Kevin Ring, 2009
Kevin Ring is editor of Beat Scene, a magazine dedicated to the Beat Generation that has been published since 1988. The current (Autumn 2009) issue is devoted to Jack Kerouac on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of his death on October 21, 1969.
Kevin Ring: Your new book, The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties, has been a long time in the making?
Helen Weaver: You could say that! I started the book on Good Friday in 1990. I sent it to the printer on Bastille Day, 2009. (Jack was a French Catholic!)
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.
Why did I wait so long? I wanted to be a better writer. The Kerouac file sat on my computer for years pending the courage to complete. Perfectionism, fear of hurting people’s feelings, fear of failure, fear of success, innumerable false starts, and just plain lazinessall these have exerted the necessary pressure to keep this story from being told.
Through it all I never stopped feeling that I had a responsibility to present my little slice of history to the world, that, like Jack, I had a duty to record my experience to the best of my ability.
Kevin Ring: You talk about the various reasons for delay. Did Liz Von Vogt’s book, Edie Parker’s – did those books, Joan Haverty is another – did they push you on?
Helen Weaver: Not really. I would have written my book if no other woman had come forward with a memoir of Kerouac and/or that time. The only one I was really aware of was Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters, which I consider a little masterpiece, and the first book about Jack in which one can clearly hear his voice. Although I was inspired by Joyce’s book it would be more accurate to say that I was intimidated by it. She, after all, is a novelist, and she had a great deal more material to work with: she stuck by him a lot longer than I did. I suspected that my book would be compared with hers, and that actually slowed me down rather than pushed me on.
Kevin Ring: So, if Joyce’s book intimidated you a little, how did you overcome that?
Helen Weaver: Just kept going!
Kevin Ring: Did you get any encouragement from anywhere?
Helen Weaver: Oh, tremendous encouragement from my friends, many of whom are writers. A whole slew of people read early drafts and loved them but also helped me to see the flaws, both major and minor. For a long time the book sagged badly right after an auspicious beginning with all kinds of depressing stuff about my tortured adolescence that I apparently had to get off my chest. A professional editor named Deborah Straw recommended drastic cuts which I wasn’t ready to make until my old friend Dan Wakefield said the same thing. When I finally let go of those fifty pages I was almost there.
Kevin Ring: I think the Hettie Jones book How I Became Hettie Jones is another gem. Were you aware of that one?
Helen Weaver: I actually avoided reading women’s memoirs for years, I’m not sure exactly why, but I didn’t want to imitate anyone or be too impressed by anyone and lose what confidence and momentum I had.
Kevin Ring: You’ve set your recollections of Jack Kerouac in context with the broader sweep of your book? I can almost feel the brownstones and fire escapes of New York City. Why is the city so vital?
Helen Weaver: I’m glad you can feel the brownstones and fire escapes!
Why is New York City important? With all due respect (you Brits invented the novel, I believe), New York is the publishing capital of the world! Where else would an English major with literary aspirations want to live? And where else but Greenwich Village would a rebel like me want to be? Especially one who was, as Roger Straus put it, “a little dykey around the edges.” Offbeat people are drawn to cities, and New York is the greatest city in the world. Like I said, it was be there or be square!
The city was the magnet for Jack and Allen–both from mill towns that had fallen on evil days (I just learned that Paterson, New Jersey, was in much the same depressed state as Lowell, Massachusetts)–as it was for most of the characters in my book: Helen Elliott from Omaha, Lucien Carr from St. Louis, etc. Gregory Corso was the only native New Yorker of the Beats.
Kevin Ring: Helen, Jack gave you the name Ruth Heaper in his book. What did you make of that? How did you feel about being in his book?
Helen Weaver: Well, if you’ll recall, the first time I went to bed with Jack he quoted the Bible to me, The Song of Songs: “Thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies,” and so on. Sothat’s how he came up with the name Ruth Heaper.
It was fine with me. I was proud of being in Desolation Angels and very touched by his portrait of me. He seemed to have forgiven me for telling him to “hit the road, Jack” three years before.
Kevin Ring: Helen, thinking of the Bible, Jack was fascinated by Dwight Goddard’s Buddhist Bible. Did he talk much about that with you? And has it had a bearing on your life since?
