Becoming a writer the hard way
In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an aspiring writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he recklessly agreed to help sail a sixty-foot yacht loaded with a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, where he and his partners sold the drug until federal agents caught up with them. For his part in the conspiracy, Gantos was sentenced to serve up to six years in prison.
In Hole in My Life, this prizewinning author of over thirty books for young people confronts the period of struggle and confinement that marked the end of his own youth. On the surface, the narrative tumbles from one crazed moment to the next as Gantos pieces together the story of his restless final year of high school, his short-lived career as a criminal, and his time in prison. But running just beneath the action is the story of how Gantos – once he was locked up in a small, yellow-walled cell – moved from wanting to be a writer to writing, and how dedicating himself more fully to the thing he most wanted to do helped him endure and ultimately overcome the worst experience of his life.
Jack Gantos's books include Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, a National Book Award finalist, and the sequel, Joey Pigza Loses Control, a Newbery Honor Book. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts. A Michael L. Printz Honor BookA Robert F. Sibert Honor BookA Booklist Editors' Choice In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an aspiring young writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he agreed to help crew a boat loaded with drugs from the Virgin Islands to New York City, setting sail on an ill-fated expedition that eventually landed him in federal prison. "[Gantos's] account is remarkably free of both self-pity and self-censorship . . . This is a tale of courage and redemption, proving that a bad start in life does not have to lead to a bad life story."The New York Times Book Review "Jack Gantos is not just a writersomething he dreamed about from childhood. He's a National Book Award finalist, a Newbery Honor medalist and a university writing instructor. In this tough, sad, funny memoir, he tells how he got there."The Washington Post Book World "A memoir, by turns harrowing and hilarious, about a huge mistake."Miami Herald "Gantos really is Everyman, but an Everyman who has landed himself into a deeper pit than most. What separates Gantos is the determination that took him out of his dreams and into a successful life as a writer. Those writerly skills are in full evidence here, in this thoughtful and provocative memoir as valuable to those who have never heard of Gantos as to those who have read all of his books."Hyde Park Review of Books "The ultimate cautionary tale."Smithsonian "'We didn't so much arrive at our destinations as aim and crash into them like kamikaze yachtsmen.' So Gantos describes himself as a 20-year-old about to be arrested and imprisoned for smuggling two thousand pounds of hashish from St. Croix to New York City. Young Jack seems to share with his fictional charactersJoey Pigza and Jack Henrya blithe disregard for the consequences of wild behavior. Readers follow him from a seedy motel run by the great-great-granddaughter of Davy Crockett to a Keystone Kops adventure on the sea, from a madcap escape from FBI and Treasury agents to his arrest and trial, represented by his lawyer, Al E. Newman. This true tale of the worst year in the author's life will be a big surprise for his many fans. Gantos has the storyteller's gift of a spare prose style and a flair for the vivid simile: Davy has 'brown wrinkled skin like a well-used pirate map'; a prisoner he met was 'nervous as a dragonfly'; another strutted 'like a bowlegged bulldog.' This is a story of mistakes, dues, redemption, and finally success at what he always wanted to do: write books. The explicit descriptions of drug use and prison violence make this a work for older readers. Not the usual 'How I Became A Writer' treatise, it is an honest, utterly compelling, and life-affirming chronicle of a personal journey for older teens and adults."Kirkus Reviews "Jack Gantos' riveting memoir of the 15 months he spent as a young man in federal prison for drug smuggling is more than a harrowing, scared-straight confession: it is a beautifully realized story about the making of a writer. As Gantos himself notes: 'It [prison] is where I went from thinking about becoming a writer, to writing.' His examination of the processincluding his unsparing portrayal of his fears, failings, and false startsis brilliant and breathtaking in its candor and authenticity. Particularly fascinating is his generous use of literary allusions to everything from Baudelaire to Billy Budd, which subtly yet richly dramatize how he evolved from a reader who became a character in the books he was reading to a writer and a character in his own life story. Gantos' spare narrative style and straightforward revelation of the truth have, together, a cumulative power that will capture not only a reader's attention but also empathy and imagination. This is great for every aspiring writer and also a wonderful biography for teens struggling to discover their deepest, truest selves."Michael Cart, Booklist (starred review)
