Episode 15: Drugs, Guns and the Girl who Out-Gonzoed Mr. Gonzo
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Paul Kix: Welcome to Now That's a Great Story, the podcast that reveals an artistic worldview through a single piece of work. I'm your host, Paul Kix. Today's guest is Cheryl Della Pietra, author of the novel Gonzo Girl. A book I love not only for its literary and actual pyrotechnics, but because of the universal truths it relays about creativity and ambition and courage. Cheryl, thanks for coming on the show.
Cheryl Della Pietra: Thanks for having me.
Paul Kix: All right, so let's start with the facts. This is a novel that's based on your experience working as an editorial assistant for Hunter S Thompson. For just a second, let's stay in the real world. What exactly did you do for Hunter and when exactly did you do it?
Well, the title editorial assistant is kind of funny because I think in the normal world you imagine someone kind of bringing coffee and doing fact checking. And this was more like shooting guns and getting drugs and that sort of thing. So just to set the timeframe, it was 1992. I was there for five months shortly after I graduated from college. And you know, the job description was basically to try to get Hunter to write. It was kind of difficult to corral him to the typewriter and the loose rule was hands on the keyboard by two o'clock, and by that it meant was 2:00 AM. So he was a night owl. He wrote all night, through the night. And so to set up for, the inevitable struggle trying to get to the typewriter and get them pages, there was a whole lot of things that happened before that involving substances and driving the giant red car and that sort of thing.
Paul Kix: Fingers on the keyboard by 2:00 AM is actually a phrase that ends up working its way into the novel and ends up `becoming a motif really of the novel. Why do you choose to tell this as a novel?
Cheryl Della Pietra: Yeah. You know, I've been asked why I didn't write a memoir and part of it was just logistically speaking, I'm 22 and I'm pushing 50 now. I was 22 at the time, so I'm more than a couple of decades removed from the experience. I didn't necessarily think I could rely on my memory, especially given kind of what the environment was like there, to tell something kind of a word for word truth about it. The other thing is, I wanted to more give myself the freedom to say what I wanted to say about the experience, rather than just kind of relay this linear set of events, which like I said, it was a particularly nonlinear experience. So, I was more interested in telling a story where I could. Have some commentary on the things that we're talking about today and creativity on this is a writer who is in kind of the twilight of his career and creativity through that lens. I thought it was kind of interesting. So I wanted to more explore the topics around the experience rather than just relay it word for word.
Paul Kix: That's so fascinating to me because like I said a minute ago, you're a very good writer, there's some literary pyrotechnics, there's some actual pyrotechnics. If you just want to stick to the sex, drugs and booze, there's a story here for you. But there's also actually a story underneath that. And I wanted to, let's explore that a little bit more. So when you're piecing this together, what is the hope for it? What is that, I guess, what does that narrative thread that you're hoping will pull the reader through the entire story?
Cheryl Della Pietra: Well, I've always contended that I think in pop culture that Hunter S Thompson has been portrayed literally as a cartoon, like in Doonesbury. But that he sort of turned into a caricature and some of that was his own making. You know, the Tilley hat and the sunglasses and the cigarette filter. It's an image that I think at some point he felt beholden to, pulled, and he never would have used this term, but in some way it was his brand, right? This was kind of the image he portrayed to the world and people were expecting that. So what I was trying to do in the book, and I don't know if I succeeded, was just sort of find some of the real humanity of him as a writer, of him as a person. You know, again, mine is a snapshot. I was only there five months. I don't pretend to know him sort of deeper than that, but it was a very revealing five months. I mean, sort of intimately involved with his writing process and with his day to day workings. I mean, I lived in a cabin right next door to his house. I was on his property 24/7 and I rarely left it. It was a very intense, very intimate experience. So I guess, you know, ultimately what I was trying to do was to kind of show him as a real person.
Paul Kix: Yeah, and it certainly comes through that way. I mean he is, let's dwell for just a minute on him before we move to your protagonist to the book. He emerges as ... I guess the only way to describe it as a sad man in the end. And what I mean by that is that he is literally sad. I mean he's surrounding himself with people that love him perhaps, but mostly just want to be around him. There's a cast of characters that just want to be in the aura of Hunter S Thompson. Right?
Cheryl Della Pietra: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Paul Kix: But then there's this also ... I got this sense reading the book that was somewhat akin to Fitzgerald's crack up and the letters that he was writing his daughter toward the end of his life. Where he's basically in those letters, Fitzgerald's basically saying, "Look, I have spoiled my gift. I have done it through booze. I have done it through procrastination. There's been a lot of ways that I've let my creativity go and I've become a caricature of myself." I don't think Hunter was ever, at least in your telling of the book, I don't think Hunter emerges as a guy who is as introspective as that, or at least as forthright in any introspection he may have. Right? At the same time, I also had this sense that "Wow, does he realize how much he has let his creativity go?" What do you think about that?
