Fear & Loathing With Hunter S. Thompson

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Cheryl Della Pietra spent the summer of 1992 in Woody Creek with the legendary author Hunter S. Thompson, an experience she fictionalized in her novel, Gonzo Girl. kind magazine caught up with the Connecticut-based author and asked her to relive her time there, and found she was thoughtful when recounting her days. Substances may have helped fuel one of America’s most famous authors. But what mattered to him—and Della Pietra—was the work.
  • Ben Kaplan: Let me hear your favourite three sentences Hunter Thompson ever wrote. In fact, I'll start off, so we can trade awesome lines (of literature, not cocaine). I’ll start with the one most people know, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers... and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.”

    Cheryl Della Pietra: I mean, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has one of the best opening lines in all of literature: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” There are also some great lines in his Kentucky Derby story: “It was a face I'd seen a thousand times at every Derby I'd ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry—a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture.”

  • BK: Your novel, Gonzo Girl, is a fictionalized account of your time working with Hunter. And I know you've told the story millions of times before—but how did it come to pass that Hunter Thompson called you at 3 am?

    CDP: Well, after college I moved to New York with the goal of working in magazines and I promptly became… a bartender. It was a difficult time to find work. A friend of mine was interning at Rolling Stone and he called me up and said Hunter was looking for an assistant and was I interested in putting my hat in the ring. So I said yes, and I worked up a letter that day and it was faxed to him. I can’t remember exactly what I said in the letter, but suffice to say it was unconventional. So, yes, at 3 a.m. the phone rang and this baritone mumble came over the phone: “I liked your letter. Can you get out here tomorrow?” And I did.

  • BK: What were your first impressions of Hunter, of Woody Creek, about the universe he had created?

    CDP: On one hand you have this idea that things are going to be wild because of what you know about Hunter’s public persona—and in some sense they were. There were peacocks roaming the property, the giant red convertible, the shooting range, the substances—the things you see in his books. But, of course, there were utterly normal moments too—maybe those were the most surprising.

    Interestingly, he was surrounded by women, people who took care of him. There was his longtime personal assistant; me, his purported editorial assistant; and his girlfriend. So he basically had created this environment where people would tend to things so he could create. As a creative person, he had times when he had to “fill the tank,” so to speak, and that would be having fun… and, yes, often substances were involved.

  • BK: Obviously at that point, 1992, Thompson was already a legend, but you were brought on to help him produce the novel Polo Is My Life, which he took very seriously, and was very hard. What do you think writing meant to him?

    CDP: Everything. Writing meant everything to him. He once said “I haven't found a drug yet that can get you anywhere near as high as sitting at a desk writing.” It’s funny: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a blessing and a curse. On one hand it introduced him to a whole new audience, but there are certain fans who only know him from this drug-addled gonzo adventure. What they don’t know are the books filled with serious, hard-hitting journalism and political writing, such as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Hell’s Angels, Generation of Swine, and any number of magazine articles for Rolling Stone or The National Observer, just to name a few. He was a very incisive thinker and journalist with a well-calibrated moral compass, and he had no problem calling out those in power and those who were reaching for power. I think he felt a responsibility as a writer, as a journalist, to expose those people.

I haven't found a drug yet that can get you anywhere near as high as sitting at a desk writing.
  • BK: You were also a writer at the time, and still are. What lessons did you learn from one of America's most famous writers of all-time?

    CDP: I’m not going to say “write every day.” But I will say “try every day.” Not every writing session was successful, but Hunter sat down at that typewriter every day and made a go of it. You’re not as prolific a writer as he is without that kind of discipline.

  • BK: Obviously liquor and drugs were part of his process—champagne, cocaine, Chivas, cannabis and just about anything else. How did the substances seem to affect him?

    CDP: They affected him in the same way they affect everyone. They had the potential to help produce turns of pure genius and they had the potential to distract. That’s kind of what Gonzo Girl is about: to what degree can substances enhance genius—and to what degree can they also destroy genius. Where is the tipping point?

Art by AbstractBodo.
  • BK: We’ve seen the movie and read the books—his books and other books—about the massive amounts of consumption. I keep begging you to tell me about the morning eight balls and so much else, but you cringe. How come?

    CDP: Yes, obviously that was a big part of his public persona, but there was so much more to him than that. People love to talk about Hunter's drug use. But I'd rather they talk about the person, or the work. I mean, I understand the fascination—as with Keith Richards, he had a constitution that could handle quite a lot, and what the drug use represents is compelling. But the reason I wrote Gonzo Girl was to kind of tamp down the drug-addled caricature. I wanted to show Hunter as a real person, not a cartoon.

  • BK: In the late ’60s and certainly in opposition of Nixon, drug culture was en vogue and he, in the pages of Rolling Stone, was at the vanguard. What do you think he found in substances? Was it a rebellion of the straight world?

    CDP: There is an interesting quote from Thompson: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone but they always worked for me.” There are a lot of ways to read that. I’m not going to get too analytical—I don’t know his reasons for all of the substances—but of course many people use them to dull themselves to the world… sensitive people do. And like any creative person, I think he was sensitive to the world. He had a deep moral compass, especially vis-a-vis politics, and I think certain parts of the world enraged him. Perhaps the substances tempered that. The other way to read this is that they were fun. Fun was a very important part of any day in Woody Creek. And fun could take on many forms—sometimes involving substances.

  • BK: Tell me about him at his most brilliant. You recall those moments as "magic." What was it like hearing his fingertips dance?

    CDP: I feel very fortunate to have been in these extremely intimate situations with Hunter—the middle of the night, him writing, taking calls, watching CNN, certain films. It could be really magical when it was all working. He used a traditional typewriter—no computers—which is wild, when you think about it. Ironically, he was the world’s worst typist—he would hunt and peck. Then he would do any edits in pen afterward. But it’s kind of incredible to think that for the most part that genius would come out of him whole.

Art by AbstractBodo.
  • BK: You’re 22 years old and sitting across from Hunter with his cigarette holder and scotch, the Tilley hat and entourage. Are you both pinching yourself and ducking for cover?

    CDP: It’s funny, at the time I had only read what is most people’s introduction to HST—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I hadn’t read the huge body of work, including serious journalism and incisive political writing, that preceded it and came after it. Of course, I’ve read practically everything he’s ever written since, but at the time ignorance was kind of bliss. He has a fanatical following, so maybe he appreciated the fact that I just treated him normally and was there to get work done.

  • BK: I know one of your big takeaways from HST was: "a day without fun is a day that eats shit.” Almost 20 years later, what do you make of your summer with the man, and how did it inform your life, now as a writer and an editor, a wife and a mom?

    CDP: There’s something really innocent and playful about that quote—and it’s good to be reminded of it, especially now. Everything feels so heavy in the world. Fun doesn’t feel easy right now. But why not put this on your daily to-do list? Fun feeds the soul—professionally, personally. He was right: You can’t argue with the sentiment.