Newbery Medal Winner Jack Gantos Plays Not My Job

Apr 21, 2012
Originally published on April 21, 2012 12:03 pm

Award-winning children's book author and recent recipient of the Newbery Honor joins us to talk about his other distinction: his arrest on drug smuggling charges. Then he takes a quiz on Harlequin romance novels. (Rebroadcast from Jan. 28, 2012)

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CARL KASELL: From NPR and WBEZ-Chicago, this is WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!, the NPR News quiz. I'm Carl Kasell and here's your host, at the Chase Bank Auditorium in downtown Chicago, Peter Sagal.

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PETER SAGAL, HOST:

Thank you, Carl. Thank you everybody. Thank you so much. We have a fun show for you today. We are taking a break from the news to get literary. Or to put it another way?

KASELL: We're playing librarian.

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KASELL: And of course, by that I mean sexy librarian.

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SAGAL: In your case, Carl, that's redundant.

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SAGAL: We public radio people love books. For most of us here in public radio that's because we appreciate the infinite stories of wisdom and information found in them, and also because we needed some way to pass the time when we were stuffed into our lockers.

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KASELL: Today, it's a WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME! literary festival, as we revisit some of our favorite interviews with authors.

SAGAL: Now, we'll start with the surprisingly adult story from Jack Gantos, who appeared in January 2012, right after he won the Newberry Medal, the highest award in children's literature.

KASELL: He told us, along with panelists Brian Babylon, Roxanne Roberts and Peter Grosz, how he came to be the first felon to make it big in children's literature.

JACK GANTOS: So let's see. I was on my own in twelfth grade. I lived in a welfare motel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. And then I was going to go to college to write books, but I drove up to the University of Florida. It looked just like my high school, a giant football facility with a small academic institution, like...

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GANTOS: So I decided not to go and write novels in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. And I could work all day and drink all night, but I didn't feel fulfilled until I ran into these really nice British guys who had a boat with 2,000 pounds of hashish on it.

And they said we're looking for a nice kid. I said, "I'm nice." They said we'll give you $10,000 to sail it to New York. That's four years of private school back then. I said "sure." I didn't know how to sail. I ran aground in the harbor.

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SAGAL: Meaning the harbor leaving, or the harbor arriving?

GANTOS: Both, actually.

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GANTOS: We got to New York. We docked it. And then we used to sell them. We would put big duffel bags full of hashish in stolen shopping carts and go through the streets of New York City and deliver them to apartments.

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SAGAL: This sounds like the perfect crime, Jack. I can't imagine...

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SAGAL: ...how you ever got caught.

GANTOS: Yeah, well, you should have seen the surveillance photos.

SAGAL: Wait a minute; you are pushing a stolen shopping cart down the streets of New York with a duffel bag filled with hashish?

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SAGAL: And I'm imagining you're running across another young woman doing the same thing. And you're like, "Hello, who are you?" And she's like "I'm Judy Blume; who are you?"

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SAGAL: And you're like "Maybe we'll meet again someday at the Newberry Awards." No, wait a minute, so...

ROXANNE ROBERTS: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, where did you get the shopping cart?

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SAGAL: That's what you want to know?

BRIAN BABYLON: That's what you're focusing on?

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SAGAL: No, wait a minute, hold on, stop, stop, forget about the shopping carts. How did you get caught? What happened?

GANTOS: Well, the whole thing was rigged from the beginning because the British guys used American counterfeit money to buy the hashish in Morocco and then Secret Service got involved because there was all that bad money floating around.

So they followed the boat. And then once I got on it, then they had aerial surveillance of the boat across the Atlantic Ocean. And so they had been watching it all along. All they were waiting to do is catch everybody. So then once we sold all the hashish, I moved into the Chelsea Hotel, a fine establishment for any writer.

SAGAL: Yeah.

BABYLON: No drugs there.

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GANTOS: And then after that, I got paid; I got $10,000 in ten-dollar bills. God, it was beautiful.

SAGAL: Yeah.

GANTOS: And then the FBI came in, the Secret Service came in, the Customs officers came in and I went out the back window of the Chelsea Hotel. But the guy who owned the boat went down to the lobby. He got popped and I made it to the train station and took a train down to Florida, where I...

BABYLON: Now, did they pay you in fake money?

GANTOS: You know, I never knew.

BABYLON: See?

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SAGAL: This is the most exciting interview we've ever had. So you're in the train.

GANTOS: I'm on the train.

SAGAL: Everybody's after you.

GANTOS: I dye my hair in one of those little train bathrooms.

SAGAL: No, really?

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SAGAL: So you're down there, you're dyeing your hair. There's a soundtrack, and then what happens?

GANTOS: I got a rash.

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SAGAL: What's so amazing is I can so see the trajectory that leads from this to children's literature.

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SAGAL: But go on, so go on. So you're in the train, you're dyeing your hair, you have a rash now. You have blonde hair and a rash.

GANTOS: I go back to the welfare motel, which was run by Davy Crockett's great-great granddaughter.

SAGAL: Where? This is in Florida?

GANTOS: In Florida.

SAGAL: In Florida, of course.

GANTOS: She had his wallet in her bra.

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GANTOS: And at any rate - that's another story.

SAGAL: Yeah.

