Jack Gantos has written across the spectrum: the hilarious Rotten Ralph picture books, the National Book Award-nominated Joey Pigza series, the wonderfully wacky and macabre Jack Henry novels, the Newberry Medal Winner Dead End in Norvelt, and the Printz Honor memoir Hole in My Life.
His books have been translated into numerous languages (check out the new recording of Hole in My Life in Farsi), and he has been entertaining readers young and old around the world for decades.
Mr. Gantos was kind and generous enough to sit down with us for the following interview.
You moved around a lot as a kid and have spoken about the need to develop people skills quickly in order to make friends. Did you ever meet any kids who shared your interests in reading and writing?
Not in a significant way. Likely there were other kids who kept diaries and journals — and for my senior year psychology class we all had to keep journals about ourselves, but I can’t recall ever discussing “writing in my journal” with another kid. It was too personal. Perhaps I grew up at a time and in places where boys/young men did not share their interior lives. But a journal, for me, meant “PRIVATE!”
You get letters from kids all around the world. What are your thoughts about the challenges kids are facing today? Are kids different from when you were growing up?
They are both different and the same. When I was growing up there were hours and hours of dead space in your life where you could avoid being bombarded with media that was telling you who to become and how to act.
Yes, we had TV and radio commercials, and a lot of social trends, but they were not as overwhelming as they are now. When I was a teen, I’d just disappear into the woods, or go downtown and hang out with a friend, or hide on a golf course, or take a long bike-ride, or simply sit and read in my room. There were no cell phones. You could be alone and be entirely who you are with your own thoughts and notions.
It’s a little more difficult to just disappear from media these days, but it can be done. It’s nice to be alone with your thoughts.
You’ve said you didn’t truly consider becoming a writer until high school. Was there a particular book you read at the time that turned you in that direction? A particular teacher?
I had a handful of good teachers who knew I liked books (the librarian did), and my literature teachers and Latin teacher too. They encouraged me to read “good books”, which mostly meant the modern classics, but then I found my way to used paperback bookstores in strip malls that were both adventurous and thoughtful. They were always close to used record stores. I was fond of many genres of books, but I was always looking for a character I could identify with.
Your life has been full of travel, fascinating people and varied experiences. But you also taught creative writing and literature at Emerson College nearly two decades. What are your thoughts on the debate that young writers should either go into the university or head out into the “real world”?
That question was always brought to me by my students when I had office hours and we’d talk about writing and careers and so forth. You have to be a special person to drop out of college, travel about, seek engaging possibilities, support yourself and be disciplined enough to write. It can be done.
But I think a lot of writing programs now are pretty engaging — and they are real Creative Writing programs and not just cousins to the English Department. Now, many colleges have great writers on staff, and curriculums that lean toward literature and writing and publishing — and too, there are like-minded students to be with who can provide encouragement.
You have composed your novels at both the Boston Public Library and the Boston Athenaeum. As an avid reader, how do you keep yourself from wandering through those stacks instead of writing?
I don’t stop myself. I love the stacks and take a “literary walk in the woods” quite often. What I find on the shelves are books that are very far from what I know — I read a lot of nonfiction — and in a way reading off-topic is a way of refreshing yourself. The books are a welcome distraction.
Plus, reading an interesting book is often easier than filling up a blank page with your own words.
Do you have a favorite library that you’ve visited?
I was at Oxford in the UK and was speaking at a conference that allowed me to stay for some extra days and I spent them wondering about the Bodleian Library, which was lovely.
You’ve mentioned teaching Borges, Marquez and Calvino to your students. Which writers and works did you enjoy teaching the most?
Borges, Marquez, Calvino. We would read them more or less like dogs sniffing something we were not sure we should eat. These can be complex writers, and they are masterful. Borges and Marquez are pretty difficult to digest at times, especially Borges. Calvino was very clever and playful. But in reading them there was a commitment to understanding the depth of the text, and the text demanded that of the reader.
For many of my writers, they were unsure if being so difficult and arcane was effective. A lot of writing is as smooth as watching a movie and you can sit back and enjoy it. Some writing demands the reader’s attention and I like to feel the writer at work.
If you were still a professor today, what books would you teach?
I’d have to give that a lot of thought. You have to match up the reading to the writing. Short stories are great to read/teach as they contain all the major elements of writing. Same with poetry. We all may want to write novels, but it can be a difficult task in the beginning — and in a class.
