I Am Not Joey Pigza is the fourth book in Jack Gantos' series about a hyperactive hero for our times. Bookshelf caught up with the author for a chat about Joey's future.
So what happened to the idea that the Joey Pigza books were a trilogy?
I was at the Boston Athenaeum working on another novel, tentatively titled Living in the Library. I was writing that on the front side of the pages in my notebook. But I was getting all these scenes in my head about Joey. The first one was the "re-wedding" scene, (in which Joey's dysfunctional parents remarry) so I wrote that on the back side of the notebook pages. I thought, "Oh, Jack. You're just having a dull day and you need to amuse yourself," but then the idea of Carter returning and this whole notion of forgiveness popped out and I thought, he's got to come back. It's grossly unfair to poor ol' Joey to have this father who's such a creep. I have to at least give him a chance to redeem himself.
Do you think there will be a fifth?
I think so. I have an open file for any little ideas that come noodling in. That's how the Joey books germinate. I just allow a series of ideas to come to me, little scenes, and then I figure out what the theme of the book is. I like the material to come organically rather than trying to cook something up. Like the idea for Joey's father to change their identities. That just snuck up on me. A lot of this is social commentary. In America, you don't have to solve your problems, you can just reinvent yourself. But over the long haul, that's hard to pull off. There's a tendency to return to who you are. That's why people should not run off to Las Vegas and get married.
Does the next book have a title?
Oh no. I wait for the titles to coldcock me from behind. I was on Amtrak from New York to Boston when I heard "I Am Not Joey Pigza," and I thought, 'Oh, yeah. That's the perfect title.' You can get a lot of good ideas on trains, traveling from one place to another, all that shifting.
How about the theme for book five? Has that knocked you in the head yet?
Well, now that Joey's got a younger brother, he has to be a mentor, and that causes him to take a much more critical view of his family, especially his mother. The father is not present in my mind. Joey has to step up to the plate. He hasn't had a lot of normalcy or stability in his life and now he's wondering how he's going to deliver it to Carter Jr.
That's a tall order!
Well, when you have kids, things change. I mean, it's one thing to run your own shabby life, but it's another thing to allow your kid to do the same. The behavior you see in your kid reflects on who you are and Joey has an epiphany about that while watching the baby.
Do you show drafts to Wes? [Gantos' longtime editor at FSG is Wesley Adams.]
I prefer to do my 30 drafts by myself and get the book in really great shape before I turn it over. Sometimes bringing people in too early… there can be too much steerage of ideas. And you need to get a hundred pages in before you know what you have on your hands. It's almost a closed-door activity for me.
But in the library. I mean, you're doing all your writing at the Boston Athenaeum now, right?
Yes, but they are very good about leaving me alone. I mean, when I come in the morning it's "Hey, hello," but then I go up to the fifth floor and no one says a word to me.
I do have an office at home, but do I ever use it? No, never. There's one little area in a stairwell on the third floor. I have a little chair there and that's where I read. But my office? It's too big. And I'm a little bit like a cat. I need to curl up in a small place.
So do you stay at the Athenaeum all day?
Well I might be there for eight hours but if I can get two to three hours of good first draft material, I'm happy. If I'm at home, that's hard to do. First, I think, let me tie back the bamboo. Then, let me fix that light fixture….
So as you're starting this fifth episode, how old is Joey now?
He's still in sixth grade. It's a tricky business in a series to keep the character from over-aging. I loved the Adrian Mole books but the later ones, The Cappuccino Years, when he's 25 and has a kid and gets divorced? Adrian is suddenly not that interesting. You want to keep the story moving but not too fast or far away from where you started.
So unlike, say, Harry Potter, Joey is not going to grow up with his audience.
Harry Potter is an exception, but it proves the point. I read the first six aloud to Mabel [his 11-year-old daughter]. The first book is a kids' book. But as we went along we came to stuff that made our hair stand on end.
Whereas with Joey, there's been stuff right from the beginning that made your hair stand on end! Did you ever figure out who the kid was who was the role model for Joey? Wasn't he sitting in the audience at a school visit you did?
He was, but I hung out with plenty of kids like him. When you move 10 times like I did, you're always with the fringe crowd. All the Joeys out there are like the moons of Jupiter. And I had read a lot of books but hadn't seen a Joey. It was like there was a Joey filter in literature. That's wrong. I always knew those kids as being smart and clever and fun. My experience wasn't, "Oh, what a pain in the neck." I wanted the desk out in the hallway!
Speaking of Mabel, is she reading your books now?
Photo credit: Mabel Gantos
Well, the first Joey book (Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key) was on her summer reading list, which made her very proud. People came up to her about it and that was nice. But she shies away from my books a little bit. She reads the Jack Henry books (diary-style books based on Gantos' own childhood journals) but she reads them secretly. I'll be driving her somewhere and all of a sudden she'll say, "You never told me…" and she'll spring something I did on me. So I think the appeal there is more about reading Dad's diary from when he was a kid.
Do you think Joey has surpassed Rotten Ralph as the character you'll be remembered for, as in, "Jack Gantos, author of the Joey Pigza books"?
It's difficult to say but I suspect just because of the gold braiding on the Joey books—the National Book Award finalist, the Newbery Honor, the state awards—that those books have probably saturated my readership in a very wide range so that, at the end of the day, when you read the obit, it'll mention Ralph, and Hole in My Life, because that's salacious, but the Joey Pigza books will be the most enduring, which is good. I really love working on contemporary fiction, fiction of our age. It's not fairy tales, it's not magic, it's about this time in history. And I think I am best served by staying right here in contemporary culture.
Do you think your readers understand these books as social commentary? Do you think they understand about, say, what Carter's "face change" operation means?
Well, I visit about 40 schools a year so I know a lot of teachers are using these books as read-alouds. From the read-aloud, then they have a literature discussion. So the things that kids are unsure of get really slogged out, the issues are revealed and discussed. It allows the teacher to share these books with kids for whom the book is really a level or two out of their range.
Do you get a lot of fan mail? Letters from kids who say, "I am Joey Pigza"?
I get about 3,000 letters a year, and they fall into two categories, but the majority of the letters say, "How did you know how I felt? I'm just like Joey." Some of them are eerie: "How did you know about my parents? My grandmother?" After reading some of them I think the next thing I should do is call 911 or DSS.
The other letters are also utterly wonderful. They come from kids who write, "We read Joey Pigza and there's a kid in our class who is exactly like him and we can't stand him. But now that we've read your book, we're going to give him a second chance."