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Author Interviews

A Road Trip Sparks An Unlikely Friendship In 'Norvelt To Nowhere'

Originally published on Sat September 21, 2013 10:34 am

From Norvelt to Nowhere is a book that begins in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The first few paragraphs also disclose that nine elderly women in the town of Norvelt are dead by poison.

Did we mention it's a kids' book, too?

From Norvelt to Nowhere is the sequel to Jack Gantos' best-selling Dead End in Norvelt, which won the 2012 Newbery Medal. It's a road story, really, in which young Jack jumps in to a septic tank that's not a bomb shelter, and then joins his elderly teacher, Miss Volker, on a long car trip in a couple of relics, during which he grows out of being a boy — but doesn't quite arrive at manhood — and he and his teacher strike up a real friendship.

"Both of them bend but nobody really breaks," Gantos tells NPR's Scott Simon. Even though Miss Volker is more than six decades older than her young charge, "there are times when Jack has the upper hand, and he has the better humor."


Interview Highlights

On being a "fringe kid"

I moved a lot as a kid, I went to 10 schools in 12 grades, and so I was one of those kids that was a permanent wallflower, you know, I'd go somewhere and I'd hang back, and I'd observe, and I would sort of be on the fringe. But then I realized that I liked the fringe. The fringe was not something that I was off-put by, after a while, because the fringe gave me the flexibility to appear or disappear, which I found to be very helpful ... once you start observing things, you start writing them down, and then from writing them down you begin to see that you might have something here.

On serving time in prison, for getting involved in a drug-smuggling operation as a teenager

They said, well, 'We've got a yacht with 2,000 pounds of hashish. We need an extra hand to sail it to New York City; we'll give you $10,000' ... You probably remember when $10,000, as applied to education, actually could buy you four years of education. Not now — it'll get you about 15 minutes, but then it was substantial money. And so I took a chance, sort of put my morals, values and ethics in a lockbox and went sailing to New York City, got the cargo there, and was promptly arrested and given six years in prison, of which I did a year and a half.

One of the things which connects the Norvelt books to Hole in My Life, which was the memoir, about my time in prison, is the bookishness. And I think that if I have to find a way to parse those volumes, it would be through the referencing of the literature. And when I was in prison, I read tremendous amounts of literature ... it's the best company.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"From Norvelt To Nowhere" is a book that begins in the shadow of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The first few paragraphs also disclose that nine elderly women in the town have been poisoned to death. Did I mention it's a kid's book, too?

"From Norvelt To Nowhere" is the sequel to Jack Gantos' best-selling "Dead End In Norvelt" that won the 2012 Newberry Medal. It's a road story, really, in which young Jack jumps in to a septic tank that's not a bomb shelter, and then joins his teacher, Miss Volker, on a long auto-trip in a couple of relics, during which he grows out of being a boy - if not quite yet into a man - and he and his teacher become friends, not just student and teacher.

Jack Gantos joins us from the studios of WGBH in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

JACK GANTOS: Well, thank you Scott. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: I guess a 65 year age difference between Jack and Miss Volker, but are they well-matched traveling companions?

GANTOS: Yes, I do think they are well-matched traveling companions. In that both of them bend but nobody really breaks. And so, even though Jack is certainly the student, and she is the mentor, there are times when Jack has the upper hand and he has the better humor. And that, almost off-camera, he can make an aside to the reader. You know, like, she's getting a little bit ditzy right now, so hang on to your hat.

SIMON: We're - to use one of your phrases, were you a fringy kid?

GANTOS: Yes, I was definitely a fringy kid. I moved a lot as a kid, I went to 10 schools in 12 grades. And so, I was one of those kids that was a permanent wallflower, you know, I'd go I'd hang back and I would observe, and I would sort of be on the fringe. But then I realized that I liked the fringe because the fringe gave me the flexibility to appear or disappear, which I found to be very helpful.

SIMON: And painful or, at least, vexing as it can be to be a fringy kid. With the advantage of hindsight, is it part of what made you a writer?

GANTOS: I think so. You know, once you start observing things, then you start writing them down, and then from writing them down you begin to see that, you know, you might have something here.

SIMON: May I ask you, you - because you've certainly written about this. You served time in prison.

GANTOS: Yes, I did.

SIMON: Should we explain the circumstances?

GANTOS: Oh, sure.

SIMON: Do you call that a youthful indiscretion or what?

GANTOS: Yes, youthful indiscretion meets yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum. When I got out of high school in Fort Lauderdale, I was supposed to go up to University of Florida. And when I told them I wanted to write books, they said, well, you can't take any creative writing courses until your junior year because you have to get the important courses out of the way first, creative writing being nothing. And so I didn't go.

My parents were living in the Virgin Islands, so I moved down to St. Croix. I started working construction. I thought I'll write books at night. But after construction in the sun all day, you don't. And then I met some really nice British guys, and they said we're looking for a nice kid. I said look no farther, I'm really nice.

And they said, well, we've got a yacht with 2,000 pounds of hashish. We need an extra hand to sail it to New York City; we'll give you $10,000. And Scott, you probably remember when $10,000, as applied to education, actually could buy you four years of education, not now, it'll get you about 15 minutes, but then it was substantial money.

And so I took a chance, sort of put my morals, values and ethics in a lockbox and went sailing to New York City, got the cargo there and was promptly arrested and given six years in prison, of which I did a year and a half.

SIMON: And may I ask, is that a - is that an experience in your life you just lop off and don't think about or do you use it? Does it wind up in your books?

GANTOS: In a book like this, it's difficult to take a 12-year-old character and maybe work this kind of material into a book like this, but one of the things that connects "From Norvelt to Nowhere" or the Norvelt books with "Hole in My Life," which was the memoir about my time in prison, is the bookishness.

And I think that if I have to find a way to parse those volumes, it would be through the referencing of the literature. And when I was in prison, I read tremendous amounts of literature.

SIMON: It's good company, isn't it?

GANTOS: It's the best company.

SIMON: Yeah. Without giving the end of this trip and story away, did Jack make Miss Volker feel like she counts in a world that often doesn't seem to count people of her age?

GANTOS: Yes. When I was looking at this book, it's Miss Volker's large character arc, and Jack helps facilitate that arc, and he begins to understand how she really did have to leave Norvelt and leave some of the harsh feelings that she had in Norvelt, she had to leave that behind in order to grow and set her sails as Mrs. Captain Ahab, as she calls herself, set her sails more toward love than toward hatred.

And I think that Jack really understands that, and I think that he props her up, and I think he admires her for it.

SIMON: Jack Gantos, his new book, another Norvelt story, is "From Norvelt to Nowhere." Thanks very much for being with us.

GANTOS: Thank you, Scott, it was a pleasure speaking with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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