Jack Gantos: On Domestic Craziness and Big-Hearted Kids
An Interview with Gail P. Gregg
It was summertime and baseball season was in full bloom when the idea for this interview was conceived. Perhaps that was what Jack Gantos was thinking of when he responded to my request for an interview, "You come up with the questions and I will take my best swing at answering them!" Thus, we began our e-mail conversation.
GG: Can you tell me what it was like growing up in your family?
JG: I grew up with two younger brothers, an older sister and a mom and dad. It was a fairly typical arrangement on the surface, but as a family we had our ups and downs. We moved a lot. I went to ten different schools in twelve years. My dad was trying to earn a living in the construction business, and so he moved us about in search of better jobs. Some of the places we moved to, like Barbados, Puerto Rico and Cape Hatteras were great - others, were not so great. Due to the housing boon in Florida, we lived all over Miami and Ft. Lauderdale - mostly in new developments with "instant culture" - which meant strip malls. Still, we were quite clever and there were always dozens of kids to play with so we were never bored. Three of my "Jack" books are set in South Florida.
GG: So, as a youngster, how did you spend your time?
JG: I spent most of my time out of the house. Being at home meant being at work - there was always a long list of chores. Sitting in the living room reading a book meant to my parents that I was wasting my time, and instead should be mowing the lawn or scrubbing floors or washing the car. I read in the garage, which was much more peaceful (to this day, I love the smell of gasoline), and I always seemed to find a library to hunker down in and immerse myself in reading.
GG: Who was the disciplinarian in your family?
JG: It breaks down this way - my mother used her petite motor skills, and my father used his gross motor skills. Neither was enthusiastic about punishment - and whatever we received, we probably earned. As for the finer qualities of discipline, i.e., do your homework right after school, set goals to be reached step by step, practice musical skills daily, develop patience, balance artistic, intellectual and physical pursuits, don't eat in bed, dress as if you owned a mirror . . . this sort of discipline was mostly over- looked for lack of parental maintenance and child disinterest.
GG: Sounds similar to the way I was disciplined. Moving on from family to school - what kind of student were you in middle school?
G: I was a poor student in middle school. I would not have been in a "gifted and talented" program. I was smart, but entirely unmotivated. I think by the time I arrived in middle school we had already moved several times. I didn't have any close friends, and ended up being on the fringe of "nice kid groups" (which was no fun), or else I was like a "spot" friend for the continuous cycle of kids who were always in trouble (this was more fun, but slightly dangerous). I belonged to no organized group - like sports or scouts. At home, my parents were struggling to make ends meet, so they weren't around for a lot of tea and sympathy.
GG: Any favorite teachers?
JG: I had one teacher in middle school whom I secretly admired: Mr. Adolina. He was my Latin teacher and he knew that I was a bit of a lost soul - in fact, the entire Latin class was made up of lost souls! So instead of drilling us full of Latin, he took us to every museum, play, concert, snake farm, parrot jungle, botanical garden and cultural activity (including a visit to a Seminole Indian village where we watched alligator wrestling). Although he knew we were smart, he felt that if we continued to be ignorant of the culture around us we would soon shut down and become high school losers with a degree in beer drinking. In his classroom, we watched movies all week - Ben Hur, The Robe, and Spartacus - any movie with a Latin connection. I loved him.
GG: Did any of your teachers encourage you to write?
JG: No, none. We never talked about creative writing, never had a section on creative writing, never met any writers, and never discussed writing as a career GG: As an English educator I find that very disappointing. I read that you kept a journal as a kid. Did your teachers ever know of your journaling habit? JG: In middle school guys believed that keeping a diary would be a respectable activity for girls only. I wrote privately, which was okay because I avoided bad advice. I made my own mistakes and found my own idiosyncratic solutions.
GG: It has been reported that Jack's Black Book was based on journals that you kept while growing up. Was journal writing the only kind of writing (outside of school assignments) that you did during your youth?
