Jonah Raskin, 2009
Professor Raskin is Chairman of Communication Studies at Sonoma State University.
Jonah Raskin: I have your email [address] from City Lights, and I am writing to ask you about the length of time it took to write The Awakener.
I have written one book about the Beats–American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation–and have taught the Beats to college students.
I know you started your book in 1990. Why didn’t you push through and finish it sooner than you did?
Helen Weaver: Jonah, that’s a good question, and it’s one I answer in the Acknowledgments–which of course you haven’t seen yet. Here’s what I say there:
“This book has been in the works for nineteen years and it’s been in the back of my mind for fifty: ever since that day in November 1956 when Jack and his friends landed on my doorstep and he entered my living room, my bedroom, and my life. When I finally got started in 1994 its birth contractions had to be sandwiched between the death throes of my mother. After she died there were other upheavals.
“The Kerouac file sat on my computer for years pending the courage to complete. Residual anger at Jack, perfectionism, fear of hurting people’s feelings, fear of failure, fear of success, innumerable false starts, genre confusion (is this an autobiography or a memoir?), and just plain laziness: all these have exerted the necessary pressure to keep this story from being told.
“I had to lose my innocence of death. I had to discover Jack as a writer. I had to read all of his books. I had to read him aloud! And maybe I had to become a Buddhist, maybe I had to develop a little more patience and compassion before I could find my way to the final structure with something approaching clarity.
“Waiting for ‘perspective’ is all very well, but there comes a point where perspective is all you have left: it’s all atmosphere and no details, like the Earth from space.”
My friend Mary Van Valkenburg who works at The Nation, put it more succinctly in an email. She said, “You couldn’t have written this book earlier. How could you possibly have done so? It had to wait until this evening-time when your story could do justice to both you and Jack.”
Jonah Raskin: From reading your memoir I would say that writing your own book was more difficult than translating the books of others. . . .
Helen Weaver: Yes, more difficult in some ways, but far more rewarding. Translating requires some of the same skills that writing does–it is writing, after all–so it was a good preparation. But writing–especially about real, living people–requires a certain courage (or foolhardiness) that the translator doesn’t need to have. It’s a hell of a lot easier to write about people after they’ve died!
Jonah Raskin: Could you say something about the choices you made in terms of writing–why The Daisy Sutra, for example, before The Awakener?
Helen Weaver: I was back at work on the Kerouac memoir when my dog started to fail, and then died. After all those upheavals, Daisy meant a great deal to me, and I wanted to memorialize her. Writing during her last days was therapeutic. And then, I don’t know if you’ve read The Daisy Sutra, but the whole animal communication phenomenon was so fascinating to me that I just had to tell the world that it’s real, it’s valid. And because I self-published the book, which is labor intensive, that was a major interruption.
Jonah Raskin: And why did it become important to you to finish the book you started in 1990? You might have suggested or implied some of this in your memoir, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t get it.
Helen Weaver: Then perhaps I have failed to express how important it was to me that I finish this book, if it was the last thing I ever did. (A psychic once told me I was delaying finishing it because I was afraid it would be the last thing I did!) I always felt a responsibility to share my little slice of history. And I was always rather impressed by the fact that I had slept with both Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce: Jack Kerouac, an American icon, and Lenny Bruce, arguably the most influential comic in American history. I mean, what was the meaning of that, if not that I was supposed to bear witness? Sure felt like a tap on the shoulder from the universe.
Jonah Raskin: Thank you, and congratulations on finishing and publishing your book about Kerouac and Lenny Bruce and Ginsberg. I thought that your comment about Allen needed to have someone like Harry Smith around, given his relationship with Naomi, was insightful.
Helen Weaver: Thank you!
Professor Raskin’s review of The Awakener can be found at www3.wooster.edu/beatstudies/pdfs/awakener.pdf