Junior Burke: Interview with Joyce Johnson, June 17, 2009

Fall '09 TOC

nen: In reading your work, particularly in Missing Men, one of the senses that I get is your connection to New York City.

JJ: I’m a lifelong New Yorker.

nen: You said something like this in the book…that you’d thought of travelling at one point, but everything that you needed was within walking distance of where you were.

JJ: Right, I discovered the downtown Bohemian art Beat scene, which at that time, this was the late fifties, was just a remarkable convergence of very, very gifted and extraordinary people within a few blocks. Everybody knew each other, and it was not just writers but the abstract expressionist painters, dancers like Merce Cunningham, Living Theater people, poets, photographer Robert Frank; an extraordinary coming-together of all sorts of people. We all hung out in the same places and went to the Five Spot on the Bowery where you could get a beer for twenty-five cents and hear Thelonious Monk. And we went to the same parties. So we all knew each other; there were older artists and much younger people, and it was very non-hierarchical, everything was very, very open, the people were very available to each other. In ’57, when Black Mountain collapsed, half (the Black Mountain people) headed for New York and the downtown scene, and the other half headed for North Beach in San Francisco. So there were lots of Black Mountain people in New York with tales to tell.

nen: Traditionally, New York was the fulcrum for fashion, for finance, for publishing, for theater… Do you see its position being different in the twenty-first century, or how do you regard it these days?

JJ: It’s still extremely important culturally, but the conditions for artists are difficult now. One thing that made everything possible in the early days was cheap rent. Lofts were very cheap, apartments were very cheap. That made everything possible because nobody had any money, nobody was successful, everybody was sort of scraping along, but you could manage to live gracefully on very little money, and that’s no longer the case. So a lot of the people who can afford to be artists in New York are people who are subsidized by well-to-do families or people who have to work very hard at other jobs. And no sooner do artists in New York open a neighborhood and then the developers rush in. Gentrification. For example, there was a very interesting art scene in Williamsburg in Brooklyn. As people got squeezed out of Soho, people moved there. Now that’s unaffordable and groups of artists have even left the city. I know a whole group of artists up in Beacon, New York. They thought they could make Beacon an art town, but it’s not really happening. So there’s this dispersal, which is really a pity, I think.

nen: I heard somebody refer recently to Philadelphia as the new Brooklyn.

JJ: Yeah, but there’s a great deal to be said for having all these people gathered in one spot and knowing each other and exchanging ideas and influencing each other. And those conditions are not the same.

nen: As a young person you were involved in theater. Are you still interested in it or engaged in it in any respect?

JJ: No, not really. I did a play-version of one of my books, the book Door Wide Open, and that was put on several times downtown. I’ve written a screenplay of Minor Characters, which has been optioned by an independent film company.

nen: That would make a great film.

JJ: Yeah. But I’m not really involved in the theater. I quickly learned, when I was beginning as a writer, that what I really wanted to write about I couldn’t express very well in the dramatic form.

nen: I think that’s important for a writer to determine. To find out that all things are not available to you and you’re not equally good at all things. What have you read lately that you found inspiring or that really got your attention?

JJ: Well, as you know, I’m writing a biography of (Jack) Kerouac, so I’m keeping up with Kerouac’s reading as much as I can, reading things that he was reading in the period that I’m writing about, I’m now in 1945 to ’46. I never read Louis-Ferdinand Céline, just the idea of it didn’t appeal to me, but I’m quite dazzled by it, it’s brilliant. And I can see so much of the influence upon Jack.

nen: I’m always interested in biography in terms of one’s life (being) so complex and there are so many different takes on it and points of view.

JJ: Exactly. And every biography is, in a sense, a fiction. It’s the biographer’s version.

nen: So how do you go about tackling someone else’s life?

JJ: Well, since I knew Jack quite well for a couple of years, I feel I have a good nose for what feels like reliable information and what doesn’t. In the past, biographies were largely based upon oral research or oral history. Jack knew a vast number of people and they were all still alive and were interviewed intensively. At the time, Jack’s papers weren’t available. Well, I’m going in the other direction. There’s practically no one left for me to interview, but I do have access to Jack’s archives in the New York Public Library, in the Berg collection. So, it’s an immense collection of papers. I think Jack saved every piece of paper he ever wrote anything on from the time he was in his teens. So that’s the prime source for what I’m writing. Rather than concentrating on what other people were saying about Jack, I’m actually looking at what Jack was feeling about other people. More from his point of view. I’m bringing some other points of view in because Allen Ginsberg wrote some extraordinarily valuable things about Jack. (But) I just keep going back to the papers and carefully following (Jack’s) development…. What I’m interested in is the process of his development as a writer, and that’s really documented in those notebooks and journals. And, of course, there are all the stories and anecdotes, but I’m not so fixated on that. That’s included in the book, but I’m more concerned with his development as a writer.

nen: So it sounds like you’re more focused on the work rather than the cult of the individual.

