I had only a passing awareness of the legend of Hunter S. Thompson when, in the early 90's, the opportunity to fly to Aspen to interview as his editorial assistant came out of the blue. A friend of mine in New York knew writer E. Jean Carroll, who had been working closely with Hunter and was looking to help him find a unique candidate who might fit the bill. Editorial expertise seemed not to be the most important qualification; they were more interested in finding someone who could deal with somewhat unconventional or outlandish behavior. That didn't seem like a stretch for me. After toiling as a struggling actress in Hollywood for what felt like an eternity, unsavory behavior was pretty much par for the course. You could say I'd majored in it. With the additional motivating factor of a painful break-up with a cheating boyfriend, I was more than eager to leave Los Angeles and start over somewhere else -- anywhere else.
Nothing could have prepared me for the tornado of a man who met me at the airport. With the swagger of a cowboy and a thirst for liquor in mind-boggling proportions, Hunter led me on a three-day crash course in life and writing that, at times, had me fearing for my life, but ultimately introduced me to the art and mystery of prose. I could not have imagined at the time how the lasting effects of Camp Hunter would eventually alter the course of my life.
On the drive to Owl Farm from the airport, Hunter pulled over at what seemed like a random spot in the woods. I began to get nervous, wondering just what I'd gotten myself in for. He took out a shotgun and invited me to join him to shoot at targets in the woods. I declined and refused to get out of the vehicle, lest I might be mistaken for one of the targets. Surely he can't off me in the woods, people know I came out here, I reasoned as I waited for him in the car, my anxiety building by the minute. After about fifteen minutes, he reappeared and we continued on to Owl Farm without further incident. While I found this event shocking, there was no time to dwell on the magnitude of it; I would soon discover that this was merely business as usual for Hunter. He loved to shoot at targets and blow things up -- a quintessential boy at heart -- and needed a partner along for the ride. He also revealed a fondness for staging Polaroid photo shoots and swimming in a friend's heated indoor pool at 3a.m. (although I wasn't entirely convinced that this was authorized).
Hunter told me I reminded him of his (first) wife, and that seemed to endear me to him beyond the strength of my own merits. I couldn't decide if this made matters better or worse. It soon became apparent that keeping up with Hunter was an impossible task. He had an unquenchable appetite for everything. I was in way over my head. Hollywood crazies had nothing on him. He possessed super-human powers of endurance and consumed alcohol in amounts that would surely fell any mere mortal. It was mystifying. I had never encountered someone with such potent, crackling energy before and who ran all cylinders on full throttle. It made me feel distinctly on edge, as if I were a governess left in change of a child I knew would outwit and outlast me in every conceivable equation.
Hunter tracked his creative muse wherever it led -- and it often led down dark roads with drugs, alcohol and guns as his trusty companions. Although Hunter's love of guns has been well documented, I was surprised to find that they littered his home. In addition to the stress of fending off his advances and declining his repeated requests for me to take drugs, each time I went to sit down, I had to be vigilant about where I aimed my derrière to avoid sitting on a gun. The damn things were everywhere. They were tucked away in couches, hidden behind pillows or simply propped up on the floor, requiring one to willfully step over or around them. "You can assume they're loaded," he told me, which did nothing to soothe my frayed nerves. I had never held a gun before, but Hunter wasted no time in getting me intimately acquainted with them. He would hand me one and say, "Before we go to dinner, you need to shoot this target off the mantelpiece." It was exhilarating to find that, under his direction, I could do so quite handily. Who knew that gun enthusiasts fired weapons at targets inside their homes? It was Hunter's world and grown-up rules didn't apply.
I knew my instincts needed to be razor-sharp if I was to survive this adventure. While Hunter fortified himself with drugs and alcohol, I had to rely on pure adrenaline to get me through because he rarely slept during those three nights. We stayed up until all hours composing prank press releases - which he then gleefully faxed to bemused friends such as John Cusack and various media outlets. Experiencing Hunter at work was like diving into a deep pool and visiting another world. It was fascinating down there but impossible to sustain. I could only hold my breath for so long before I needed to get back to the relative safety of dry land (or until I could go and collapse in the guesthouse).
