Here’s the interview I did with William McKeen a few months ago for Beat Scene Magazine. Many thanks to William for taking the time to answer my questions. The Photo credits are as follows.. The first two black and white photos by Don Bruce. The color photo William McKeen. The last black and white photo by Lewis Gardner. Notice McKeen loitering in the background in the first black and white photo. Enjoy.
“McKeen, you shit-eating freak. I warned you not to write that vicious trash about me. Now you better get fitted for a black eye patch in case one of yours gets gouged out by a bushy haired-stranger in a dimly-lit parking lot. How fast can you learn Braille? You are scum. HST.”
High praise for William McKeen from The Good Doctor using his own unique mode of expression. Thompson was referring to the William McKeen’s book called “Hunter S. Thompson” written in 1991. This was the first book aboutThompson and by far the most popular, perhaps until now with the release of McKeen’s new book about Thompson called “Outlaw Journalist.”
William McKeen first met Hunter in the late 70s when he interviewed him on stage at Western Kentucky University. No doubt this meet must have been an important one for McKeen who had been a fan of Thompson, and still is. “When I met him, I was struck by his manners and his genuine interest in me and everyone else he met that night.” McKeen told me. Though they didn’t become what you’d call “close friends” McKeen did have an impact on Thompson later on. As Anita Thompson (Hunters’ widow) said “William was a good friend to Hunter” and as Hunter said himself of McKeen “He understands me.” To write about a writer like Thompson must have been a daunting task but McKeen came up trumps with his 1991 account of Thompson’s life, and considering HST liked it, that in it’s self is no mean feat.
When I heard “Outlaw Journalist” was in the works my first thought was; oh no, not another biography about the good Doctor. I was of the opinion that the Thompson‘s life story had been squeezed dry, it didn’t occur to me that this one could be different. I read it in two sittings and was surprised by how sharp and savvy it was. I am a fan of Hunter Thompson, I’m also a proponent of keeping his memory alive, and I enjoyed this bio as a fan, but it’s also very readable for someone new to the sometimes complex journalistic style, and life of HST.
This is the second trip McKeen takes into the world of HST. He leads us down a fine line between the crazy behaviour, and the exceptional writing talent of the Gonzo commentator. It’s done with a skill that has eluded Hunters’ other biographers. McKeen explores the undesirable side of Thompson whilst his focus is on the writing skills, and aptitude for perfection that Thompson put into most of his work. We are also shown some of the more disappointing times in his life as a journalist, like his failure (and utter lack of interest) to write about the Ali vs. Foreman fight in Zaire where he chose to float in a swimming pool full of sodden marijuana (which he had dumped in himself.) George Plimpton is quoted in the book as saying “Thompson’s readers were not interested in the event at all-whether it was the Super Bowl or politics or a championship fight in Zaire but only how the event affected their author.” From a fans point of view Hunters’ lack of interest was a huge disappointment and regrettably not the only one in his writing career.
The people interviewed for the book were the ones closest to Thompson, the ones who knew him and spent most time with him, not the hangers-on. Folks like some of his high school friends, Deborah Fuller his long time assistant, Anita Thompson, Bob Braudis, Ralph Steadman, Jann Wenner, and many more, all of which serves to tighten the purpose of the otherwise well researched book.
From birth to death to blasted from a cannon. We get an ordered and honest account of his life with many details that will be new to most Hunter Thompson fans. An attention-grabbing look at how Thompson operated, disrupted, succeeded and failed. His health gradually went downhill before his own eyes and he was helpless to stop it. He conceded. Finishing off, McKeen gives a moving account of the blast-off service held at Hunter’s “Fortified compound” where his long time wish of his ashes being shot from a huge cannon was honoured by his friends and family, with the bill footed by Johnny Depp, and attended by 150 guests including Senators and stars. A fitting send off for Hunter. And if this is to be the last biography about HST I could live with that.
MF. Did you have any doubts or concerns about writing another book about HST?
WM. I really didn’t want to do another book on him. But after his death, I kept getting calls from reporters. I spoke to them about the American writer, but the stories printed had to do with this drug-addled clown. I kept bitching about this to my wife, who said, “Well, there’s your next book, honey.” I had to admit she was right.
I had always wished I had another chance to go back and work on my 1991 book. Lots of things about it dissatisfied me. I was never pleased with my account of his life. And he had done a lot since 1991.
So I look at the new book as a chance to do what I did with the first book — focus on his achievements as a writer — but on a larger scale.
MF. Being a fan of HST, did you have any difficulty writing about the less savory side of the man?
WM. No. He was all about truth, wasn’t he? So I had to write a truthful account. There were a lot of things about him that I disliked. I learned many things that I didn’t use in the book. These would fall into the category of “reckless appetite for women” or “rotten temper.” Just as I did not want to focus on his drug and alcohol use, I did not want to offer a parade of former girlfriends or pals giving us a list of shortcomings. I wanted to err on the side of subtlety.
In the end, though, I came away caring about him a great deal, despite his prolific faults.
MF. In the author’s note of your new book “Outlaw Journalist” you say “no doubt my book also has its faults.” I realize you mean these faults might be in the eyes of the reader, but in hindsight is there anything you would like to add or remove?
WM. When I got the finished book from the publisher, I gave it a good, hard read. There are the usual small typos and errors of fact (the size of a motorcycle engine, whether his Key West assistant had been a bank teller or a real-estate broker, that sort of thing). Thankfully, most of those things were corrected in the UK edition and a few more changes — and one addition — will appear in the paperback editions.
