by Dan Barth
Interview with Ann Charters
Ann Charters was in the San Francisco Bay area on a reading tour for the two new Jack Kerouac books which she edited, The Portable Jack Kerouac and Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956. I attended her reading at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, CA., on the night of March 28. Before the reading I met her at the Magestic Grand de Vere Hotel in San Francisco and she took time to talk and answer my questions.
Daniel Barth: How is the book tour going?
Ann Charters: Absolutely fabulous.
DB: You're not burned out yet?
AC.: No, I'm pacing myself. Because after today in Menlo Park at Keplers, I go down to the airport tomorrow morning and fly off to Iowa City, Iowa, which I went to some years ago as part of a short story conference, and I am now invited there to talk about Kerouac, which is a real honor for me. And I follow that by yet one more day, the last day, in Columbia, Missouri, at the University of Missouri, where I'm told there are 400 people who want to hear me talk in a big auditorium, which is wonderful. In Connecticut, where I teach at the University of Connecticut, I have large classes. When I did a tour for the Beat Reader, four years ago, I was very nervous if it was a large group. But thank goodness I have taught, in the last several years, literally hundreds of students at a time, and something in me just sort of rose to the occasion or whatever, but now -- the more the merrier. I really like it. I love the question and answer period after I talk, because I know what I'm going to say about Kerouac -- what's fun for me, and where I get the energy back, is when people in the audience ask me things that I haven't thought about. And they also can respond in ways that I wasn't expecting.
DB: How have the readings been received?
AC: Oh, extremely well. I started off in St. Paul at the Hungry Mind Bookstore, and I didn't know what I'd find, because I'd had a good experience with the Beat Reader tour, but there was just an overflowing audience at the Hungry Mind. So that was sort of -- you're off to a start, you know.
DB: Has there been any evidence of backlash from the "know-nothing Bohemian" or "that's not writing it's typing" crowd?
AC: None of that. Perhaps you could say that -- in Boulder I was interviewed by a lot of different media, but it included Ann Waldman who is at the Naropa School of Disembodied Poetics, and she has a son, Ambrose, who is a teenager, just a young teenager now. When she told me he was coming to the reading, I thought, well, instead of just giving boring old woman talk about how I knew Kerouac 30 years ago, I would read something for Ambrose. So I read "Good Blonde." Never had read it in public. I timed it first and it was 25 minutes and that's perfect to sit still long enough. So I read it for Ambrose, and explained that I'd put it in because I wanted women readers to like Kerouac, since he could treat women with respect, and could actually be impressed by a woman, as he was by the good blonde. And after I finished that story, which I said was a great Kerouac story, a man in the audience raised his hand and said, "Why do you say that?" He didn't argue, he just said, "On what grounds do you base your judgement, a great short story?" And we were off and running and I told him. It went on and on and on because that's what I do in the classroom, I tell people why something is good, or bad if I decide it's bad. And he said, "Thank you very much" at the end, rather than, "You're full of baloney." So that was fun.
DB: What do you think it is about Kerouac's writing that bothers some people, so that they seem to react disproportionately to the stimilus?
AC: The same thing, I think, that offended people when he was first publishing. I mean the situation hasn't changed really. Most people are, at heart, good people, but fairly conservative. They really like to think that there's a tried and true way of writing, and you sit and write 13 revisions. And when they hear that he's bragging that he's written it in one draft they kind of get their hackles up. They don't understand, really, the theory behind the writing, which I hope I've explained in the Reader, that he's writing jazz basically, at his best. [When Ann Charters mentions "the Reader" or "the Kerouac Reader" she is referring toThe Portable Jack Kerouac. ]
DB: Yeah. The letters really get to that too, and show him groping towards his method early on.
