Jack Gantos reflects on his childhood experiences growing up in Norvelt and explains how they influenced his novel Dead End in Norvelt
Dead End in Norvelt is a wild combination of autobiography and fiction. And when you read it, you kind of want to know what's real. Are the nosebleeds real? Did you really almost shoot Miss Volker? How did you make that combination?
When I was trying to parse the real life with the fiction I had to add some
features. But I added them on top of a really good foundation. So, like the
nosebleeds - yeah, I had these vicious splashy nosebleeds which I was kind of
famous for with big wads of paper sticking out of my nose. And the town is real,
the whole Eleanor Roosevelt history is real, and then all of the history that's
referred to is real. So how do you make that fit together? Then you have to
construct - that's where the fiction comes in. You construct the plot. But Miss
Volker was a real character. That's not her real name but that was her town role.
Are your parents in real life the way they come across in the book?
My parents really are that divergent. My mother was from Norvelt and she
believed in those Norvelt values. That neighbors help neighbors, and you all band together in a community effort. And my father was from that area, but he went off to the war, and when he came back he wanted his piece of the American pie. And Norvelt was not the place to get it. So he wanted money and success. She wanted to kind of settle down and have a small-town life.
The Jack Gantos in the book is really sort of pulled between these two quite
different parents. Did you feel that a little bit when you were growing up? Or is that something you created for the plot?
Actually, I think it's very true, I think it's pretty organic to me. On one hand, I'm just like my mother - even when I go visit her, gosh, I start moving like her, I talk like her, I just about look like her. And then when I start feeling almost too much like her, I start thinking no, no, no, no, you know - I really want to get out there and swing my cat and write this book and go after my success and be ambitious and knock 'em out. So I've got both sides in there - that soft and that aggressive.
You mentioned already that Norvelt is a real place with this real connection to Eleanor Roosevelt. Obviously history is important to you - is it really important to you to get that across to young readers?
Yes. I'd say one of the prime motivations for the book is this notion that our
history is so vastly important. And that each day we live, even as children, our
day can reflect and tie into very established historic moments. And so when you
know who you are and what's come before you, you might have an opportunity to
see what's coming down the line. And for kids there's this huge blind spot: What's tomorrow going to be like? And I think if you just have some sense of the great bones of the history of this country, you can kind of get a sense of where you're going forward.
Miss Volker is sort of the town historian and obviously loves history. Did you ever feel that she loved it too much?
I think Miss Volker's sense of history was a little bit in amber. Her historic
moments were the big twentieth- and nineteenth-century social movements... She was not really looking forward so much. She was old and at her age she was
really sort of reviewing the past. And I think she was really buffing it up and
making it beautiful.
Is Eleanor Roosevelt one of your heroes?
I just think Eleanor Roosevelt has got to be the heart and soul of the greatest first lady that this country's ever had. She cared about people very deeply and really helped steer the social policies of this country during a time when this country needed somebody like her. I always look toward her.
The full-length version of this interview (conducted by Laura Wilson) is available on the audio edition of
Dead End in Norvelt, published by Macmillan Audio. Guide was written by Pat Scales, Children's Literature Consultant, Greenville, South Carolina.