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In an October 1957 letter to a friend who had recommended he read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “Although I don’t feel that it’s at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I’ll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in sudden outbursts of frustrated violence.
. . .” Thompson carved out his niche early. He was born in 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky, where his fiction and poetry earned him induction into the local Athenaeum Literary Association while he was still in high school. Thompson continued his literary pursuits in the United States Air Force, writing a weekly sports column for the base newspaper. After two years of service, Thompson endured a series of newspaper jobs—all of which ended badly—before he took to freelancing from Puerto Rico and South America for a variety of publications.
The vocation quickly developed into a compulsion. Thompson completed The Rum Diary, his only novel to date, before he turned twenty-five; bought by Ballantine Books, it finally was published—to glowing reviews—in 1998. In 1967, Thompson published his first nonfiction book, Hell’s Angels, a harsh and incisive firsthand investigation into the infamous motorcycle gang then making the heartland of America nervous.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which first appeared in Rolling Stone in November 1971, sealed Thompson’s reputation as an outlandish stylist successfully straddling the line between journalism and fiction writing. As the subtitle warns, the book tells of “a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream” in full-tilt gonzo style—Thompson’s hilarious first-person approach—and is accented by British illustrator Ralph Steadman’s appropriate drawings.
His next book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, was a brutally perceptive take on the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign. A self-confessed political junkie, Thompson chronicled the 1992 presidential campaign in Better than Sex (1994). Thompson’s other books include The Curse of Lono (1983), a bizarre South Seas tale, and three collections of Gonzo Papers: The Great Shark Hunt (1979), Generation of Swine (1988) and Songs of the Doomed (1990).
In 1997, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, the first volume of Thompson’s correspondence with everyone from his mother to Lyndon Johnson, was published. The second volume of letters, Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976, has just been released. • Located in the mostly posh neighborhood of western Colorado’s Woody Creek Canyon, ten miles or so down-valley from Aspen, Owl Farm is a rustic ranch with an old-fashioned Wild West charm.
Although Thompson’s beloved peacocks roam his property freely, it’s the flowers blooming around the ranch house that provide an unexpected high-country tranquility. Jimmy Carter, George McGovern and Keith Richards, among dozens of others, have shot clay pigeons and stationary targets on the property, which is a designated Rod and Gun Club and shares a border with the White River National Forest.
Almost daily, Thompson leaves Owl Farm in either his Great Red Shark Convertible or Jeep Grand Cherokee to mingle at the nearby Woody Creek Tavern. Visitors to Thompson’s house are greeted by a variety of sculptures, weapons, boxes of books and a bicycle before entering the nerve center of Owl Farm, Thompson’s obvious command post on the kitchen side of a peninsula counter that separates him from a lounge area dominated by an always-on Panasonic TV, always tuned to news or sports.
An antique upright piano is piled high and deep enough with books to engulf any reader for a decade. Above the piano hangs a large Ralph Steadman portrait of “Belinda”—the Slut Goddess of Polo. On another wall covered with political buttons hangs a Che Guevara banner acquired on Thompson’s last tour of Cuba. On the counter sits an IBM Selectric typewriter—a Macintosh computer is set up in an office in the back wing of the house.
The most striking thing about Thompson’s house is that it isn’t the weirdness one notices first: it’s the words. They’re everywhere—handwritten in his elegant lettering, mostly in fading red Sharpie on the blizzard of bits of paper festooning every wall and surface: stuck to the sleek black leather refrigerator, taped to the giant TV, tacked up on the lampshades; inscribed by others on framed photos with lines like, “For Hunter, who saw not only fear and loathing, but hope and joy in ’72—George McGovern”; typed in IBM Selectric on reams of originals and copies in fat manila folders that slide in piles off every counter and table top; and noted in many hands and inks across the endless flurry of pages.