AC: Exactly. You know there was a review of the two books by Joyce Carol Oates in The New Yorker. It's a five-page review. And she starts off by calling them "valuable books." I just about died when I saw that. Joyce Carol Oates, of all the bad choices. And then she goes off on a tangent, unfortunately, for about two columns, about how the American Beat writers are comparable to the English Romantic poets. She winds that one on for awhile and then ends by saying that unlike Byron, the great Byron, Kerouac never developed as a writer, so they're inferior to the English Romantics. And I'm thinking, this woman has not spent much time with either of the two books she's reviewing, because you're seeing Kerouac's development all the time. Anyway she ends by saying -- after putting in a lot of negative criticism, but that's what critics do, they're negative, that's what they're paid to do. She, for example, wanted me to include the entire On the Road in the anthology, which I don't think is really necessary. But she also felt it was weird to end the letters in 1956. Now can't she use her imagination -- there'll be another volume.
DB: It says that in the book.
AC: Exactly. So she read it very hastily. But, even trying to write herself out of what was obviously a very strong response, a visceral response -- something's going on here -- she couldn't quite do it, because she ends her review with the most amazing paragraph. Basically she says that Kerouac's books, like the works of a handful of other American writers at mid-century -- Vladimir Nabokov, J.D. Salinger, John Updike -- God bless her, I don't know where she gets that one, but okay, John Updike for the people who need a more hands-off treatment -- that these writers were changing the course of American literature forever. And I thought, right on Joyce, you're almost there. So if Kerouac can make that strong an impression on an establishment writer like Joyce Carol Oates, these two books should make a difference.
DB: In editing the letters did you learn anything that particularly surprised you or that changed your view of Kerouac significantly?
AC: Oh definitely, yes. I really was tremendously impressed by the effort he had to go through to find his own voice. I wanted to document this. It, to me, was a sign of his commitment, because if it had been easy I would feel differently about it. I mean it looks easy only because he worked so hard at finding it. And to me what documented this in a way that no one had ever shown were those letters to Neal Cassady in the end of 1950 and the beginning of 1951, before he sits down to write the roll manuscript of On the Road. And his letters, his response to Neal's "Joan Anderson" letter -- I'd known about that of course, but I didn't know that he sat down to do it to Neal, to begin to mine his own memories. It's about a hundred pages of letter manuscript, and they just were an eye-opener to me. So I think they're the core of unknown Kerouac in the Letters.
DB: Was there any particular criterion or guiding principle for inclusion or deletion in the Letters -- both complete letters and within certain letters where you use ellipses?
AC: Yeah, very definitely. I had decided after calling in the xeroxes from
the archives that were at Berkeley, Texas, Columbia, Davis, Reed -- all the
names that are in the back of the book -- I wrote a form letter to all of
them saying that John Sampas had appointed me the editor of the Selected
Kerouac Letters, and would they please send me xeroxes, and I would pay.
And I got a set, and I sent him a set. When I began to readthrough the
material, plus the xeroxes that I had made in Lowell, at the Sampas house,
of things that I'd asked to see, I was aware that I had an enormous
project. And how was I going to organize it? Well, I didn't think of
commentary right away. All I thought of was the most complete documentation
of Jack's effort to find a voice, and then to find a publisher after he
wrote. That was the goal. And it became apparent very quickly that I had
two books, that I couldn't possibly give you the very complicated story of
almost a week by week or month by month change in what he's doing unless I
made it a Volume One for 1940 to 1956; and then 1957 to 1969 in the second
DB: About you, personally, I know you studied at Berkeley and at Columbia; I don't know where you were born or where you grew up.
