Books, Beats, and Badass Journalists: An Interview with David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom Books and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ (2013), Crossing India the Hard Way (2018) and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller (2019). His latest work High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism, an in-depth analysis of the writings of hell-raiser journalist Hunter S. Thompson, has hit the ground running.

David lives in Cambodia and spends his spare time reminding people he lives in Cambodia.

Hi, David. How’s the view from Cambodia?

Beautiful. I couldn’t think of a better place to be.

Your new book High White Notes was only recently released and has already garnered some excellent reviews. Margaret Ann Harrell, author of The Hell’s Angel’s Letters: Hunter S, Thompson, Margaret Harrell and The Making of An American Classic described it as “bringing Hunter’s history all too realistically and soberly to life.” Is the success going to your head? Were you surprised by the reaction?

I hope it’s not going to my head, but I certainly am flattered by the praise it has so far received. As a writer, you get used to quietly working away, occasionally publishing something, and generally being ignored. This book really caught people’s attention and has sold very well, which is a pleasant surprise.

Author and Editor David S. Wills

How do you work? Is it tricky to separate Wills the writer from Wills the editor?

As a writer, I spend a long time researching my subject and, as that happens, ideas for the writing come to me. I read everything I can find, speak to everyone I can think of, and throughout that whole phase I tend to note weird patterns and spot clues that dictate what the focus of a book or essay will be. When it comes time to write, it’s usually all there in my head, bursting to get out.

As for editing, it’s more straightforward. I want people’s voice to remain intact, so I don’t impose much style on them, instead cleaning up the text and removing errors. I push people to clarify because I think that writing is all about communication and so we need to eliminate ambiguity.

In both jobs, though, I do try to pursue work that is what I call “semi-academic.” That is to say, issues that are of academic interest but made accessible. I find academic writing quite insufferable. Academics tend to take 1,000 words to explain what could more easily have been said in 100, using words that honestly are just chosen to keep the average person at bay. Again, writing is about communication and no matter how complex the idea, we should aim at getting it across to the reader in a way that is both informative and engaging.

We will talk about Thompson in more depth, but let’s just step back in time for a moment. You founded Beatdom Books in 2007 and began publishing the literary journal Beatdom. What first drew you to the lives and works of the Beat Generation?

I don’t recall exactly but I would have been about twenty and in the late stages of university, where I was doing my MA in American Literature. I don’t think they came up in the course, but I read the books and talked about them with friends, and eventually I discussed the Beats with two professors, who encouraged me to pursue my interest further. I founded Beatdom in May, 2007, then a few months later went off to backpack around the American West, meeting people like Michael McClure and visiting important Beat landmarks. I think their appeal is largely the same as it is for others but it varies a bit over time. As a young man, I admired their rebelliousness and as I get older I admire their dedication to their craft.

The Beat Generation certainly has its fans and guardians, but other than as a slice of socio-literary history, do you think it still has relevance today? With the outbreak of “cancel culture” I’m worried I can feel the heat closing in on them…

Yeah, I think it will always have a certain relevance. That changes, of course, with people picking and choosing different ideas from the past that they want to embrace or reject. We’re going through this awful moment in Western liberalism right now where there’s this violent kneejerk reaction to anything white and male, so of course the Beats will have a rough time of it until cancel culture and all that nonsense dies away, which hopefully it will. I find it very amusing that today’s liberals owe so much to the Beats and their ilk, yet they so frequently reject them like spoiled kids unaware of how much their parents did for them. Hopefully, both the far left and far right will burn themselves out and we can have some sort of common sense return, where dialogue is possible and people are not forced into this virtue-signalling crap that is so painfully reminiscent of China’s Cultural Revolution. Let’s see…

Which authors and works of the Beats do you think have best stood the test of time?

Of course, the big three and their respective classics. On the Road may rightfully draw criticism for its misogyny, but it contains a timeless message and will hopefully inspire for decades to come; Naked Lunch was so unique and hilarious that it probably reads today much like it did at the time – shocking, brutal, absurd; and “Howl” resonates again and again with young people and will continue to do so. I think perhaps the “angry young men” and “anti-conformity” cards are overplayed, but certainly they are relevant here.

You’ve written books on two of the major Beats – Burroughs and Ginsberg – Is there a Kerouac work in the offing?

No. I don’t feel I have anything to bring to the table when it comes to Kerouac. I was able to reveal something important about Burroughs with my first book – something that no one knew or would acknowledge. With Ginsberg, I was able to frame his work in a quiet different light to previous books. However, I feel Kerouac has been covered extensively by people far more knowledgeable than me. Whilst it may seem logical to round out a Beat trilogy, I just don’t see what I would or could add that is of value.

