Author Interview: Tim Z. Hernandez Talks About New Novel, Kerouac's "Mexican Girl"
Valley Edition Host Joe Moore interviewed Hernandez about why he chose to tell the story, how he met Bea Franco (later known as Bea Kozera) and more.
Here are some highlights from our interview with Hernandez:
How did you first come to learn about this story of the woman Kerouac calls the "Mexican Girl" or Terry?
"Back in 2007 after I had read "On The Road" for the third time of my life – Kerouac’s book – I was standing in Colorado at the time and this chapter which is about 19 pages jumped out at me. And this chapter is about who he called "the Mexican girl," the woman he called Terry, which is a fictional name. It was based on this short relationship that he had with this woman named Bea Franco who was a farm worker in Selma, here in the Valley.
"I didn’t know that at the time and in fact I read the book before and I kind of viewed her as a fictional character, but in that moment it dawned on me that this is probably a real person. I wanted to know if it was or wasn’t and that is the question I had in my mind. Who was she? I thought it would be cool if somebody wrote a book. A spin-off from her point of view of their time together and it was going to be completely fictional. I started to do some of the research and she had played a pivotal enough of a role in Kerouac’s career that her name and her story were told in over 20 books and biographies about Jack Kerouac. After finding that out I realize I had to take a look and go find her."
How did you begin your search for her?
“I found out that she had sent Kerouac letters and these letters were in the New York Public Library. So I flew to New York and looked at these five letters and they were addressed to Selma here in California and there were certain landmarks that she talked about that you would see here that I recognized. So that is kind of what prompted me to look up some of those addresses. I started to research and at one after I had went as far as hiring a private investigator to help me try and find and locate the family. All of that was fruitless and I finally said I was going to give up and surrender and write this fictional account based on what I did know about her and what I knew about the San Joaquin Valley at that time. That was the idea, but as soon as I surrendered though a short time later I had found out that her family still lived here in Fresno.”
How did you find out where Bea Franco lived?
"It was my mother. She was quite invested at that point and she was like you can’t give up looking for that Mexican girl. Give me your files, everything you have and I’ll look for her. I’m retired and I’ve nothing better going on right now and I will look for her. So I said go ahead and I gave my mother the files and I basically began to write this fictional novel and 24 hours later my mother phone called me and said I have two addresses for you that she had discovered and you might want to go look at them."
"One of them was in Los Angeles so I knew I wasn’t going to go there right away. The other one was in Fresno and in fact some of the details were – she was the right age – the same age as the woman I was looking for – late 80's to early 90's. I went in and made a cold knock on the door of her home in east Central Fresno and I said this is who I am to the family because she didn’t answer the door it was her daughter at the time and I believe your mother is the Mexican girl. They said we don’t know who Kerouac is, we’ve never heard the name and they didn’t want to open the door at first. It wasn’t until I showed them a copy of their mothers letters that they did open the door to me and said let’s talk. I started to show them all the books and the story, names of family members that were mentioned in her letters and things like and they started putting the pieces together themselves.
"The whole time the first few interviews happened without meeting Bea. I finally got the idea to ask if your mother was alive and they said yes she’s alive. She’s asleep right now in the other room and I was like I have to meet her. I did and I met her for the first time."
What was the experience of finding her after all these years like?
"It was unexpected, because I didn’t expect that she would even be alive anymore. She was and she came out and she was very healthy. This was in 2010. She looked very much like Kerouac had described her. A very short, petite, light skinned, Mexican girl, a Latina, but she had blue eyes. In his book she had blue eyes but in real life she has green eyes. Slight variations, but she was pretty much how he described her. She was just very happy to meet me."
"She had a lot of fond memories and a lot of difficulty memories of that time from 1947 and 48. During the time she met Kerouac because she was actually fleeing from an abusive relationship with her first husband. She was basically parting ways and she ended up at a greyhound bus station in Selma and that’s where she met Kerouac. "
Your new book “Manana Means Heaven” tells this story, with some artistic liberties. Tell us about it.
"The bulk of the book is historical fiction. The book opens up with a nonfiction foreward... and then it goes into a sort of fictional world that you get her story told in the same 15 days she is with Kerouac. I was trying to find a way to get her voice in there without the author’s voice getting in there. So I taped our interviews when I interviewed her about her life and there are big sections, monologues, in the book of what she was telling me verbatim. So that way you get her telling you the story as if she was telling it to Kerouac. At the end of the book you get about 20 pages of an afterward that sort of go over my research and I how I found her and all that. There’s a little bit of both. There is some fiction in there, but there is a lot of truth to it."
Unfortunately Bea Franco passed away in August, what was your impression of her of when you met her?
"She had a sense of perspective about her life. She knew she was 92 and her health was starting to wane already. When I told her all this information, that her name was mentioned in over 20 books, she wasn’t aware of that this Kerouac guy became anything. He was just a guy driving through the Valley that she had a relationship with for a short time. She was very nonchalant about it. Why me? Why did I merit my name in any of these books? She was still smoking cigarettes in her 90's and she liked the idea of the book."
"I sent her the book in early August... She received it, held it in her hands and looked at it. Her family took photos with the book and then seven days later she passed away."