AC: I was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I left there in 1948 and moved with my family to Los Angeles. I was not quite 12, born in '36, November. And my family thrived in Los Angeles. It was right after the war and my dad started a contracting business. And my family would drive cross-country every year, back to Boston and Connecticut to see the folks. So I hated cross-country travel by car. And so when On The Road came out in 1957 I was not a Kerouac fan. I didn't become a Kerouac fan until The Dharma Bums in '58. I entered the University of California at Berkeley -- Cal -- in 1953, fall. And I stayed there for four years until I graduated in June of '57. I met Sam Charters in my Sophomore year in a music class, and I began to fall in love with him. I really thought that The Dharma Bums had been a very honest recreation and description of those crazy times. Because I had a Berkeley cottage, and I had a bicycle like Gary Snyder, and I wore Levis and was falling in love with Sam and he stayed at my cottage, and it was really wonderful times. And Kerouac captured it; he captured the idea of an alternate culture.
DB: I know you're a Professor of American Literature at the University of Connecticut. Based on your work with students there, and with New York publishers, what are your feelings about the future of American literature?
AC: Well, I think there will always be an American literature, but it may be in very different form than what we've had. I mean, kids growing up now -- I just finished lunch with Diane di Prima, who met with her 16-year-old grandaughter who showed Diane her first book of poetry. Diane's been teaching literature, poetry, creative writing for many years and is about the best person her grandaughter could have shown it to, because of course she's sympathetic, but she's also very knowledgeable. The girl doesn't want to be published by a book publisher. It's interesting. She feels that desktop publishing is fine, as long as there's like 200 copies that she can circulate among her friends and in the local bookstores or coffehouses or whatever. She really feels that how she wants to be known as a poet is really the same as a rapper is known, in his immediate area. And if he can get a record contract and it's a big deal, fine, but if not, just the kids around her will know. That's a different attitude than people of my generation had.
DB: How do you think Kerouac will be viewed, say 50 years from now?
AC: I think he'll be viewed by most people as an important writer, not only Joyce Carol Oates. Right now his On the Road paperback sales are 100,000 copies a year, and that is what the sales are of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. He has entered, in other words, the company of another American classic.
DB: Your work in introducing and writing commentary for these volumes reminds me of Malcolm Cowley and John Clellon Holmes. So I see you in a tradition of literary historians. Do you see yourself that way?
AC: Oh absolutely. The difference is that Holmes was not an anthologist or editor; he was a great essay writer. However, Malcolm Cowley was both. He was a brilliant editor for Faulkner's work. He wasn't so smart with Kerouac, as you could tell from the Letters.
DB: Yeah, he missed it with the Beats. I don't think he quite understood.
AC: Yeah. But because I have been doing textbooks for the last ten years, textbook anthologies, I learned, with The Story and Its Writer, which is the best seller in its field, how to put together very large books that have complicated material -- how to relate different parts of the book, and the material in the book, to each other. Without the experience of editing textbooks I don't think I could have done such complex anthologies. I'm very glad I had that background before I tackled something like the Beat Reader or the Kerouac Reader.
DB: Now you're editing the next volume of letters. Have you started work on that?
AC: What happened was that I, as I said, didn't think of it as a one-volume work, and sort of worked my way through in a very sketchy manner just to see how the story ended. I broke it where I did because 1957 is an enormously complex and crazy year for Jack. I transcribed something like 200 pages of letters from 1957 alone. And I'm starting to scratch my head, thinking, my gosh, it's getting out of hand here. Putting it together with 1958 was like 350 pages. That's when I realized it couldn't possibly be a one-volume work, with the kind of detail I had in mind. Sure, there could be a one-volume Selected Letters that would be wonderful. It would be much faster to read it. But you wouldn't have the complete story of how he found his voice, or how he tried to find a publisher, and how the publishers dropped the ball, you might say, for him. That's how I read it. So yeah, I have through the 1950s for Volume Two. The 60s are very sketchy because it was about the time I finished the 50s that I decided I would be better served by not spending so much time just transcribing but start, you know, get it back.
DB: Do you know much about the Kerouac Romnibus that's coming out?
AC: That's going to be wonderful. I know nothing about computers but I'm the literary consultant. From what I've seen it's just brilliant.
DB: I know music plays a large role in your life with your husband. Is there any type of music you particularly prefer?