Your book World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller took the fresh stance of presenting his life through the lens of his many travels – 66 different countries, I think – and the influence that had on his development as a poet. You’ve done some serious journeying yourself, most notably in Asia. Are you walking in his footsteps?

There are some similarities, I suppose. I always felt as much at home on the road as I did settled in one place. Ginsberg has me beaten when it comes to long journeys, but that’s because I’ve had to work to work to live, and so my longest trips have been about a month and a half, whereas he could spend months and even years travelling. I think I’m also about 15 countries short of his record, though, and if it weren’t for Covid, I might have gotten a little closer… So it goes. I’ve seen most of Asia, much of Southern Africa, a lot of Europe, but I’ve never been to South America, which Ginsberg explored.

I will add here that I am tremendously envious of people like him, getting to see the world before we brought it to the brink. Even in my lifetime, I have seen the destruction of our environment and the erosion of numerous cultures, with globalisation and human greed changing the planet at an unprecedented pace. I can see it even when I look out my window, as the landscape here changes notably from week to week. When I look at his journals and photos, it is almost like looking at a different world.

William Burroughs artwork by Stephen James

In a 2013 interview with Matthew Levi Stevens for realitystudio.org you cited Burroughs as your “central interest” and said “It’s not really that I’m a big fan of his work, but rather that I find him utterly fascinating as a character.” What was it about his dalliance with Scientology that made you want to focus in on that?

It was shocking to me that something could be so integral to the life and work of an important author, yet have been almost completely written out of the record. When you get people like Burroughs, we tend to revere them to the extent that we overlook their flaws. I love and admire Burroughs, but he was perpetually drawn to idiotic ideas. Scientology absolutely dominated his life during the period when he wrote much of his most important work, yet everyone just ignored that because it didn’t fit with their idealised image of him. I think it’s almost embarrassing for them to admit that their favourite writer and his best books were so heavily influenced by this nutjob cult. However, when we take a writer seriously, that entails acknowledging it all – the good, the bad, the ugly.

Does the Beat Generation ever feel like a burden to you? Do you ever get tired of them?

Yeah, absolutely. Every year, I edit another issue of Beatdom and say, “This is the last one.” Then, a few months later, I get some interesting pitches for the next issue and the ball just starts rolling. It’s been 15 years now, so it sort of has a life of its own. Also, I get some weird ideas into my head about a line in a Beat novel or poem and then just spend weeks researching it or analysing it and there is something rewarding about that obsessive search for meaning. It’s like scratching an itch. I am keen to move out from the Beats to other areas, but I doubt I’ll ever abandon them entirely.

Hunter S. Thompson was no Beat, of course, although he did, by turns, both acknowledge and dismiss a passing debt to Kerouac’s writing. In High White Notes, as the blurb states, you explore “how Thompson developed his unique literary voice and why he used such odd techniques to craft a form of prose that defied categorization.” It is an extraordinary piece of work, both scholarly and a page-turner – one hell of a ride. How long did the book take to research and write?

Well, I began thinking about it in 2006 or 2007, but I didn’t have the skills or resources to properly research it. It was in 2018 that I quit my university job and decided to do this full-time. I think it was one year of research and one year of writing, then some extensive re-writing and editing. Of course, as you write and edit, you have to do more and more research… There were people who came out of the woodwork at certain points with useful documents or ideas that required some changes in the text. For the writing stage, it was a case of working from 6am to 6pm every day, 7 days a week. I don’t think I had a conversation with another human being for all that time, but as a pandemic book I suppose that’s not entirely unique.

Thompson was notorious for his self-mythologising, not just in his journalism and correspondence with colleagues, but also in letters to friends and family. How difficult was it unpicking the fact from the fiction? Like pulling teeth from a crocodile, I imagine…

Indescribably difficult. Over and over again, I kept having to change things. You have to rely to some extent on the biographers who’ve come before you but they all fell into the trap of taking him at his word. I don’t mean to put any of them down because they all did a great job and I owe them a lot, but time and again I would fit something into my narrative, then when I dug a little deeper it would just fall apart. The man simply could not tell the truth, at least when it came to his own life. A lot of it, of course, was hard to disprove because there just weren’t many other sources except him, but in quite a few cases I was eventually able to dig up newspaper articles or testimony that proved his claims wrong. It was bloody exhausting though.

I’ve met so many people over the years who claim to be fans of Hunter without ever having read his work, not one line; like Shakespeare or Noam Chomsky – a quote on a T-shirt. They’re usually fans of Johnny Depp – no bad thing – but aren’t they complicit in the mythology? Do you think Thompson should take all the blame?

