Fifty years ago, the book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs was written and published by Hunter S. Thompson.
Since then, Thompson went on to author many classic gonzo style works, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was made into a movie starring Johnny Depp, and has become an iconic figure in the history of American literature.
Today, July 18, Hunter S. Thompson would turn 79. To commemorate his legacy, Konbini speaks to the legendary writer's son, Juan Thompson, about the art of gonzo journalism and the powerful influences of his late father.
Juan Thompson has recently published his own book, Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up with Hunter S. Thompson, detailing his relationship with his brilliant, yet deeply flawed alcoholic father.
The book captures all the fear and loathing this environment engenders, culminating in a vivid account of his father's suicide by a bullet to the head. Juan was in the next room when this took place in 2005.
Konbini: The first thing that jumps out when reading Stories I Tell Myself is your distinct literary voice. It affects a serious tone and is decidedly un-gonzo like. How important was it to differentiate your writing style from your father’s?
Juan: I felt one thing’s for damn sure – I don’t want anyone to even think that I’m trying to write like Hunter. This is not gonzo junior. First of all, trying to imitate Hunter’s style is a bad idea. No one can do it. And secondly, why even try?
It was really important for me to go out of my way to not do that, even trying to avoid using certain phrases, though I did steal his format for story headings.
I hoped that I was successful in writing in a way that would connect with other people. People write for different reasons, but for me, the only reason to write is to communicate something important to somebody else, as clearly as I can.
What were you trying to communicate with the writing of this book?
I decided to do it because there was so much coverage after he died, but so much of it focused on that gonzo persona. It just really upset me. All that attention and it was all focused on, what I would call, almost trivial aspects of Hunter.
The most important thing to Hunter was being a writer and being remembered as a great writer. That was his ambition and in the coverage, there was nothing about him as a journalist.
I think that at least two of the movies, Where the Buffalo Roam and Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, really missed that. They just focused on the gonzo guy. I thought the Rum Diary did a better job of taking Hunter seriously as a person and a writer, not just a one-dimensional stick figure.
"All that attention and it was all focused on almost trivial aspects of Hunter."
Have you developed any further insight into your father, having completed the writing and publishing of your own book?
I thought writing a book can’t be that hard, I wrote a thesis in undergraduate, I thought it would be like that but maybe longer. I found it’s really hard to write a book. It’s so damn long.
You know, I bet writing was the same way for Hunter, I think he really didn’t enjoy it. It wasn’t easy, he wasn’t one of those guys, like Stephen King or whoever, where you just sit down and the words pour out. I think, for him, it was always hard, it was always a struggle.
"I bet writing was the same way for Hunter, I think he really didn’t enjoy it."
It was something that he always avoided until the deadline pressure grew and he just had to get it done. It was a painful process. He would procrastinate, find anything else to do besides writing and then it was either him needing the money, or he was a month over deadline and editors were having a fit so he would actually finish whatever he was working on.
Gonzo journalism utilizes immersion, first-person narrative and often blurs the line between fact and fiction. Many have tried their hand at gonzo and failed. What made gonzo journalism, in Hunter's hands, so successful, and what mistakes do other writers make when writing this way?
My theory is, after writing The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved under great pressure, he realized that he had this voice, this really raw and powerful voice that he didn’t know he had, and when he saw it, he realized this is something special and unique. This is different and there’s something here that fit him.
There was nothing else like it. There were a million journalists who could create good prose, but nothing like the Kentucky Derby piece. I think he made a conscious decision to start developing that voice.
"This whole notion of 'get fucked up and start scrawling on a piece of paper' – no, that’s not it at all."
He didn’t break all the rules, he was still a writer, he was still applying the rules of good writing, just to a really unusual style. Like in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, which is probably my favorite book because it had the appearance of being dashed off, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t paying attention to the craft of writing.
This whole notion of "get fucked up and start scrawling on a piece of paper" – no, that’s not it at all. So that’s one area where people go totally wrong because they think, they assume, it’s just stream of consciousness.
And another part of that is that they try to imitate Hunter, they try to imitate his voice, which is a huge mistake. That was his voice, go find your own voice. Gonzo’s not about Hunter’s voice (except for Hunter), gonzo is about going to find your own voice.
Vice Magazine has garnered a reputation for gonzo style reporting. Millennials, as it turns out, want gonzo. Lots of it. What can gonzo offer that more traditional forms of journalism can’t?
I read the New York Times every day to find out what happened but one thing that drives me crazy about it is that it is not going to say that Trump is a criminal, a con man and a fraud. That’s what they should be writing because it’s true. That’s the truth.
Satire and hyperbole were the ways Hunter got around libel laws because you can get the essence of the truth, even if the literal words are not true. That’s what he was doing with these descriptions of Nixon’s character.
"At the end of the day, you just have to make your writing compelling. Hunter understood how to grab a reader's attention and hold that attention through an article."
After the ’72 election and Nixon’s victory, Hunter wrote this amazing article about what it meant to him and he went on this riff about Nixon moving across the White House lawn, and there’s a full moon, and he’s a werewolf with bleeding string warts trying to remember which apartment was Martha Mitchell’s. It’s brilliant and it’s both a wonderful hyperbole, but also dead serious.
At the end of the day, you just have to make your writing compelling. Hunter understood how to grab a reader's attention and hold that attention through an article.