Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons: Jack Gantos

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In 1971, Jack Gantos, a twenty-year-old, good-kid criminal, dodged the Feds at the Chelsea Hotel. They knew of his role in the smuggling of 2,000 pounds of hashish into New York City, on a boat he’d helped sail up from the Virgin Islands. The authorities knew who he was, where his family lived, that he’d been selling the hash around town out of a shopping cart he freewheeled down the streets.

So he turned himself in, got sentenced to six years, and ended up serving a year and a half in the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky. Inmate Gantos impressed his parole board by applying to college and getting accepted. See, he was saying, I will make something better of myself if you let me out, something smarter. A lifelong reader and lover of literature, Gantos has since published nearly 50 books, many of them for children and young adults, and won major awards, including the Newbery Medal for his 2012 autobiographical novel Dead End in Norvelt.

I first met Jack last year, in the crowded lobby of the Ace Hotel in Manhattan (we continued our conversation more recently over the phone and email). We sat side by side at the bar in the back. After the staccato of opening pleasantries, we dug in, and found affinity.

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The Rumpus: Your second act has been pretty incongruous, no? It just seems so unlikely.

Jack Gantos: Particularly in my field, children’s books. You don’t often get children’s book writers who’ve been to prison.

Rumpus: I just thought of another luminary besides you. Stanley Tookie Williams. He was a gang leader, Crips or the Bloods, I think. Killed a few people. In prison he had a change of heart, started writing children’s books. They ended up executing him.

Gantos: Wow, I better watch out.

Rumpus: Part of the reason you went to prison, the reason I went to prison, is changing. The laws around cannabis. Did you ever imagine that happening?

Gantos: In the early ’70s, I couldn’t see that at all. But later in my life, I could see the tipping point coming. There was just so much popular use. You can compare it to Prohibition. If you watch Boardwalk Empire, with Steve Buscemi.

Rumpus: He’s a New York guy.

Gantos: Sometimes when I’m writing I think of him as a character.

Rumpus: His face, his voice.

Gantos: He can do anything. I would love to have him in Hole in My Life. [Gantos’s memoir about his crime, punishment, and redemption.]

Rumpus: I was going to ask you about that. Has it been optioned?

Gantos: Yeah, it’s optioned now to Daniel Radcliffe.

Rumpus: Really? Have you met him personally?

Gantos: No, not at all.

Rumpus: Have you thought of what might have resonated for him in your story?

Gantos: Well, he did the Harry Potter movies. He was a great young star and it ended. He gets trapped, so they were looking for roles that could show off his talent and range—an older teenager, hipster, bookish.

Rumpus: That’s who you were at that time, right? What were some of the books that inspired the young Jack to take that smuggling adventure on the boat?

Gantos: I read all the Beats.

Rumpus: I was gonna say, Kerouac, On the Road. What about Paul Bowles?

Gantos: Bowles! I love everything by Bowles.

Rumpus: His short stories.

Gantos: I think some of the best short stories in American literature.

Rumpus: You know that one, “A Distant Episode”?

Gantos: Ooooh yeah.

Rumpus: So there you were, reading all of this. What does it do to you?

Gantos: It’s a mirror on your own life, and makes you think about what you want to do with it. I’m beholden to literature.

Rumpus: Do you feel like you owe it something back?

Gantos: Absolutely. I’d be nothing if I wasn’t a reader. I just found those stories so appealing—The Car Thief, In Youth is Pleasure, On the Yard, This Boy’s Life, Seven Long Times. At that age, that tender age, how can you not read?

Rumpus: Did you bring books with you on the boat when you were doing your transport?

Gantos: Oh yeah. I had a bunch with me. We made it to the 79th Street Boat Basin. The boat was moored right at the dock. The Chelsea Hotel was our center of operations. I would fill grocery store shopping carts with whatever we were selling. Fifty kilos of hashish at a time in muslin bags, heavy white cotton bags with green stains coming down from the hash.

Rumpus: You could have sold the resin.

Gantos: You could have sold the bags. I’d wheel it down the streets and show up at somebody’s apartment.