You’ve consistently mined your own life for your fiction. The Jack Henry series draws heavily on your childhood experiences, Zip Six draws on your time in prison, etc. Is there any experience you wish you had written about that never made it into your published work?
When I went to college I lived in rooming houses in Boston — in Back Bay mostly, but in the South End too and Beacon Hill. Rooming house life was terrifically rich because they are full of older characters living fascinating lives. A lot of discarded lives — but rich in detail. I spent about eighteen years in rooming houses.
I recently was fiddling around with a novel set in one of them, but my editor didn’t care for it. Perhaps the rooming house material is better suited for a book of short stories. I have a lot of half written novels — sometimes you don’t know if it is ‘novel’ worthy until you muscle your way through a couple hundred pages and either find the heart and soul of the book, or you realize it doesn’t have the heart and soul and subject matter you hoped for. I find it is often better to abandon a mediocre idea than to force it to become a whole mediocre book.
Heads or Tails: Stories From the Sixth Grade was published in 1994. But chronologically, Jack Adrift is the first book, though it wasn’t published until 2003. Why did you start with Jack’s sixth grade year, and why did you later return to write about his life in fourth and fifth grade?
Well, that was rather random. I just had sixth grade in mind because I knew I had a lot of sixth grade stories that were wild and true and fun and juicy and a sixth-grade kid, (me), was full of curiosity, and intensity and my mind was very sticky for details that particular year. Plus, I had some decent stories in my old journal from that time and they got me started. That Heads or Tails volume of stories then opened the floodgates for the other four school years full of stories.
All the Jack Henry novels utilize a similar episodic chapter structure, except Jack’s Black Book, which is divided into three novella-like sections. What inspired this change in structure for that book?
I wrote the first story, Go Dog Go, and it was about sixty pages long, so it was just a matter of length. All those Jack books are around two hundred pages in total. I didn’t want to scare a kid off with a five-hundred-page book.
You published Zip Six in 1996 before returning to Jack Henry’s world in Jack’s Black Book. What did you learn from writing a novel for adults that you were able to apply to the subsequent Jack Henry novels?
At that time, I was grappling with my ‘prison’ past and Zip Six was a wreck of a manuscript that I had written while in college and I wanted to finish it. I like the book well enough — mostly in sections — but it was also overly juiced up (everything had to be intense!) and so I took the time to finish it.
And it taught me a lot — a lot about how to write Hole in My Life which could be dramatic without being desperately overdramatic. The subject and experience were dramatic enough. Zip Six was a very good learning experience.
As a young man you found yourself caught up in trafficking illicit drugs in order to fund your college education. Before you were caught, you must have been gazing down two forking paths: the drug trade, which promised tons of “easy” money, and the intellectually rigorous road of academics. What kept you from taking the “easy” road?
I don’t think I was thinking ‘noble’ thoughts — my plan was to go to college. I had been offered many opportunities to continue smuggling hashish, but it was never my ‘master’ plan. It was a short-term plan. I needed money for school. I was bookish and wanted to continue going in that direction. I did enjoy the smuggling adventure. But the abrupt ending — a year-plus of prison time — sorted me out.
You have written dozens of picture books, middle grade novels, and two adult novels, but only a handful of short stories (The Bloody Souvenier and Prozak for Muzak are both excellent). Why so few short stories?
I think in the children’s field the short story does not get much attention—you can see how I took the Jack Henry stories and linked them into a novel-ish format so that they read like self-contained chapters. If there were more literary periodicals published for short stories I would write more. But it takes time to write them and the reward is very thin.
Like you, I have cherished the Paris Review Interviews over the years. Do you recall any standout interviews you’ve read over the years?
Off the top of my head: Truman Capote, Pablo Neruda, John Cheever, Dorothy Parker … and Georges Simenon (He checks into a hotel with a case of wine. Two weeks later he checks out with a newly written novel. Amazing.)
You’ve written openly and honestly about your time in prison, and I believe you’ve mentioned that your favorite work written by an author in jail is Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis. Have you read many books set in prisons or written by imprisoned authors?
What book was the most difficult for you to write?
Maybe it was Love Curse of the Rumbaughs. Or the last Joey Pigza novel, The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza. Hole in My Life was straightforward. Dead End in Norvelt was fun.
