Jack Gantos is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Dead End in Norvelt, a half-true, all-hilarious recounting of a summer in the life of a kid named (not coincidentally) Jack Gantos. When Jack’s summer plans are ruined by his parents, he’s stuck spending two months assisting his elderly neighbor as she writes the obituaries for his small-town newspaper. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story if that summer chore didn’t lead to some very interesting adventures. We got the chance to ask author Jack Gantos some questions and got our all-time favorite answer to the ever-looming dilemma of how to get past writer’s block. Read on!
Poor Jack spends his summer slaving. Which childhood chore was the most scarring for you? Which was the most rewarding?
My mother liked to wax the terrazzo floors in our house. Each week, they would get scratched up and she would rewax them. Then, at the end of the month, she would give me a single-edge razor blade and I would have to get down on my hands and knees for the whole day on Saturday and scrape up all the old wax buildup. This was mind-numbing work and killed my knees.
A chore I enjoyed was for my dad. Every day, he came home from work and swung open the front door and shouted, “Where is my medicine!”
That was my cue. I’d dash to the refrigerator and pull out a cold can of Busch Beer and open the top, put it on a little tray, and deliver it to him as he took off his dirty work boots.
“Good boy,” he’d say and tousle my hair. It made me so happy to please him.
In your novel, the main character helps his elderly neighbor as her official young scribe. If you could go back in time, who would you choose to act as a scribe for?
Going back in time allows for a lot of choice. Perhaps the greatest would have been to be the amanuensis for Homer and take down his Iliad and Odyssey. John Milton, who was blind, dictated his epic poem, Paradise Lost, to his daughter. John Adams also had an amanuensis in his later years as his hands were gripped with arthritis. History is filled with examples of great people who dictate their histories and creative works.
My mother knew shorthand and took dictation at work. I wish I had learned shorthand. It would come in handy.
Jack Gantos (the character, not you—but maybe you, too) has some serious nosebleeds going on. Is this an ailment you suffer from? If so, have you ever been able to use it in your favor?
I’ll suffer from it on rare occasion at this stage of my life. But when I was younger—a kid—I could make my nose bleed at will. At school, this was very handy for getting out of tests and gym.
What’s on your nightstand currently?
I’m reading a book on the history of invented languages. It is fascinating. I’m not planning on learning Klingon or Esperanto, but invented languages have good back stories.
What advice would you offer to our Figlets who feel their stories have reached a dead end?
Well, I hope it is a proper dead end, as in: The End. If a writer is having difficulty with a story, I say, put it down. Take a break from the rascal. Go to the library and read a few good books. Eat a brilliant lunch. Treat yourself generously. Look in the mirror and say, “Who is that fabulous, mysterious writer?” And then practice all your photo opportunity poses for when you are really famous. Then go back and finish your story so you can make all the fabulousness in your fantasy life come true.
Want to meet Jack Gantos? Visit him on tour!