AC: No, we like all music -- classical, jazz -- it doesn't really matter. And we listen a lot. Sam has a little recording company, Gazelle, and he has just put out the most marvelous two-CD box of Dave Van Ronk, titled For All My Friends In Far Off Places, which is a compilation, an anthology. Sam does anthologies too. We're both anthologists, but they're music, his anthologies. And I must have picked up something subliminally from his work, say for RBF, that's Folkways Records, their reissue label. He was putting together stuff that was so wonderfully juxtaposed that it must have entered my spirit, consciousness, and so I do it with literature. Which reminds me also that when you asked about my selection process, why I chose one letter over another, I should make it very clear that I did the Kerouac Reader and the Letters, Volume One, in tandem. That if I quoted something in the Reader, I tried to find the letter, whenever I could, that would show you how Jack wrote about it as a letter writer, and then you could compare it with how he turned it into fiction. When John Sampas asked me, formally, would I want to undertake the editorship of a volume of letters, I said spontaneously, "Yes, I am honored, but I won't do it unless you let me get the green light for a Reader, which I've wanted to do for 20 years.
DB: Going back to Holmes?
AC: Yes. But Holmes had nothing to do with the organization of my Kerouac Reader. Tom Clark got it wrong in his [San Francisco] Chronicle review. He said I followed Holmes' lead. No way. I followed nobody. I created the organization out of my favorite Kerouac. For example when I had the marvelous letter that Jack wrote to Caroline, his sister, from New Haven or West Haven after they moved from Lowell, I found you a selection from Vanity of Duluoz that describes that same time. That's how I organized it. It was really me who chose the selections because I had letters in mind that I was paralleling. Holmes, in fact, asked me to start thinking about what selections I would put into it and how I'd organize it, because he didn't ever think about it. He wanted to introduce whatever I brought up. When he was suggesting the idea to Kerouac in '65 they never got to the stage of planning the contents.
DB: I though it was hilarious what Kerouac wrote to Holmes about what he would do to publishers. ["If the publishers throw a stumbling block into this idea with their goddamn and myriad ephemeral rights to something they don't even own , I'll burn the houses down at midnight with an acetylene torch, plastic bombs, fourteen Malayan harpooners, Melville's ghost, seventeen strips of Saul Maloff tied to a TNT box as a fuse, and in court I'll put those publishers in a horseshoe for a horse to wear in the Battle of Chickamauga."]
AC: Isn't that a wonderful ending to that letter? Kerouac's letters always begin and end well.
DB: I read Joyce Johnson's review that ran in the Washington Post.
AC: That was, I thought, a beautiful review.
DB: She mentioned, and the publishers advance material also mentions, that the Letters breaks ground for new Kerouac biographies. Do you feel that way? I almost feel like I'm reading another biography when I'm reading the Letters.
AC: That's what I wanted. Kerouac was an unusual 20th century writer because he couldn't afford a telephone, so he wrote a lot of letters. But in the Victorian era, before the telephone, writers wrote letters like this voluminously. And it was the practice, after the death of a Victorian writer, like, say, Charlotte Bronte, that someone who knew her and was interested in her, and had corresponded with her also, like Mrs. Gaskell, would take the letters and create a biography -- the life of Charlotte Bronte -- out of the letters. And it amused me that I was doing this for a Beat writer, being a Victorian biographer for a Beat writer.
DB: What have you heard about the movie of On the Road? Is there a screenplay or a director yet?
AC: The director is Francis Ford Coppola, of course.
DB: I knew he was producing, but I hadn't heard if he was directing it himself.
AC: Ah, that's a good question. I don't know any more than Coppola's name. But Barry Gifford wrote a screenplay, or treatment, I'm not sure which. But instead of using it Coppola commissioned Michael Herr, who has finished a screenplay.
DB: Is he a playwright?
AC: Michael Herr wrote Dispatches, which is a book about Vietnam, and worked with Coppola on Apocalypse Now.
