by Brian Hassett
In some of the best news in Beatlandia in many a year — it’s just been announced that (A) the Kerouac estate has signed the inimitable Holly George-Warren to be the official biographer of Jack — a role originally filled by Doug Brinkley back in the ’90s until he got lured away by some other beatniks of history. And (B) the book — working title Jack Kerouac: A Writer’s Life — has just been signed to Viking Press — the original publisher of On the Road, and which has become home to most all of Kerouac’s 50 different books in print.
And speaking of books in print, Holly has a ton of them herbadself — Janis: Her Life and Music (2019); A Man Called Destruction: The Life & Music of Alex Chilton (2014); Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues (2011); The Cowgirl Way: Hats Off to America’s Women of The West (2010); The Road to Woodstock (with Michael Lang, 2009); Grateful Dead 365 (2008); Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life & Times of Gene Autry (2007); Punk 365 (2007); Honky-Tonk Heroes and Hillbilly Angels: The Pioneers of Country & Western Music (2006); The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (2005); The Appalachians: America’s First and Last Frontier (2004); Cowboy, How Hollywood Invented The Wild West (2002); How The West Was Worn (2001); The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats (1999) . . .
In the Full Disclosure Department — Holly and I met in the East Village in the mid-’90s when we were both Howling there, and we connected over a love of the still-vibrant downtown music & arts scene, with an undercurrent of us both being able to talk Beats and beats by the hour.
When The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats first hatched over at Rolling Stone with Holly at the helm, we had about a thousand conversations about it as it grew from an idea into one of the most inclusive & complete portraits of the Beats ever created.
And now 20-sumpthin years later — a similar movie has just been green-lit! And this one no less than Jack’s official biopic! And thank gawd the screenplay didn’t go to some agenda pimp or academic wanker, but to an experienced cinematographer biographer with a passion for Jack and a fresh (and female!) perspective.
So I took this exploding-like-spiders-across-the-stars moment to catch up with Holly and get summa the deets —
Why the heck does the world need another Kerouac biography? What’s gonna be different about this one?
I hope to find buried treasures during a very long, in-depth search in the archives that shed new light on Kerouac’s writing process and life and thought process. I’ll be looking at his life & work through a 21st century lens — and I’ll be bringing a fresh perspective to his oeuvre and the story of his life.
What does an “estate-sanctioned” biography mean, exactly?
The Kerouac estate and their literary agent reached out to me last fall after reading Janis. They said they hoped I would apply the same research, storytelling and contemporary viewpoint to Jack that I brought to Janis. They offered me complete access to the estate-controlled archives, and permission to quote from any of the personal papers etc., but with no controls or editorial approvals over my manuscript. I got my literary agent involved and we have a contractual agreement to that effect.
This is also the agreement I had with the Joplin and Autry estates. I would not embark on a biography like this without that autonomy being guaranteed in writing. I included this in the very lengthy book proposal that I worked on for months, and my agent conducted an auction with numerous publishers bidding, and I decided on Paul Slovak at Viking. It was so heartening to get so much interest from some amazing editors at a number of publishing houses!
Cool! That’s a great story unto itself! What did you take from doing The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats that made you wanna dig into Jack more?
That was my favorite of the 40+ books I put together while I was the Director/Editor of Rolling Stone Press from 1993-2001. It was the project that I was passionate enough about that it lured me back to work after my son Jack was born in 1998. In 1999, he got to accompany me and my husband on my book tour and at events with the book’s contributors. That was his third or fourth road trip, at age 1. The book was such a joy to put together — to commission writing from and getting to meet Joyce Johnson, Ann Charters, Carolyn Cassady, Ann Douglas, Hettie Jones, and other great writers like you, Brian!
When I was in college at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, my professor Gordon Ball brought Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and William Burroughs to campus. I went to their readings and we got to meet them afterwards. I’d also just seen Bob Dylan and Patti Smith for the first time – and knew I had to move to NYC!
Wow! You had Gordon Ball as a professor! Amazing. Perfect. To play on John Leland’s book title — why does Kerouac matter?
No other 20th century writer shaped the American imagination more than Jack Kerouac. His musical ear and literary innovations inspired four generations of readers, writers and musicians.
Being a woman, will you have a different approach than your many male counterparts to include all the many women who knew Jack well and left behind their own illuminating memoirs?
In his novels, many of the female characters appear to need rescuing. But in real life, Jack seemed to be attracted to strong, independent, brilliant women. I’m really looking forward to exploring those relationships.
What are some of your favorite Jack books?
I’ve read On the Road four or five times, beginning when I was 16 — so it has a very special meaning for me. I also love The Subterraneans, Big Sur and The Dharma Bums. I’m really looking forward to revisiting all his other work and doing a deep dive.
Ouuu — Subterraneans! Beautiful! If he didn’t have that Charlie Parker soloing stretch in his repertoire, I don’t know if I’d be as blown away by his skills as I am. Well, that and Old Angel Midnight. But anyway — how did he affect your life personally?
He completely opened my mind to a whole other life that existed outside of my small hometown in North Carolina. When I saw in one of his notebooks on view at an exhibit that he possibly drove by my house on one of his road trips — I grew up on a highway that he would have taken to get to his next stop — that blew my mind! I fantasized that I was climbing the maple tree in my front yard in the early ’60s when the car he was in drove by.
His work made me want to be a writer, to travel, to learn about Buddhism, about people unlike myself — and I started hitchhiking, too. The longest distance was from North Carolina to Florida. But I mostly just hitched around North Carolina.
Besides the themes in his writing and the adventures in On the Road, his work inspired me to pursue a life of experience outside “my safety zone” — so I did lots of traveling in North America, South America and Europe — but also did lots of “mind traveling,” too. In my early music writing, I mimicked his style to an extent until I found my own voice.
Wow! Great! I love the maple tree in the front yard. You and Canada waving at Jack. When will people be able to climb into the branches of this book?
It’s targeted for 2025.
Man — that sounds like some science fiction date in the future. I can’t even grasp that I’ll be alive in 2025. But I’m so glad we both are now. And, boy, there’s nobody I’d rather have at the helm of this book than you.
Thanks so much, Brian. You and I will both be kickin’ up our heels in 2025! There’s an amazing adventure ahead between now and then.
And awaaay we go!!
Brian Hassett is the author of several books, including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac, How The Beats Begat The Pranksters & Other Adventure Tales, and On The Road with Cassadys, and Furthur Visions, and contributor to numerous other anthologies, collections, and websites covering a range of topics from the Beat Generation to hippies, the Grateful Dead, music, politics, travel, and other lifejoys. His extensive website is Brianland.