JG: Yes, journal writing is where I did all my writing. If I wrote a poem, it was in my journal - and I can say the same for stories and such. The four "Jack Henry" books are all based on my old journals. The published stories are not word-for-word as I first wrote them. They are heavily reworked, but the "germ" for each "Jack Henry" story was first written in my childhood journals.
GG: Speaking of journal writing, what caused you to begin to keep a journal?
JG: Pure luck! My older sister was a great journal writer. I was a copycat and so I asked my mother for a journal. She bought me one and I was under way.
GG: As a kid, did you ever share your journals with family or friends?
JG: Never. I did not invite anyone into my creative world. I viewed everyone as a threat because I had a fear that if people made fun of what I was doing that I might make fun of myself. I guess I felt that I was too weak to resist self-loathing. Also, I realized early on that privacy equaled power. In other words, what people thought you wrote about them was more powerful that what you really did.
GG: How did you overcome your fear and finally decide to share your creative world with others?
JG: My resistance to sharing my journals with family and friends was mostly because I consider my journals to be entirely personal, and more creatively "raw" than not - just as to this day, I don't show the "raw" written pages to family, students or my editor. I never had, nor do I have trouble sharing my refined creative work (poems, stories, and plays) with teachers and other writing students. For me, it wasn't sharing that was at issue - it was "who" I was sharing with, and the refinement of the work. I had to feel confident that I was showing my best effort to someone who could provide a considered response.
GG: Do you think that the act of writing in a journal helped you with relations with your family or with personal relationships in general?
JG: It may have, but the journal to me was not a place I went running to each time I had a tiff with my family. The journal was not a crying towel or steam vent. It was a place I went to write - certainly about my life and family, and social ups and downs - but where I escaped into my own creative thoughts as well. The journal is a place where you naturally reflect on your thoughts and behavior, and I am sure that some of that reflection had a positive effect on my attitude and behavior toward my family.
GG: So have you kept your original journals?
JG: I have them all - around two hundred of them.
GG: Did you take creative writing in college? If not, how and where did you learn your craft?
JG: I went to Emerson College in Boston for creative writing. I received a BFA and MA. Emerson didn't have children's book writing - I did that on my own. In my junior year I published my first picture book, Rotten Ralph. After I graduated the college hired me to teach writing and literature courses. While there, I set up the undergraduate and graduate children's writing and literature program, which has been discontinued since my departure to further my own writing. Emerson College has always considered children's writing to be beneath adult poetry and adult prose. Sadly, most college writing programs think children's writing is an activity practiced by garden gnomes who live under tombstones. I say "sadly" because there is so much which is brilliant in children's literature. It is both academic and artistic. Condescension often keeps children's literature from being fully recognized on its own literary merits.
GG: A colleague of mine who is well versed in ADHD and special education read your book, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key and stated that your portrayal of Joey was very authentic. How did you come to know so much about hyperactivity, its treatment, medication, and so on? Were you hyperactive as a kid?
JG: No, I was not hyperactive as a kid but I knew many hyperactive kids-we all did. They were the kids that had separate desks in the school hallways-all the kids who were forever pacing around the principal's office and a lot of the class clown types. Of course, I also did research - read books and searched the internet on the topic of hyperactivity. I also spoke with classroom teachers and special education teachers, and looked into behavior and drug therapies used with hyperactive kids. There is a lot of information available on this topic.
GG: So what prompted you to focus on this particular disability as something to incorporate into the make-up of Joey?
JG: I seized on the hyperactivity because I knew so many hyperactive kids when I was a kid, and then, as an adult, I seemed to observe them in schools everywhere. As a matter of fact, at one particular school visit a child blurted out in the middle of my presentation, "Teacher, I forgot to take my meds." The teacher pointed to the open door and the child leapt out of his seat and ran down the hall towards the nurse's office. Somehow, all the knowledge and experience I had gathered about hyperactivity just manifested itself into that kid and I began the first "Joey" novel that night, while sitting in my hotel room. Also, I want to add that even though the book is about a specific kid, Joey Pigza, with a specific problem, ADHD, the book in general addresses the subject of any kid, any person with a disability and how that person is perceived. I think that all people should be judged by the collection of their best qualities - and I think that Joey has some great qualities.
