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Going all in 

Kerouac House resident writer Beth Raymer talks about betting, boxing and other forms of risky behavior

click to enlarge DAVE PLOTKIN
  • Dave Plotkin

Beth Raymer Farewell Reading

8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12
Kerouac House 1418 Clouser Ave.

Beth Raymer, current Kerouac Project writer in residence, shares a disregard for boundaries with the house’s most famous ex-resident. Like the Beat-era bard, Raymer has both affection and affinity for those who live their lives outside the norm, having explored those edges herself. Her first book, Lay the Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling, details her drifty path from Tallahassee social worker to “in-home stripper,” porn website entrepreneur, sports book assistant, Golden Gloves boxer, and eventually Columbia University MFA student. The film version, directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity, The Grifters) and starring Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rebecca Hall, is set for release next year. While living at the Kerouac House for a three-month residency, she’s at work on her next book, Sweetheart Deals, a semi-autobiographical novel about the “spirited and occasionally unscrupulous adopted daughter of a car salesmen and a would-be nun navigat[ing] her unconventional childhood in the Ohio Valley and rural Florida.”

We chatted with Raymer about superstition, the difference between novels and memoirs, and how she handles passionate Kerouac fans who drop by unannounced.

Orlando Weekly: So first things first – do you have a lucky charm?

Beth Raymer: My armadillo [displays a silver armadillo pendant]. He’s been good luck for a while.

A Florida girl. You went to school in Tallahassee?

Right, and I grew up in West Palm Beach. This is the nearest I’ve been to West Palm in 17 years.

Have you gone back?

No, I’m sure it’s changed. Florida changes so fast, so much. … It’s very similar to Vegas in that way.

They’re both places people ‘end up.’ Last-chance kind of places.

I love those kind of places!

How did you hear about the Kerouac Project?

I didn’t start writing until about six years ago. I actually heard about the Kerouac House from [former Kerouac Project writer in residence] Liza Monroy. In the back of her book, Mexican High, she thanked the Kerouac House, so I looked it up on the Internet and thought it looked amazing. To live in Jack’s house for three months … I’d done a residency at MacDowell, in rural New Hampshire, but it’s much different because [there] you’re meeting and eating with all the other artists. Here, I’m by myself. I had to seek out other writers and friends; at MacDowell they sort of came with the place.

This could be good for the easily distracted writer … sort of like Jonathan Franzen’s famous earmuffs.

It’s the most unique residency, I think. I thrive in these circumstances. I’m disciplined enough to get my writing done.

How is it living in Beat Generation Mecca? Do people just stop on by?

They’re on that pilgrimage, yeah. They come over, they want to lay in the front yard and soak up inspiration, they ask for water, I give them water and they’re like, ‘Wow, is this Jack’s glass?!’ Either older hippies or young men in their 20s who are reading his books for the first time and have to come meet him – or at least come see where he grew up. It’s fantastic.

And are you a Kerouac fan yourself? Like a lot of the characters in your writing, he and his friends definitely lived at the edges.

I read some Kerouac before I came here; I’d read a lot of Beat memoirs. [But] since I’ve been here I’ve read everything – the library is fantastic – and now I certainly see he and his friends were such drifters. I have some of that, and I’m attracted to drifters in my writing, definitely, and people that have lived really unconventional lives. I can relate.

Memoirs tend to be very self-analytical, but Lay the Favorite felt more like a novel.

I’m not a reflective writer or person [laughs]; my professors at Columbia always told me ‘Beth, slow down.’ Still, even now that I’m writing a novel, it’s hard for me to slow down. I have pace on my mind. I think a lot of people that write memoirs come from literary families or have parents that ask them to talk about their feelings. When you don’t grow up with that … only now, at 35, do I slow down and consider if I’m hurting someone’s feelings.

Speaking of which, you drew sharp portraits of some pretty colorful guys. Reactions?

I interviewed all my co-workers, their wives, my bosses, their mothers, to re-create their back story. I totally approached it like a journalist. … Most everyone was really happy and congratulated me and thought that I portrayed them in a good light. But you can never anticipate what will [upset people]. … It came as completely surprising, what they worried about. A lot of it has to do with vanity, I think.

‘You talked about my toenails.’

Yes! Things about [their] weight, or [their] wife’s plastic surgery, these kind of things mean so much more than what they actually did.

As strange as it must be for your friends to see themselves in your book, it must be strange for you to see an actress portray you and another writer rewrite your life.

It’s strange because not only is D.V. [DeVincentis, who also adapted High Fidelity] adding his own narrative, [director] Stephen Frears comes on and adds his own sensibility to the film, and then of course you have the actors, and Rebecca [Hall], who bring what they bring to each of their characters, so in the end – I mean, it’s very much not mine anymore.

You were deep in the gambling world, but you never talk about whether you were betting.

I know; that’s because I wasn’t, even though it’s ‘a memoir of gambling’! Everyone around me is gambling and though I’m not gambling with money, I’m gambling with my life choices … I’m constantly taking risks.

So, do you still box?

I haven’t boxed since 2005. I stopped boxing when I went to Columbia because it’s not something you can do three days a week, or you get beat up every time you go the gym! … But when I watch boxing on TV, I’m like, ‘Oh, I have to do it again. My life will not be fulfilled unless I do it again.’ But I’m done fooling myself.


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