Cheryl Della Pietra: Well, just an interesting aside, Fitzgerald was one of his favorite writers and as a young man, something very interesting is he typed out The Great Gatsby in its entirety, just to see what it would feel like to write a masterpiece. I mean it was kind of that next level adulation. And this is also in the book, when I first got there, I had never read The Great Gatsby. I'd managed to make it through college as an English major and never read The Great Gatsby and he was just horrified. And he gave it to me and he said, "Go over to the cabin and read this and don't come back until you have." Because it was he just couldn't imagine a world or being around a person who hadn't read this book. Now to your point, I don't think that ... you know, it's funny. I do think that in some ways Hunter is an underappreciated writer. And by that I mean that he did some very straightforward journalism early in his career that I think goes a little bit unnoticed. Everybody knows Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as his seminal work, but there was a lot of work before that that was again, just more straight forward. He was down in South America writing about American foreign policy, for example. And he did a lot of travel. So in some ways I don't think it was, you know, quote unquote "wasted." I do think later in his career that the inevitable toll of substances just took over. You just can't live like that and expect to have the instrument still stay as sharp as it was. But again, this is a double edged sword because Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas never would've been written without substances. You know? There's just no way.
Paul Kix: The Kentucky Derby is decadent and deprived. Like it's another one where he needs to be coked up. He needs to be out of his mind for that story to work.
Cheryl Della Pietra: Right. So, there's a tipping point somewhere, right, that takes place. And we see this with musicians. We see this writers, with all sorts of creative types and many of them just don't live beyond it. And he did.
Paul Kix: Let's transition now for a little bit to the protagonist of the book. Rather than me describe it, why don't you go ahead and describe who she is and also what you're hoping that the reader will get out of coming to know her.
Cheryl Della Pietra: Well the protagonist in the book has absolutely nothing to do with me. Her name is Alessandra Russo and she grew up in a blue collar family. Her father and her three brothers are plumbers and she goes to an Ivy League school and she has ambitions of becoming a writer. What she realizes when she graduates is that she has the degree, she's kind of escaped this blue collar background, but that she doesn't have any connections. She doesn't have a network. She maybe doesn't have the sophistication. But she certainly has ambition. So she's trying to figure out, I'm not one of these, people who has all these connections to get where I want to go. So she ends up tending bar, which is something I did for many, many years. And then this opportunity presents itself and she grabs it because she sees it as a way to get to where she wants to be as a writer. The book is a lot about ambition and it's a little bit about class. We think that it's very easy I think like, "Just get your education and it'll all work out." But there's so much more to success than that. So she's very scrappy and she does what she has to do to try to get where she wants to go.
Paul Kix: That is where I really got captivated. I've read just enough of Hunter to know about the rest of it, but the reason I love Gonzo Girl actually has nothing to do with Hunter. It has to do with the character that of course, is not you. It's Alessandra, right? What you said a minute ago was so true. I was just so drawn in by her ambition, her entrepreneurial-ism. What she's really trying to do is ... she is so enthralled with Hunter and his work that when she gets the pages from him every night, and she sees that it's less than what he can produce, or at least less than what she has read previously from him, and because she's read so many of his books she ends up kind of like, what would you call it? Is it channeling him? Is it editing him? In any case, what I love about it is that she's basically improving upon his work as a means to, what? Satisfy her own ambition? I mean, there's a lot of complex stuff that's going on in those passages night after night when she finally gets the pages back from Hunter,
Cheryl Della Pietra: Well, it's probably ambition. You know, finishing the job because if she finishes the job, she'll get some money and she'll get some prestige. But there's also this undercurrent that perhaps naively, definitely naively, she's maybe trying to save him a little bit. She's trying to help him but she's woefully under prepared to do that. She's 22. She doesn't have any experience. So, she does this with varying degrees of success. I think there is also that thing where he's one of her heroes and doesn't want to see this be the final product. So she's trying.
Paul Kix: There's something else that I want to explore for just a minute, and that is this idea of kind of bracing truth. I guess what I mean by that is she is editing his words in such a way that she is improving upon them. She is basically telling, well what happens is that she ends up passing the pages that she improves to Hunter's actual editor. And I guess we should quit calling him Hunter because in the novel he's not Hunter, he's Walker.
Cheryl Della Pietra: Right, he's Walker Reed in the novel.
Paul Kix: But what I find interesting is she knows she's doing this. She knows that she's likely going to get in deep, deep shit for doing this, and yet she continues to do it. I'm wondering why you thought that was important for her as a character?