JJ: I’m trying not to write another cult-of-the-individual book, there have been too many of those. I’m not writing a book in which I see On The Road as the be-all and end-all; I see it as part of his process of development. He actually, I think, did a lot of his best work after he wrote that, and that’s the way he felt about his work, that his most important work followed On The Road. When I was working in publishing in the seventies, I was able to persuade the company I worked for to bring out Visions of Cody, which was something he always wanted to see published. Unfortunately, he was dead by then. It’s not, of course, as accessible as On The Road or Dharma Bums but it has some of his most important and extraordinary prose.

nen: That one section when he’s going to see the filming of the Joan Crawford film, it’s almost like the beginning of the New Journalism, or what got to be called the New Journalism. So, when you’re on a book and when you’re writing, how would you describe your practice or your method or your engagement with it?

JJ: Well, every book is different. I’ve written two memoirs, and they’re my memories, my prime source. When I was writing Minor Characters, for example, I could have gone at the time and interviewed people that had been part of the scene and had known Jack and so on, but I decided that I had lived with my version of the story, and I decided I would be faithful to that version. And I really feel that memoir should have a theme. My theme was my own departure from a safe, middle class life, my attraction to bohemianism and then to the Beat scene, to that other wider world. At that time, it was the height of all the interest in the Women’s Movement, and that gave me a new perspective on my story. If I had written the book, say, three years after my relationship with Jack ended, it would have been a very different and much more limited book. I saw myself as a kind of representative figure, kind of transitional woman, and that shaped the book for me.

nen: One quote (from) Missing Men says, “The question keeps getting in the way, as if I’m remembering what I wrote rather than what happened.”

JJ: Your memory also keeps changing over time. Sometimes the further away you get from certain events, the better you remember them. When you’re writing about them, when you’re right up close to them, you can’t see around them.

nen: When you mentioned working in publishing would you care to talk about some of your experiences with that in your career?

JJ: I realized very early on that I had to support myself, so I wanted to do something book-related. The first job I had out of college, I worked for a literary agent. That was an excellent introductory job because I started reading manuscripts, and evaluating them, and gradually, and it look a long time in those days, worked my way up to being an editor. It took me around ten years of being a “secretary” but also doing a certain amount of editorial work in different places.

nen: And where was that?

JJ: Well, I worked for quite a few years at William Morrow and Company, and I started off as secretary to the Editor-In-Chief and then gradually began editing manuscripts. Finally they said, we like the books you’re bringing in. I was beginning to publish my friends. I brought in Leroi Jones’ Blues People, for example, and other things. And I said, well, I can’t really function as effectively as an editor if I don’t have a real title, so they made me an editor. This was in the sixties, and then I went on to The Dial Press. I got a much better job there, and it was an exciting time to be working in publishing. It was the whole period of the Civil Rights Movement, and the New Left, and so on, and I was particularly concerned in making some contribution to that. I published some really important Civil Rights-related books; I published Abbie Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It. I had a lot of interesting publishing adventures at that time, and I concentrated more on that, frankly, than upon fiction…. There was a book, it was very important at the time, by a Black writer names Harold Cruse, called The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. I published Julius Lester, a lot of different things. Then I went to McGraw Hill which was not a very good job but I was stuck there for quite a few years. That’s where I published Visions of Cody. And I published one of the first books by a Vietnam veteran, Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July.

nen: There are currently more options for writers regarding publishing their work. How do you feel about the options?

