ORLANDO — This city in a region of mouse ears and outlet malls was once home to Jack Kerouac, and it may be incubating a successor.
Five decades ago, the Beat Generation author wrote The Dharma Bums in 11 days in a small, tin-roofed house near downtown Orlando and received the first glowing reviews of On The Road.
Now his old digs house the Jack Kerouac Writer in Residence Project, which brings emerging authors to live and work in the home for three-month stints — not to create Kerouac clones, but to give them the opportunity to develop their own style.
"It's the idea of not only celebrating Kerouac's history in Florida, but also creating a living legacy to him," said local TV reporter Bob Kealing, who helped start the program after learning of the house's history in 1996.
He and other local residents established a nonprofit corporation, purchased and restored the home and then began selecting writers. Most recently, organizers said, about 80 writers applied for the program, which includes a stipend.
A home for writers
Many writers said they set out not to work as Kerouac did, but rather to draw inspiration from his space.
"I feel like that would really screw me up if I was trying to work as he did," former writer-in-residence Justin Quarry said. "I'm going to be my own writer anyway, in my own voice. So I would rather be writing beside his spirit than in his shadow."
Kerouac Project writers said the time they are given to work in the cozy 90-year-old house is more than offered in other residencies, such as New York's Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. The house also provides a rare isolation that allows for focus.
"I had been given this gift of time and the availability, and the inspiration of Jack Kerouac living here," said Darlyn Finch, an Orlando poet who lived in the house from December 2006 to February 2007. "You don't want to blow that. You want to make the most of it, so I made the determination that I was going to write a poem a day. And I did. They weren't all good ones, but I did write a poem every day I was here."
Liza Monroy, who worked in the house during the summer of 2007, used her time to edit her debut novel, Mexican High. For Monroy — who said she preferred to work in Kerouac's cramped bedroom — being picked for the project helped validate her work.
"The fact that I got in is what really pushed me to finish the novel and see it as something other people besides me would be interested in reading," Monroy said.
The home has been remodeled since Kerouac lived there from July 1957 until the following spring. Kealing said the home was in shambles when he found it a decade ago.
"It was a firetrap," he said. "The little back yard was carpeted with AstroTurf. There was old bric-a-brac everywhere. When I got to the back door, there were squirrels running out."
No mouse influence
Kerouac, who grew up in Massachusetts and then lived in New York, arrived in Orlando just before the release of On the Road, a largely autobiographical book about trips around the country he took with friends that became a major hit and literary landmark for the Beat Generation.
He lived at the rear of the house, in what was then a small, attached apartment. There he wrote The Dharma Bums, which examined time he spent in the Pacific Northwest with his Buddhist friend.
The bedroom of the apartment now serves as a secluded workplace, with pistachio-colored walls, a simple bed and humble wooden desk.
The main part of the house is warm and inviting, with a brilliant jade living room and cheerful kitchen. Writers don't have to sleep in Kerouac's quarters; there is a larger bedroom available, which also has less baggage attached.
"I don't really believe in ghosts or whatever, but I don't know," Quarry said. "I don't know about sleeping back there."
Kerouac, who died in 1969 in St. Petersburg at age 47, certainly isn't the only writer to call Florida home, and some of the state's famous writers' homes have become true attractions. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' home southeast of Gainesville is now part of a state park and tourists still pay homage to Ernest Hemingway at his home in Key West, with its famed six-toed cats.
Still, Kerouac's quaint home in the College Park neighborhood — first carved from orange groves and farmland in the early 1900s — stands in stark contrast to images many outsiders would associate with Orlando's outskirts: theme parks and prefabricated perfection.
"It's really become a cultural touchstone for the city of Orlando," Kealing said. "Where people can say 'History really does exist here.' "