share a nugget of writing wisdom?
Learn from reading good books. But always write the best book you can. Too many books in the children’s field read like each other. The fresh air is always inside each writer. Some writers just breathe the fumes of others. It shows.
If you could throw any kind of party, what would it be like?
Parties make me nervous. I can control the characters on the page but not the ones inside my house. I think the Newbery banquet will be a fine party.
If you could choose anyone, who would you pick as your mentor?
My mentors shift around on the shelf. Right now I’m reading a lot of Oliver Goldhill and I feel like a student, and rightly so. He is wonderfully erudite, facile with the language, and very, very clever. In short: when I read or meet smart and clever books and people I’m always a little bit smitten.
As for being mistaken for someone. I attempt to blend in. Even when I pass myself in the mirror I would prefer not to recognize myself.
When you have 30 minutes of free-time, how do you pass the time?
Worrying over every little thing.
If you could be any fictional character, who would you choose?
I’m hung up between Peter Pan and Captain Ahab: the perpetual adolescent imp and the bitter, merciless avenger of death.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
Be a reasonably good father.
The best part of waking up is?
The few unforced bookish thoughts which advance the present manuscript.
What’s the worst gift you’ve ever received?
I can’t say.
What story does your family always tell about you?
When I enter a grocery store I vanish into the crowd no matter if I’m in China, India, Japan, Paris, Peru…I fade into the parade. They turn around and I’m gone.
What age did you become an adult?
I always tell people that I wasn’t worth spit until I was 40.
When was the last time you were nervous?
The last time I was late for an appointment. It kills me to be late.
Ever had something happen that you thought was bad, but it turned out to be for the best?
Not really. I suss ‘bad’ out pretty quickly.
What do you miss most about being a kid?
You can lie and never think twice about it.
If you could choose to stay a certain age forever, what age would it be? Why?
Forty five. I was finally pretty sharp.
What would you like your life to look like in ten years?
Most embarrassing moment?
I can’t repeat it here. But it had to do with the national book award reception and what was on my hands when I shook hands with Robert Stone, a novelist I greatly admire. (‘Dog Soldiers’ being one of my all-time favorite books).
If you could do anything and get away with it, what would you do?
Murder, of course. Then turn around and bring them back alive. I always want more power over the imaginations of others.
Dead End in Norvelt Book Blurb:
Melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional, Dead End in Norvelt is the story of an incredible two months for a boy named Jack Gantos, whose plans for vacation adventure are suddenly ruined when he is grounded by his feuding parents for what seems like forever. But escape comes where Jack least expects it, once he begins helping an elderly neighbor with a most unusual chore—a chore involving the newly dead, molten wax, twisted promises, Girl Scout cookies, underage driving, lessons from history, obituaries, Hells Angels, and countless bloody noses. Endlessly surprising, this sly, sharp-edged narrative is the author at his very best, making readers crack up at the most shocking things in a depiction of growing up in an off-kilter world where the characters are as unpredictable and over-the-top as they come.
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