Rumpus: Was that the zeitgeist or was it just your own delusional invincibility? And believe me, I say that knowing full well how that goes.

Gantos: I think there was great delusional invincibility.

Rumpus: Haha!

Gantos: This is 1970s. It’s not the New York it is now.

Rumpus: I feel like I got a little glimpse of that under Dinkins in the early 90s, when things were looser, crazier, going out on my own in the city. You guys were caught shortly thereafter, right?

Gantos: Yeah, yeah, they’d been following us. We didn’t realize it. The whole operation had been tracked by the Secret Service since Hamilton and his partner, Harvey, had bought the hashish in Morocco with counterfeit money. Secret Service follows counterfeit money; that’s their domain.

Rumpus: That’s pretty intense. Sounds like a movie you got yourself into.

Gantos: Oh yeah, I stepped right in it.

Rumpus: Well, it makes for a better story, doesn’t it?

Gantos: Yeah. I was naïve and quite frankly I know people are always wanting you to go, Well, I was bad; I was very very bad.

Rumpus: To moralize.

Gantos: But when I took the job, I thought it was just gonna be like, Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. Be like a pirate. Just be like Robert Louis Stevenson.

Rumpus: Where did you sail out of?

Gantos: St. Croix in the Virgin Islands.

Rumpus: Oh, so the boat was in St. Croix and you went down there.

Gantos: Yeah, they sailed from Morocco to St. Croix and then Harvey flew to New York to set up the deal and Hamilton couldn’t handle the boat by himself so they hired me to be the boatman. We sailed to New York and Harvey had set up the deals and I was like a delivery boy.

Rumpus: We get into the crucial issue of nonviolent versus violent crime. You didn’t have any weapons on board?

Gantos: No. Hamilton had a pistol. [In one riveting scene in Hole in My Life, Hamilton, sea-crazed and irate, fires away several times in Gantos’s direction.]

Rumpus: Just before, you were expressing something that I think is very pure and for me very relatable: Where you’re not moralizing about it, and this allows you to really tell the story fully. But what about in your work. You can’t write books for kids that deal directly with these issues, right?

Gantos: No, wrong. I wrote Hole in My Life.

Rumpus: And you intended that for a young audience?

Gantos: High school to adult. And they get that, those high school kids read that book and they really drill down into all the emotional elements, and the morals, ethics, and values, as well, and how it relates to society, family. You gotta face it, fella. You gotta look in that mirror.

Rumpus: I think it’s a great detail you have threaded all through the book, deceptively simple—picking your face in the mirror, pimples and boils. I thought maybe that’s the part teenagers relate to most.

Gantos: It’s a pretty low moment when you look into the mirror and have no one else to blame for your troubles but yourself. And then to illustrate that feeling, and to reveal a self-revulsion, I wrote of the moments when I was so agitated with myself I would attempt to rid my face of acne—which had most likely flared up because of the stress I was under as day by day I grew closer to my court date for sentencing. The worst times for me was when I was staying at the Chelsea Hotel. The hotel was pretty run down in the early ’70s and I was in a crappy room and was completely paranoid that the Feds were watching me and so I stayed in the room and did my self-facial surgery and waited until the day I was sentenced. They gave me six years. My skin only got worse in prison.

Rumpus: You smuggled your way into the history of the Chelsea Hotel, which is pretty badass, isn’t it? That was the early ’70s. Have you ever gone back in there?

Gantos: I stayed at the Chelsea a lot. My publisher, FSG, would put me up there when I was in New York. I requested it. It was outrageously high priced and filthy. There were times when I wasn’t sure if the sheets were fresh. You would find stray pubic hairs under the covers. The hot and cold water was erratic. The heat and air conditioning was hit or miss. Honestly, the thrill of its old Nancy Spungen/Sid Vicious murder was over. It was a dump but as you walked the halls you knew that literary greatness had taken place there and so I was captured by the charm of its past reputation.