DB: What about the Estate and the lawsuit? Do you feel like talking about that?
AC: I don't know anything from the legal aspect of it.
DB: Do you feel like there are good guys and bad guys?
AC: No, I don't. I feel that it's a complicated legal issue. Jan Kerouac has gotten her legal rights observed in having the copyrights of her father's books recopyrighted so that she gets half the income. You know the law on that is that children of artists, writers, songwriters who have copyrighted material in their lifetime, when they die the children are automatically entitled to a portion of it, depending on the size of the family.
DB: And Jan had not been receiving that?
AC: Jan had not. So she fought this while Stella [Kerouac's widow, nee Sampas] was still alive, must have been 1989 or '90. And Stella recopyrighted everything in both names -- the Kerouac Estate and Jan Kerouac -- because she had to. That is, once it was brought to her attention that Jan Kerouac legally was entitled, there was no question, you do it. So Jan's income now from her father's book royalties is quite a bit more than what is called "a trickle" in the Chronicle. I know the royalties; I've seen the royalty statement. It's a very thick printout, because every time someone in Germany quotes a paragraph of On the Road and has to pay Sterling Lord [Kerouac's agent], Jan gets half of the hundred s of dollars that the German publisher pays. In other words, Jan Kerouac was able to get, just as an example, in 1993, one hundred and twenty-two thousand. Do you want the exact figures?
DB: Might as well. [What I did not know at the time of this interview is that, at two of Ann Charters' Bay Area readings, Gerald Nicosia and Jan Kerouac had engaged her in rather heated discussion regarding her role in working with John Sampas, whom Jan opposes in the lawsuit. As a result she cancelled one other scheduled reading.]
AC: Allright. [Pulls printout from purse.] I got this from Sampas, who got it from Sterling Lord. This is where they came from. So you should ask Jan to comment on this. This is no secret because I'm sure her income tax shows it. And she really is entitled to this; it isn't the largesse of the Sampas family. It's that she's the child; the legal heir is, you know, entitled.
DB: Right. But what she's really contesting is the entire Estate.
DB: Saying that Memere's [Kerouac's mother's] will was forged.
AC: No, that one signature on the will was forged. Not the will. And not Memere's signature but a witnesses signature.
DB: Oh, is that right?
AC: Yes. [In fact the suit contests whether Memere signed the will herself and whether one of the signing witnesses actually saw her do so.]
AC: So we're talking [reads from printout] -- in 1993 Jan received $122,145.72; in 1994, from her father's book royalties, her share was $76,081.86 plus a share of the Coppola film sale. Her foreign royalties from 1990 through '94 were $97,660.74. Now by law she is not entitled to foreign royalties, just the U.S. royalties on a copyrighted work by a writer who had descendants, legal descendants. And Jan is such. So when she began suing the Estate, they hired, I guess, better lawyers, and discovered that Sterling Lord had been paying her foreign royalties too, thinking that she was entitled to it. But by law she is not. So the Sampas family will cut off the foreign royalties because they don't legally have to pay them. She's complaing that they're cutting off her royalties. No, no. They are cutting off the foreign royalties that she is not legally entitled to. If they were generous they might give her them too. I don't know. That's the family business.
DB: The legal wrangle.
AC: Yes, it's a legal wrangle at this point.
DB: There's a good wrangle line somewhere in this Portable Kerouac. I wish I could find. Here it is, page 48, from Doctor Sax: ". . . the scuffled sidewalk where the gang stands wrangling."
AC: You know that the copyright law exists for 75 years after the publication of a work in this country, and if Jan was six when On the Road was published, she'll be 81 when her entitlement runs out.
DB: I think that covers that. So my understanding is that the Sampas family, and John Sampas in particular, have been helpful to you.
