Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is an accurate, up-to-date, meticulously researched account of how Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel, On the Road came to be written.
Kerouac scholars Paul Maher Jr. (author of Kerouac: His Life and Work; editor Empty Phantoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac) and Stephanie Nikolopoulos bring to life the events and experiences which converged to make Kerouac’s literary masterpiece a reality.
I had the opportunity to talk with Paul Maher Jr. about the new book.
What gave you the idea to write Burning Furiously Beautiful?Burning Furiously Beautiful is basically a rewrite of my earlier study of the “road” period in Jack Kerouac’s life, Jack Kerouac’s American Journey: The Real-Life Odyssey of On the Road.
The chief difference between that and the new book is that the latter delves deeper and spreads wider, reaching all the way back to Kerouac’s family’s arrival in New England at the turn of the 20th century and then, Jack’s arrival in New York City in the fall of 1939. The rest of the book continues until his creative breakthrough in the fall of ’51. which is his sketching method of writing and subsequent spontaneous prose through the next several years. There’s some attention paid to On the Road‘s publication. I feel like this period, now, has been exhausted as much as it can be, yet, still, as I was reading through some of Kerouac’s letters to Neal and Carolyn Cassady recently, and there is more. There is always more…
The earlier version of this book was hastily published because it was rushed for the anniversary of On the Road‘s publication in the fall of 2007. It was literally a second draft manuscript and therefore riddled with errors (mostly non-Kerouac related anecdotes). It was served to the reading public without polish. It also had a mediocre two-tone cover with muddied colors which was hardly eye-catching. Two years later it was dropped out of print.
Coincidentally, the publishers that took on the book had made a deal with the Kerouac estate to publish some unpublished books. I believe the same thing happened with Gerald Nicosia and Viking Penguin who dropped his well-received biography of Kerouac in favor of a fresh onslaught of unpublished Kerouac titles from the Kerouac Estate in the early 1990s. It was all for the better.
Why did you take on a collaborator?
My strengths lie in research, not in writing. I can write well enough I suppose, but I’m not a good proofreader. I’m not a good editor. I have to put the material away for many months and then look at it again to see all the sloppiness pop out. This is not the freedom I had with Jack Kerouac’s American Journey. When Thunder’s Mouth Press was bought by Perseus Books, it was taken in by DaCapo Press, given a hasty cover design and thrust into the marketplace en utero. Though it received some decent reviews, the informed readers of Kerouac saw all the mistakes immediately. It was an abomination to say the least.
I am collaborative by nature, and for this book I felt should the opportunity arise, I would be happy to work on it with someone else. Stephanie had commented on an item I had on my Kerouac blog, and her commentary was fresh, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. I read her blog, and intuited that perhaps her fresh perspective would be an asset to the book. I contacted her and after a few phone calls and emails, I asked if she was interested in working with me, which she was. Working with her entailed merging chapters, expanding some, deleting other texts, adding fresh material from some of the research I had already done for a book I was contracted to write for Southern Illinois University Press (concerning Kerouac’s writing in the 1940s). We have another book contracted to Taylor Trade Publishing, which will be sort of an overview of all of Kerouac’s writings.
Can you share the research process for the book?
Sure, initially we took the original manuscript, which was the finished book, and deconstructed it. Stephanie had read Jack Kerouac’s American Journey and therefore could provide an objective eye. Though she did like the book as it was, I let it be known what I originally envisioned and then, from there, we took her ideas and worked it into the manuscript. This we did for the course of about two years. Each time we thought we were close to finishing, there was new material that popped up which I felt should be included.
Did you run into any difficulties in the research or writing of Burning Furiously Beautiful?
Concern about breaching copyright was always on our mind. Though I had access to a lot of unpublished material, I was hesitant to quote from any of it. Without even doing that at all, we were still served with papers from the Kerouac Estate’s attorney demanding to see our unpublished manuscript. To this we refused knowing that we broke no copyright laws. This was a bogus scare tactic, quite literally they were trying to steer Kerouac scholarship to be under their control. The archive is roofed under a public library, it was meant to be available to the public, yet still exists this entitlement by the estate to control Kerouac’s image. To this date, we get books that stress the importance of the Sampas family when the focus should exclusively be on Jack Kerouac and his work. Stephanie also experienced some harassment, but that is her story to tell if she wants to tell it at all. All in all, the experience of researching and writing the book was exciting and gave us the opportunity to think out of the box in terms of how we wanted the book to read, who our audience would be, and how we wanted the book to appear (the cover for example). Being in our hands and controlling our own work made us strive to make it the best it could be.
By now, I am afraid, the reading audience may be Kerouacked out. We at some points sought to have it finished for the release of the film version of On the Road, but its release schedule was haphazard and I wanted to add more material, such as Kerouac’s diary of 1956 where he is on the road to Washington State to work as a forest service lookout. We missed those deadlines over and over because we felt it was more important to put it out the way we wanted instead of trying to compete or piggyback a film, for example. We can keep it in print in perpetuity. We can revise or add to it later, if we want to. It remains an organic work which is fine by me.
What’s next for you?I have plans to overhaul and completely gut out and rewrite my original biography of Kerouac, Kerouac: His Life and Work. I started in earnest and then lost all my work. I am in the process of working on it again, and Stephanie may be joining me with this as well. I have completely collated and transcribed a collected correspondence between Kerouac and Neal & Carolyn Cassady. I don’t have any plans to publish that because I can’t, but I am using it as a research tool to dig deeper into this relationship and see what I can come up with that is fresh and relevant to the book.
Hopefully, any sales for Burning Furiously Beautiful will help us to fund out future research which was sort of the plan all along.
Read an excerpt from Burning Furiously Beautiful.