Thompson extricates his large frame from his ergonomically correct office chair facing the TV and lumbers over graciously to administer a hearty handshake or kiss to each caller according to gender, all with an easy effortlessness and unexpectedly old-world way that somehow underscores just who is in charge. • We talked with Thompson for twelve hours straight. This was nothing out of the ordinary for the host: Owl Farm operates like an eighteenth-century salon, where people from all walks of life congregate in the wee hours for free exchanges about everything from theoretical physics to local water rights, depending on who’s there.
Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time, was present during parts of this interview, as were a steady stream of friends. Given the very late hours Thompson keeps, it is fitting that the most prominently posted quote in the room, in Thompson’s hand, twists the last line of Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”: “Rage, rage against the coming of the light.” For most of the half-day that we talked, Thompson sat at his command post, chain-smoking red Dunhills through a German-made gold-tipped cigarette filter and rocking back and forth in his swivel chair.
Behind Thompson’s sui generis personality lurks a trenchant humorist with a sharp moral sensibility. His exaggerated style may defy easy categorization, but his career-long autopsy on the death of the American dream places him among the twentieth century’s most exciting writers. The comic savagery of his best work will continue to electrify readers for generations to come. • . . . I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than from anything else in the English Language—and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music.
HUNTER S. THOMPSON Well, wanting to and having to are two different things. Originally I hadn’t thought about writing as a solution to my problems. But I had a good grounding in literature in high school. We’d cut school and go down to a café on Bardstown Road where we would drink beer and read and discuss Plato’s parable of the cave. We had a literary society in town, the Athenaeum; we met in coat and tie on Saturday nights.
I hadn’t adjusted too well to society—I was in jail for the night of my high school graduation—but I learned at the age of fifteen that to get by you had to find the one thing you can do better than anybody else . . . at least this was so in my case. I figured that out early. It was writing. It was the rock in my sock. Easier than algebra. It was always work, but it was always worthwhile work.
I was fascinated early by seeing my byline in print. It was a rush. Still is. When I got to the Air Force, writing got me out of trouble. I was assigned to pilot training at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola in northwest Florida, but I was shifted to electronics . . . advanced, very intense, eight-month school with bright guys . . . I enjoyed it but I wanted to get back to pilot training. Besides, I’m afraid of electricity.
So I went up there to the base education office one day and signed up for some classes at Florida State. I got along well with a guy named Ed and I asked him about literary possibilities. He asked me if I knew anything about sports, and I said that I had been the editor of my high-school paper. He said, “Well, we might be in luck.” It turned out that the sports editor of the base newspaper, a staff sergeant, had been arrested in Pensacola and put in jail for public drunkenness, pissing against the side of a building; it was the third time and they wouldn’t let him out.
So I went to the base library and found three books on journalism. I stayed there reading them until it closed. Basic journalism. I learned about headlines, leads: who, when, what, where, that sort of thing. I barely slept that night. This was my ticket to ride, my ticket to get out of that damn place. So I started as an editor. Boy, what a joy. I wrote long Grantland Rice-type stories. The sports editor of my hometown Louisville Courier Journal always had a column, left-hand side of the page.
So I started a column. By the second week I had the whole thing down. I could work at night. I wore civilian clothes, worked off base, had no hours, but I worked constantly. I wrote not only for the base paper, The Command Courier, but also the local paper, The Playground News. I’d put things in the local paper that I couldn’t put in the base paper. Really inflammatory shit. I wrote for a professional wrestling newsletter.
The Air Force got very angry about it. I was constantly doing things that violated regulations. I wrote a critical column about how Arthur Godfrey, who’d been invited to the base to be the master of ceremonies at a firepower demonstration, had been busted for shooting animals from the air in Alaska. The base commander told me: “Goddamn it, son, why did you have to write about Arthur Godfrey that way?” When I left the Air Force I knew I could get by as a journalist.
