12/27/2012 09:22 am ET Updated Feb 26, 2013

Jack Kerouac's Mother Tongue: On the Road and The Voice Is All

Kerouac aficionados will have a fine time teasing out details director Walter Salles and scriptwriter Jose Rivera took from the 1957 On the Road publication vs. the 1951 scroll text, the ur-Road first published in 2007. For example, the first line of the new movie focuses on the father, but then the story flips to the fictional characters familiar to readers since 1957. In a further innovation, viewers will note that Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) talks to his mother (Marie Ginette-Guay) in a curious French, referencing Jack Kerouac's French-Canadian roots. The writer, from an ethnic neighborhood in Lowell, Mass., spoke a dialect called joual.

Interviewing surviving members of the beat generation in their research, the filmmakers spoke to Joyce Johnson, Kerouac's girlfriend at the time that On the Road was published to become an overnight bestseller. The author of the memoir Minor Characters told them about her own study of Kerouac's language. Looking for ways to give Sal speech, the filmmakers incorporated this source, reaching outside Kerouac's text in creating French dialogue between mother and son. Recently published, Joyce Johnson's new biography, The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, traces the development of Kerouac's prose style, showing how his French freed him to create his famous spontaneous narrative.

Just before the book's September release, I had the opportunity to talk to Joyce Johnson. Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

RW: Why did you want to stay close to the French Canadian part of Jack Kerouac?

JJ: I felt that was a key issue of his life and development as a writer even though I had not read much about that. Books would mention his French Canadian background but strangely did not go into the implications of it. I first became interested when I read the Chicken Essay by Victor Beaulieu-Levy -- he wonderfully expresses the French Canadian mystique. When I was with Jack, it didn't seem to be a big issue. I knew he spoke French but did not know it was a special kind of French, Joual. It was something about himself that was a fact but did not seem to bug him. Occasionally Lucien Carr had a way of saying to Jack, "You dumb Canuck." I don't know what he felt. It was a cliché.

RW: Why do you consider your title, The Voice is All, a French title?

JJ: In English we would say "the voice is everything." The French would say "la voix c'est tout." We don't say something is all.

RW: Your book ends after Kerouac wrote On the Road, in 1951. Why did you stop then instead of continuing through to his death, as most biographies do?

JJ: It was my plan to write about his development of a writer. At 1951, I realized I had told a whole story. With the writing of Visions of Cody, in latter 1951, he discovered the voice he was looking for, the method that matched his vision. In 1944, he started all sorts of books and then discarding them ruthlessly. He claimed he never revised, not in the sense of crossing out and changing but he did this ruthless kind of revision, starting entire pieces of manuscripts, working months and months. He had this powerful first person voice, but he resisted that voice, thinking it wasn't literary enough for fiction.

RW: So what was the breakthrough? When did it hit?

JJ: It really hit in 1951. After several years in frustrated attempts On the Road went nowhere, his resistance to first person narrative broke down. The first manifestations were his memoir-like letters about his childhood that he wrote to Neal Cassady in December of 1950 and January of 1951. He was contemplating writing a memoir some day and then the whole thing stopped short because his mother got involved. She wanted to interpose her ideas about Gerard [Jack's elder brother died at age 9, when Jack was 4]. That was too much for Jack. Then the project of writing the memoir stops cold.

Finally in March of 1951, weeks before he wrote the final version of On the Road, he wrote a novella in French, "La Nui est ma feme," also called "Les Travaux de Michel Bretan," [The Jobs of Michel Bretan]. He's writing as himself, as a French Canadian writer sitting in a studio in Chelsea on 20th street across from the seminary over there. Down the street he could see bums warming their hands around a bonfire on 10th Avenue; he's reflecting on his tremendous desire to write that he's had all his life and the fact that people think he's lazy because he doesn't have a job. Then he's talking about the lousy jobs he did have and walking out very quickly. It's a wonderful piece of writing.

He never even typed it. There's an attempt he made to translate some passages into English. I don't think he even showed his friends. His close friends did not have a sense of his obsession with identity. Allen [Ginsberg] would say, "You have the natural grace of an American, and I don't." Allen didn't get it. Jack didn't reveal it. He had only one person to talk about that to, and that was his mother. They had their own little petit Canada together.

RW: What a bond!

JJ: Yes, the voice in "La Nui est my Femme" was this first person voice in French, he had been fighting about using, very direct, colloquial, and passionate, and I think this was the voice he gave to the narrator of On the Road. And instead of trying to write such correct English, he allowed some of the natural French English to come into the text. It was the breakthrough into this natural first person voice of his that was French. He first thought of On the Road in 1946: a man recovering from a long illness goes on the road and meets symbolic characters, a solitary journey, a year before he met Neal. In 1947, he went on the road to Denver and saw Neal, got caught up in this complicated love life and then went on to California alone and Neal wrote him, wanting to join him; Jack gently discouraged Neal, saying: 'What I really want you to do is visit Burroughs and tell me all about it.' I know from my own experience: Jack gave you very good reasons why you shouldn't join him. He had in his mind he was gathering material and this was his solitary time. So before Neal, he was doing his own thing.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.