Friday, February 21, 2014

“The Kryptonite Kid” (1979 novel involving Superman) - interview with author’s family

“I thought it was really neat how Sally didn’t know you was really Superman and so she loved you for yourself and not for everything else. I love you for yourself also.”
The Kryptonite Kid, page 14

I keep an eye out for all things red, yellow, and blue. Well, not quite all things…I am mostly interested in lesser-known things. That is how I discovered
The Kryptonite Kid, a brave, heartbreaking, fondly remembered 1979 novel by Joseph Torchia, who passed away in 1996.

(The quotation above is from Jerry, the elementary school-aged protagonist, and “Sally” is a character in a Superman story Jerry read.)

The novel was critically acclaimed by everyone from Publishers Weekly to The New Republic. It was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. Of special note, legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael: “No other author has treated the effects of Pop mythology with such grace and feeling.”

(Joseph was featured in the 3/6/80 issue of The Advocate, in an article starting on page 20. Can anyone please email me a scan of that article?)

 UK edition

I was so moved by the semi-autobiographical story that I reached out to Joseph’s family (brother Jasper and niece Erika) to interview them; they also put me in touch with his legal representative, Jeff Adams. I’ve done an interview like this before with emotional effect.

And this time, something unexpected and exciting came out of it; the family is interested in reissuing the book (originally published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston).

Up, up, and there’s a way…

Enjoy the interview.

Tell me about Joseph.

Jasper: Born in 1946, Joseph was the third child of four (arriving four years after me). Due to our significant age difference, we were not extremely close growing up and we had our own friends.

In high school, he excelled in English. He graduated from Johnsonburg (PA) High School in 1964 (I believe), attended California University of Pennsylvania for the first two years of college, and then transferred to the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he majored in journalism (graduated in 1968?). 

He joined the Peace Corps in Ankara, Turkey (1971). Afterwards, he worked as a feature writer at the West Palm Beach Post in Florida. He wrote a feature about having his nose done (before/after, etc.). There are some great shots of this laying around somewhere. 

In the ‘70s, he moved to San Francisco and wrote for the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle. During that time, he wrote some fascinating pieces, such as his experience living as a homeless person would in the Tenderloin for two weeks.

In the ‘80s, he moved to Napa to focus on his novel writing and photography (black and white). As writing was not extremely lucrative, his photography/portrait career was what paid the bills. 

Jeff: Extremely friendly, smart, creative, curious, talented. Probably the most creative person I have ever known, with a drive to communicate, to find rewarding channels for his imagination…which was unstoppable. Very childlike in his wonder about anything that interested him, very deep feeling, very giving of himself. People of all kinds were drawn to him.

Jeff, how did you meet Joseph?

Jeff: One of my hobbies is book collecting. For example, I have built probably the foremost collection of the American author Don Marquis, best known for the tales of Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the alley cat. Living in NYC in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I thought at one point I might like to collect a living author at beginning of a promising career. When I read The Kryptonite Kid, I thought I had my author and contacted Joseph, then living in San Francisco, to ask him to sign my book. A correspondence developed, a literary friendship really, which continued when my wife and I moved to San Francisco in 1984; we all became good friends, right up to his passing in 1996. A couple of years ago I was able to place his literary archive at Stanford University. 

What inspired him to write The Kryptonite Kid?

The Kryptonite Kid was Joseph’s first novel. As kids, the one thing we had in common was that we bought every Superman, Batman, Superboy, every Marvel comic that came out every week for 10 cents. We were Superman fanatics since we could read. I may have gotten him hooked. Our favorite was Superman (I liked Captain Marvel, too). We would share the comic books. When we went off to college, our mom threw them all away. Our dad had a coin collection that we also worked on together.

Joseph and Jasper

How autobiographical is the book?

Jasper: Very much so. We grew up in a small paper mill town in northwestern Pennsylvania—Pulpsburg in the book, Johnsonburg in reality. Johnsonburg was inhabited predominately by Italian and Polish people and had a large Catholic community. Both Joseph and I attended Catholic school for primary and middle school. We walked a half-mile to school, over the B&O and the Pennsylvania railroad tracks, coming home every day for lunch. We had our main dinner at lunchtime. Our mom was an amazing cook and she cooked a big meal every day. 

In 1944-45, when I was two or three years old, I walked out on the roof of our apartment building, looked down at the kids walking to school, and said, “Wanna see me jump?” Cousin Theresa ran in to tell my father and he came out and pulled me off the roof. From the years of recounting, my father’s eyes were bloodshot for days afterwards. [This inspired a pivotal scene in the novel.]

50th wedding anniversary of Josephs parents; 
Joseph in dark tie and glasses, Jasper with mustache

Was Joseph a Superman fan as an adult?

Jasper: Huh. (thinks about this) Not sure, but assume he was. As for me, I stopped buying them when in high school.

Did he like superheroes in general, or was it only Superman in particular?