But after reading it, my one regret had to do with the parts of the book about Jann Wenner. I began subscribing to Rolling Stone when I was 13. That magazine filled my life with great pleasure. I would be diminished in some way without those many hours with Rolling Stone. So my hat’s off to him as a genius editor. Unfortunately, when he appears in my book he appears mostly as an editor in conflict with his star writer. I wish I had written more about what a tremendous magazine he founded.
By the way, he was a gracious and forthright interview, even though he was writing his own book on Hunter.
MF. Its always good to get favorable reviews from critics. Some writers might say they don’t care what the critics think. How about you? Is it a worry for you what the critics think? Also, considering the sensitive nature in some parts of the book, how did it go down with Hunter’s family and friends?
WM. I was very nervous that the American publisher booked me into Aspen for publication day. I got an ominous note from one of Hunter’s friends — a man who had been very kind to me during my research in Aspen. He said, “Set one foot in Aspen and we will have you arrested.” He had been upset by some last-minute questions I asked about Hunter … e-mailed fact-checking sort of questions … and was under the impression that despite what I had told him, I was now writing some scandalous book about his buddy.
But then that friend ended up hosting a luncheon for us the day of the signing. He also gave me the best endorsement I could hope for from him: “Well, it doesn’t suck.”
Sheriff Bob Braudis, Hunter’s closest friend the last 30 years, came to that luncheon, slung his massive arm around me and said, “Ya wrote a great book.”
So the fact that Hunter’s friends gave me their sign of approval was very important.
Anita Thompson had also been a wonderful interview. She later posted something about the book — an endorsement, really — on her Web site. I know she thought the book had a few shortcomings, but still thought enough to post that.
I’ve been very pleased with the reviews, for the most part. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t read the reviews or care what critics think. Christopher Hitchens wrote a fine review of it in the Sunday Times. If I was single, I could have shown that review around and perhaps gotten some nice dates. Instead, I showed it to my wife, who said, “That’s nice, dear.”
I should also point out that one of the most decent and generous souls on this earth is Douglas Brinkley. Not only did he give me a great interview, he opened a lot of doors for me. He spent six hours on the phone with me one Sunday afternoon and evening, going through the galleys line-by-line. His endorsement of the book meant an awful lot to me.
MF. Outlaw Journalist is very comprehensive and would be a fitting end to the HST biography list. Some people would say there are enough books about HST from the “outside looking in” perspective; pretty much everything has been covered. Would you agree?
WM. There are a lot of books out about Hunter and more are on the way. We have a lot of his writing coming too. I think people are fascinated by the guy.
I wish I could have finished my book earlier. I think if I had made it into print before Jann Wenner’s Gonzo book, I might have gotten more attention. But I had an accident in the middle of writing the book (fell off a roof) and was wheel-chair bound. Plus, I am a department chairman in addition to being a professor and those obligations make me a rather slow writer.
MF. I’d like to go back in time to 1991 when you wrote the book “Hunter S. Thompson . ” Does it mean anything to you on a personal level that you wrote the first, and probably the most popular book about Hunter? Also do you think there is a possibility of a reprint? It’s so hard to get now and if you do get one it costs $150 and up.
WM. Something I learned after I finished Outlaw Journalist: Deborah Fuller, his long-time assistant, and Wayne Ewing, the cinematic Boswell who documented 30 years of Hunter’s life, told me that Hunter really liked the book. He had sent me a note when it came out offering to gouge out my eyes for writing it. I knew that was his seal of approval. But both Deborah and Wayne said it was at his right hand for the last decade of his life, that it was on the shelf with his books, next to his typewriter. Wayne told me that when Hunter was moody or depressed, he’d pull out the book and ask Wayne to read it aloud. Afterward, he would say, “He understands me.”
I was at the rare loss for words when I learned this.
I enjoyed doing that earlier book, but it was a “semi-scholarly” book and not aimed at the popular audience. I always wished it had found a larger audience and since Outlaw Journalist is flesh on its bones, maybe it finally has. I always figured that little book was oft-plagiarized by college and high school students doing papers on Hunter. For years, people wrote to me, asking if I had copies to sell. Actually, I have only four copies. Jann Wenner asked to borrow one and I had to turn him down. I did lend one to Brinkley for the third volume of HST letters he was editing. (That book, The Mutineer, will be published some day. Not sure why he needed a copy, but I never refuse a historian.) Alas, that was before Katrina hit, so who knows if that book survived the storm.
MF. You first met Hunter in the late 70s. What were your first impressions? Was he what you expected?
WM. I suppose that like a lot of impressionable young people — young writers particularly — I expected the man to be like the image. When I met him, I was struck by his manners and his genuine interest in me and everyone else he met that night. I thought he was a kind and decent man. I began to realize that “Duke” or the “Hunter Figure” (Brinkley’s term) was a literary creation. There was no doubt that Duke shared Hunter’s DNA, but — as Bob Braudis said to me — “No one could live up to the image of Hunter Thompson, not even Hunter Thompson.” (That quote may not be quite right; it’s right in the book, but that’s not handy).
MF. What’s next for you? Another book maybe?
WM. I ‘ve got a couple of things going on — an anthology about childhoods lived in Florida. I’m also editing a series of books called American Reports that will collect the best new journalism.
But my new long-range project is about a group of writers, artists, musicians and actors … in a certain place and time. Don’t want to say too much, because I don’t want to jinx it, but one of the characters is Hunter S. Thompson. He’s a hard guy to let go.