Thompson’s fans are an interesting lot. As you say, many of them (maybe even most) cannot differentiate between Thompson and Duke and Depp. They run around wearing Hawaiian shirts, smoking out of cigarette holders, gibbering about bats, and boasting about how many drugs they’ve done. They post silly memes on Facebook but they have no idea about him as a writer. It’s understandable when you’re a teenager, but as an adult it’s just embarrassing. I don’t know how complicit they are in the mythologising thing because that’s definitely on Thompson, but certainly I feel his fanbase is partly to blame for the fact that he is not taken seriously as a writer. My book is the first to really put him in his proper literary context, and it came 50 years after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas! It’s outrageous how much he is maligned. The guy was, at his best, a genius, yet he is viewed as a clown. Serious writers, professors, and even journalists love his work… yet they will only admit it in private. It’s their guilty pleasure.

Hunter S. Thompson

High White Notes is by necessity an iconoclastic autopsy of Thompson’s life and development as a writer. As an acknowledged fan of HST, did you have to suppress your own prejudices and assumptions about the good Doctor while writing the book?

I wouldn’t say I supressed them. I certainly have my own biases going into the research phase, but they quickly faded. He was as close as I ever had to a hero, but when you learn how much of a bully he was, beating his wife and tormenting people for fun, he very much loses that allure. Then when you start picking apart the later work, looking beyond those occasional witty lines, you realise just how far he fell in terms of literary ability. As I said in the introduction, the book was intended to be as honest as possible – “warts and all,” to use a cliché. I still love his writing and admire many things about him, but definitely my prior views have changed.

Many biographers have tried to define “Gonzo” and Gonzo Journalism over the years. Thompson himself variously described it as “just a word I picked up,” “a reporter with the eye and mind of a camera” and “like falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool full of mermaids.” How would you describe it?

It’s a one-man genre; a term used to describe the bizarre literary journalism created by a unique mind in response to a rapidly changing world. Gonzo is a blend of fact and fiction, typically with hallucinatory elements layered upon a real event, with the reporter at the centre of the story, influencing it to some extent. There are other ingredients too – often some supposedly unedited notes, a great deal of hyperbole, depictions of substance abuse, and of course his catchphrases and favoured words like “doomed,” “swine,” and “atavistic.” 

Some people – myself included – have laboured under the misapprehension that Gonzo Journalism sprang to drug-addled life with the publication of Thompson’s Scanlan article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” and his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; but nothing is born fully formed, is it?

No. My book traces its development as he formed it (unintentionally) over a period of many years. You can see him trying to do certain things but being constrained by journalistic standards over the years, as well as just not yet realising what would and wouldn’t work. His early journalism featured that Hemingwayan bravado and a tendency towards fictionalising reality. Hell’s Angels saw him move closer to the centre of the tale and of course eventually all his writing was really just about himself. In the late sixties, he began to experiment more and more (unsurprisingly given the culture and politics of the time), with Gonzo more or less formed by the time he wrote his Jean-Claude Killy story. However, it was only at the Derby that he realised he could include his notes, and that was the final piece of the puzzle. Soon after, it was given the name Gonzo (whose origins are unknown) and that became his personal brand. You can view everything that came after as an attempt to recreate the Kentucky Derby story, as a sort of template, with varying degrees of success.

The term “High White Notes” is an oblique reference to one of Thompson’s heroes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and alludes to an often euphoric moment when a writer bulls-eyes a particularly fine sentence or passage. Such moments are found in abundance in Thompson’s best writing, but to my mind they are the antithesis of William Faulkner’s often attributed (more accurately, the British author Arthur Quiller-Couch’s) exhortation to “Murder Your Darlings”. Is that fair comment?

Well I don’t know if it’s the antithesis but yes he definitely went to lengths to cram certain things into his writing. At his peak, he was able to labour over texts to the point that the rest of it served to support and highlight the high white notes, but in later years his work was just disjointed sequences of “wisdom,” as he would say. In a sense, it’s like watching a stand-up comedian whose routine consists entirely of one-liners with nothing holding them together.

Thompson claimed to have typed out parts of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to get a feel for the rhythm and music of his writing. There is an extraordinary moment in High White Notes where you compare Fear and Loathing’s famous “crest of a wave” passage with that of Fitzgerald’s “green light” passage in The Great Gatsby. Using graphs to illustrate your argument, you reveal both passages resemble an actual wave in their respective number of syllables and their rhythmical shape. This is an incredibly granular dissection on your part, talk about a scalpel under the microscope. How the hell did you hit on that idea?

When I begin researching a writer, I read everything by them and about them and everything that they were inspired by. Although my memory is generally quite poor, I can recall almost every word and tend to see patterns in those words, particularly if I read their work sequentially alongside those books that influenced them. I can read a passage from Fear and Loathing, for example, and immediately recognise that he lifted a series of words from a letter he had written two years earlier, or in this case, note the use of sentence types, word stress, punctuation, and so on to replicate the final pages of his favourite novel. It just sort of stands out to me.