Your work is often motivated by empathy. You’ve discussed the boy who inspired you to create Joey Pigza, and you’ve talked about the two girls you knew who inspired Desire Lines. Is a heightened degree of empathy something you’ve cultivated as a writer, or was that something you were simply born with?
Can you make yourself have empathy? Likely so. People can become more emotionally sensitive to others.
Desire Lines was a troubling book because I knew the girls, especially the girl I sat next to in class. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, I knew him for about fifteen minutes — he was in a classroom full of kids I was speaking to about books and he left an indelible impression on me. I love that kid.
Many writers, when asked for their favorite books, provide a list of standard classics: Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway, etc. You, however, often list a wide range of both children’s books and adult novels, classics and popular fiction. Do you feel people make too much of the lines between children’s and adult fiction, literary and popular genres?
I read “children’s literature” just as I read “German literature” or “Russian” or “American literature” or “European literature” or “Japanese literature”—I think the reader is always refining their interests and tastes in books. I can read the “Canon” and be inspired to write, just as I can read good popular novels.
I think people get too worried over their literature IQ. I do like to be challenged from time to time. I keep a nice copy of Moby Dick on my desk. I love his writing. Cormac McCarthy, Paul Bowles, there are so many good books to read, and they keep me honest.
You’re 68. Many novels change upon rereading at different points in our lives. For example, The Grapes of Wrath means something much different at 30 than it does at 18. What books for you have changed over the course of your life?
Yes, The Grapes of Wrath, does change. So does Charlotte’s Web. I think the writer who really spans that “change of sensibility as you read his books” is Edgar Allan Poe. The more I read him, the more he gives back/expands. Joy Williams is another writer I love to read. Jayne Anne Phillips. Long, long, list.
Do you read many children’s books published today? Do you have any favorite writers or illustrators of children’s books?
I’ll pass on that. But if I did require a coffin after death I’d like Peter Sis to paint it.
You’ve met many of the greatest writers in children’s literature of the last fifty years: Gary Paulsen, Walter Dean Myers, Jon Scieszka, etc. Have you ever met an author who genuinely surprised you? Which author do you wish you had met but never had the chance to?
I think Louise Fitzhugh would have been great to know. I’m always sorry I did not go to Morocco and meet Paul Bowles. He is such a great writer—as was Jane Bowles. And I love Francis Ponge’s mind, and Gaston Bachelard. And lovely Elizabeth Bishop. The list is endless. The variety is full of riches.
Which writers do you think have gone underappreciated?
I don’t know. Likely, most of them. Can you imagine writing a book may take a decade and nobody reads it.
What recent novels do you admire?
I’ve been on a Robert Walser kick. Austrian. Has sympathetic notes of Kafka, who I adore (mostly the stories).
What books are on your nightstand right now?
The line of books looks like a broken accordion sitting on my nightstand. I just checked out from the Boston Public Library: Socialist Realism by Trisha Low and To Write As If Already Dead by Kate Zambreno. I like books of essays that take a good look at writing, art and culture and the self.
What book do you return to more than any other?
When I was thoroughly depressed during the pandemic last year, I slowly read To Kill a Mockingbird again—likely the tenth time in my life. I loved it. It loved me. The Car Thief by Ted Weesner. This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll, StopTime by Frank Conroy. I just went down the angst list of great books. On the Road by Kerouac.
You’ve mentioned that you used to teach poetry, and that reading poetry is good for writers. Do you have any favorite poets? Do you enjoy any poetry written for kids?
I wrote my college thesis on Vladimir Mayakovsky. I still read the Russians—Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova … and love James Tate and Bill Knott, and Naomi Shihab Nye, Rita Dove, Denise Duhamel…I admire the poets.
Do you like movies? What are some of your favorite films?
The 400 Blows. Spirited Away. Life is Beautiful. .. thousands more.
In both Hole in My Life and Zip Six you write about the Elvis impersonator you met as a young man. Do you enjoy Elvis’s music at all? If you were going on a road trip, what albums would you take with you?
I think I would take all of Annie Lenox and Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone and Sly and Donny Hathaway…I love anyone with soul. I was an Elvis fan.
What classic novel are you most ashamed not to have read?
I’m not really ashamed of it: but Finnegan’s Wake.
If you could have President Biden read one middle grade novel, what book would you have him read?
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.
Chocolate or vanilla?