Novelist brings ‘Beat Generation’ back to life

Jack Kerouac may have died in St. Petersburg, but his beatnik spirit is alive and well in Tampa Bay, as an award-winning author will discuss her new book, discovering stories and the famous “Beat Generation” author. 

“Looking for Jack Kerouac” is a book about two boys who hitchhike from Chicago to St. Petersburg to search for the accomplished writer alluded to in the title. USF students won’t have to travel nearly as far to meet author Barbara Shoup on Thursday at 2 p.m. in the Library’s Grace Allen Room.

“This is an idea I got from a friend a long time ago,” Shoup said. “He told me he had this idea called ‘Looking for Jack Kerouac,’ where a boy searches for Kerouac and finds what a mess he is. Later, he said, ‘if you want that idea you can have it, cause I won’t use it.’” 

She immediately embraced the idea for the story, but it wasn’t until she was struck by tragedy and grief that she began to understand the real story she was trying to tell.

“Kerouac is such a compelling person, but I couldn’t make it work,” Shoup said. “And then a really sad thing happened. One of my sisters was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died; she had two kids in high school.”

Her nephew’s experience became the life-altering event affecting her main character — the young, soul-searching Paul Carpetti. Paul’s mother also dies from a brain tumor.

In the book, the reader is first introduced to Paul as he roams the streets of New York City alone, reassessing his life with his girlfriend in Chicago. He feels like he has reached the end of the line, but his life has only just begun.

Paul stumbles across Kerouac’s famous novel, “On the Road,” becoming enthralled with the beatnik lifestyle and convincing himself that there is more out there in the world than his humble life in Chicago.

When he meets Duke Walczak, a fellow mill worker and “On the Road” enthusiast, the two decide to find the author after reading a newspaper article about Kerouac’s sister passing away in St. Petersburg.

“It became a book about grief and trying to figure out what you do with that grief,” Shoup said. “The death of a mother, the company of a girl you aren’t ready to commit to … the journey was fueled by grief.”

Shoup said the next step was figuring out what the role of Kerouac would be.

“He had to do more than disappoint Paul,” Shoup said. “The more I researched him, the more I was interested in him as a human being.” 

While Shoup admits she isn’t a huge fan of Kerouac’s writing, she was intrigued by one of Kerouac’s lesser-known works, “Visions of Gerard.” 

Kerouac’s brother died at the age of 9. His mother was obsessed with Jack. She even thought he saw angels. 

Shoup said she began to see Kerouac in a different light. 

“It’s what I needed to hear myself … Writing is a way of working through some question I don’t understand,” Shoup said. “There’s the saying time heals all wounds, but it doesn’t, and you don’t forget that. “

Shoup said when a book “takes,” the book almost writes itself as she addresses her own questions sideways, finding a new way to look at them.

“In a lot of ways, it’s like having a kid,” Shoup said. “I’d love to have a football player, but maybe you have a ballet dancer instead. You pick through the material you have and make it do what it needs to do and wants to do itself. It has a life of its own.”

Her career has resulted in eight published novels and she is the executive director of the Indiana Writers Center.

Although she is generally recognized as a young adult fiction author, “Looking for Jack Kerouac” is decidedly more mature than the average young-adult offering.  The truth is her notoriety for young-adult fiction happened by chance.

“I started writing young-adult novels by accident,” Shoup said. “I was writing a novel and that’s where it sold. I don’t think about audience.  The difference between adult and young adult is the coming of age thing.” 

Shoup said young adult novels are more immediate and raw than adult novels, which often reflect on past experiences with new perspectives. 

She gained a new perspective when she mimicked Paul’s journey while traveling to St. Petersburg on a grant from the Indiana Arts Council.

“I spent a week,” Shoup said. “I stayed at a little place in St. Petersburg … went to Haslam’s Book Store … (Kerouac) would go there and put his books on the upper shelves so people would see them.”

Kerouac died in 1969, a gaunt shadow of his former self. The author lives on in his books of “spontaneous prose” and American traversal, inspiring authors today. The life of a writer can be testing, but according to Shoup, the rewards are ultimately satisfying.

“The only thing you control is whether you write and how open you are to criticism,” she said. “You can’t control the publication process. It can be dispiriting. I can’t imagine not writing, though. I need it.”