GG: Speaking of authenticity, the character, Joey speaks like kids really speak. Who was your model? Do you spend a lot of time listening and talking to middle school youngsters?
JG: Yes, from my school visits I keep up to date with how kids speak and dress, and behave. One can glean much information from spot observation.
GG: Goodness, with all of Joey's problems, why did you give him such a troubled mother?
JG: Everyone in Joey's family is at risk with one problem or another. Part of the book is about how both Joey and his mother have to come to terms with who they are first, about their particular struggles, and then they can empathize with each other more completely - which they do by the end of the novel.
GG: Not only did you give him a rather troubled mother, you chose to give him an alcoholic father as well. Why?
G: There is a lot of evidence that ADHD runs in families and evidence that as young people grow older the ADHD manifests itself in different behaviors - adults often become addicted to certain binge behaviors: gambling, chain smoking, excessive drinking and such. For Joey, Carter (his father) is who he may become if he doesn't manage his disorder. Of course, like any boy, Joey wants a relationship with his father, but he wants a responsible father - a father he can love without fear. Carter, however, is a bit scary so there is dramatic tension created with Joey wanting to have a deep relationship with his father while at the same time being afraid of him.
GG: In Joey Pigza Loses Control, you allow Joey to spend the summer with an alcoholic and dysfunctional grandmother both of whom Joey hardly knows-do you think that this was a good idea? Don't you kind of leave yourself open for criticism by doing this?
JG: I think that readers realize that Joey's family is not making textbook decisions. They are doing the best they can with what they have. In this particular novel, there is a window of opportunity for Joey to have a relationship with his father and so his mother takes a chance. After all, what if it works out? What if Joey has the opportunity to foster a relationship with his father? So, the mother takes a calculated risk and hopes that the potential for good is greater than the potential for what is negative.
GG: Don't you run the risk of your middle school readers getting very angry at Joey's mom for placing Joey in such a precarious environment for the summer?
JG: I don't think all middle school readers live in a world void of risks. I think they are mature enough to realize the dynamics of this family. Statistics say that 50% of all marriages end in divorce. Wouldn't that fact be enough to keep anyone from getting married? But it doesn't, because people are hopeful that they will be in the 50% that stick together - any Joey's mother is hopeful that Joey and his father will stick together. Middle school readers are very sophisticated. They understand that difficult choices are made because making a hopeful choice is often better than making no choice at all.
GG: A very prominent theme in the "Jack Henry" books as well as the "Joey" books is the father/son relationship. Was your model your own relationship with your father? Talk a little about father/son relationships in general.
JG: In the "Jack" books, because they are autobiographical, the father was modeled after my own. As for speaking on the general subject of father/son relationships - I don't know if I can do it service. At present it is a subject that draws much attention, and most of it is common sense and applies to all children: Love them; spend time with them; set high standards and help them to achieve their goals; be interactive with interests and friendships; develop a consistent, ongoing relationship; and, model responsible behavior.
GG: What is the driving force behind your stories? Where do your ideas come from, especially for the "Joey" books?
JG: I don't think that I have a single driving force behind my stories. I do believe that all children are driven to make logic out of chaos, to seek unconditional love, and to complete the cycle between violation and redemption. Very often then, these forces drive my characters.
GG: You have written books for pre-adolescents, adolescents, and adults - which age group do you prefer to write for and about?
JG: I like them all. It is difficult to point to any exact preference. The "Rotten Ralph"picture books are so much fun to write - and even more to read to emerging and young readers. The "Jack Henry" books are satisfying because they are autobiographical and I get to revisit my past and refine the emotions and themes that puzzled and delighted me. For young readers, the domestic craziness of those stories allows them to take a crack at writing about their own lives. Of course, I very much enjoyed writing the "Joey" books (and I have one more to compete). He is a character with a very big heart and charting that terrain is very challenging and thus satisfying.
