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Research on the Road

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One Indianapolis-based writer hopped in her car and hit the highway to research her latest book. Its story is creatively built around one of the best known road trippers ever to a pen a novel.

Indiana Writers Center Director Barbara Shoup, who's published eight novels, had seen the famed On the Road scroll when it was displayed in downtown Indianapolis before.

Shoup was not really a fan of Jack Kerouac at the time.

But she grew to appreciate his work more while researching and writing Looking for Jack Kerouac, which fellow Indy author Dan Wakefield says in a blurb "brings alive the magic of the man who created The Beat Generation and dramatizes his perennial appeal to youth."

Looking for Jack Kerouac is Shoup's eighth novel. Her short fiction, poetry, essays and interviews have been published in numerous magazines as well. - COURTESY OF BARBARA SHOUP
  • Courtesy of Barbara Shoup
  • Looking for Jack Kerouac is Shoup's eighth novel. Her short fiction, poetry, essays and interviews have been published in numerous magazines as well.

The book is a young adult coming-of-age novel fueled by a road trip Shoup took to St. Petersburg, Florida. A colleague of Shoup's came up with the premise. Her friend had wanted to write a screenplay about a young man's journey in 1964 to see the Beat pioneer of spontaneous prose who "opened a million coffee bars and sold a million Levis," but she abandoned the idea and told Shoup she could use it if she wanted.

The concept: A teenager makes a disillusioning pilgrimage to see Kerouac near the end of his 47-year life, when he was no longer productive and succumbing to alcoholism.

"It's about a kid who lived in Northwest Indiana, in the Calumet Region, and didn't want to just finish school and take a job in the steel mill," says Shoup, who won the 2012 Eugene and Marilyn Glick Regional Indiana Author Award and has co-authored two books on the craft of writing. "He was inspired to track down Kerouac after reading On the Road, and he finds that he's living in St. Petersburg in this horrible little house, where he's a sad wrecked person. He was an alcoholic, a bigot by that time, just a mess who lived with his mother in a tiny house."

Paul Carpetti, the protagonist of Barbara Shoup's novel Looking for Jack Kerouac, discovers On the Road in Greenwich Village while on a class trip to New York City. - COURTESY OF BARBARA SHOUP
  • Courtesy of Barbara Shoup
  • Paul Carpetti, the protagonist of Barbara Shoup's novel Looking for Jack Kerouac, discovers On the Road in Greenwich Village while on a class trip to New York City.

Shoup, who's also penned Stranded in Harmony and Vermeer's Daughter, noodled around with the idea for years, but couldn't make it go anywhere. The teenager would travel to Florida to see Kerouac, be disappointed and find the girl who would make his life better, but she wasn't sure why readers would care or how they would get emotionally invested.

Then Shoup's sister developed terminal brain cancer. They spent a lot of time together before she died.

She says it was just awful to watch her nephews lose their mother. "I was writing during that time and had a weird moment where I saw my sister -- in my mind's eye -- with wild blonde hair and saw her standing behind the counter of a diner. She was the girl I was thinking about for the book."

Then Shoup had the idea to give her main character, Paul Carpetti, the experience of her nephew and make the road trip to see Kerouac fueled by grief. After coming across On the Road during a class trip to New York City, he would hit the road himself because he was heartbroken and didn't know what to do. With that framework, the rest of the novel started to unfurl before Shoup like a ribbon of highway.

Shoup read more of Kerouac's work as research, and her appreciation for him deepened when she delved into Visions of Gerard, a fictional meditation on the loss of his older brother, who died from rheumatic fever as a boy. She saw Kerouac in a new light.

Her personal loss informed her writing of the book, which was recently published by Lacewing Books.

"Every book has a piece of the writer in them somewhere, whether it's identifiable or not," she says. "Every book is going to cost the writer something, but they emerge on the other side with insight."

While she was writing the book, Shoup won a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission that she used to take a 1,000-mile trip to St. Petersburg for verisimilitude's sake. She took the back roads her characters would have in order to glean as many details as possible. The journey triggered ideas for scenes, such as to have Kerouac watch a spring training game in St. Petersburg since he was a big baseball fan.

Looking for Jack Kerouac tells a coming-of-age story, as well as the story of a journey. Shoup's research on the novel's main character's trip from Indiana to Florida was funded through a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission. - COURTESY OF BARBARA SHOUP
  • Courtesy of Barbara Shoup
  • Looking for Jack Kerouac tells a coming-of-age story, as well as the story of a journey. Shoup's research on the novel's main character's trip from Indiana to Florida was funded through a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission.

When the protagonist finally meets Kerouac, he sees how he's changed but also receives life-changing advice. Shoup did not want the novel to just be a tale of disillusionment -- she envisioned it more as of a coming-of-age story about growth and maturation that could make a difference in her readers' lives.

"Young adult books are coming-of-age stories in one way or another, because they're about who the characters are when they start their life," she says. "In my opinion, Catcher in the Rye would be a young adult book. Young adult books are about immediacy and rawness and are right at the age when you get a new perception of things."

Young adult books are having a cultural moment -- they've dominated bestseller lists and lately the Hollywood box office; they've sparked backlash and debate in some quarters over whether adults should read them. For Shoup, it's clear that Y.A. novels are literature that happens to be about adolescence, a period of journeys and discovery, just the sort of questing exploration she sought to capture in Looking for Jack Kerouac.

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