Rumpus: Tell me about your high school. It was a converted state prison? The principal acting like a warden, operating the front gate remotely. The palimpsest of the walls, still bearing the carvings, pornographic etches by the inmates in the stone. Those were great details.

Gantos: That was in Sunrise, Florida, around Fort Lauderdale. In the ’60s in Florida people were moving there so fast that they could not keep up with municipal buildings, community buildings that were needed. They repurposed everything.

You could still see where they had torched the bars off. Even though they had painted over it, you could see where the prisoners had sketched in names, curses, sexual images. A very down feeling going in there. It was depressing. As a kid when you saw a guy who was covered in tattoos it was extraordinary. You know, like a sailor or somebody. If you would get just the right light on the walls, it was like you were inside a tattooed room. They were quiet, but if you paid attention you could see them. I found it fascinating.

Rumpus: Did this, you think, in any way lean you toward that experience, give you a hint of it that intrigued you? You wrote in Hole in My Life that “it was sexy to imagine myself in prison.” That struck me.

Gantos: To be one of the guys, being a tough guy, using the prison argot, sharing stories, pats on the back, be among men, and be one of them—that kind of camaraderie really appealed to me, the romanticism of the prison group. I didn’t have that at that time in my life.

Rumpus: What’s the feeling or thought now when you imagine prison?

Gantos: Maybe I’ve gotten a little adrift from the romanticism. Now I think it’s a hellish nightmare. Right now the sentencing of the Boston bomber is going on. It’s either life in prison or the death sentence. In Boston eighty percent are for life in prison for him. Part of that is maybe a religious belief or a humanitarian belief, but I think that people know that life in prison, life in solitary, is worse, worse than death. I’d be like Gary Gilmore—just take me out.

Rumpus: Crazy what happened with your prison journal, all your scenes and thoughts and notes in the margins of a copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. How they confiscated it from you when you were being released. I felt for you.

Gantos: That was a startling moment. I watched Mr. Copley, the guard at Discharge, open the cover of that book and when he noticed the prison library stamp in it he tossed it into the prison belongings. About the same time the front door of the prison was being opened and I was being tossed out—it was one or the other and I didn’t want to argue with Mr. Copley so I zipped my lips and headed for the exit sign. That was that. About forty years later I met a librarian whose father had been a guard at Ashland when I was there. She gave him a copy of Hole in My Life to read when he was in his nineties. He cried and when she asked why he replied that it was happiness, because someone made it out of prison and stayed out. Then, he called the warden and asked for someone to go down to the library and look for the Dostoyevsky, and they did look for it but it wasn’t there. Gone. But the librarian’s story, which she told me at a conference (and later wrote it all out for me) has always been the icing on that story of the lost journal.

Rumpus: You saw some serious violence in prison. A gang rape at the old detention house on West Street in Manhattan. Dude with a fork stabbed into his collarbone in Ashland. Then you saw all kinds of wounds when you worked as x-ray technician in the prison emergency medical team. Great window on the place. You wrote that when you got out of Ashland nothing could get you down. Everything was comical. I love it. That’s the one takeaway I’m always coming back to, twenty years on. I feel like I can still sense this quality in you. Do you?

Gantos: Ha. That was a crazy day when I was released. I flew to Boston and I was both giddy with freedom and paranoid with freedom. I checked into the airport hotel at Logan Airport in Boston and stayed in my room for a few days. It was a decompression chamber for me. After that I went off to college and thought the world was a brilliant place. Like everyone else I can get ‘down’ or depressed, but I snap back and part of my resiliency is because I have really been Down and Out in prison—so regular life can still be lousy at times but it will never be the beat down that prison was each and every day.

Rumpus: What a miserable existence. In all humility I look back and am pretty stunned to think of myself at twenty-three, spending years there.

Gantos: It’s extraordinary that you could deflect so much of the pain of it even while you were in it. Now as we’re older that same experience would be a hundred times more torturous, more difficult. What kind of fearful pain we were in, I didn’t have the ability to perceive it all. Now it would mow me down. It would bowl me over.

I think Genet really got it—When slaves feel love it’s not love at all.

Any feeling you have in prison is specious; it’s compromised. You’re no longer true to yourself. You’re just an automaton operating, just staying alive. I think people in prison don’t trust themselves. They double think it; they triple think it. It’s going to rotate around in there forever. It’s a torture wheel.

Rumpus: You and I don’t know each other well of course, not yet. But you seem kindred to me. Many of the things you mention, that you went through, like Genet. I only knew vaguely of Genet as a famous French prison writer, but I’ve got an old hardback edition of The Thief’s Journal and am reading it now, about half way through. A line I memorized from it struck me in relation to Hole in My Life and I wanted to bounce it off you. Talking about the beggars, riff raff and petty criminals he lived with in Spain, he wrote, “Their sinuousness and the multiplicity of their moral lines form an interlacing which I call adventure.” When the lawyer in New York that your dad had hired for you told you that your case had made the papers, you said you smiled and “basked in your criminal glory.”

Gantos: Ha. Whenever I think of The Thief’s Journal, I think it’s a masterpiece. I love that book. What I see in Genet is someone who can take the meanest, most penetratingly wicked ideas and somehow turn them upside down and you can see this rich, promising, even sexual underbelly to every evil possible. He’s a master of taking pain and turning it into pleasure. “All pleasure is pain relieved.” He would take his most painful moment and find some good in it. Just the way you would turn a cat over and rub its belly, and I so admire him for that. I had a little taste of it, just a taste. I was just flea-bitten. I was a tourist in the world that these guys wrote about. My time inside was so short comparatively. I didn’t have the courage he had.

Rumpus: Going back to what you said about the Boston bomber, the way the public views the punishment of prison. I think that most people, including people within the system, lawyers, judges, prosecutors, people really close to it, don’t really know what it’s like to have your freedom taken in that manner. I don’t think I believe in life without the possibility of parole. To say that a man cannot change, that he must spend the rest of his life in a place like that. It just seems so cruel and devoid of any hope about who we are. That someone can never be reclaimed. I like to think we should allow for the possibility.

Gantos: Hinckley is on track to get out and live with his mother. They just allowed him not to have to wear an ankle bracelet. They are allowing someone who did something heinous—shoot the president—they’ve allowed him to come around. You would think that someone like him would never get out. Will they do that with the Unabomber? I don’t know.

Rumpus: That gives credence to the reclamation of souls rather than just their punishment.

Gantos: That there can be genuine redemption.

Rumpus: Do you stay attuned to criminal cases? Do you read about them, follow their developments?

Gantos: I follow them all. I cannot read the newspaper without sniffing out every criminal story. I’m like a magnet to it. It speaks to something very youthful that happened to me a long time ago. Maybe Mark Twain said the things that happen to you in your youth, you’re writing about all your life. I have the same obsessions that I had in the first twenty-one years of life.

Rumpus: What cases stand out?

Gantos: I’m still overwhelmed by Lee Harvey Oswald, that the shooting of Kennedy was so audacious. I’m fascinated by his life, his motivation. I can never quite get away from that. And the Sharon Tate murders, so gruesome and twisted. And in Boston there’s a whole generation older than me that’s obsessed with the Boston Strangler.

Rumpus: You know what was wild in light of what was to come for you was the visit to your high school by former inmates of Raiford State Prison. Such fallen characters. They’re vivid, must of have been for you at that age.

Gantos: I was sitting in my chair laughing, an 11th grader. They were pulled out of Raiford State, and these guys are giving a scared straight program for us, and I was so cynical and I was just mocking them. They were like a prison vaudeville act, with the anger guy who ripped a phone book in half. I found it so absurd.

Rumpus: But they really were trying to effect change.

Gantos: Oh, they were; they were absolutely sincere.

Rumpus: What’s a better way, you think, to positively influence a young person? Are we back to books?

Gantos: That’s an interesting question. What can you do with a young person to inform them, impress upon them, how a life of crime, being sentenced, how life in prison is a very unpleasant place. How do you impress a teenager? Is it the scared straight approach? It didn’t work with me; I thought it was hilarious. Maybe you need to take them inside prison; maybe you need to walk them through it. I honestly don’t have solutions. I read about it. I think about it. I see crime everywhere. I see drugs everywhere. I’m handcuffed when it comes to solutions. I don’t have them. How come we don’t have what it takes? Education is the most important thing. Everybody should be given a job. Everybody should have a safe environment to grow up in, but that’s never going to happen in this country.

Rumpus: I think you’re right about that, taking them inside the prisons. Not just them, but lawyers, prosecutors, judges—people who work in the system but don’t understand what prison is like. [Justice Kennedy, New York Times, April 4, 2015: “The corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions we have in our entire government. We have no interest in corrections. Nobody looks at it.”]

I’m with you there. I wouldn’t want their job. I don’t think it’s fully solvable. I can see why the authority is so confused, why so many of their efforts are futile. I started thinking that in my cell.

Gantos: You come out and have more empathy for not just the prisoners, but also for the system, the authorities trying to create a crime-free environment. You can see both sides. If I can see both sides, why can’t I see the solution?

Rumpus: You’ve said before that the importance of stories changes overtime for us. How much importance do you assign your prison memoir now? How do you have it placed? Any aspect of that legacy you find confining?

Gantos: When I look back, I think I’ve published forty-eight books, when I look back on them and stack them all up I always think Hole in My Life is going to be one of the most important. Maybe that’s just because it’s so rich inside of me and it’s so much of the pillar of my experience. Maybe I give it extra credence and praise because of that. That book is the flag on top of my building.

Rumpus: And you’ve approached it on the page in various ways, not only in your memoir, right? Rotten Ralph, your beloved cat, is a rascal. Is he a criminal?

Gantos: Ha. Rotten Ralph is incorrigible, which means he is a clever and unrelenting rule breaker (who still wants love). He’s my anarchist cat with a bourgeois heart. I remember my editor, Walter Lorraine at Houghton Mifflin, trying to coax me into making him less rotten. For some reason I had the red-jacketed Communist Manifesto in my back pocket and I yanked it out and slapped it on his desk. I said something which makes me laugh at myself now, but then I was a sincere Trotskyite. I cried out, “Ralph is teaching children how to rebel against the state.” Or something like that. It was ridiculous. I don’t know why Walter didn’t just throw me down the stairwell. Over the years I came to realize that he liked the ‘odd’ ones. He didn’t care for wimpy books or wimpy authors.

Rumpus: I like that. Talk to me about anti-heroes, unsympathetic protagonists. Why did you want to create Ralph? How did you think readers would respond to him? And have you had people tell you that they didn’t like your character in Hole in My Life because of his actions?

Gantos: There are plenty of people who don’t care for my books, but plenty more that do. Young people like my books and they are sincere readers and won’t accept books that have watered-down characters. Books like Rotten Ralph have been banned. The Jack Henry series of autobiographical short stories have been banned (they blame it on three words of bad language: “Hell. Damn. Crap”—but really they don’t like Jack Henry because he questions his parents). Some people believe that Joey Pigza is just a kid with willfully bad behavior and deserves a crack across his ass to straighten him up. But he has ADHD and sociopathic parents, so his behavior is wildly erratic (but his heart is spot on).

Hole in My Life, well, some people think ex-drug using, drug smuggling convicts shouldn’t be around kids. In The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs I write about my great uncles who taxidermed their mother. Well, some people don’t think that is an appropriate subject for a YA novel (the book is mostly about the shameful American eugenics movement, which was utterly a handbook of white supremacist racism—even Hitler (along with the US government) admired American eugenics (Arian ideals). In Desire Lines I wrote about a lesbian relationship that ended in horrid tragedy after the girls were ‘outed’ and hounded by bigots at my high school in Ft. Lauderdale. (One girl grew so desperate she shot the other and then turned the gun on herself, but lived). Well, that book seems to have gone nowhere. I have more books—even the Newbery Medal winner Dead End in Norvelt—that some people don’t like because the politics are too liberal and progressive.

I can’t please everyone, nor do I attempt to please everyone. But I certainly attempt to attract young readers who want a book that aims to drill down into the motivations of its characters and examine and define the range of emotions we all share. My next book, The Trouble in Me, is a memoir that exposes some of my character flaws before Hole in My Life. I expect some folks may not care for it, but my core readers will. They’ll see their fractured and unbalanced selves in that book—I offer them a mirror so they can put words to their feelings instead of having them stare into a mirror and despise the inchoate person they are, or have become.

Rumpus: Tell me about the joys of writing for children. What thrill do you get from that process?

Gantos: Did you say “joys”? It’s a difficult job and for me most of the pleasure is in finishing the book (50-100 drafts). I seldom if ever read them again (except the picture books to very young readers). If I do read the stories and novels I find the flaws in every sentence. It’s a torture. I’m not so sure writing is joyful for me. I take pride in my work. I’m loyal to the craft. I certainly enjoy capturing good ideas. I have a fetish for paper and pens and all things writerly and bookish. I read a lot. But

I’m quite certain I’ve never given a talk on the joys of writing—children’s books or otherwise.

Rumpus: You published your first book, Rotten Ralph, in 1976. You’ve seen sea changes in the publishing world. What stands out to you along the way? What has struck you most about the changes you’ve witnessed?

Gantos: I think the biggest change is ‘point of access’ for writers and artists who are searching for publishers. When Nicole Rubel and I made Rotten Ralph that was the thirteenth book we created. We had twelve failures in a row—manuscripts and illustrations that were rejected by Boston’s three publishers: Little Brown, Atlantic, and Houghton Mifflin. But it was all so brilliant to be rejected to your face thirty-six times in a row. First, all you had to do is create the book and make a complete dummy. Then you called up the children’s book editor and made an appointment and went in and they read the book, considered the art and even if they rejected it they would offer forth their opinion on what was wrong with it—dull characters, no subject/character arc from the beginning to the end . . . and so forth. It was like a free college course given by the best professors. We didn’t have an agent. Finally, Walter Lorraine at the old Houghton Mifflin, Co., (who was really sharp), purchased Rotten Ralph but then I probably did fifty more drafts before he was satisfied with the story. These days—that point of access is rare to the point of non-existent, and that is the biggest change I can think of among a long list of changes.

Rumpus: You’ve had such a productive and fruitful collaboration with Nicole Rubel. Tell me about her, your teamwork.

Gantos: We met each other as college students. I was writing books (or writing lousy books) and she was working on book illustrations at the Museum School in Boston. By chance, at a party, we started talking about children’s literature and that led to collaborating on books. I admire her work. She is brilliant and now that I write more upper grade novels we haven’t worked together for a while. But the door is always open between us to collaborate. I’m always surprised that more publishers haven’t taken advantage of her abilities because her ability to express a story and emotions through her art is quite powerful.

Rumpus: You said you see the origins of your writing career in reading your sister’s diary and eavesdropping on teachers outside their lounge at school. Or was it your dad’s way of bringing characters alive, real people, by peering at them closely and making assessments about their freakish and wicked pasts, him pointing out criminals in his “Irish whisper”?

Gantos: There is a well of reasons why I became a writer, but first and foremost was that I loved listening to people tell true life stories. My dad was a great storyteller. About ninety percent of his material was taken from observing the “assholes and idiots” of life. He was colorful and shameless with his descriptions of people and his judgments of them. He took me to the Elk’s Club all the time and that place was a gold mine of guys telling stories. Honestly, the stuff I was reading was bloodless crap compared to the tales real people were weaving. Sure I overheard my teachers talking, and read any diary that happened to be unlocked and in plain sight, but it was people telling stories about the human condition that really captured me.

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Cullen Thomas is the author of Brother One Cell, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book and one of World Hum's Best Travel Books of the Year. His writing has appeared in GQ, the New York Times Magazine, the Daily Beast, and Foreign Policy. He teaches The Dark Side: Crime and Punishment in Literature at New York University. More from this author →