Helen Weaver: Well, Jack did read me a passage from the Buddhist Bible the morning after the day we met. He was unpacking his rucksack, and he took that book with him everywhere. The particular passage he read me was very beautiful:
All the mind’s arbitrary conceptions of matter, phenomena, and of all conditioning factors and all conceptions and ideas relating thereto are like a dream, a phantasm, a bubble, a shadow, the evanescent dew, the lightning’s flash.
Every true disciple should thus look upon all phenomena and upon all the activities of the mind, and keep his mind empty and self-less and tranquil.
The language was beautiful, but the ideas didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time. Jack was always telling me that nothing was real, it was all a dream, and that was all very poetic, but I didn’t really believe it. I was twenty-five, and just beginning to make my peace with the so-called real world. I suspected that his Buddhism was just a big excuse for doing whatever he wanted to do.
But years later, I was drawn to Buddhism myself. Like Jack (and unlike Allen), I never made a lasting connection with a Buddhist teacher, and perhaps as a consequence my practice never really took hold. But I still think the Buddhists have the best philosophy, the most accurate understanding of reality, of any organized religion.
And as I got older I decided that Jack was right: life is a dream.
Kevin Ring: Your journal beginning January 1st 1957, inspired by Jack’s journals?
Helen Weaver: I’d never seen Jack’s journals. I knew he took notes on anything that struck him in those little pocket-size notebooks of his–he called it “sketching”–but I don’t remember his showing me what he had written.
I had kept a diary in high school, which helped me get through those difficult years, and I tended to take pen to paper when anything was particularly bothering me. I think I was inspired less by Jack’s journals than by the stress of living with him and the pain of loving a man who couldn’t give me what I needed. I didn’t start writing until things started to go south. Writing as therapy!
Kevin Ring: You talk of things ‘going south.’ One incident with Jack – where you have dinner with Jack at Henri Cru’s. It seems like a bad night. Could you see it coming?
Helen Weaver: Not really. I remember being really upset by how unhappy he seemed to be, especially after we had had such a wonderful time when Jack met my parents just a few days before. Jack and I were both nervous about that, and against all the odds, taking him home to Scarsdale was a great success. But at his old friend Henri Cru’s, he slipped into a depression: didn’t touch his elegant dinner, just guzzled the expensive wine and sat there scat singing to himself and drumming on the table.
Kevin Ring: I’ve wondered about his seemingly fatalistic approach to the world, melancholia – ‘all life is suffering.’ It must have been difficult for you, a young woman looking forward to all that life can offer – with this often brooding (depressed?) man?
Helen Weaver: Yes. I was twenty-five to his thirty-four, and I had probably never heard of the Buddhist teaching that life is suffering. It certainly didn’t appeal to me. I was particularly shocked when Jack said that it was a sin to bring children into the world. That seemed very extreme. I think I thought Jack was saying that life had no value, and that was not true at all. Jack also believed that “life is holy, and every moment is precious.”
I understand that a more accurate translation of the Buddha’s teaching would be “life contains suffering,” or “life contains unsatisfactoriness,” which I think anyone would agree with. But I didn’t care for what Allen Ginsberg called Jack’s “gloomy harping on the First Noble Truth” of the Buddha, that life is suffering.
Buddhism provided Jack with a metaphysics that justified his own intuitive sense of impermanence and loss. I wasn’t ready for that. I hadn’t experienced death yet. But as I aged, especially after my father died, I came to accept the idea that life is tragic. In the end, I came to agree with Jack.
Kevin Ring: You were together with Jack when he signed his contract for On the Road, I understand? That must have been a moment to savour? Can you recall if it had any big impact on him and you as a couple? It must have lifted the mood surely?
Helen Weaver: Yes, I was with Jack at the turning point of his life, just before he became famous overnight. You’d think the contract with Viking would have been a cause for celebration, but oddly enough it really wasn’t.
Allen told me that Jack was so nervous about seeing his editor Malcolm Cowley that he consumed a pint of bourbon in the elevator.
When Jack told me that Cowley had accepted the book and it was finally going to be published I was happy for him, but he didn’t seem that happy himself. Any celebrating he did was with the boys: Allen, Peter, Gregory, and Lucien. We celebrated Christmas together, but not the signing of the contract.
Kevin Ring: You wrote a letter to Jack after he came home late and drunk with Lucien Carr? Could you elaborate on that?
