Margaret Harrell, in my opinion is a rarity in any world, let alone the HST world. Two of her 9 or 10 books include significant fodder for the discerning Hunter S. Thompson fan. She is a rarity because shortly after you begin reading you realize she is hiding nothing. Her honesty is refreshing. She puts herself at the mercy of the reader. The two books are Keep This Quiet: My Relationship with Hunter S. Thompson, Milton Klonsky, and Jan Mensaert. And.. Keep This Quiet Too!: More Adventures with Hunter S. Thompson, Milton Klonsky, Jan Mensaert (Volume 2) Most readers here will know about them and hopefully have read them. If you haven’t read them just click the titles for Margaret’s site and how to buy.
Thank you, Margaret for taking the time to do this. Thanks also for your honesty, thanks for sharing with the world more HST experiences…
MF.. You say of Hunter and KTQ “I write this book, triggered by his death.” Was there even a seed planted before his death?
As far as I knew, Hunter wouldn’t let me, or anyone, publish his letters while alive. Legally, there had to be explicit consent. So, no, I never considered it.
In The Proud Highway letters (1955-1967), I noticed that I (and others of his close friends) were omitted. To prod him, I mailed back a few letters, mostly copies but a few originals, for impact. I could imagine him holding the old yellow-gold paper, which makes a vivid impression. I suggested he publish them someday. Later it was revealed that he hadn’t carbon copied a lot of the letters he wrote me. I had the only copies, and they held a lot of first-hand history from the time of Hell’s Angels. In the next letters collection, Fear and Loathing in America, he included me with a flourish as his trusted copy-editor who helped him in “dealing with the downside of success” and “kept [him] locked to the daily grindstone on the Hell’s Angels book”; he needed that kind of merciless prodding to meet deadlines. I wasn’t expecting it, and—living in Belgium—I only read that book after his death. So it was emotional.
I transported the letters to Europe when I moved there. They traveled back and forth, U.S. to Belgium. No one else, such as his editor (my boss), Jim Silberman, kept copies of theirs. At least, that I know of. Mine were all there was. Except the few in his basement vaults.
But once in a dream I received this vivid “instruction” to help “write the Hunter S. Thompson story.” So unconsciously I was preparing myself. Then things just came together after his death. I realized that I’d written about other people important in my life in books but never Hunter. In fact, no one who knew me knew our connection, as he kept it private as well. It began to feel strange to me. My life seemed out of balance if my biography omitted something so vitally important to me as our relationship. I contacted Hunter’s Literary Executor, Doug Brinkley. It turned out he already knew about me. He said use anything you want; that Hunter talked about me often. Was verbally grateful to me up to the day of his death—technically two days before—and that there was no legal hitch. That was truly emotional. I felt Hunter was “blessing” the project. And trusting me. And that it was a go.
MF.. You probably knew that it would be an emotional path while writing the books.. Did it hit you harder than expected? I ask because they (Books) are so honest, and one can’t but see how tough some of these times were.
Was it emotional? Yes, of course. However, some of the time I just dived into the water without looking. I had a very good reader who gave her reactions as I was developing the manuscript. She was curious at just those places I would have omitted. She said, What happened there? Give me details. Don’t be abstract. Let us in. Milton Klonsky had once told me, that in writing, “denude yourself. I can dream as well as anyone.”
Was it tough to remember? In Hunter’s case no. I had to do research. Read the letters. Bring them to life again. It was really astonishing how much of my chronology in the years covered in Keep This Quiet! was contained in his letters. He vividly set the stage and walked out on it. That was not painful. I loved that those scenes had ever existed and it was as if they were alive even today, as they were in my heart. In contrast, I didn’t want to recall some of the time with my husband, but even that wasn’t painful to write about. I looked at it as craft, a writer’s craft. What snippets belonged and kept the pace up? I’d put the difficult parts well behind me. We were young. Things happen. You have to learn somehow.
MF.. Did Hunter take advantage of you, or was it the other way around, or was it a case of a mutual meld?
Did Hunter or I take advantage of each other? No. If I get to vote.
You have to remember that Hunter and I got introduced by mail. In our first encounter (he tested people when he first met them and in this case I was his copy editor), he objected to some marks on his text. Before I got to straighten that out, he got stomped. Both situations needed hands-on attention. He was in San Francisco, I was in New York City. Random House said okay, use the phone, which was expensive in those days. Immediately, with Random House footing the phone bill, we melded.
We were blindfolded about each other’s looks. We just knew here was his book—his baby—and we were assigned to go through these hoops together, hopefully to sell 500,000 copies the first year, as it did. This, when he was a very broke, unpublished book-writer.
An electricity was going over the phone wires. There were many legal issues, not just routine copy editing/editing. So Hunter felt he had someone he could trust who could just walk up the marble Random House stairs and straight into Jim’s office. He involved himself in every detail—even layout and flap copy. I didn’t mind getting calls all hours at home—from him. After the book came out, we met in person. Here came this giant, 5 feet 4 or even 5—I don’t know exactly—walking into my office with a shaving kit and inside it were two Ballantine Ales. That kind of situation is a one-and-only for me. I worked with other authors right in my tiny office. But Hunter was unique in every way.