JJ: I think the situation with the writer is very precarious right now; it’s worse than I can ever remember it. The publishers are going broke, they haven’t figured out a new way to conduct their business. Publishing, when I entered it, was almost like a cottage industry, there were all these small, separate houses, and the editors worked with great concentration on each book. And then, the houses got larger and larger and more and more concerned with the bottom line and it became harder to get things published. At the time I began in publishing, the book was central to the culture and that’s not true anymore; the book seems more and more peripheral. People are not reading. I think if On The Road came out in the current atmosphere, it never would have had the impact that it had, because it’s only a book. It’s very different and writers are very concerned about it. It’s going to certainly be very much harder for people to make a living as a writer. I think there are going to be many fewer books published, advances are going to be much smaller, and people are going to have to hang in there just for the love of writing without a lot of financial reward…. One contributing factor to the demise of the book is the demise of newspapers, because newspapers, with book reviews, spread the word, but all these papers are collapsing or shrinking the book reviews sections. This means that especially for smaller, good books, more literary books, they’re not going to get any exposure. One development that had a big impact on this whole minimization of the book was the growth of the big chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble. If you walk into Barnes and Noble you have to know exactly what you’re looking for, it’s not a browsing situation. When I used to walk into the 8th Street Book Stop there’d be a table up front where there’d be all these books carefully selected by Ted Wilentz. His very discriminating sense of what was interesting, what was important. So you’d come in expecting to buy one book and you’d walk out with four. But you no longer have that experience in the bookstore because Barnes and Noble carefully positioned themselves to put independent booksellers out of business. I think this has had a huge impact on books that were not bestsellers.

nen: What was your first novel?

JJ: My first novel, which I keep hoping somebody will reprint, was called Come and Join the Dance…. I had just begun to write that in 1957 at the time I met Jack. And I think it would be interesting because it was actually the first Beat novel by a young woman…. It’s set in the Columbia neighborhood (about) these people who are kind of outlaws in the Columbia community. It was a book in which I very deliberately tried to write about sex in a very open way, which was something young women were not supposed to be doing in those days.

nen: You dropped out of Barnard?

JJ: No, I went through all four years but never got my BA because I flunked physical education. To get my BA I would have had to go back to Barnard several times a week to take gym. I had to support myself, so I never got my BA. I fell into a crowd of older people who had been around at the same time that the Beats were in the Columbia neighborhood. I was around sixteen when I first met Allen (Ginsberg).

nen: You were neighbors with (William S.) Burroughs and Joan Vollmer?

JJ: Well, no. I grew up in the Columbia neighborhood. So at the very time that I was a nine and ten-year-old girl, the Beats, Burroughs and Joan and Jack and Allen, were living practically around the corner. Not that I knew them; I could have passed them on the street, I don’t know how many times. I just read something Jack wrote in his journals in the fall of 1945 and he describes coming into the city and walking up 116th Street, actually past the house I was living in, which was also the house where Lionel Trilling lived, past Trilling’s house that was my house. Who knows? I may have seen them on the streets, it’s very possible.

nen: And you were involved also in visual art and somewhat in music, right? You must’ve known a number of visual artists.

JJ: I knew a lot painters and I married two painters.

nen: Did you paint yourself?

JJ: No, I never painted.

nen: What about music, ever play an instrument?

JJ: I played the piano, but my mother was very ambitious for me to do well in music and be a composer, and she forced me to take all these lessons and spend all this time on it. It was a big bone of contention between us, and I felt I didn’t have that talent. I was being forced to do something I felt bad about. I was writing all this music and I never liked what I was doing. It was a terrible feeling. Finally, I was having private lessons with a very well-known twentieth century composer, Wallingford Reger, and I said to him one day, I feel so frustrated because I don’t like what I’m doing, I don’t have any sense that I would ever feel good about what I’m writing or really want to listen to it. So he looked at me and said, why don’t you quit? I said, really? He said, yes, quit now! I thought, great! So I went home and I announced that I was quitting, and I never went back to music again. But it was such a relief, and he was one of the first artists that I had talked to. I really respected him tremendously and he was giving me permission to quit doing something that was wrong for me. That was great.

nen: So, what’s your projection of when you’ll have a draft of this biography?

JJ: Well, I’ve been working on it for a year and originally it was going to be a smaller book, but I keep finding all these things I want to write about. So, it’s going to be a rather large book and it’s going to take me another two years, at least…. I’ve been on it a year and I’m in 1946 now. Fortunately for me, the Berg collection is in New York City, so I don’t have to go out to Chicago and live there for two months and try to do all my research. I’m sort of inching my way along. I immerse myself in all the material for one little period. I’m writing it as I go.

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