Helen Weaver: The night before he signed the contract Jack and Lucien went on the town in a blizzard. They came roaring into our apartment in the middle of the night, drunk as lords, yelling at each other and crashing into the furniture. (My roommate the other Helen was out on a late date.) They put My Fair Lady on the record player and started singing along with Stanley Holloway at the top of their lungs on “Just a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
Well, I had to get up and go to work the next day, and I lost it completely. I got out of bed and flew into the living room and actually pounded Jack with my fists and tore out a chunk of his hair. Jack always maintained that was the beginning of the end of his looks.
When they finally left they took Helen’s dog with them–to Helen’s horror when she got in from her date at 5 am. Miraculously, the dog survived. And after that Lucien, who previously thought I was a wimp, revised his opinion and started referring to me admiringly as “Slugger.”
The next day I felt terrible, and wrote Jack a letter apologizing for beating on him but basically telling him he had to get his act together, or find someplace else to live.
Kevin Ring: And I wanted to ask you about the revelation about your close encounter with Lenny Bruce. I never saw that coming?
Helen Weaver: Neither did I! How many times does your hero, whom you’ve worshiped from afar, call you on the phone and want to come over? Maybe I cheated by putting my time with Lenny in the book because after all, that was the sixties and this book is supposed to be about the fifties. But it seemed like part of the same zeitgeist of free speech and rebellion, and Dan Wakefield said, put it in!
Kevin Ring: Would you do things any differently with Jack, with hindsight?
Helen Weaver: Although I regret my lack of respect for his writing until years after he died, I really can’t imagine doing anything differently. I certainly could have been a better friend to him at the end of his life when he was so lonely, but I was who I was, and I accept that. It took me years, and a whole process, to appreciate him as a writer; but that was true for mainstream America too. In a way, I was representative of my time.
Kevin Ring: You found Jack’s Lowell beautiful, where others have described it as horrible. What did you find there?
Helen Weaver: Those red brick factories are the oldest ones in America! The industrial revolution started in Lowell. Plus, I love those lovely old Victorian houses, and the “humpbacked Merrimack” running through the town. Even the fact that it’s almost impossible for visitors to find their way around Lowell adds to its mystery and charm.
Kevin Ring: It is easy to overlook other aspects of your book, Jack is such a powerful figure. You write about Susan Sontag and your connections as a translator. An important phase of your life?
Helen Weaver: Working with Susan on the Artaud Selected Writings was a delight and an honor, as she was a hero of mine. What a great mind that was, and what a voracious lover of life.
Kevin Ring: You say you initially read On the Road “with the jaundiced eye of the disappointed lover…” Had you been disappointed all those years? That’s a lot of heartache to carry around. Did you always feel that way?
Helen Weaver: Oh, my no–I think I forgave Jack early on. After all, we were only together for a short while, and I had a shocking number of affairs, some of which were far more painful than my time with Jack. Jack was so fundamentally innocent. He was just incapable of a sustained relationship with any woman other than his mother, as he freely admitted himself.
Kevin Ring: And going to Lowell seems to have been some kind of epiphany for you. Liking the place (as I do – though it’s not conventionally pretty) and finally sinking into his books, his read aloud poetry of it.??????
Helen Weaver: Yes, going to Lowell in the nineties was the catalyst for finally getting serious about this book. In some strange way, I felt closer to Jack after he died. And he wrote so beautifully about Lowell. His description of the flood of 1936 in Doctor Sax is a great moment in American literature.
Kevin Ring: Helen, another thing I must mention is a section where you are with Dan Wakefield in Greenwich Village and you imagine that YOUR Greenwich Village is still there underneath the modern one. What an image: the Subterraneans really subterranean.
Helen Weaver: Well, Jack said it best: “Nothing is real, it’s all a dream.” In the end, the dream is more powerful than the reality.
I call Jack “The Awakener,” but the irony is that the reality he woke us all up to is the reality (which the Buddhists understand) that all is illusion, that life is a dream.
Kevin Ring: Finally, what is the significance of the title? Why did you decide to call the book The Awakener?
Helen Weaver: Thought you’d never ask! For at least four reasons.
First, a silly one: because when Jack lived with me, I couldn’t get enough sleep.
But on another level, his books–especially On the Road –woke up an entire generation, from the long dream of the fifties.
And through books like The Dharma Bums, Jack played an important role in introducing Buddhism to America. That was a major wake-up call, for the very word Buddha is Sanskrit for “awakened one.”
Finally, there’s an astrological reason which has to do with the prominence in the charts of the whole Beat generation of the planet Uranus, which rules revolution and art, and is known to astrologers as “the Awakener.”
So I guess you could say the title–and maybe the whole book–was written in the stars.