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GANTOS: So at any rate, I called home. I thought maybe I should call home. So I called my father and he said "where the H are you?" He said "I've got the FBI parked in the driveway. They're reading our mail and tapping our phones." And I said I'm at a pizza parlor.

BABYLON: Click.

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GANTOS: And from there I got an attorney. Now, don't do this. My attorney, honest to God, was Alfred E. Neuman.

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SAGAL: I love that you've gotten this far in the story before telling us, "now don't do this kids."

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SAGAL: You can smuggle the hashish. You can flee.

PETER GROSZ: But if you hire a fictional character as a lawyer...

SAGAL: Here's where I don't want you to be like me.

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GANTOS: And so, at any rate, so I go to court. I dress up. I look nice. And the judge, you know, asked me if I have anything to say for myself. I go, I'm guilty, Your Honor, but I'm a very nice boy.

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GANTOS: And he looks at me and he says "nice boys don't smuggle dope." And I was, like, oh, you got me there, Judge.

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SAGAL: I mean, so how did you then become an award-winning children's author?

GANTOS: Well...

SAGAL: Oh, I'm sorry, we're out of time.

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SAGAL: No, I kid. I'm genuinely curious how you go from prison to there.

GANTOS: There was a little bit of work in between there.

SAGAL: Yeah.

GANTOS: The transitional period. So at any rate, I always liked children's literature and so I started writing picture books. And I wrote the Rotten Ralph books and then I took them to the publisher when I was a sophomore in college, still on parole.

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GANTOS: And started placing picture books out there in the world. And then finally what happened is I started writing more novels and I started winning some awards, National Book Award, you know, nominee and Newberry Honor for the Joey Pigza books. And I felt like I had a little bit of armor. So I thought well the drug smuggling story is good, you know it's good. So I wrote that.

SAGAL: Now we heard, I don't know if this is true but we were looking into you and there is a rumor that when you were running up and down the streets in New York in your shopping cart, that you buried about $5,000 worth of hashish in Central Park. Is that true?

GANTOS: That is.

SAGAL: It is true.

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SAGAL: Is it still there?

GANTOS: I wasn't going to tell you that.

BABYLON: Is it there?

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SAGAL: Well, Jack Gantos, we have invited you here to play a game we're calling?

KASELL: Oh darling, take me in your arms.

SAGAL: You write very well for kids and young adults, but when people get older, their tastes change and many then turn to romance novels. We're going to ask you three questions about those saucy novels and if you get two right you'll win a prize for one of our listeners, Carl's voice on their voicemail.

GANTOS: Oh boy.

SAGAL: Oh boy. Carl, who is Jack Gantos playing for?

KASELL: Jack is playing for Eli Barnes of Madison, Wisconsin.

SAGAL: First question: over the years, Harlequin Romance that began print, has developed a number of specialty lines of romance novels for particular tastes, include which of these? A: Harlequin NASCAR?

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SAGAL: B: Harlequin Survivalist? Or C: Harlequin Democrat?

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GANTOS: Wow. Okay, let's see what's the most romantic there? Democrat? Nope.

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GANTOS: Survival. I'd go with NASCAR.

SAGAL: You're going to go with NASCAR?

GANTOS: Yeah.

SAGAL: You're right.

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SAGAL: Next question: romance novel author Susan Anderson had to apologize for a typo that changed the meaning of a line in one of her books. Was it A: that the hero was not, quote, "desperately in need of a little late night cookie"?

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SAGAL: B: the couple did not, in fact, make "sweat, sweat, love"?

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SAGAL: Or C: the line she had written as "she felt his muscles loosen as he shifted on the ground," came out much differently?

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SAGAL: When the printer got a letter wrong?

GANTOS: You know, all three of them are pretty graphic.

SAGAL: It is true.

GANTOS: I have to go with the last one.

SAGAL: The line she wrote as "she felt his muscles loosen as he shifted on the ground" came out quite differently.

GANTOS: Yes.

SAGAL: That's right, that's what happened.

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SAGAL: She had to write a post in her blog a rather exercised apology for that typo.

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SAGAL: All right, you're doing very well. Here's your last one. Romance novels cater to all tastes, which is why one book seller is offering which of these sets of romance novels with a similar theme? A: The Airport Security Bundle, including "Love at First Flight" and "The Jet Set Seduction."

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SAGAL: B: The Hot, Hot Kitchen Collection, including "The Long Order Cook" and "Turkey with Extra Stuffing."

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SAGAL: Or C: The Nerd Box, including "Erotic Robotics" and "The Empire Strokes Back."

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GANTOS: I got to tell you, you know I already pulled it together for Eli here.

SAGAL: Yes, you did.

GANTOS: So now, I don't have to even think.

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GANTOS: So I'm going for the Nerd Box.

SAGAL: You're going for the Nerd Box. I wish there was a nerd box of romance novels, but it was really the Airport Security Bundle, of course. It's a strange theme. Carl, how did Jack do on our quiz?

KASELL: Well enough to win, Peter. He had two correct answers. So Jack, you win for Eli Barnes.

SAGAL: Well done.

GANTOS: Thank you.

SAGAL: Congratulations.

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SAGAL: Jack Gantos' book "Dead End in Norvelt" just won the 2012 Newberry Medal. Jack Gantos, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!

GANTOS: Thank you.

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SAGAL: Had a great time talking to you. Thank you.

GANTOS: Thanks a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.