From Norvelt to Nowhere, Jack Gantos’ sequel to his Newbery-award winning Dead End in Norvelt, showcases the author’s knack for capturing a child’s view of life—along with his signature willingness to throw lots of autobiographical details into the mix of his fiction. Even so, he admits that naming his main character Jack Gantos (and yes, the author grew up in Norvelt, the town famously named after its founder, Eleanor Roosevelt) definitely piques his readers’ curiosity.
“I’m a little like the photographer Cindy Sherman,” Gantos laughs. “I dress myself up in my books in different disguises. In this one, even though there’s still a certain amount of disguise, I just decided, ‘You know what? That’s my home town; these are the people I know…why not? Let the reader sort it out!’ And I enjoyed it! My Norvelt relatives enjoyed it, too!”
Gantos is quick to point out that the rules for his memoir Hole in My Life (documenting his bleak stay in prison for a youthful participation in a get-rich-quick drug deal gone wrong) are very different. “There, I was held to recreating this experience as truthfully as I could,” he explains. “But with Dead End I felt perfectly free to add any details or developments I chose.”
When writing Dead End in Norvelt, Gantos sensed that the material he was working on was “quite capable” of becoming two books. So after completing Dead End’s manuscript in 2010, he just kept going. Gantos’ fast-paced sequel finds Jack escorting his friend and quirky mentor, the elderly Miss Volker, on a strange road trip from Pennsylvania to Florida. Their oddball quest is part pursuit of a serial killer (Ms. Volker suspects her life-long flame, Edwin Spizz) and part educational tour, complete with fact-filled lectures delivered at some of Ms. Volker’s favorite historic sites—with a little “last chance at love” romance thrown in.
Gantos was making great headway on what would become Norvelt to Nowhere when Dead End in Norvelt received the Newbery Award, a thrilling event that completely knocked his writing process “off the rails. Marketing, travel, speaking engagements—well, it all really mops up a good bit of your time.” Returning to his writing nearly six months later was hard. “That’s a long stretch to just push ideas around your plate,” he recalls ruefully.
What helped was his deep attraction to the history of the 1962 world he explores in the Norvelt books. “The lure—and the lore—of my father’s Japanese war souvenirs was very attractive to me as a child,” he says. “The stories from World War II that he’d hint at made the objects from that time very interesting. Looking at that flag or sword…could really get my imagination going.” Gantos also wanted to explore his parent’s conflicting values in the books. “The idea of a small town’s helping-hand values, democratic social values, appealed to my mother; that was her core belief system,” he recalls. “For my father—the man who’d fought for democracy—well, he wanted nothing to do with it! He wanted the fruits of his labor…good job, nice car, nice house—he wanted it all, the trappings of the winner.” Growing up “between their contrasting ideals” was confusing, and offered rich material that Gantos wanted to understand. Gantos’ journals, which he’s kept since sixth grade, played a key role in this understanding; the much-admired authenticity and richness of detail in the Norvelt books comes in part from mining them.
Today, Gantos’ journals figure prominently in his creative process. In addition to his Post-It notes and three-by-five journals, Gantos says, “you can have bound journals, and tiny ones for your back pockets, and larger ones for your book bag.” So what happens when the lightning of a great idea strikes along with the burning need to write it down? “Well, you don’t necessarily have the one dedicated journal for that book on hand. So you write the idea down someplace and eventually you try your best to find it and go back to the central journal of the book you’re writing and log it in somewhere.” Does he have some kind of elaborate organizational system helping him locate and retrieve material? “You’ve touched a raw nerve,” he says. His journal-based creative system can be a bit challenging, especially when “searching around" for ideas he’s collected for a new project, as is true now.
At work on a book tentatively titled Before I Was a Book, I Was a Boy, Gantos surrounds himself with journals and scattered notebook pages that need to be “culled, collected, organized and typed up” before they can become some sort of narrative he can work on. “I’ve got 10 to 15 little journals, paging through each one—it’s a pain in the neck!” he confesses. “You just have this feeling that at one point you wrote something down and it’s so great you cannot resist the search for it; it could be the pivot point of the book you’re writing right now It could be a moment of great clarity and terrific poetry, it could be sublime! So you’ve got to go find the original. It’s worth the hunt.”
“And,” he adds, “you find other things along the way.”
A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Jessie Grearson is a writer living in Falmouth, Maine.