Cheryl Della Pietra: Well, there's a line in the book like, "This wasn't very well thought out." She's in chaos constantly and her existence there as it was for me, was very reactive, right? You just kind of have something in front of you and you do it. So again, this is showing her age and her naivete. I couldn't have her be like Tina Brown or something like have her come in there and then be hugely successful and well thought out with this plan of hers or this idea that she has. She's just flying by the seat of her pants, just trying to figure it out. I actually thought that was important to have it be maybe a little bit, not that smart on her part. She's just trying to take to get to the finish line .
Paul Kix: It ends up being ... it's so interesting because it has this propulsive quality. It's like, "Oh is Hunter going to find out in this moment?" I'm sorry. "Is Walker going to find out in this moment that she's basically improving this and doing something like this." It keeps getting put off and put off and you do this brilliant job with it, Cheryl in building this tension and then it's just sort of left in this netherworld, so-
Cheryl Della Pietra: Thank you.
Paul Kix: Did you attempt in real life to do anything like that or was that used for the purposes of the novelization of it?
Cheryl Della Pietra: Well, it's something I definitely blew up for the book. You need that narrative tension. Again, we're talking about the difference between memoir and novel. If you don't have something that's keeping the engine running, no one's going to care or want to turn the page. So I'm actually glad to hear you say that that part kind of kept you going, because that was my intention with kind of blowing up that part of it. It's one of those things that certainly crossed my mind. You're an editor, so you know what it's like to see something that's just not quite all there and you know how you could give it to releasing. So there certainly was that temptation.
Paul Kix: This happens to you when you're, again, you're like what? 22, 23.
Cheryl Della Pietra: Yes 22.
Paul Kix: And you have since spent the intervening decades working in publishing and I'm wondering the extent to which your experiences in the publishing world ends up influencing the choices you make to heighten narrative tension. In other words, is it your own experiences, editing, copy, editing, whatever, that leads you to make those narrative choices?
Cheryl Della Pietra: Well, I'll tell you what. When my agent, read it he said this has to be bumped up. And it was his input that really helped shape that part of it. And it was listen to your editors and agents. Right? They know. You know writing a novel, this was my second attempt, my first one I couldn't get published. So when you're writing a novel, you're learning as you go and you're a little bit riding blind and you just have to trust that the story is going to take over, but then as you well know, I mean I probably went through five edits on this book before it got to where I wanted it to be. It's something that I worked on and worked on and you just have to grind it out until you get it there. But that certainly was something that I received as feedback that I then took and incorporated on subsequent edits.
Paul Kix: So you're incorporating it not only into the actual text, but is it fair to say that it becomes a part of the flavor of the book itself? This sense of like, okay, so you're getting some, what? Are they sometimes bracing answers from your editor, right, about how things need to be improved? Because your character, this is again, one of the things I love about her, Allesandra, she has this great ability to sort of speak truth to power in this case, what Walker wants. Right? So is the editing process of the book itself in some way influencing the actual spirit of the text and what you're hoping to do with the narrative of the story?
Cheryl Della Pietra: You mean like is there a meta aspect?
Paul Kix: Almost, yeah. Is it almost like meta in some sense?
Cheryl Della Pietra: So when you say, I just want to make sure when you talk about the book that you're talking about me writing my book or him writing his book, because-
Paul Kix: Well in some sense it's,
Cheryl Della Pietra: Again his [crosstalk 00:17:54] a little bit.
Paul Kix: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So yeah.
Cheryl Della Pietra: Rather maybe even unintentionally. I mean, I certainly kind of I see that now, but as I was doing it, perhaps not.
Paul Kix: Perhaps not, okay. Because when you're in the moment, and I don't want to belabor it, but I just find this part so interesting. When you're in the moment, what is going through your mind in terms of how can I heighten this tension, if this tension needs to be heightened? Can you just talk a little bit about your thought process through that?
Cheryl Della Pietra: Sure. I think a writer who's really good at this is Tom Perotta. Whenever I read his books, he leaves every chapter with something hanging. Like every chapter you want to sort of, then you're like, "Well now what happened?" And then you sort of keep going, keep going, keep going. I think, the first book that I wrote, it didn't have enough of that. And then it just becomes kind of like, not vanity, but this kind of like thing that only you understand. I think what helped me was to think of the reader and I do try to do that on a number of levels. I try to think, "How can I keep the reader engaged? How can I make the reader laugh?" I really, when I write, I don't write that much from a self perspective anymore. I try to write from how is this going to engage the reader perspective. And I think that's actually ... you can tell, if you took two novels you could tell kind of which approach an author takes. There's some writers that I think are kind of famous for being kind of masturbatory and like, "Look what I can do." And they don't care about the reader. You ,can meet them where they are. And I think there are writers who take the opposite approach where they're utterly accessible. Stephen King for example, where like "Come here, I'm going to meet you and I'm going to take you on a wild ride."
