Guest Post by Stephen Wetta: How I Came To Write If Jack’s in Love

 

Guest Post by Stephen Wetta

Many have asked me how I came to write If Jack’s in Love. The truth is, I can’t remember. My usual practice, when I am not at work on a new novel, is to sit in front of a blank screen, write a sentence or two and hope something will develop. Most often nothing comes of it: an uninspiring character, a scene that flares and dies, a belabored attempt at wit and voice. One day in 2005, while I was living in Astoria (NYC), I typed out, “I think I belonged to the last generation of kids to play outside.” I don’t remember the day but I do remember the sentence. I had an idea, I believe, of evoking the enticements of a southern boyhood in 1967—Otis Redding and pot smoke and desegregation.

I was feeling nostalgic, although it’s not typical of me. Childhood is a wretched time. Childhood is a jailhouse of being young and dependent. If childhood is paradisal, it’s a paradise built on the dream of escape. The evocative associations we carry into our adult lives, the sweet smells, songs and love-feelings that torment us with loss and dashed hopes, are based on the romantic excitement we had, as children, every time we dreamed of not being children.

 

I’m not immune to the longing for a time and place I couldn’t wait to get away from. In memory the sunshine in 1967 was brighter and trippier, the people more loving, the music more momentous. That doesn’t mean the social world I lived in was one jot less brutal than now. I was a cracker. My family was on the poor side. My parents worried about paying the bills. And yet my father, having been successfully indoctrinated by Louisiana seminarians, insisted on sending me to a relatively expensive Catholic grade school. That was good. I never realized, hanging around with the sons and daughters of doctors and attorneys, that we were poor. We just lived in a small house.

Not everyone was so lucky. I knew kids who were reminded every day of their lives that they were trash. It wasn’t upper-class people who reminded them. People who are well off can afford liberality and kindness. Tolerance is easy when you’re insulated from the scorn that comes of not having money and social status. The worst tormentors of the poor are those who are slightly less poor. The slightly less poor are compelled to distance themselves from the poor and to reinforce it on a daily basis. Woe to the trash family in a lower-middle-class neighborhood.

 

That is Jack’s situation. Poor Jack. He’s a sweet, smart kid but he’s trash. Old friends I grew up with, looking back through their own nostalgic haze of memory, have told me that I am Jack, that Jack is I. I bristle at the suggestion. To this day I don’t want anyone assuming that I was trash. Sweet and smart, fine. I really did have that side to me. But I was a mean little bastard. If you subtract my meanness, you might get Jack. Still, I wasn’t any less ruthless to Jack’s real-life counterparts than any of the others.

 

1967 was an egalitarian time for kids of my generation. All you had to do was grow your hair and you belonged. The barriers of race and class were blown away by Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. We were all on the same bus. Going to the same park. Dancing the same dance. What a sweet and powerful dream. And what a dream.

 

Author Bio:

Stephen Wetta has a Ph.D. from New York University and teaches at Hunter College in Manhattan. If Jack’s in Love, his first novel, won the 2011 Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction.

 

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