Jim said, in an interview for KTQ! that if there was a worst way to see something, Hunter saw it that way. But that actually their relationship was pretty smooth. And satisfying. Hunter was a creative person. Creative people fluctuate between chaos and order. It shakes things out, turns up the stimulation. It can bring out the best in people—and feelings they might not have known were there. It gets you to the snow leopard at the top of the mountain.
Besides, in the Random House period, he was married. I had no hold on him. Except of feeling.
I’m certain I never took advantage of him, except in becoming part of the “cottage industry” in publishing his letters. But, as said, I was encouraged to do that. Hunter wouldn’t have liked a debt. If he in any way perceived he had a debt to me or anyone, he’d have wanted to repay it. About the most important thing to me was honesty, and I felt he always was forthcoming with that. Even if, in one case, it was in part in hints. But I never felt left out. In the dark. When I was at Owl Farm, someone working there said to me, “He never yells at you.” He did yell in my presence, at some staff for making a mail-order-catalogue mistake. I did much worse, not punching “send” on his fax machine the first time I’d operated one. And he barely reacted. This was uncharacteristic, they had me believe.
MF.. You were lucky enough to have encountered Hunter so early on in his career. Did you see such fame in his future?
I was an aspiring author myself. I used to look at authors through the lens of the greatest. Don’t laugh. As a high school student, I asked my teacher, whose book had just been published, if he wanted to be compared to Shakespeare. He just laughed. It was outrageous. But I looked for friends who had the sun or moon as their standard. There’s no harm in aiming high. Did I expect Hunter to become so famous? In his case, there was so much going on, and there was the personal aspect, that I didn’t make a judgment as to how far he’d go. Maybe I did and have forgotten. I was amazed at how much he’d read, how many types of quotations he pulled out of his hat. Across a wide spectrum, from journalism to Kierkegaard or Conrad. He had started out in Louisville in a reading club. But he didn’t have a college education. He had to be self-taught. Like Lincoln burning the midnight oil. So I didn’t isolate Hunter out as a writer, perhaps. I’m trying to remember. He was a phenomenon. I didn’t know where he’d take that phenomenon. What areas he’d push into.
He was so intense and just there, alive and not so into drugs. I didn’t know how he would use that intensity and presence and that lack of self-consciousness. I take that back. He was a bit shy at times. He had that split between the philosophical side (I liked that) and the outer, manic showman. So I don’t think I guessed what he’d do with all those qualities. Also, I read the draft of The Rum Diary, and at that point it needed a lot of work.
But I also noticed that in every place he made a correction, he improved it. Authors don’t always sense that. Also, he had this incredible musicality about words. Then, when I lived outside the U.S. and occasionally ran across a person who knew his work well, I began to see that he was growing really famous, though I didn’t often get to read Rolling Stone. I did pick one up—and his books—whenever I got the chance and also read about him in Morocco in Time magazine. I wasn’t really surprised.
MF.. How seriously, if at all do you take Gonzo Journalism? Has it a future? And if so what can we, his fans, as a collective do to ensure or nurture its future?
There is now a Fear and Loathing Guide to Blogging, whose first two rules are “Tell the truth, even if it’s frightening.” And “Break the rules.” Next, “Leave your mark” and “Step on toes.” Many things of that sort come to mind, even reality TV, though Hunter wasn’t self-absorbed in a purely personal way. He always had a larger issue.
There are so many areas where the prevalence of an active narrator trying to get the story, who becomes the story, is the emphasis. In journalism classes students love to select one of his books.
Let me give an offbeat hint of the wide undercurrent of effect. “The Voice” is a very popular TV show. Something like “American Idol.” Well, my eyes popped when I saw its symbol. Rising large on the screen at every program and commercial break is this giant fist, without the peyote. From newspeople and cable TV, you hear his phrases, sprinkled in anonymously, like “fear and loathing” or “Let the games begin.” His influence is spread through pop culture. One thing gonzo lovers can do, I think, is recognize the source of these influences. And speak up when there are misunderstandings of what Hunter was all about. If he was called “the least factual,” he was also “the most accurate.” He didn’t see hard facts as the best—most compelling—way to get at the truth. That’s deep psychology and perceptiveness.
MF.. In your opinion what mistakes, in the sense of his literary career did he make?
Wow. That’s a tall order. One can only wonder if, early in his career, he had gotten The Rum Diary the way he wanted it. And it had been published. That would have opened up his fiction bent. But he got such a big break in his FLLV. His persona got firmly associated with a vast quantity of drugs—though FFLV as a book wasn’t an immediate success. But you could imagine other pathways. Suppose he’d liked living in DC, where he moved for Campaign Trail. But he couldn’t wait to get back to Owl Farm. I’d say—though others might answer this question better—that when he stopped bringing in stories, when he didn’t bring in the Mohammed Ali fight, for instance, and barely brought in the Vietnam story, something wasn’t optimal. Something in that drive to get the story out—maybe in the chain from story to deadline—got broken. Not that editors didn’t try. I heard Jim Silberman comment on Hunter’s isolation out there at Owl Farm, when he needed to be inside a story, making it happen. He was the story. To do that, he had to leave the farm.