Paul Kix: So what are some of Tom Perotta's books that really have inspired you?
Cheryl Della Pietra: There's the one, see now you're making me remember names. There was that one. Hold on. Well, I did read The Leftovers and I liked that book a lot.
Paul Kix: I did too. I really liked that. And he did something, you're absolutely right. It's like, it's not quite a cliffhanger per se though, there's an element to that. There's just this in every chapter there is this question that the narrative is posing that he leaves unanswered until perhaps 10 or 20 pages later, right? And then of course that answer raises another and even bigger question.
Cheryl Della Pietra: Right. It was Little Children. That was the one that I was talking about in particular. I remember reading that and just kind of keep going and keep going and keep going. I think that's real. I mean that's more craft. That's technique. That's like something you learn in Workshop 101. Like you have to keep the engine going. You have to, but that's why you're reading. The person needs a problem, you know? It's like the same with screenwriting. You have to have that act one, act two, act three you need it. Yeah. There's just very few people who can pull it off in a different way just by like you said, the literary pyrotechnics. That's only going to get you so far.
Paul Kix: Can we talk for just a second about, because I think it's important to perhaps frame your own career and your own ambitions within this work. Did you go on and get an MFA or anything like that after your experience with Hunter?
Cheryl Della Pietra: No. No, I didn't get an MFA and I know there's the endless debate to MFA or not to MFA. I don't have any interest in getting an MFA. I know plenty of people who have them who write fantastic books. I personally feel like I do enough editing and I'm in the publishing world and I've done enough writing where I'm not quite sure what an MFA would teach me at this point. Just because I've been working as an editor and a writer as part of my career. So, my background was more in magazine journalism and when I was in college I got the Harper's internship. That was my first foray into publishing in summer. I ended up fact checking the Harper's Index all summer long, which was a really amazing job. And then from there I did, when I went back to school, I had internships at Philadelphia Magazine. And when I went to the city, I just did what I could to try and get into magazines. I was a fact checker for Esquire and worked in medical publishing. I just kind of did whatever I could to kind of get in there.
Paul Kix: And all the while, Cheryl, you're hoping to write novels. How do you arrive at this point?
Cheryl Della Pietra: Yeah. I kept sort of plugging away. I do think, like Virginia Wilson, don't write anything before you're 30. I think I tried too hard, too young and I just didn't have enough life experience. Didn't have enough, like I said with the craft and technique, I just didn't have enough sophistication in that level to really pull it off. But I did keep trying and it wasn't until I guess it was 2004, that I started writing the first novel that I didn't get published, where I thought it actually was pretty good, you know? And in some ways I'm really glad it didn't get published because it wasn't quite good enough. And then 2006, '07, '08, around there I started writing Gonzo Girl.
Paul Kix: That's fantastic.
Cheryl Della Pietra: And it was one of those things I really backed into because it's like, "You know what? I'm going to shelve this novel and I'm going to work on something else." And I said, "You know that's really good material." You know, I kind of backed into it and then I was like, "Well maybe I could write a novel about that." The first scene I wrote was the scene at the end, which I'm not going to give away because it's kind of a turning point. But I remember my son was asleep in the back of the car. He was like one or two and I was down at the beach, because the only way he would sleep is if I drove around the car. And I wrote one of the last scenes in the book and I was like, "Hmm. That's pretty good." And I [inaudible 00:24:27] "Try starting from the beginning."
Paul Kix: That's amazing, how life and art weave themselves together here because a lot of the story itself is about grit and determination and perseverance. Right?
Cheryl Della Pietra: Right.
Paul Kix: And then there's been the success of Gonzo Girl, so I was hoping that perhaps we could talk about that for just a second before we go. So this has been optioned and it's ... like where does it stand? Is this actually going to become a movie now?
Cheryl Della Pietra: Yes, I think so. You know they've involved me on some level with the screenplay. I've read it. I've contributed a couple of little things here and there, but they've really done a tremendous job with it. It's on it's way and I'm really excited about it because I do think there's something very cinematic about the book that I think will translate really nicely to the screen. I feel like it's in really good hands, so I have a lot of confidence in the team that has taken it on and really, really excited about it.
Paul Kix: Congratulations. It's huge. And you're absolutely right. So much of that book is scene driven, cinematic. I kept as I was reading it, I could see it, I could see so many moments from that. So congratulations.
Cheryl Della Pietra: Thank you.
Paul Kix: You deserve all the credit and everything great is coming your way. Cheryl, I want to thank you for coming on the show. If you have not read Gonzo Girl, I highly recommend it. And are you working on, just real quick, are you working on something new?
Cheryl Della Pietra: I am. I'm almost done with something new but not quite talking about it yet.
Paul Kix: That's fair. All right. Well, thanks again, Cheryl.