But what was the origin of this? I had this idea in my head many years ago that I wanted to explain why you could pick up any piece of writing by Hunter Thompson and just know it was him. You could strip away the bats and guns and drugs and catchphrases and still immediately recognise him from the rhythms and patterns in his work. I wanted to codify it. At a certain point, I figured it out but I realise that my fucked up brain was seeing patterns that probably were not visible to others, so I words for a long time to figure out how to explain that. It’s definitely the part of the book that people have responded best to and yet it was the one I was most nervous about prior to publication.

I was surprised how early in Thompson’s career you identified the beginning of his decline as a writer – roundabout 1972 during his tenure at Rolling Stone as a (mostly) political writer. I mean, the drugs were beginning to take hold, sure, but wasn’t this period the crest of Thompson’s own wave career wise? 

I had to divide the book for practical purposes and so “The Fall” included Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72, but obviously that is one of his great works. My point was that, whilst it is overall a masterpiece, it contains much that is weak and highlights the point at which he began to struggle. One of the problems was that it required a vast amount of writing and so you could see him leaning on certain quirks for support, but these become repetitive. You can also see him getting lazier and more disinterested. Previously, he had been able to rewrite his work until he felt it was perfect, but by this point he was just handing in whatever he could jot down, and there are certainly big chunks of his reporting that was not up to standard.

Regardless of his ill-behaviour and egotistical posturing, to me Thompson’s political journalism remains some of his best work, up to and even including Generation of Swine in the 1980s. But you feel the mask began to slip much earlier than that…

I don’t think that he wrote much that was coherent after about 1973. He had some great sentences but few good paragraphs and certainly no good articles. He really just couldn’t hold it together beyond a few hundred words because of the cocaine and the booze. There are exceptions, but not many. I tried in the second half of the book to explain why certain efforts yielded some success but even they weren’t up to his earlier standards. He was, to some extent, simply trying to reproduce a style of writing he had created at a very different time and in a different frame of mind, and it just didn’t work. 

Despite conceding an occasional return to form in the 1980s/90s, you are very scathing about Thompson’s latter work – notably his millennium column for the ESPN website. As you say, “By this point, the music was long gone from his lyrical language.” Was there anything good to come out of his writing at this time?  

No. It hurt to write that, honestly. As a huge fan of his work, it felt like a betrayal. I also knew that people who were friends or collaborators during those final years would feel some degree of pain reading it. Then of course you risk the wrath of the Gonzo fanboys for whom Thompson is practically a saint… In the end, though, I had to write an honest book. If we are to take Thompson seriously as a writer – which is something that he wanted – then we have to take the good with the bad. We have to analyse why his work was so fucking good when he was at his peak, but we cannot overlook the drivel that he churned out later. I don’t care whether it’s Thompson or Hemingway or anyone else; if you deal with a serious writer, you have to approach them with your personal views set aside and evaluate them as objectively as possible. I know people feel uncomfortable reading the last few chapters of my book, but it’s an important part of his story it would have been fundamentally dishonest for me to ignore it.

It was his lifestyle, of course, coupled with ill-health, which destroyed both Thompson the man and Thompson the writer. Do you think his suicide in 2005 was a final act of rebellion, two fingers from a true outsider – or something more akin to Hemingway’s no–way-out escape from both physical and mental torment?

Definitely the latter. Thompson was a macho guy – a man’s man. He was a big, athletic man who was a natural leader throughout his whole life. People looked up to him and he commanded their respect. He was also an important thinker and a respected writer, but in his final years he had little control over his mind or body. He was constantly in pain, unable to move or even get himself to the bathroom, and he knew that he had wasted decades of his life by not living up to his potential. His mind was permanently fogged by drugs and he didn’t see any way back. It’s an incredibly sad thing. We all have regrets, but for him there was no way to change it. I’m paraphrasing myself, but by the end he was no more likely to write another great book than he was to become a professional athlete. He had destroyed himself and there was no escape except death.

Let’s not end the interview on too much of a downer. What do you think will be Hunter S. Thompson’s lasting legacy in the world of journalism and writing in general?   

Well, he is certainly important when it comes to journalism. Whilst literary professors either look down on him or keep him as a guilty pleasure, a lot of journalists are proud to admit that he was an inspiration. I think that people will continue to find his books and take inspiration in his innovative approaches and fearless anti-establishment attitude. Personally, I hope that my book contributes in some way to his being taken more seriously as a writer – not just as a political journalist. I want people to recognise that works like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas aren’t just trivial, juvenile stories beloved by fanboys. There’s more to him than the drugs and madness. He was perhaps the finest writer of his era and it s high time we recognise that.

High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism is available on Amazon and anywhere books are sold.

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