It may have had to do with the increase in drugs. Or something else. Something in his support system might not have been there—he had such a wide one. I remember the one time I was actually sitting beside him as he wrote, in 1991. He said to keep him focused, he had a tendency to lose focus. Some writers have only one book in them. Hunter vastly surpassed what most do. He left a big impression and a hole. People today wonder aloud how he’d picture the times. They miss having him in the fray, steering the ship. Some voice out there is silent, and it matters. There are so many directions he made starts in. But he created his own—some call it a myth—something in our culture we aren’t forgetting, and that shows in the sales of ALL his books.
MF.. The drug and alcohol part of his life was never the bait for me, it was the writing and his political acumen.. How different would his writing have been without the substance abuse?
I read the questions one by one. So this one, I’ve partly answered above. Hunter had an astounding ability to absorb a drug without its showing outwardly. He functioned with a drug, or more than one. He monitored the levels, the effect, the combination. And that had something to do with a—I’d say—rare chemistry. But there’s no way around the fact that a drug like cocaine is going to affect you. He had a very easy-going side. His ex-wife mentioned “the full spectrum” of his emotions. That at one end, a “monster” might suddenly come out. That could have been the drugs. Just speculating. He didn’t need coke to write. In the beginning, he was writing just fine without it. Such a drug can affect your motivation, your focus—your sense of what’s important to you. For whatever reason, he made that choice. Or couldn’t go back. When I asked him would he like to get high without drugs, he said, “It would save me a lot of money.” I knew places where he could have had sacred “ceremonies”—that is, a small amount of a pure drug in a (Native American or otherwise) sacred ceremony. But I wasn’t around him at that point long enough to tell him. And I also eventually knew how to get high on meditation—go into altered states that way.
But, again, I wasn’t around him long enough at that point to introduce him and see what would happen. Who knows? He didn’t say no. Maybe he would have wanted to experiment in these other directions. After all, it would have been something new. He remained highly functional. But as I said, he had trouble focusing in writing. I think that only grew with the drugs. But he wrote some good columns—sharp analysis—pretty much up to the end. Take the HST language and humor when he talks about putting Titanium in his spine in “Hey, Rube,” or the “downward spiral of dumbness.” Or his predictions for the U.S. after 9/11. There are insights and quotable phrases that are pure HST put in the way that only he could.
MF.. Your favorite book by him?
Hell’s Angels—because of the back story. But as to the best, of course I like FFLV. I equally like Campaign Trail. It broke so much ground. I always like the way he used styles and illustrations and typeset formatting which he had a lot of input in; at least, with Hell’s Angels. Also, I love a lot of The Great Shark Hunt, but not every section. Another thing Hunter influenced is the use of formatting, spacing, or illustrations (often thanks to Ralph Steadman but not only) to accent the text, bring out the nonverbal side. I also love the letters collections.
MF.. What would he have said about you writing about him?
I hope he would have said, “You go, girl.”
He had a long-lasting influence on me and still is doing so. For one thing, personally, his presence, his aura, his passion, his style. The way he stood for things. For instance, he didn’t like big institutions, and he didn’t back down in opposing them when they crossed his path. Fortunately, R.H. was a small house, not the conglomerate of today. He influenced me by being solid. Of course, he was flexible and a listener. But he wasn’t swayed if he didn’t want to be. Also, by his range. He had friends in all walks of life.
He could get on different levels and communicate there. I found all that a good example. I admired and admire it. And him. Also, of course, as a writer, he could speak on a level that his audience could relate to. I can be obscure. He knew how to keep his philosophical bent in check, under the surface. I was recently reading L’Etranger (The Stranger) by Camus. Camus was philosophical but said that if philosophy went directly into his writing it killed the energy. It had to go in indirectly, with the audience only peripherally aware of it. So Hunter understood a lot. But that never the tiniest bit got in the way of his raw emotion and observations. To end with a quote: He couldn’t find a focus for his next book, after Hell’s Angels. His assignment—The Death of the American Dream—was amorphous, a shapeless, sprawling blob. He drew on William Blake (“To see a world in a grain of sand”). Here is how I put it in Keep This Quiet!
To Jim Silberman he bemoaned the lack of perspective—that single grain of sand that if closely examined revealed a world. That is, “The job of a writer, it seems to me, is to focus very finely on a thing, a place, a person, act, phenomenon . . . and then, when the focus is right, to understand, and then render the subject of that focus in such a way that it suddenly appears in context—the reader’s context, regardless of who the reader happens to be, or where.” More precisely, “you focus on some scurvy freak in Oakland who calls himself a ‘Hell’s Angel’ & write about him in such a way that any dingbat stockbroker in Cleveland can see himself somehow
in the image of that scurvy freak.”¹
Faulkner couldn’t have said it better. This is a writer’s ethos.
¹Fear and Loathing in America, 205, 264. Envelope Image courtesy of Margaret Harrell.