Under his tutelage, Hunter emboldened me to play with words. It was as if I were savoring a fine wine and swilling it around my mouth, waiting for the right word to reveal itself. Like being in a casino when someone hits a jackpot at the slot machines, frenzied excitement ensued whenever the perfect word was selected. One night, while working on a prank press release in which Hunter announced his marriage to a "Celebrated Australian Lap-dancer" (me - and using my real name) and declaring that the new couple had emerged from seclusion with their newborn lovechild, Hunter asked me how many pounds this pretend lovechild should weigh. I thought for a moment and said "twenty-seven pounds," but he heard twenty-six and leapt out of his chair and clapped vigorously, telling me I had a natural instinct for this. I didn't have the heart to correct him. Who knew that twenty-six held so much more power and mystery than twenty-seven? And yet somehow it did. We then posed for Polaroid pictures with a blow-up sex doll standing in as our 'lovechild.' (This episode later required some explaining on my part as some media outlets actually ran the release. One concerned family friend from San Francisco wrote to me saying 'Wild stories about you circulating in these parts. Herb Caen reports Motherhood. Congratulations').
The highs involved in Hunter's creative process were strangely addictive. How could you not be drawn in when it was so much fun? Until that point, I had never entertained the notion of becoming a writer. Writing was a secret passion; I never considered that I might have something to share. Writing was something to be admired and respected, but it was an occupation reserved for other more cerebral individuals -- not third-rate actresses. Did I dare to wade into those waters on my own? In my Hollywood existence of auditioning for roles, other people always held the key to whether I worked or not, constantly judging whether I was talented or slim and attractive enough. It was a system I was bored with. Always waiting on the sidelines and hoping to be invited to dance, I was tired of being a wallflower with an empty dance card. I longed for something more.
Despite the challenges to my stamina, I passed the endurance test. Before I left, Hunter offered me the job. I agreed to pack up my life in Los Angeles and commence employment shortly thereafter. But once home, away from the heady tonic of his presence and his words, I found that I could not return to Woody Creek as planned. Despite the allure and rich creative potential of working with Hunter in a no-holds-barred existence -- where every impulse is explored and no limits were imposed on behavior in the name of art -- I knew that in the long run, I wasn't built to survive life with Hunter. I was afraid that I couldn't dance with that flame without the very real danger of it consuming me, as it eventually consumed him.
Hunter was deeply disappointed at this news. He called and sent numerous faxes late at night -- much to the chagrin of my roommates -- saying that he hoped my immigration status was in order and that the authorities would soon be hearing about an errant Aussie actress hiding out in Los Angeles. In moments of anger, he would also threaten to cancel his scheduled college tour and not turn in his pages as a form of protest for my betrayal, bellowing that I was responsible for letting a great number of people down. Despite the outbursts, there was a genuine tenderness and vulnerability to him that had me wrestling with my choice.
I went back to the life I knew, filled with acting classes, waitressing and mostly fruitless auditions. I wish I could say that I'd had the fortitude to resist the cheating boyfriend but there was another year to come on that merry-go-'round. There were still a few lessons yet to learn regarding my own worth and potential.
Months down the road, usually late at night when loneliness got the better of me, I questioned whether I had made the right decision. Sometimes during those sleepless nights, I would reach out and call Hunter, needing to know that the portal to his world was still open, should I desire to slip through it. He would greet me with his standard gruff salutation, "Hello, bitch!" and we would talk and laugh until his attention was enticed elsewhere.
I never saw Hunter again.
Despite the scant number of hours spent in his company, his memory looms large in my life. There remains a fondness for him that neither time nor the event of his death has eroded. He gave me an enduring gift; his basic assumption that I had something of value to say was revolutionary for a girl with no confidence. That act of good faith opened up an expansive new outlook and infused me with a sense of possibility. Over time, I decided to be a bit brave and quietly began to nurture my own quest to find a safe way to dance with that flame.
Eventually, I untethered myself from the acting dreams and the cheating boyfriend. I widened my lens, looked beyond the world of acting, and began taking writing classes. Some elements remain profoundly similar: the waiting, the painful rounds of rejection and harsh criticism, but I have discovered that there is nothing more satisfying than filling a blank page with words that I have composed. I can make them dance in a manner that pleases me. There is no permission required, no visa granted, no invitation extended -- this creative process is solely dependent on me, and it makes me feel euphoric. I can sit alone at my computer for hours and swill words around in my mouth until they surrender themselves onto the page and revel in the elation that follows. And I dare say Hunter would approve.
Tara Ellison's first novel Synchronized Breathing is being published this month.