AC: Well, John Sampas asked me to do the work. And thanks to my contact with John I was able to see how the manuscripts were preserved. I mean it wasn't only that I used a xerox machine in his living room, but he took me to the bank vaults where I saw material on deposit -- taken out, because it's his, brought back to the house so I could copy it, and then brought back to the bank. I mean, no one is keeping them in cardboard cartons and they're dissolving in, you know, moldy basements. They have always, from the day that Jack died, from what I hear from the Sampases, been in the bank vault, under controlled temperature, no sunlight on them. So they're in beautiful condition, as good as what I saw in '66 in Jack's bedroom.
DB: As far as you know has there been any selling off piecemeal?
AC: There has been some. I don't know how much because Sampas doesn't tell me. Why should he? I'm not getting any income from it and I don't, frankly, have a relationship with John Sampas that is one of a confidante. I work for hire, his terms. He gets the final say on everything. In other words, if he doesn't want a letter because he thinks it's unflattering to Phil Whalen and he doesn't wantto embarrass Phil -- and there was one incident where the four dots was because Kerouac was joking about Phil Whalen's sexual experience, shall we say; I'm trying to be as bland as possible here -- I think John was completely within his rights. I thought it was kind of funny, but John said, "Hey, he's an old man, Phil Whalen, and he doesn't want that stuff circulating." Someday there will be the Complete Letters of Jack Kerouac. Everyone will be dead, including me, and you perhaps, although I hope not, and we'll have all those things. There will be no four dots.
DB: I found in general that Kerouac enjoyed tweaking his friends in his letters.
AC: Yes he did. There's a lot of humor in those letters.
DB: I think that's the great thing, the cheerfulness. I ended up laughing a lot. It's that same cheerfulness that comes through in his voice when you hear him read.
DB: Will there be British and other European editions of these books?
AC: I don't know. That's what Sterling Lord is all about. They're going to be Penguins, that's for sure. They're going to be published in England, both of them. I was surprised because I had heard that England was only interested in a one-volume Letters. But they were so wowed by this that they want to bring out this in paperback too, this Letters, Volume One.
DB: For the Portable Kerouac did you have to work at getting permissions?
AC: I didn't do that. I did it for the Beat Reader because I was getting royalties and I had to keep within a certain sum, $7000, and I was paying half of it from my own royalties. If I went over that they got really nervous. So the table of contents reflects the tight budget I had. But this one I don't get royalties. I started doing permissions, thinking, how hard could it be, and ran into a lot of trouble with Grove Press, because they had given me permission for Kerouac stuff for the Beat Reader, and that had been a very popular book, and they were really angry. They said I'd gotten away with stuff so cheap. So they didn't want to give away any more to Viking. Give away. Right. As if they controlled it. And that was a real stumbling block, because the book wouldn't have come out without Doctor Sax excerpts, and Subterraneans. So I turned over the situation to my editor. Grove had gone under a lot of changes; they'd been sold and then there were new editors and so forth, and they were really all watching the bottom line. It was really horrible. And here we were in 1992 having the same problem that Holmes had in 1965. One publisher only, not thirteen. But it could stop the book. I wasn't about to put a book out that I didn't really feel was complete. And Doctor Sax had to be there. So the editor and I played a little game. He said, "What do you really need?" Because I was asking for a little of everything. There would be Satori in Paris in there if Grove hadn't been so difficult.
DB: So basically everything is included except The Town and the City, Satori in Paris, and Pic?
AC: Umm, hmm. I didn't want to ever include Pic; I don't think it's a successful work. And I thought I wouldn't include The Town and the City because space is limited and Harcourt Brace was going to ask a lot of money for any quotes. But, on the other hand, Satori in Paris, if it had been cheap, I would have put the scene with Jack on the train when he's riding with the priest. That was the last train ride, that I thought was so great. That was his coming home, spiritually, in France, and I would have liked it. But, given a choice between that passage and the Bookmovie from Doctor Sax, of course there was no hesitation, it had to be something from Doctor Sax. So it goes.
DB email = email@example.com