I’ve been terribly delinquent about writing up the Jack Gantos talk I attended a few weeks ago, when he came to Porter Square Books to promote his latest novel/memoir, The Trouble In Me.
Gantos being Gantos, he took a long, meandering path toward explaining his book. It took him 15 minutes to mention Trouble. First, he summarized his writing process (fountain pen and paper), and how every book crystallizes through the messy process of jotting down random ideas and observations in a journal, which he carries everywhere. Somehow he transitioned from this to reminiscing about his childhood, and the day he stood on the U.S.S. Intrepid watching a military plane explode in the sky after a mechanical failure (no one was hurt–the pilot parachuted safely down). His father’s naval career features quite prominently in Trouble, not to mention Dead End in Norvelt.
Like so many of his books, Trouble is a messy mix of truth and fiction. In this case, he claims it’s 90% true (including a sequence involving a tree and a human catapult), and 10% things he made up to turn his memories into a coherent story. It’s basically a prequel to Hole in My Life, which recounts the time he spent in prison for smuggling drugs. Trouble takes place a few years earlier, during the summer of his 14th year, when Gantos took the “first of three” steps on the ladder to becoming the kind of person who would sail 2,000 pounds of hashish to New York (note: Gantos says one of the other two steps is worth writing about, so perhaps we can expect a direct sequel to Trouble). The key to his transformation was Gary Pagoda, the criminally-talented boy next door who seemed to be all the things young Gantos wasn’t–rebellious, reckless, cool.
Other highlights from the talk:
- Pagoda is a real person. Gantos is keen to find out what happened to him, and has enlisted the help of “about 100 librarians.” In other words, Pagoda has no chance if he wishes to remain anonymous.
- The feds never confiscated the $10,000 Gantos earned through drug smuggling. Gantos used it all–first to pay his defense lawyer, then to pay his first semester’s tuition at Emerson College. So we can thank the FBI for inadvertently launching Gantos’ literary career.
- The unforgettable Joey Pigza is based on a real boy–a student Gantos met during an elementary school classroom visit. Gantos noted the boy’s hyperactive behavior in his journal, and that later morphed into the fictional Joey Pigza.
- One reader asked if Gantos ever intends to write a book with a girl as the main character. Gantos says he’s done it once, in The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs, which is told from a girl’s point of view. Apparently it’s one of Gantos’ least-known books, but it sounds fascinating (eugenics, taxidermy, history, creepy siblings). Definitely on my reading list.
- I asked Gantos if his family and friends had ever gotten mad at him for depicting them in his books, and not always in a flattering light. His response? “I’m lucky my family doesn’t read books.”