Interview by John Wisniewski
AMFM Magazine: .Margaret, the new book is published, THE HELL’S ANGELS LETTERS: HUNTER S. THOMPSON, MARGARET HARRELL AND THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN CLASSIC. Grant Goodwine, a protégé of Ralph Steadman, did the cover artwork. Could you tell us about this? How did the whole project come about?
Margaret Harrell: It was a series of coincidences—or unlikely events—from start to finish, beginning with the existence of the letters themselves from Hunter Thompson to me, without which there would have been no book, no record of the story. The journey reminds me of pataphysica (“absurd irony”), a word made famous by French symbolist Alfred Jarry. The letters existed because Random House editor-in-chief Jim Silberman, who assigned me to copy edit Hunter’s first book, Hell’s Angels, broke with protocol. Normally, I would have done the copy editing, gotten Jim’s approval, then invited the author to fly to New York City and sit side by side with me to go over the suggestions and penciled marks on his manuscript for a day, or day by day for a week. Just for Hunter, Jim canceled that procedure. So we had to communicate by letter and phone. Then, when I left Random House, I took the letters with me. I won’t go over the ironic coincidence that came up there. Next, they endured FIFTY YEARS—in acidic paper—while I lived in four countries, including Morocco. Fortunately, they were not in my carry-on stolen at the Carey shuttle terminal in New York and were not in my storage that got overrun with fire ants in North Carolina.
So, basically, for years while I lived outside the US—in Morocco, in Switzerland, in Belgium—the letters survived transport and storage, as if they were charmed with an order not to disintegrate or disappear. By the time Hunter died, in 2005, I’d just relocated back to the U.S. He died, coincidentally on February 20, 2005, and I’d first met him in person February 20, 1967, when he had come to New York to start his Hell’s Angels book tour. Soon after he died I (with butterflies) contacted Doug Brinkley, the Estate literary executor, and he knew who I was (Hunter had told me), so he allowed me to excerpt from my letters in a memoir called Keep This Quiet! My Relationship with Hunter S. Thompson, Milton Klonsky, and Jan Mensaert (2011). I knew no one in the Gonzo community, but this book opened the door, and in 2014, I first spoke at the Louisville Gonzofest, by invitation of Ron Whitehead, the poet-performer-scholar who is the collaborator on this Letters book. That opened more doors. One in particular with his wife, Jinn Bug, who suggested doing the Letters book. She’s a visionary artist-poet. Ron stood behind me all the way, pushing me never to give up looking for a literary agent in the “darkest” of days. Also, I got Grant Goodwine, whom I heard give a presentation at the 2019 Gonzofest in Louisville, to illustrate the book in his gonzo style.
AMFM Magazine: How did you meet Hunter Thompson and what were your first impressions of him?
Margaret Harrell: When he came to New York City for the Hell’s Angels book tour, February 20, 1967, we met in person in my little Random House office. That’s a funny scene in the book. We had been corresponding and talking on the phone about his manuscript since the end of August 1966—just before he got stomped by the Angels. At first, though, he knew nothing about me and, being Hunter, set about investigating by creating a diversion, a crisis, so that he could see how much leverage he had. In the early weeks, when he had no physical description of me, I compare it to the movie You’ve Got Mail. By the time we first saw each other in person, we already had many instances of “good vibrations” going back and forth. He acknowledged that he sensed “a connection,” as did I. Without that, I’m sure we could never have worked together. Hunter always tested the people he worked with. How did they perform under fire? Who were they, under the surface, the hype? That made him exceptionally unpredictable and fascinating. So, Hunter came to New York City February 20, 1967! Ages ago now. From Owl Farm, Colorado. Keeping his manuscript in the forefront, we’d nevertheless built up a fairly unspoken personal relationship (through just our voices, our hesitations, our vibrations as he put it, and our comments about his book). You can watch that unfold in the letters.
AMFM Magazine: Hunter confided in you often. Was it exciting seeing what would become a classic book, in creation?
Margaret Harrell: In those days I submerged myself in a book—what it needed. I wasn’t really looking outside to whether or not it would be famous in the future, though many books I worked on then have been reissued recently and/or in the decades since. What was foremost in my mind was, first, understanding a manuscript, what it needed. And secondly, convincing the author that was the case, which sometimes meant inspiring the author to make changes himself as we sat side by side. (I say “himself,” because in my three years at Random House, all but one author I worked with was male.)
AMFM Magazine: Did you see his genius emerging? Was it difficult to see him sometimes, suffering to write his book?
Margaret Harrell: What overpowered every other impression was Hunter himself, his huge personality, his massive Presence, his continuous interjection of excitement. Reading your question, I ask myself what Genius is. In Hunter’s case, it was not just confined to the page. At every opportunity, his inquisitiveness led to fun. Everything was Alive. I was captivated by that Big Energy. I was swept away inside that and remember it most. To write on the walls and halls of time that “Kilroy was here” meant doing it in everyday situations as well. At the time, I followed suspensefully every single indication of suffering on his part. But I believed in Jim Silberman’s fairness regarding payments, while hanging on Hunter’s words about his agonizing poverty. I was so much “in the middle” that I didn’t step outside the situation and think outside the moment.
Before even first contacting Hunter, I spent a month alone with his book. So I first got to know him through the book. But almost instantly, as soon as he discovered I existed, he thrust himself into the scene, creating drama to get the best, most interesting results and most benefits possible from the situation. He was delighted to discover I had, obviously, read every word he wrote!
