When Conan O’Brien tried to get Hunter S. Thompson to appear on his talk show, the writer would only agree to a segment if they went to upstate New York to shoot guns and drink hard liquor. Featuring his most famous proclivities, firearms and whisky, it’s a classic Thompson moment, a television appearance dictated, like his life and like his death, entirely on his own terms. It’s an episode that adds to the Thompson myth, another treatment of him not as a person but as a persona—as a cultural icon whose behavior and success are so inextricably tied together that it’s impossible to understand one without the other. The way he lived was the way he wrote.
But, of course, Hunter wasn’t just a symbol of Gonzo journalism, and he wasn’t just a caricature of the ‘60s. He was a man—a flawed individual known for his bouts of extreme rage, for his unprovoked verbal eruptions, for his short days and long nights. Nobody experienced the unpredictable fits of anger more so than his only child. Arriving nearly a decade after Hunter’s suicide in February 2006, Juan F. Thompson’s new memoir, “Stories I Tell Myself,” details the long path of reconciliation between a father and a son. It’s a journey of love and forgiveness, how one learns to accept a person when there’s no hope for change. It’s a portrait of Hunter as a human being, funny and fearful pages filled with drunk, smoky evenings, famous friends and admirers, extensive travels and financial uncertainty.
Relying on his memory, on what he considers sometimes “treacherous” and “unfaithful” and “perfidious,” Juan shares the 41 enthralling and scary years he had with Hunter: living in Woody Creek, Colorado, in a house stockpiled with guns, where ammo was stored in the kitchen cabinets; riding, as a young boy, on the back of speeding motorcycles; leaving his family and home state behind for a lonely and isolating East Coast school (twice). He starts with his own birth and ends with Hunter’s exorbitant funeral, when his dad’s ashes were shot out of a cannon.
This interview took place over the phone. It has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.
Why write the book now? It’s been almost a decade since Hunter’s death.
I just wrote an essay for Powell’s Books, for the store’s newsletter, and the essay is about why it took me nine years to write this book. I started in 2006, and, well, it took nine years. Why now? Because it took me nine years to write the damn book (laughs).
Were you sorting through his archives and his letters? Nine years is a long time.
A combination of things. First of all, I’d never written a full-length book, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
None of us do.
(laughs) Yeah, my God, my God. Part of it was simply time, too. I got a rough draft done in about a year, but then I realized that was the easy part, getting words down on paper—the basic skeleton. The hard part was pulling all these scraps together into a single, unified and compelling story with an actual arc.
And it was also just really difficult writing about my dad and my past. Much harder than I thought it would be. I figured it would be fairly straightforward and easy to remember, but it was an emotional and taxing process—and not one that I ever looked forward to doing. So I would take long breaks. There were times when I probably didn’t look at the manuscript for six months, and then I’d finally come back to it, and you know, see new things. What I was just writing about in this Powell’s essay was how it turned out that I really did need all of that time. If I had finished this book in a year, it wouldn’t have been a very good book. It would have been pretty one-dimensional. I was grieving. It would have been focused on how much I missed my dad and all the things I had heard about him. And it took years for me to reflect upon his life to realize that I needed to tell more of the story—and be fair. And ultimately, at the end of the day, I loved him, and I respected him. That’s where I ended up. But that doesn’t mean—he did do a lot of rotten things.
“Stories I Tell Myself” opens with a confession that you constructed the memoir based on memories, which are oftentimes unreliable. Even the title is a reference to this idea. Specifically, as a child, you were in situations that most kids never experience. I’m thinking about when Hunter brought you and your mother, Sandy, to hang out with Ken Kesey and the Hell’s Angels. Or even Jimmy Buffett’s wedding, a celebration you would later learn was filled with all sorts of drugs. Since you were young when both of these events occurred, you have had to rely on other people’s testimonials, and I’d imagine your own perception of your own childhood changed when, as an adult, you would hear all of these stories. In that way, you, like so many others, had to mythologize Hunter. Was it challenging understanding your father as a man and not just a persona, or a symbol?