So I went to apply for a job at Sports Illustrated. I had my clippings, my bylines, and I thought that was magic . . . my passport. The personnel director just laughed at me. I said, “Wait a minute. I’ve been sports editor for two papers.” He told me that their writers were judged not by the work they’d done, but where they’d done it. He said, “Our writers are all Pulitzer Prize winners from The New York Times.
This is a helluva place for you to start. Go out into the boondocks and improve yourself.” I was shocked. After all, I’d broken the Bart Starr story. INTERVIEWER What was that? THOMPSON At Eglin Air Force Base we always had these great football teams. The Eagles. Championship teams. We could beat up on the University of Virginia. Our bird-colonel Sparks wasn’t just any yo-yo coach. We recruited.
We had these great players serving their military time in ROTC. We had Zeke Bratkowski, the Green Bay quarterback. We had Max McGee of the Packers. Violent, wild, wonderful drunk. At the start of the season McGee went AWOL, appeared at the Green Bay camp and he never came back. I was somehow blamed for his leaving. The sun fell out of the firmament. Then the word came that we were getting Bart Starr, the All-American from Alabama.
The Eagles were going to roll! But then the staff sergeant across the street came in and said, “I’ve got a terrible story for you. Bart Starr’s not coming.” I managed to break into an office and get out his files. I printed the order that showed he was being discharged medically. Very serious leak. INTERVIEWER The Bart Starr story was not enough to impress Sports Illustrated? THOMPSON The personnel guy there said, “Well, we do have this trainee program.
” So I became a kind of copy boy. INTERVIEWER You eventually ended up in San Francisco. With the publication in 1967 of Hell’s Angels, your life must have taken an upward spin. THOMPSON All of a sudden I had a book out. At the time I was twenty-nine years old and I couldn’t even get a job driving a cab in San Francisco, much less writing. Sure, I had written important articles for The Nation and The Observer, but only a few good journalists really knew my byline.
The book enabled me to buy a brand new BSA 650 Lightning, the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine. It validated everything I had been working toward. If Hell’s Angels hadn’t happened I never would have been able to write Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or anything else. To be able to earn a living as a freelance writer in this country is damned hard; there are very few people who can do that.
Hell’s Angels all of a sudden proved to me that, Holy Jesus, maybe I can do this. I knew I was a good journalist. I knew I was a good writer, but I felt like I got through a door just as it was closing. INTERVIEWER With the swell of creative energy flowing throughout the San Francisco scene at the time, did you interact with or were you influenced by any other writers? THOMPSON Ken Kesey for one.
His novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion had quite an impact on me. I looked up to him hugely. One day I went down to the television station to do a roundtable show with other writers, like Kay Boyle, and Kesey was there. Afterwards we went across the street to a local tavern and had several beers together. I told him about the Angels, who I planned to meet later that day, and I said, “Well, why don’t you come along?” He said, “Whoa, I’d like to meet these guys.
” Then I got second thoughts, because it’s never a good idea to take strangers along to meet the Angels. But I figured that this was Ken Kesey, so I’d try. By the end of the night Kesey had invited them all down to La Honda, his woodsy retreat outside of San Francisco. It was a time of extreme turbulence—riots in Berkeley. He was always under assault by the police—day in and day out, so La Honda was like a war zone.
But he had a lot of the literary, intellectual crowd down there, Stanford people also, visiting editors, and Hell’s Angels. Kesey’s place was a real cultural vortex.
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Interviewed by John Wray Issue 206, Fall 2013 Le Guin, 1996. In the early 1960s, when Ursula K. Le Guin began to publish, science fiction was dominated by so-called hard sci-fi: speculative fiction grounded in physics, chemistry, and, to a lesser extent, biology. The understanding of technological progress as an unalloyed good went largely unquestioned; America was enjoying unprecedented prominence in world affairs, and the science fiction of what has come to be known as the “golden age” projected this same sense of exceptionalism onto the cosmos.
The space adventures that filled the pages of Amazing Stories and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction tended to be written by, for, and about white men, with only occasional nods to racial or gender (or, for that matter, species) diversity. Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World (1966), which featured a classic man of science as its hero, did little to upset the status quo. But a sea change was coming.
