Tony Rodriguez, 2010
Tony R. Rodriguez writes for Examiner.com under the title East Bay Literary Examiner. He interviewed me by email in February 2010.
Tony Rodriguez: The opening of your memoir recalls a rather innocent tale of the first time you met Jack Kerouac one Sunday morning. He and Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Peter’s brother, Lafcadio, came to visit you and your at-the-time roommate. You do an excellent job of recalling the important details of that first meeting, especially when Kerouac shows you a few manuscripts and his first novel. But, out of curiosity, you appeared a bit quiet when Kerouac stated, “Writing comes from God. Once you put it down, it’s a sin to go back change it!” Why do you think you didn’t respond to his statement?
Helen Weaver: I didn’t respond because Jack was on a roll and I was interested in what he had to say, even though I didn’t agree with all of it. At that time in my life, I didn’t believe in God OR sin, so that language was a little foreign to me. But I think that as someone who was working in the editorial department of a publishing house, I did believe in editing and revising.
Ironically, so did Jack. On the Road went through at least four drafts: the master of improvisation did revise.
Tony Rodriguez: Kerouac was certainly both a man’s man and a lady’s man. What first did it for you? Was it his, as you’ve stated, “singsong” and “hypnotic” style of speaking?
Helen Weaver: Who knows why we fall in love? In the first place you have to remember that in 1956, Jack was 34 years old and drop dead gorgeous. He literally looked like a movie star. When Salvador Dali met him in the Russian Tea Room he told Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, who were also sitting at the table, “He is more beautiful than Brando!” At the same time, he seemed totally unaware of his good looks. (I found out later, he wasn’t!) The boys had just arrived from Mexico and looked as if they had slept in their clothes, which was in fact the case. His manner was very down to earth and unassuming.
And then–he was a published writer! I think that was what “did it,” because that’s what I longed to be myself. Our very first conversation was about writing. And yes, his speech pattern was utterly charming and unlike anything I’d ever heard before. He had a beautiful voice, and those wonderful Massachusetts vowels, and then that little breath of French Canada. His English was a little like that of a foreigner, and I loved that. Two out of three of my best friends in high school spoke French, I had studied it for many years and loved the language myself. So falling in love with Kerouac was a no brainer!
Tony Rodriguez: Both critics and readers are celebrating The Awakener as a “must-read” for any fan of Kerouac, let alone anyone moved by Beat literature. But there’ve been books somewhat similar to yours published in the past. What separates yours from the rest, other than it being “your story”?
Helen Weaver: Hmmm. . . .How is my book different from, say, Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters or Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road? I guess the main difference–apart from being me–is that I am writing from the perspective of fifty years. I waited a long time to write my book about Jack, and during those years, my feelings about him and my understanding and assessment of his work changed. Sadly, I didn’t really come to appreciate him as a writer until many years after he died–in which I am very much like the rest of America.
From the day I met him, I knew that Kerouac was important and that he was going to be famous, so I kept everything he gave me: every letter, every drawing, every little note I found tacked onto my door. After he died I continued to keep everything I came across that had anything to do with him. I’m a bit of an obsessive archivist. I have seven huge binders, six of which were filled after his death. As his books continued to be published, I was fascinated by the slow shift in his reputation over the years. In The Awakener I trace the gradual change in the tone of the reviews from ridicule to respect, the changing image of Jack Kerouac from enfant terrible to American icon. So my book is not just a chatty kiss and tell, but has a bit of scholarship in it as well.
Tony Rodriguez: If Kerouac were still with us today, and you asked him to blurb the front cover of The Awakener, what would you hope he’d write?
Helen Weaver: Oh, that’s easy: “This is the best book about me anybody has ever written! C’est formidable!”
For more about Tony and his forthcoming novel When I Followed the Elephant, check out his website at