“One day I will find the right words, and they will be
—Jack Kerouac, “The Dharma Bums”
A long time ago, in another life, I sat with Jan Kerouac, the writer/daughter of Jack, on the bare-wood floor of her unfurnished, rented apartment. I was interviewing her for a story—and maybe for a little enlightenment—about where life and story intersect.
OK, maybe it intersected in her DNA. But that didn’t help me. At the moment, I hadn’t written a book, Hell, I hadn’t even yet imagined a book, although it would happen very soon after that morning.
Jan served some warm bread rolls—she called them “Dharma buns”—and we sat there as she flitted through life and didn’t plan to be in this place long. She lived on the road, literally and figuratively. She had gone crazy once. She probably should have died a couple times, too. She had much to say about her father, whom she’d barely met and who never acknowledged her, and about her own writing, which seemed to well up in great, stream-of-consciousness gusts like his had.
In his words, she heard her own thoughts. In his writing, she saw her path. It troubled her that he never wanted to know her, and it was through stories that she tried so desperately to connect. Her work had the same headlong rhythms of his, like water flowing around a thousand rocks. It was erotic, profane, poetic … but that wasn’t all.
Despite how it might look from 35,000 feet, she was different from him. She was on her own path when she had every reason, commercially, to be on his same path.
I took some notes, but mostly listened as she darted and flickered among her thoughts. I kept waiting for her magic beans, but she never delivered. In fact, neither she nor her father ever had them, I know now.
After lunch, Jan retrieved a Mason jar from the cupboard. It was filled with little wads of paper, which she shook vigorously and spilled onto the floor.
“Pick one,” she said.
I did. It bore only the number 8.
That’s what I’ll write this afternoon,” she said. “Chapter 8.”
She didn’t think in straight lines. Different.
Jan died a few years later. She was too young, just 44, and her feet never really touched the ground. I was terribly sorry to hear of her passing, but she had done what she came to do. She lived different. She died different.
Maybe that’s why I am thinking about Jan on that morning at this particular moment. Many writers have influenced and inspired me in many ways, but Jan Kerouac was … different.
In less than two weeks, my newest book hits the street. It’s odd, though, that today I am thinking about that morning with Jan.
We all write for different reasons. Mine aren’t the same as Jan’s. In fact, I think about extending my memory a couple generations (maybe) beyond my second death, the day on which the last person on Earth ever speaks my name. So, life and storytelling are as related for me as for Jan, but our paths are different.
I have wanted my new book to be different, long before I ever knew I’d write it. I want my writing to be different. I want to be different, not to think in straight lines. Different doesn’t appeal to everyone. But maybe Jan’s real message was about not fearing to be different.
Die different, she would have said.
“Alice & Gerald: A Homicidal Love Story” will be published April 9 by Prometheus Books. Photos courtesy of the Jan Kerouac Estate.