No single work did more to upend the genre’s conventions than The Left Hand of Darkness(1969). In this novel, her fourth, Le Guin imagined a world whose human inhabitants have no fixed gender: their sexual roles are determined by context and express themselves only once every month. The form of the book is a mosaic of primary sources, an interstellar ethnographer’s notebook, ranging from matter-of-fact journal entries to fragments of alien myth.
Writers as diverse as Zadie Smith and Algis Budrys have cited The Left Hand of Darkness as an influence, and Harold Bloom included it in The Western Canon. In the decades that followed, Le Guin continued to broaden both her range and her readership, writing the fantasy series she has perhaps become best known for, Earthsea, as well as the anarchist utopian allegory The Dispossessed, to name just a few books among dozens.
Her productivity is remarkable. Lavinia (2008), her most recent novel, was her twenty-third book-length work of fiction. Ursula Kroeber was born in Berkeley, California, in 1929, the daughter of Alfred L. Kroeber, a prominent anthropologist, and Theodora Kroeber, the author of a best-selling biography of Ishi, the “Last Wild Indian in North America,” who lived out the last years of his life on display at a museum on the University of California, Berkeley campus.
Her childhood was spent in the company of her large family and their many academic visitors, as well as members of the Native American community. She went on to study at Radcliffe and Columbia, which granted her an M.A. in French and Italian Renaissance literature in 1952, at the age of twenty-two. On a steamer bound for France in 1953, she met the historian Charles Le Guin, whom she married a few months later.
For the past half century, Le Guin and Charles, a professor of history at Portland State University, have lived in a handsome but inconspicuous Victorian on a steep, tree-lined street just below Portland’s Forest Park. The house—which, appropriately for a writer of science fiction, appears larger on the inside than it does from without—harbors a surprise: a veranda with a view of the ruined cone of Mount Saint Helens.
Le Guin received me in the parlor, but we soon moved out onto the veranda, in part to escape the fierce attentions of her cat. —John Wray INTERVIEWER How do you feel about the term science fiction, as connected to your work? LE GUIN Well, that’s very complicated, Wray. INTERVIEWER I’m sorry. Are you at peace with it? Do you find it reductive? LE GUIN I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got.
It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions. INTERVIEWER That’s how one can identify a sci-fi author, I guess—tentacles coming out of the pigeonhole.
LE GUIN That’s right. INTERVIEWER It seems to me there might be authors whose work is more accurately described by the term science fiction than your own—someone like Arthur C. Clarke, for example, whose work is often directly connected to a specific scientific concept. In your fiction, by contrast, hard science is perhaps less important than philosophy or religion or social science. LE GUIN The “hard”–science fiction writers dismiss everything except, well, physics, astronomy, and maybe chemistry.
Biology, sociology, anthropology—that’s not science to them, that’s soft stuff. They’re not that interested in what human beings do, really. But I am. I draw on the social sciences a great deal. I get a lot of ideas from them, particularly from anthropology. When I create another planet, another world, with a society on it, I try to hint at the complexity of the society I’m creating, instead of just referring to an empire or something like that.
INTERVIEWER Might that be why your fiction has been more readily admired in so-called literary circles—that it’s more engaged with human complexity and psychology? LE GUIN It’s helped to make my stuff more accessible to people who don’t, as they say, read science fiction. But the prejudice against genre has been so strong until recently. It’s all changing now, which is wonderful. For most of my career, getting that label—sci-fi—slapped on you was, critically, a kiss of death.
It meant you got reviewed in a little box with some cute title about Martians—or tentacles. INTERVIEWER Since we’re on the subject, what was it like to grow up as the child of a prominent anthropologist? Did it contribute to your beginnings as a writer? LE GUIN That’s a question I’ve been asked about a billion times, and it’s really hard to answer. Obviously, my father’s interest and temperament set some kind of .
