The legend goes that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in 21 days. It was supposedly a drug-fuelled rush while his wife put bowls of soup and mugs of coffee at his desk. The spontaneous confessional prose describing his hedonistic road trips across America with Neal Cassady was typed onto a “scroll”: sheets of tracing paper that he cut into long strips and taped into a roll that fit into his typewriter, allowing him to type incessantly for days on end.
Twenty-one says? Seriously? I was very skeptical and I decided to dig deep. I stumbled upon a novel called Kerouac’s Scroll, a site called Kerouac Cafe, a bookshop called the Beat Book Shop that held a 12-hour nonstop public reading of the book, and a YouTube clip where Kerouac reads out his famously long and stupefying last line himself. What I unearthed was that the novel didn’t sprout from a purple haze. Kerouac diligently kept notes throughout his adventures and worked on several versions of the novel before putting it down on the monumental scroll. Seven typescript versions of the manuscript have been found. Then it took him a couple of years and rejection letters to find a publisher. When he finally did, he was asked to cut the book down to a third its size. Then he wrote the book in 21 days.