"The compelling story of the author's final year in high school, his brushes with crime, and his subsequent incarceration. Gantos has written much about his early years with his eccentric family, and this more serious book picks up the tale as they moved to Puerto Rico during his junior year. He returned to Florida alone, living in a seedy motel while he finished high school and realized that his options for college weren't great. A failed drug deal cost him most of his savings and he joined his family, now in St. Croix, where he accepted an offer of $10,000 to help sail a boat full of hash to New York. He and his colleagues were caught, and as it turns out, he was in more trouble than he anticipated. Sent to federal prison for up to six years, Gantos landed a job in the hospital section, a post that protected him from his fellow inmates, yet allowed him to witness prison culture firsthand. Much of the action in this memoirsome of it quite raw and harshwill be riveting to teen readers. However, the book's real strength lies in the window it gives into the mind of an adolescent without strong family support and living in the easy drug culture of the 1970s. Gantos looks for role models and guidance in the pages of the books he is reading, and his drive to be a writer and desire to go to college ultimately save him."Barbara Scotto, School Library Journal
"After penning a number of novels for preteens, including the Joey Pigza books and the Jack series, Gantos makes a smooth transition as he addresses an older audience. He uses the same bold honesty found in his fiction to offer a riveting autobiographical account of his teen years and the events may well penetrate the comfort zone of even the most complacent young adults. The memoir begins with the dramatic image of the author as a young convict ('When I look at my face in the photo I see nothing but the po
"After penning a number of novels for preteens, including the Joey Pigza books and the Jack series, Gantos makes a smooth transition as he addresses an older audience. He uses the same bold honesty found in his fiction to offer a riveting autobiographical account of his teen years and the events may well penetrate the comfort zone of even the most complacent young adults. The memoir begins with the dramatic image of the author as a young convict ('When I look at my face in the photo I see nothing but the pocked mask I was hiding behind'). The book then goes on to provide an in-depth examination of the sensitive and intelligent boy residing behind a tough facade. Inspired by the words and lives of some of his favorite American authors, Gantos sought adventure after leaving high school. He eagerly agreed to help smuggle a shipment of hashish from Florida to New York without giving thought of the possible consequences. Knowing that the narrator is destined to land in jail keeps suspense at a high pitch, but this book's remarkable achievement is the multiple points of view that emerge, as experiences force a fledgling writer to continually revise his perspective of himself and the world around him. The book requires a commitment, as it rambles a bit at times, but it provides much food for thought and fuel for debate. It will leave readers emotionally exhausted and a little wiser. Ages 12-up. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In this Michael L. Printz Honor Book, the Newbery Honor-winning creator of the Joey Pigza books shares the true story of how he became a writer the hard way by learning a valuable lesson while he was in college.
Since reading, language arts, and English
curricula often contain overlapping skills
and strategies, this autobiography can be used
in any setting that encourages students to
read and respond to print. Hole in My Life
offers teachers the chance to utilize a text
that is nonfiction in genre yet employs several
of the same techniques used in fiction. Many
state tests rely on nonfiction selections in
their reading component, so this book can
help students read nonfiction effectively.
Additionally, several standards in social
studies may be addressed with this book.
Language Arts /English /Reading Standards:
This guide meets the following standards from
the International Reading Association (IRA)
and the National Council of Teachers of
• Students read a wide range of print and nonprint
texts to build an understanding of texts, of
themselves, and of the cultures of the United
States and the world; to acquire new information;
to respond to the needs and demands of society
and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment.
Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction,
classic and contemporary works.
• Students apply a wide range of strategies to
comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate
texts. They draw on their prior experience, their
interactions with other readers and writers, their
knowledge of word meaning and of other texts,
their word identification strategies, and their
understanding of textual features (e.g., soundletter
correspondence, sentence structure,
• Students apply knowledge of language structure,
language conventions (e.g., spelling and
punctuation), media techniques, figurative
language, and genre to create, critique, and
discuss print and nonprint texts.
Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective,
creative, and critical members of a variety of
• Students use spoken, written, and visual language
to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for
learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the
exchange of information).
Social Studies Standards:
This guide meets the standards of the National
Council for the Social Studies.
• Social studies programs should include
experiences that provide for the study of the
ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship
in a democratic republic.
• Social studies programs should include
experiences that provide for the study of
individual development and identity. Personal
identity is shaped by one's culture, by groups,
and by institutional influences. How do people
learn? Why do people behave as they do? What
influences how people learn, perceive, and
grow? How do people meet their basic needs
in a variety of contexts? Questions such as
these are central to the study of how individuals
develop from youth to adulthood. Examination
of various forms of human behavior enhances
understanding of the relationships among
social norms and emerging personal identities,
the social processes that influence identity
formation, and the ethical principles underlying
What is the significance of the title? What
could cause a “hole” in someones life? What
do students think the story will be about?
Does the photo of Gantos facing the title
page give any clue as to his identity? What
conclusions about this person could a
reader draw from the photograph alone?
Would the conclusions differ when paired
with the title?
n Much of the story is told in flashback. The
opening chapter refers to Gantoss prison
photo and the food in the prison. Then Gantos
reflects on something from his childhood.
This collapsing of settings/time frames could
be confusing without the use of literary
techniques. How does the author signal
whether he is talking about something in
the distant past versus the setting/time
frame of the story?
n Go through the book and make a list of the
titles of each chapter. How does Gantos signal
the reader ahead of time about what will occur
in the chapter? What kinds of clues do the
chapter titles provide?
n As you read through the chapters, keep
a chart of the decisions Gantos made that
culminated in his trip to smuggle drugs. For
instance, in chapter 2, he talks about living on
his own as a teen and wandering through
casinos and drinking. How did these early
actions lead up to the one that changed the
course of his life?
n The story is divided into three sections.
Why do you think the author decided to
separate parts of the story? What important
event occurs in each part?
n In part 1, chapter 4, Gantos refers to On
the Road by Jack Kerouac. Look up a synopsis
of this book, or read an excerpt from its early
chapters. Why do you think Gantos was
enamored of the life described by Kerouac?
What connections do you see between Gantos
n “I have learned this: it is not what one
does that is wrong, but what one becomes as
a consequence of it.” How does this quote
from Oscar Wilde (found on the epigraph
page) reflect the major theme of this book?
How does Gantos change as a result of what
he has done wrong? What does he “become”
that might not have happened without his
experiences in prison?
Reaching across the
This story could be used to focus on current
events as they relate to topics such as prisons,
prison life, drugs, drug abuse, drug smuggling.
Students could be placed in groups and
given some choices about possible topics to
explore. After students have had the chance
to complete their research using print and
nonprint materials, their information could be
presented in the form of a traditional report,
a Power Point presentation, or a Web site
designed to provide readers with links to sites
related to the individual topics. Alternatively,
students could research similar topics as they
relate to other countries. What is the prison
system like in Britain or Russia? How does
the criminal justice system in the United
States differ from that of Australia or Japan?
Teachers can tailor these comparisons to
Additionally, map skills could be a topic
chosen by the students, as they trace the route
sailed by Gantos from the Virgin Islands to
Reading / Language Arts
Throughout the book, Gantos refers to the
saving power of books and reading. In the
list at right, he identifies books that were
important to him as he worked through his
time in prison. However, he also refers to
reading as something like a drug. Gantos used
books to comfort himself in times of trouble,
to distract him from his problems. How can
reading be both beneficial and detrimental?
Ask students to write in their journals about
this almost schizophrenic approach to books
and reading. Ask them to provide examples
from their own lives that mirror this conflicted
view. Are there other elements in their lives
that are similar? For instance, what about the
positive and negative effects of Internet surfing? Of music? Of television? Etc.
Alternatively, students could be asked to select
one of the books from the list below, read it,
and write about why they think this particular
book was important in Gantoss life.