From time to time, different Kerouac House alumni will write in and tell us what they’ve been up to, or how their residency helped prepare them for the writing life. This month, we hear from Spring 2003 resident Andrew Newsham.
‘The Cockroaches Can Fly!’ were the first words I wrote in the Kerouac House. Four words, on a postcard to my brother. I wrote them in the back room, Jack’s room, where he wrote The Dharma Bums. I was a twenty eight year old writer with a few published short stories under my belt and big plans for big novels. I’d been published in Esquire magazine in England but it really hadn’t opened any doors, except maybe this one, the one that really meant something to me. The door to three months of writing seclusion at 1418 1/2 Clouser Ave. I’d found a lot of joy and truth in the work of Kerouac over the years.
After I graduated college in 1996 I’d even come to America and hitchhiked from NYC to San Francisco, a personal adventure and a homage to The Road. Since then I’d somehow managed to keep writing, even though it was an utterly financially unproductive endeavor and as such, difficult to maintain and much scoffed in our great culture of money. But I was a Romantic in the classic sense and also an apostle of Henry Miller and Hemingway and Jack Kerouac, writers who spoke to me deeply of personal freedom (in a Beat sense of accountability to truth and beauty, a conscious commitment to the self and the moment rather than some selfish ego trip or delusional Libertarian thing) and I knew writing was going to be an unavoidable vocation for me, for good or ill, rather than a financial decision. And the truth is… you just can’t buy the experience of ducking under a flying cockroach in Jack Kerouac’s old house. That is priceless.
It was Spring, 2003. It was me, the Kerouac house and a generous Darden Gift card to eat some dinners at Red Lobster. I got the cockroach to fly out the back door on day two and then I was on my own. The public library delivered books to the doorstep. And I wrote, and wrote and wrote. I read Kerouac’s collected letters, the letters he wrote from the house. I ate lobster and drank wine at the foot of a literal alter to Jack they had in the back. Laughing at the incongruous magic of it. I reread Dharma Bums. I wrote. I wrote. I wrote. I was ‘in hog heaven’. I walked around the lake up the street, shaking hands every time with the Live Oak on the corner, bestrewn in Spanish Moss, mother nature’s classiest feather boa. Man, I deeply dug Florida… the NATURE! Everyday felt like waking up in an environmental Mardi Gras with some new bit of flora or fauna catching my eye. The birds, the flowers, the gators. And the Cockroaches that can fly! (Why this isn’t the state motto I’ll never know, it’s 10x better than ‘In God We Trust’, I mean, how vague and superstitious can you get? Which God do you mean Florida? Thor? Poseidon? The great spirit of the local Calusa Indians? It was only March but it was surely hot enough for Quetzalcoatl…) I wrote and I wrote. I was happy as a clam. Happy as Memere ringing her little Buddhist bell in the place in ’58 when The Road was finally successful and they were turning down a big money offer from Warner Brothers because they thought they would get more from Brando. My main contact with the board of the project who’d set this whole amazing thing up was Yvonne David and she checked in on me a couple of times. But I was pretty much left alone to write. I got lucky enough to make friends with a few neighbors. Joseph and Jennifer, local writers, beautiful people. They took me under their wing and showed me around, helped me keep any stir crazy cabin fever at bay. They’d probably heard I’d started lecturing people from the porch, “right there is the patch of grass where Kerouac collapsed with swollen balls after returning from Mexico City in ’57. He would claim in a letter to Neal Cassidy that a buddhist prayer made by Gary Snyder cured his swollen balls and turned him straight so he only wanted to ball chicks forever more, it was good he kept that bit out of The Dharma Bums, he had a great editor…” Everyone wants to hear their own thing about Jack, nobody wants to talk about his swollen balls. My neighbor friends had me over for my first ever Low-Country Boil. Absolute diamond people. I owe them a letter. When it was time for me to leave they gave me a beautiful picture of the Live Oak on the corner. It’s still a treasure on my desk.
It was a great and productive three months. I finished one novel, sketched out another that became Disorganized Crime and also wrote three short stories. I went back to Birmingham England, to a part time job in the library, renewed and reinvigorated. I created a publication called The Writers’ Pack for the Library system, a folder of information for writers on all the aspects of writing, including fellowships and residencies. The sheer brilliance of the The Kerouac House Project, the genius of the people behind it and their work really opened a world of possibility to me. What else was out there? Of course there is MacDowell and Yaddo, but maybe I could find something else like the Kerouac House, the peace and focus it allowed was truly amazing. There is nothing quite like it of course but in 2005 I was accepted into the Hawthornden Castle Fellowship. I received a one month residency in the Scottish Castle, the ancestral home of the warrior poet William Drummond, on the banks of the river Esk just outside Edinburgh. Old William had hosted poets and artists in his day, William Wallace had hid out in the cave beneath the castle and as a contingent of private ownership of the estate the Scottish Arts Council has maintained it as a home for groups of itinerant writers. Yes, I have been very lucky. One of my fellow writers, in July 2005 was the playwright Jennifer Barclay. Much to the amusement of our fellow writers, we bickered like Beatrice and Benedict around the battlements and when it came time to say goodbye we discovered we could not, or at least we kept having to say goodbye over and over and over again until we slowly realized that we could not and eight months later we tied the knot.
Grad school and work has carried us from Chicago to San Diego and now we make our home in Washington DC where I write, produce and host Andy’s Podcaster Podcasting Podcast (subscribe wherever you get your podcasts) while being the stay at home dad to our two children, Sierra and Blaise. I’m still writing books and stories, even though it feels evermore like an anachronism now in the age of Twitter and Instagram. I’m currently seeking a publisher for two Children’s books, Goodnight Patriarchy and The Very Clever Walrus. Let me know if you have any leads. I’m still reading Jack from time to time too, most often than not the raw tragic beauty of Big Sur or passages from Desolation Angels. Someday I’m going to make it out to the North West Cascades, it has been on my mind for a while now to go and visit his Fire Hut and shout a few joyful words across the mountain valleys at Hozomeen. Maybe this year.