Eric Gansworth is a novelist, a visual artist, a poet. He’s also a huge Paul McCartney fan.
He’s such a fan that every chapter in his first Young Adult novel, “If I Ever Get Out of Here” (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, $17.99), bears the title of a Beatles or a McCartney post-Beatles song. The illustrations he painted for the book’s three parts are takeoffs on Beatles and McCartney album covers. And the title is from a lyric in the title tune of the McCartney and Wings album “Band on the Run.”
“I am a rock concert person. It’s my primary form of recreation,” he said in a recent phone interview from his office at Canisius College, where he is a professor of English and a Lowery-Writer-in-Residence.
Gansworth, a member of the Onondaga Nation who grew up on the Tuscarora Reservation, has written several novels of the Native American experience and his poetry illumines the Native American portraits by Milton Rogovin in “From the Western Door to the Lower West Side” from White Pine Press.
He had been working on an adult novel for several years about childhood friends reconnecting later in life when Scholastic executive editor Cheryl Klein asked him to consider writing a novel for young people. The result was “If I Ever Get Out of Here,” a marvelous coming-of-age tale, set on the Tuscarora Reservation, of 12-year-old Lewis Blake, struggling with issues of identity and belonging – and bonding with the son of an Air Force officer through their love of music. It’s set in 1975-77, when Paul McCartney was performing with Wings and the Beatles were no more, when junior highs had tracking and shop classes were for boys only, when cassette tape decks in cars were a new thing and tiny blue dolls called Smurfs were big in Europe but not yet heard of in the United States.
Gansworth, 48, lives in Niagara Falls, not far from where he grew up, the youngest of seven siblings, in a house on Mount Hope Road. And while he would have been “in the ballpark” of Lewis’ age in the mid-1970s, he says his book is purely fictional. “I like the freedom of fiction where I can move around and adjust things. I also wanted the novel to be a bit more universal, so that people wouldn’t necessarily have to connect the dots to the physical landscape of Western New York.”
His novel paints a compelling look at a boy trying to navigate between reservation life, with its long traditions and close connections, and the white world of the “brainiac” track at school. It also offers a vivid picture of what it’s like to be poor. Lewis’ mother, who works off the books cleaning houses for “rich people in Lewiston,” doesn’t want outsiders visiting their house, the second-worst house on the reservation: “I looked at the places where our walls were covered with plastic stapled to insulation, and at the newspaper under the water pail where we kept drinking water from the hand pump outside – to say nothing of the slop pail in the corner. I heard a dog nosing in the closed-off kitchen at the back, where part of the roof had caved in one bad winter.” Lewis qualifies for the free lunch at school, his socks have holes in them and part of the money from his summer job goes to his mother to help pay the bills.
Asked about his own childhood on the reservation, Gansworth says, “Though it didn’t resemble middle America very much, I don’t think I had a particularly remarkable boyhood, by reservation standards. Most of my friends at that time had similar experiences, or seemed to from my vantage point, hanging out at their houses. A lot of my time was spent in the company of a ton of cousins.” His childhood home “burned to the ground” in 1994, he said. “I write about it a lot, it’s still very present in my imagination.”
Like Lewis Blake, Gansworth attended the Tuscarora Reservation School for elementary grades, then had to start over making friends in junior high. “What I remember most is that friendships were often woeful misfires or happy accidents. My longest-standing nonreservation friendship is with someone I met in middle school” when a teacher seated them together “because we were both acting up in math class.”
His passion for music started early, a benefit of being the little brother in a household of much older siblings, teenagers “who were extremely immersed in their passion for music.” He says he was only 3- or 4-years-old when he got his first two 45s: the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees. “As my musical education went forward, I found the kinds of things I liked, so I would quiz my siblings, and say ‘Who is this?’ Every time I did, every time it was the same answer, always ‘It’s the Beatles,’ ‘It’s the members of the Beatles afterward.’ ” In the novel, Lewis Blake treats his record albums with reverence, listening to them at night on a stereo in the bedroom he shares with his Uncle Albert, a marvelous character, named, of course, for the McCartney tune.
“I have all my old vinyl; I can’t part with it,” Gansworth says. He’s also a fan of album covers. “I love big art. That’s one thing I really hated about CDs, the covers were so tiny, I miss the ritual of really studying an album cover.”
The takeoffs on album covers “Band on the Run,” “Venus and Mars” and “Magical Mystery Tour” he painted for “If I Ever Get Out of Here” were done in gouache, a medium he likes because it has “the richness of oil without the toxic cleanup.”
Like music, his interest in art began early. “I’ve been drawing since the age of 3 or 4. I was primarily a visual artist long before I was a writer.”
His busy teaching schedule at Canisius means he packs his writing into winter break and summer vacation.
But when it comes to art, “I need to draw and paint pretty regularly, just to feel right in the world,” he says. “If I have the occasional dormant period because I’m too busy with other professional aspects of my life, I start feeling out of sorts. So it seems to be a necessary part of me.”
Asked about his next book, Gansworth says he has several projects under way. “I tend to have a Stockholm syndrome relationship with my books. I work on them until one takes me hostage and it’s the new compelling one. I can never tell which one it’s going to be.”
Eric Gansworth will mark the release of “If I Ever Get Out of Here” with a book reading, reception and book signing at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Grupp Fireside Lounge, on the second floor of the Richard E. Winter ’42 Student Center on the Canisius College campus. The book will be available for sale to the public courtesy of Talking Leaves Books, and those who buy the book there will be entered in a drawing for an original painting Gansworth did for the novel.