I think part of it was reconciling with my father as a writer, as this caricature, and as the guy I grew up with, as my father. There’s truth in all of them. But I really needed that distance from his death. And I don’t know if I used these exact words in the book, but for those people close to Hunter, there was a very strong sense of loyalty. You have to protect Hunter. You have to be loyal to him. That was an imperative, and that was my first instinct in writing the book. Of course, I’ll protect him.
Were people loyal to him because they respected him, or was there also an element of fear? You describe, growing up, you were always afraid of him, too?
I think it was more that you didn’t question it. Not so much fear, if he did something wrong you would get in trouble. It was that he needs protecting, and our job is to protect him. And that took a while to realize that doesn’t really—now that he’s dead, I don’t really need to follow that obligation. It’s really up to me, and what I believe is important to tell rather than what he would have wanted me to say if he were alive. And that’s a huge factor. It would have been extremely difficult for me to write this book, much less publish it, if he were alive.
What do you think his response would have been if he were alive?
He would have been—I think, it’s so hard to tell what Hunter actually thought—horrified and angry and embarrassed. Because he would have had to deal with the consequences of that knowledge. But I really think—he always expected me to be honest. Once he was dead, and he didn’t have to deal with it, I thought: yeah, tell the truth, don’t cover it up. And I’d be doing him a disservice. I’d be failing in my task, if I were to continue to try to protect him, as we had always done. It wouldn’t be real.
In your memoir, you refer to both your father and your mother as Hunter and Sandy, respectively. Did you call your father “Hunter” throughout his whole life, and not “Dad”? Did you call your mother “Sandy,” and not “Mom”?
Yes, and I have no idea why. As long as I can remember, I always called them that. And I can only imagine it was because that’s how they referred to themselves. It must have been. I don’t think as a 2-year-old I decided that I’d call him Hunter, instead of Dad. Why they made that decision, I have no clue.
You ended up, despite all the craziness, pretty tame. You have a pretty normal life. You live in Colorado, you work in IT. Was being normal, for lack of a better word, a way to rebel?
I think so. At the time, it certainly wasn’t conscious or deliberate. I think it was a reaction against the uncertainty of the craziness. First of all, Hunter was a freelance writer, so there was no guaranteed income. My mom’s full-time job was taking care of Hunter and me until the divorce. So that was definitely a part of it, the financial uncertainty.
But secondly, as a kid and as a teenager, I knew I did not want to live like my father did. For the most part, I rejected the drugs and the drinking. And I think just by my nature, I’m not like him. He was just born that way. He was just born to be Hunter. I don’t think there’s anything in his upbringing—I don’t think, had things been different, he would have ended up an insurance agent like his father. That wouldn’t have happened.
He was just wired that way.
Yes. He was totally just wired that way.
You write a lot about how Hunter was a paradoxical individual. You mention that “one of the most difficult paradoxes in Hunter’s character was the presence of both a strong, genuine caring for others, and a profound self-centeredness.” And that, it was “so ironic that as a father Hunter passed on so few traditions, yet he possessed these traditional reflexes that would show themselves unexpectedly.” When you didn’t shake someone’s hand, for instance, he got upset, even though you had never been instructed on good manners. Is this what made him so unpredictable? That you didn’t know where he stood on certain issues?
Not so much that—he was just so volatile, and I think he became more so the older he got. As countless people will testify, he would erupt into a rage for the tiniest provocation. And that was really scary as a kid. And even as an adult, you don’t just get used to that. I learned to deal with it, I’d leave. But it was always uncomfortable, for sure.
Among swimming and watching movies, one ritual between you and Hunter was cleaning and shooting guns. He taught you how to respect the machines. They brought you together. What was it about firearms that produced such bonding moments?
I think it really could have been anything. But I enjoyed shooting guns, and obviously they were very important to Hunter. