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Behind the Article: “On the Road” with Kat Clay

October 8, 2012 in Behind The Article, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Travel Writers

Jack Kerouac display at City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco. Photograph by Kat Clay

After reading about Kat Clay’s cross country road trip in our September 24th article, “Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck on the Californian Coast,”  we couldn’t wait to chat more with the author about her incredible experiences and how her literary predecessors paved the way for her own adventure.

Literary Traveler:  What was it about Jack Kerouac’s cross country journey that initially drew you in?

Kat Clay:  It’s the sense of freedom you get from his novels. There’s a grand sense that everything will work out, as if time stops for these young people to get on the road. I’ve always longed for that kind of freedom. The books are almost fearless; there’s no worry about getting mugged or losing your passport. Kerouac paints a picture of America that captures an era when people were making their own rules. The messages of his books still ring true today.

LT:  How has Highway One changed over the years?  What can travelers expect as they traverse it on road trips today?

KC:  Highway One has become busier, that’s for sure. When we drove it there was a lot of road work around Big Sur, which slowed the traffic down to 25 MPH. It’s not good for your sanity to drive around winding roads at a snail’s pace! And road trips themselves have changed – we now have GPS units to help instead of maps, but I think that’s a good thing. Many a marriage has been saved by the GPS. But there are still places on Highway One that haven’t changed at all. I remember stopping in at a general store when we got lost that was straight out of Jaws. There are still 1950s bungalows and weatherboard shacks. The state parks still have the same coastline. And the fog is most definitely still there.

LT:  While Kerouac’s words can’t replace the personal experience, literature seems to have a unique way of representing the magic of place.  If maps, as you so eloquently put it, “are statistics of natural beauty,” what is literature?

KC:  Good literature will always capture the feeling, the nostalgia and the wonder of a place. I could read a book and imagine a place completely different from how the author has described it, but still get the same sense that the author felt in that moment.

And good literature can somehow capture a part of you that can’t be expressed. It’s incredible when a writer connects with your soul, as if they are writing just for you and you alone. My writing instructor told me that every writer is looking for their perfect reader. I think when you discover your perfect writer you need to hold onto them!

LT:  You talk about the limited power of photographs.  Do you think writing helps to preserve aspects of a powerful experience where a camera may fail?

KC:  One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a photographer is to know when a moment is simply there to be enjoyed. Writing helps capture the spirit of place, which is infinitely more difficult to do in photography. While photography can capture the intricate details of a rock, writing can compare it to the texture of a mottled ostrich egg.

But for me, writing and photography are inextricable. On display in the art gallery in Jackson, Mississippi are some of Eudora Welty’s photographs – who knew she was a photographer as well as a writer? She inspired me, because I’ve always struggled with the thought that I might need to separate my two passions in order to have a career in one. Lewis Carroll was also a prolific photographer. I think the two art forms compliment each other perfectly; photography is a wonderful tool for documenting moments to inspire later writing. I use it as much as I would take notes.

LT:  What are some of the other highlights from your trip across America?  What was the most inspiring thing you saw or experienced during your travels?

KC:  Can I say the whole trip? Three months in the states is a long time! The southwest National Parks are incredible reminders of our own small place in the universe. I fell in love with Utah. I also got to celebrate many of the American holidays that we don’t have in Australia, like Halloween in New Orleans and Thanksgiving in New Jersey. One particular highlight was giving an impromptu rendition of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire in a Louisiana Cajun Café.

The most inspiring moment: One of my husband’s relatives is a flight instructor and he took us up in his Cessna over New York City at night. I got to co-pilot the plane. It was incredible and also very moving to fly over the city.

If you’d like to read more, my husband and I documented our USA trip (and our continuing travels) on our travel website, Two Monkeys in a Tent.

LT:  Navigating roads once traveled by Kerouac and spending the night in a campground once frequented by Steinbeck seem like incredibly profound experiences.  How did the knowledge that you were following in the footsteps of these literary greats impact your experience?

KC:  Traveling to these places made the books more real for me. I think it’s important not just to follow the same paths as writers like Kerouac, but instead to pursue the same spirit. For me following in their footsteps wasn’t always a literal go-here-do-that, it was also a spiritual pursuit at emulating that great sense of freedom you get from being on the road in America.

With Steinbeck it was the opposite. A month after Highway One I was reading Travels With Charley in Search of America and I realized we’d stayed in the same place as Steinbeck. It was an epiphany, because I had felt the same as he did atop Fremont Peak. He also expressed a lot of my feelings about traveling in America.

LT:  It seems as though Kerouac acted as a muse of sorts in inciting your desire to drive across America and take your own journey.  What advice do you have for literary travelers looking to find their own travel inspiration?

KC:  Take inspiration from literature to blaze your own trails. The most important lesson I learned from Steinbeck and Kerouac was to break free of expectations.  Break free of the clutches of television and social media— because someone’s status update about being stuck in traffic seems pointless when you’ve just seen elks playing in the sunrise over Yellowstone Lake.

I met a lot of people in America who were amazed by our trip and wished they could do something similar, but there was always an excuse. My career won’t survive.  I don’t have the money . I’m going to do it when I’m old.  Do you know what the RV crowd told us repeatedly on our trip? You’re so lucky to do this when you’re young.

The same goes for writing. If you’ve ever longed to be a writer, you need to travel. Gather experiences— experiences are more valuable than any graduate school. I love reading stories of how writers became writers, and for many of them it was the experiences that made them. Try reading about James Ellroy’s road to publication, which involved stealing ladies panties and passing out in a public park (I don’t suggest you emulate this!). Travel is an investment in yourself and your person. You can’t put a price on that.

LT:  I think I have just found my travel inspiration in this interview! Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with us.  Readers, check out more from Kat Clay at her fabulous website and then power off your computer and find your own adventures.

Behind The Article: Eugene O'Neill's Tao House

May 20, 2011 in Behind The Article, San Francisco Travel

Eugene O'Neill's Tao House Study | Photo courtesy of Victor Walsh

American playwright and Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill endured certain themes in his life and work. O’Neill’s depression and alcoholism may have provided him insight into the human condition and as Victor Walsh, author of our latest article calls it, our “inner struggle.” But suffering, we learn here, has a foil. O’Neill made a sanctuary at San Francisco’s Tao House in the care of his abiding partner Carlotta, thus writing some of literature’s most lasting dramas. Literary Traveler Editor-at-Large Jennifer Ciotta and Walsh discuss:

Literary Traveler: Eugene O’Neill suffered greatly in his life as you discuss in your article. Why do you think it’s a common theme for the literary greats to endure great suffering (alcoholism, suicide, drug addiction, etc.)? Do you think it makes them better writers?

Victor A. Walsh: Suffering is part of the human condition. Writers suffer no more, no less than others. O’Neill once said that he could continue to be a drunk or become a writer. He chose the latter, and it rescued him from a self-destructive life and most likely early death. It gave him a purpose, direction.

Great personal suffering does not make better writers. It can, however, provide them with new insights or ways to tell a story. Writing is not an act of sudden inspiration; rather, it flows from struggle, from painstaking, unrelenting commitment. Look at O’Neill’s life at Tao House. He wrote from four to five hours every morning without exception, undisturbed and alone in the silence of his upstairs study. He mulled over his manuscripts; he lived and relived them, edited and revised them with Carlotta’s assistance.

O’Neill came of age when western literature was in the throes of revolutionary change due to the shattering impact of modern urban-industrial and cultural changes. Since the time of Chekhov, Strindberg, Nietzsche, Conrad and Dostoevsky, all of whom O’Neill read intensely, the main currents of European and American literature have dealt with victims, not heroes; with mankind’s inner struggle over identity and place.

LT: Without Carlotta and her influence, would O’Neill have had the literary success he did?

VW: I doubt it. As Carlotta once put it, “I did everything but write the plays.” She was his protectress, the guardian of his creative life at Tao House. O’Neill was enormously dependent upon her. He refers to her as his “mother and wife, and mistress and friend — And collaborator!” in his dedication to Mourning Becomes Electra.

The center of the marriage at Tao House was O’Neill’s writing. Carlotta saw in Eugene the potential for greatness. That is what drew her to him — their unbreakable bond even after the collapse of their marriage. The actor Charlie Chaplin, who married O’Neill’s daughter Oona, once remarked that Carlotta had “to be all sufficient to a man of genius, to cut him off from everybody and minister to his genius,….”

LT: Have you heard reports of O’Neill haunting Tao House? It seems O’Neill might have left a part of his soul there because he loved Tao House so much.

VW: Travis Bogard tells an interesting story about the time he spent alone at Tao House waiting for friends whose arrival had been delayed by a late afternoon storm blowing down the San Ramon Valley. The house and grounds darkened rapidly, and Bogard built a fire in the living room fireplace. The house, he said, “was not haunted. Whatever ghosts there were — the ghosts of the four haunted Tyrones — had left the house when its master did.”

“What I found,” he continued, “is hard to describe — an extraordinary silence for one thing, and I felt a sense of protection, as if the house were a caretaker, guarding my well being,…”

Tao House is a special place. Although not haunted by O’Neill’s presence, it connects us to his time. Enclosed by high white brick walls on a remote hilltop outcrop, it tells us who O’Neill was: a man who sought refuge from the din of modern life, who found his ‘final harbor’ where could at last face his own ghosts.

Please read Victor Walsh’s article: Tao House, Eugene O’Neill’s “Final Harbor”.

Flower Power: Ken Kesey And The Lasting Allure Of 1960's America

March 10, 2010 in Uncategorized

More than any othPhoto by Urban, 2004 Wikipedia, CC Licenseer decade, the 1960’s have come to represent an almost mythical time in American history.  Perhaps this is why we return to them, again and again, in books, movies, and song.  The nostalgia for this bygone era is thick and long lasting, lingering into generations of young adults and children who were born too late to experience the magic.

Raised by two former hippies, I have been hearing stories about this amazing decade since I was old enough to teeter around in my mother’s worn fringed boots.   Upon entering my teenage years, I discovered Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Cool Aid Acid Test and through it, Ken Kesey and his band of merry pranksters.  One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was the next logical step in my counter-cultural education.  Fortunately, Kesey’s sensitive and nuanced portrayal of those that society deemed unfit ages well, and felt just as relevant to a child of the baby boomers as it did to the original generation of free-thinkers.

Kesey was in many ways the quintessential hippy, and Cuckoo’s Nest can be read as a manifesto of the anti-establishment creed.  It is fitting, then, that in our newest feature article, writer Paul Millward takes a trip to the place where it all began, the city that has come to embody a certain ideal of the counter-culture experience: San Francisco.

Like many before him, Millward views his visit to Haight-Ashbury as kind of a pilgrimage, a journey to discover some lost time and place.  Join Millward in rediscovering Kesey’s legacy by reading our newest feature: Flower Children of the 60′s & Ken Kesey, Father of LSD and Hippies.

But even while tripping through Millward’s piece, don’t forget about the other, more mainstream side of 1960’s culture, featuring the literary wordsmiths of the hit television series Mad Men.  Take a look: Mad Men: Creating a Perfect World on the Avenue of Dreams.