by Memorie Johnson
I sat down with San Antonio author J.R. Helton in his faculty office. Helton has taught for the Writing Program at the University of Texas at San Antonio for twelve years. His office is clean and orderly. If he had not mentioned to me that he teaches ten courses a year I would imagine this clean space is because he has plenty of free time on his hand, but he does not. Helton is an internationally published author of six books as well as many notable short stories and poems. We began our discussion, though, with what inspired his 2012 novel, Drugs — family. Drugs begins with his protagonist’s childhood background.
“I was born into a typical, white, middle-class family in Houston, Texas in 1962,” Helton writes in the first paragraph. “My parents were hardworking law abiding people. As a child, we lived in the city, and every year, the harder my parents worked, the more we moved up in society. Each house we owned, we would fix up as a family, sodding the yard, painting the house, landscaping, adding a deck so that when my father sold it, we could move to a bigger house.”
Growing up, Helton’s own parents wanted him to be a doctor, but he began writing fervently at the age of eighteen and has continued writing ever since. He enjoyed the works of Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, and Sir Conan Doyle back then, first writing short stories, with his desire and pursuit of a writing career pushed even further by the presence of his first father-in-law, who was a writer as well.
His collection of works are an expression of his life experiences. Always wanting to be an honest witness to his time, Helton explains, “My work is very personal. I am an artist, and it’s taken me a long time to admit that.”
“If you believe in it, it will hurt you,” Helton explains of his hesitation.
He adds of his writing habits, “I was told you should always be writing things down. It may be years later, but you may look through your work and have an entire chapter or the beginning of a book.”
Helton, when he sits to write, starts with an idea and then begins writing. He believes, though, that is is essential to get the first sentence right from the get-go.
The titles for his books — Drugs, Man and Beast, Below the Line, The Jugheads — are original and intriguing. When I asked him how he came up with these ideas, he gave me the explanation for his 2014 The Jugheads another autobiographical novel. “The Jugheads came to me from a quote by Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s work Journey to the End of the Night. “Before a thought can start in the brain of a Jughead, a lot of cruel things must happen to him.”
Artist and friend R. (Robert) Crumb painted the covers for his books Below the Line, Drugs, and The Jugheads. R. Crumb, a famous cartoonist, is widely thought to be the “father of underground comics.” The covers he created for Helton’s books are vivid and thought provoking. Helton is very grateful and proud of the generosity Crumb extended to him by creating these bold paintings on his behalf.
Most recently Helton has been working on a fictionalized memoir for Liveright/WW Norton entitled, Finding the Cure for Cancer, slated for a publication date of summer 2017. In the future, Helton would like to explore a memoir pertaining to writers and his own writing one day.
“Be your own worst critic,” is Helton’s advice. “If you can develop thick skin no one will hurt you.”
John “J.R.” Helton has published books on movies, drugs, people, and dogs. He’s the author of Below the Line (2000) on the film business, the memoir Man and Beast (2001), and the novels Drugs (2012) and The Jugheads (2014) from Seven Stories Press in New York. He’s published two books in French with 13th Note Editions in Paris, Au Texas Tu Serais Deja Mort (2011) and Voyage Au Bout De La Blanche (2012). He’s published short stories and some poetry in Mineshaft Magazine, The Sun, and The Missouri Review. And he’s always lived in Texas.