.. well, I almost want to say a moral tone. He was interested in everything. Living with a mind like that is, of course, a kind of education. His field of science was a human one, and that’s really good luck for a novelist. We spent every summer, all summer, at a ranch he had bought in Napa Valley. It was very run-down, easygoing, and my parents had lots and lots of guests. My father would entertain his fellow academics and people from abroad—this was the late thirties, and there were refugees coming in, people from all over the world.
Among the guests were a couple of Indians who had been “informants,” as they called them then—they don’t use that word anymore—tribal members my father had come to know as friends through working with them, learning their language and customs from them. One of them, Juan Dolores, was a Papago, or O’odham—he was a real family friend. And he would stay for a couple weeks or a month. So we sort of had this Indian uncle.
Just having these people from a truly other culture—it was a tremendous gift. INTERVIEWER What was the nature of that gift? LE GUIN Maybe simply the experience of the “other”? A lot of people never have it, or don’t take the chance when offered. Everybody in the industrial nations now sees “others” on the TV, and so on, but that’s not the same as living with them. Even if only one or two of them.
INTERVIEWER You’ve said that you were “raised as irreligious as a jackrabbit.” And yet an interest in religion is present in a great deal of your writing. LE GUIN I think I have—well, I can’t call it a religious temperament, because the trouble is the word religion. I am profoundly interested in both Taoism and Buddhism, and they’ve given me a lot. Taoism is just part of the structure of my mind by now.
And Buddhism is intensely interesting to me. But if you don’t call it a religious cast of mind, then you have to call it something like spiritual, and that’s woo-woo and wishy-washy. There are these big issues that religion tries to deal with, and I’m quite interested in that. INTERVIEWER Could you say a bit more about what Taoism and Buddhism have given you? LE GUIN Taoism gave me a handle on how to look at life and how to lead it when I was an adolescent hunting for ways to make sense of the world without going off into the God business.
Returning to Lao-tzu throughout the years, I’ve always found—and find—him offering what I want or need to learn. My translation, version, whatever it is, of the Tao Te Ching is a by-product of that long and happy association. My knowledge of Buddhism is much scantier and more recent, but it’s become indispensable in showing me how to use meditation usefully and in giving a steady north to my moral compass.
INTERVIEWER Kurt Vonnegut, in his Art of Fiction interview, in 1977, described anthropology as his only religion. LE GUIN That’s not quite enough for me, but I know exactly what he means, and it is what I fall back on. If I had to pick a hero, it would be Charles Darwin—the size of his mind, which included all that scientific curiosity and knowledge seeking, and the ability to put it all together.
There is a genuine spirituality about Darwin’s thinking. And he felt it, too. INTERVIEWER Could it be—I’m going out on a limb here—that this search for a satisfactory or sufficient religion might have influenced your direction as a writer? If none of our extant religions satisfy, in other words, why not invent one yourself? LE GUIN I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it.
My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. I’m just not a good candidate for conversion. INTERVIEWER What it is that draws you to this “trying on” of other existences? LE GUIN Oh, intellectual energy and curiosity, I suppose. An inborn interest in various and alternative ways of doing things and thinking about them. That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one.
And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people. INTERVIEWER When you were starting out, did you know that you wanted to write speculative fiction? LE GUIN No, no, no. I just knew from extremely early on—it sounds ridiculous, but five or six—that writing was something I was going to do, always. But just writing, not any mode in particular.
It started as poetry. I think I was nine or ten before I really wrote a story. And it was a fantasy story, because that’s mostly what I was reading. By then, my brother and I were putting our quarters together to buy, now and then, a ten-cent magazine called something like “Fantastic Tales”—pulp magazines, you know. INTERVIEWER Amazing Stories? LE GUIN Yeah! So the fiction I read, because I was an early beginner, tended toward the fantastic.