GG: Can you speak a little about your writing process? Teachers like me are curious about your use of autobiographical subject material and first person narrative; your methods of researching topics; your revision process; your daily writing habits; your preference for pen and paper or word processor-almost every detail about how you compose your stories.
JG: I think I stick to the basics. Yes, I use personal experiences for inspiration. I like writing from the first person point of view because it is very immediate and also you run less a risk of condescending toward the reader if the voice in the story is the voice of the young character. But the first person demands spot on accuracy. Every word from dialog to description must be true to the character. Usually I write the first draft in long hand and then I type it into my computer. I make changes, print it out, and mark up the copy. I repeat this process several times. Generally, everything that I publish has at least twenty drafts beneath the surface.
GG: Your works use a subtle approach to guide characters toward positive outcomes. Can you discuss your philosophy relative to guiding kids towards positive endeavors, given today's environment?
JG: I don't think that I have a philosophy. I can say that adults can't make all the decisions for young people. Kids have to make choices for themselves. In the books that I write, I try to have the young characters figure out the world around them, figure out the world within themselves, and try to live lives that fulfill some clear goals. Literature maps the human heart and if young people know themselves they will know what decisions to make according to the circumstances.
GG: Someone once said that authors are the "unacknowledged legislators" of the world. In light of the books that you have written, do you think that this term fits you?
JG: Well, I think the greatest conflict I see in humans is the struggle between being "who you are" and "who you want to be," which boils down to a struggle between yourself and inventing yourself. Books do help legislate this conflict in that they provide examples of human behavior - of choice and consequences - of triumphs and tragedies. But, books do not hand over decisions - they just give insight into the choices. Ultimately, you are responsible for legislating your own behavior.
GG: Now to wrap up, there are a few questions that I still would like to ask you of a personal nature - kind of nonliterary type questions. First, what is your favorite word and why? JG: Impunity. If I had it all my way I'd operate without it. GG: Me, too! Second, if you weren't an author, what would you like to be and why?
JG: I wanted to be an anthropologist ever since I read, Keep the River on your Right by Tobias Shneebaum. I'd have loved to walk into the Amazon and lived with a tribe of indigenous people.
GG: Your favorite memory from your teen years?
JG: Cheap perfume.
GG: I can't let this one go by without asking for an explanation.
JG: Because sniffing it from a distance is about the closest I ever came to the opposite sex, and cheap perfume is about all they wore. To this day, the smell of cheap perfume means, "Don't touch." Some time ago I received as a gift a bottle of perfume (Tresor) signed by Isabella Rosalinni (who I've always had a crush on). I was thrilled. I opened it up - but it wasn't cheap enough. I gave it away. Good perfume is simply far too inviting. Cheap perfume, to me, will always be eternally teasing.
GG: A fascinating explanation from someone I am finding to be a thoroughly fascinating human being. One last question, what book are you reading now?
JG: The Nick Toshes Reader. Much like Joey in Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, I have the feeling that Jack Gantos spoke from a solid center of goodness when responding to the questions in this interview.
Note: Jack Gantos is the author of numerous works including Jack on the Tracks: Four Seasons of the Fifth Grade; Jack's New Power: Stories from a Caribbean Year; Heads or Tails: Stories from the Sixth Grade; Jack's Black Book; Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. His latest, Joey Pigza Loses Control all published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
The quality of Gantos' fiction is reflected in the variety and number of honors and awards he has received for Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key: A National Book Award Finalist for Young People's Literature; An ALA Notable Children's Book; An NCSS-CBC Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies; A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year; A Riverbank Review Children's Book of Distinction; A New York Public Library Children's Book - 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing; A NECBA Fall List Title; California Young Reader Medal Nomination, Middle/Junior High School Category, 2000- 2001.
Gail P. Gregg, the Assistant Editor of The ALAN Review, is an associate professor English Education at Florida International University. A former teacher of high school English, she teaches courses in young adult literature, multicultural ya literature, and in English methods, among others.
Reference Citation: Gregg, Gail P. (2001) "Jack Gantos: On Domestic Craziness and Big-Hearted Kids." The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 2, p. 25.