Jasper: Superheroes in general.

Given that it was in part based on his own life, was it hard for him to write the book?

Jasper: I know he had to rewrite it twice (publisher made some significant changes). It was done on an IBM Selectric typewriter.
Jeff: I doubt it was hard to conceive the format but very important for him to get it just right, which would be true of anything he did. He could obsess on an artistic challenge but live happily with the result, and move on. He lived with words, knew their power, was enormously tough on himself in rewrite phases. This was his first novel and though he was already a professional journalist, this was fiction—which by my estimation was as real to him as anything in life. And he was quite proud of
The Kryptonite Kid not only for getting it right but also because it touched so many people.
Erika: I heard from Jeff that the publisher wanted him to use the correct spelling of words in the letters to Superman. [The book is epistolary, the narrator is a seven-year-old, and the letters are printed unedited from “child-speak.”] Ugh.

What was the family reaction to the book?

Jasper: They were very proud of him. However, my dad didn’t read the book. Theresa Ann, who was the eldest sibling in the convent…not sure if she read it.

Why didn’t your dad read it?

Jasper: I don
t know why Papa didnt read Joey's book. Maybe he did and I dont know. Sorry I cant give you any facts concerning this.

What was Joseph’s reaction to the media response to the book?

Jasper: He was very happy with the response he got from Pauline Kael.

Did he ever hear from DC Comics (publisher of Superman) about the book?

Jasper: He had a couple comic strips that he wanted to include in the book, but they would not allow their inclusion.

Did he ever hear from any organizations dedicated to protecting abused children about the book? Did he ever hear from the church?

Jasper: Not that I know of.

Was there ever talk of Joseph writing a sequel?

Jasper: Not that I know of.
Jeff: No, other than the piece he published in Gay Sunshine. I don’t have a recollection of the piece except that it took the concept well beyond what a mainstream reader would find relatable. I do not believe it was excised from the novel, but an isolated area of the concept that he felt he could explore with authority and for a specific audience.

Was there interest in developing the story as a movie?

Jasper: Yes. There are two screenplays written (in his archives), but neither was picked up.
Jeff: I would say very definitely, and at least one screenplay was developed with a collaborator. Also, similar interest in seeing it as a play.

Did Joseph write any other books after As If After Sex (1983)? If so, did he try to get them published? If not, why did he stop writing?

Jasper: Yes, he wrote two other books that were not published: Purgatory, PA and Edible Variety (don’t know years). He also [wrote] short stories—one on Flannery O’Connor, who was his favorite writer. He never really stopped writing, that I know of.
Jeff: Yes, The Edible Variety was completed, I believe at least a couple of drafts. He was also in development stages on a work we called the “Turkey Book.” His agents may have shown The Edible Variety around but I do not recall why it didn’t get into print. But for sure he did not stop writing.

Tell me about his photography.

Jeff: He was a professional photographer, working independently for local businesses and other customers. He also did fine art photography on his own time, working with teachers and refining techniques in practice. It was his source of income, but also a new and exciting channel for his creative energies.


When and how did he die?

Jasper: He died in 1996 of AIDS-related cancer.

Was he in a relationship when he died, and if so, is the family still in touch with that person?

Jasper: No, he was not in a relationship at the time. He was living alone. He had many close friends in Napa.

What did you first think when I approached you about doing an interview?

Jasper: Anything that would help
The Kryptonite Kid to be republished or the screenplay revived would be fantastic.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Jeff: As an artist he was just hitting his stride and was devastated—as were his friends—that he would not live to realize his full potential. I would be honored to play a role in giving new life to T
he Kryptonite Kid for new generations of readers. Ease into the pop mythology conceit, but be prepared for the deeper subjects as the story unfolds. Very quickly, you realize this is not a children’s book—but perhaps one for adults who wonder exactly when they exited childhood. 

I think Joseph Torchia poured himself, and his empathy for people, into this haunting novel. You see it in the twin prologue/epilogue. 

And you thank him.


avivs said...

Thank you for that.
Just read the book and was very moved by it.

Jamie Jobb said...

Joe was among my best friends. We met at Florida and continued our friendship in San Francisco. I was honored when I read the manuscript for "The Kryptonite Kid" the first time and found "my" name in it. Fictional me was a female school tattle-tale in the book. I read all his work in draft form before it was published. "The Edible Variety" was rewritten several times, once as a cookbook! Joe could write anything and indeed he turned "Kryptonite" into a play which had a short run Off Off Broadway in the East Village. The theater was a long "railroad flat" storefront and the audience was seated in long narrow rows along one side. This would have been OK in normal circumstances, but the climatic scene involved a blackout and an actor having to move the entire length of the stage (room) in darkness making noise. It was no "special effect" and it ruined the performance. I also recall several other house glitches during performance. Joe wrote that script with a collaborator, although I no longer recall that person's name. Joe kept a file of my writings and that was included in his papers saved at Stanford.