Realism is a very sophisticated form of literature, a very grown-up one. And that may be its weakness. But fantasy seems to be eternal and omnipresent and always attractive to kids. But when people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer. I didn’t want to be a writer and lead the writer’s life and be glamorous and go to New York. I just wanted to do my job writing, and to do it really well.
INTERVIEWER In relation to other writers? LE GUIN How else can you judge? It has to be, in a sense, competitive or comparative. INTERVIEWER Against whom were you measuring your work? LE GUIN Writers I’d have liked to be as good as, although not like? INTERVIEWER Right. LE GUIN Charles Dickens. Jane Austen. And then, when I finally learned to read her, Virginia Woolf. Shoot for the top, always. You know you’ll never make it, but what’s the fun if you don’t shoot for the top? INTERVIEWER When you began sending your work out into the world, did you have some idea of the writer you wanted to be? LE GUIN I knew by then that my main shtick was fiction, but that I would always write poetry.
My first publications were all poetry, and that’s partly because of my father. He realized that sending out poetry is quite a big job. It takes method and a certain amount of diligence and a good deal of time. And he said, I could help you do that, that would be fun! He got interested in the subculture of the little magazines and realized that it is a little world, with rules all its own. INTERVIEWER So he studied it anthropologically? LE GUIN He was curious about everything! And he actually did some of the mailing-out stuff.
INTERVIEWER How old were you at the time? LE GUIN I would have been in my twenties. I was also writing fiction and submitting it, and, again, my father comes into it. The first novel I ever wrote was very strange, very ambitious. It covered many generations in my invented Central European country, Orsinia. My father knew Alfred Knopf personally. I’d had recorder lessons with Blanche Knopf when I was seventeen.
Blanche—she was a real grande dame, oh God, she was scary. And I’d go in with my little tooter. INTERVIEWER Was this in New York? LE GUIN This was in New York. When I was about twenty-three, I asked my father if he felt that my submitting the novel to Knopf would presume on their friendship, and he said, No, go ahead and try him. So I did, and Knopf wrote a lovely letter back. He said, I can’t take this damn thing.
I would’ve done it ten years ago, but I can’t afford to now. He said, This is a very strange book, but you’re going somewhere! That was all I needed. I didn’t need acceptance. INTERVIEWER I’m guessing that was not Mr. Knopf ’s typical response. LE GUIN And I don’t think he was just being nice to my father, either, because Alfred Knopf was not a very nice man. My dad called him the Pirate.
INTERVIEWER And this Orsinia novel never saw the light of day? LE GUIN No, it didn’t. May a curse fall upon any academic who digs it out and publishes it. INTERVIEWER You’ve written that you can’t get underway with a project until you have the characters clear in your mind. But I suspect that some of your books may have begun not with a set of characters but with an idea you wanted to explore.
LE GUIN That is probably truest of The Dispossessed. Although it started as a short story. I had this physicist and he was in a prison camp somewhere. The story just went nowhere, but I knew that character was real. I had this lump of concrete and somewhere inside it was a diamond, but getting into the lump of concrete—it took years. For whatever reason, I started reading pacifist literature, and I was also involved in antiwar protests, Ban the Bomb and all that.
I had been a pacifist activist of sorts for a long time, but I realized I didn’t know much about my cause. I’d never read Gandhi, for starters. So I put myself through a sort of course, reading that literature, and that led me to utopianism. And that led me, through Kropotkin, into anarchism, pacifist anarchism. And at some point it occurred to me that nobody had written an anarchist utopia. We’d had socialist utopias and dystopias and all the rest, but anarchism—hey, that would be fun.
So then I read all the anarchist literature I could get, which was quite a lot, if you went to the right little stores in Portland. INTERVIEWER Where you got your books in a brown paper bag? LE GUIN You had to get to know the owner of the store. And if he trusted you, he’d take you to the back room and show you this wealth of material, some of which was violent anarchism and would have been frowned on by the government.
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Title: Paris Review Art Of Fiction