Every situation was Part of Life for him, and if you touched base with him, you got caught in the scenes he precipitated. I found that fascinating. The opposite of dull and boring. And I would say these qualities, that larger-than-life presence, are a factor in his Genius. Or, let’s say, are expressions of it. He was never afraid of what others might think. I was. I loved that fearlessness. He was not just goal-oriented, though he was that, but he was also creating INSIDE every experience, as in his Gonzo articles in Rolling Stone. Working with him was like being part of a serialized narrative. Each day, something new would develop and capture all my attention, including the need for problem solving.
AMFM Magazine: What interested Hunter about the Hell’s Angels, to create his book?
Margaret Harrell: As a journalist, Hunter was taking on the mainstream press. He saw a situation where on the East Coast the reporters repeated the same story without any investigative reporting, probably never having been on a Harley-Davidson. No one at the New York Times or Time or Newsweek came out to the West Coast to see the motorcycle gangs in person. They just reported lurid details, taking them as fact. Hunter was later to explain that he thought, generally speaking, the main news outlets were correct a very large percent of the time. But now and then they were just off base. This was such a time.
Hunter took on the story to get the facts. The Truth. In spite of personalizing, in general he was always using that method to aim at his target: the Truth. And this meant getting on the ground, down in the trenches, probably with some satire, but certainly using his faculties for observation. He also, right away, asked, what in the U.S. caused the Angels to spring up? And weren’t they indicative of a larger mass of left-out people (self-proclaimed “losers”) that, in the 1960s and—he predicted—extending out through time into the future to today, over forty years later in variation—would increasingly have an effect on our society if ignored? So he wove in larger issues without losing the audience at all—without going over their heads, without abstraction. He was satisfying his own curiosity while being a good investigative journalist.
AMFM Magazine: Various friends of Hunter’s are mentioned in the book, as well. Did this create excitement for you as well, making the letters part of literary history?
Margaret Harrell: Yes, it did. I wanted to contribute pieces of their story that I happened to have. To get back in touch with Realist publisher Paul Krassner and Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy after decades was a human experience to me. To interview folk singer Rosalie Sorrels and to again talk at length with my wonderful former boss Jim Silberman meant, I knew, I was getting people in their eighties on the record—perhaps the last chance to do so, because they were fairly interview shy. Also, to reveal the role of former Richmond, California, mayor David Pierce. Most of them died since our interview. It was the summing up, historical. But humanly speaking, it rounded things out for me.
AMFM Magazine: How did it feel to look back at the letters, and your life with Hunter?
Margaret Harrell: It was thrilling. Engrossing. I had forgotten the actual words; they affected me all over again. Also, my own life unfolded before me in the chronology. You cannot count on memory. But if you see paper with actual impressions from the time, you watch a part of yourself come back to life, a part of Hunter and the others. I spent days and months remembering and also, through Hunter’s two books of letters and then the memoirs of his friends as they were published, I filled in gaps. For decades as a nonfiction writer living abroad I never brought Hunter into my writing. Almost no one knew our story. I didn’t know how to bring him in. Why were we attracted to each other? There was too much to explain. But for this book, I knew how to do it. Besides, he wrote a fourth of the book; he set the tone. And it just felt like the right time. It all made sense. I had lived long enough to see Beginning to End. And to be able to tell it, I thought, authentically. He played a giant role in my life. I had not had the skill to describe it till writing the Keep This Quiet! memoirs beginning in 2011. But now, in this book, I felt ready to strip all the other men away and put just Hunter in the center, with our relationship. And my mystical tendencies not shied away from but not distracting.
AMFM Magazine: Will you write another book, Margaret?
Margaret Harrell: I have written fourteen books, mostly printed in Romania in English while I lived in Belgium, published by a Sibiu, Romania, Fulbright scholar university professor-writer-publisher but barely distributed here. That’s another story. But what I have in the pipelines is a small book inspired by my cloud photography—seeing images in clouds. It’s a meditative experience, but I look at it historically, as it affected a number of very famous artists. I love it, because I can stare at the images at length. Also, it appeals to me as a baffling question about perspective and creativity: Where do the images come from?
And the second is a 100-page collection of poetry written over decades and finally compiled. I just love the two topics. But they are relatively short, for niche audiences. I have still another book idea: about mysterious, inexplicable but fascinating experiences I’ve had. It’s storytelling but hinting at questions about consciousness. Writing connects me to a part of myself. It relaxes me. It fulfills me. The time flies. A day is always a good day, a worthwhile day, if I have sat at the computer—never knowing what I will say. I speak that way to live audiences too now. I learn what I think by being part of the creative process. It keeps me young and positive.
AMFM Magazine: What quality did you particularly like in Hunter?
Margaret Harrell: Authenticity. He was genuine. Being authentic means being Alive; Hunter was drawing on, as he put it, his instinct—his unknown, spontaneous reactions—allied with his observer self. He’s widely known for a performance persona, which you can read about in Dr. Rory Patrick Feehan’s dissertation on “the Hunter Figure”; the public expected to see it and were not disappointed. But underneath it all, he had this deep authenticity. No hardened unexamined views. He was, to me, constantly Present, constantly challenging himself and those around him. A basis of Gonzo Journalism was that he described the search for the story in Real Time, finding or instigating scenes, then jumping in. He made people “come out of hiding,” sometimes by scaring them. He made them throw away the canned beliefs or “talking points.” And his audience welcomed that. To do that, you have to look inside, whether by being instinctive or by reflecting. But he used both—the instinct that precedes thought, as well as the distancing observer side of himself who was not “the Hunter figure” but was watching in both amusement and deep understanding, quickly updating as the circumstances shifted. So, he made me feel alive, touched that part of me who was not afraid to Dare. Being afraid, not knowing the outcome, he believed, was not the point. It should not curtail your doing what you believed in. That came first.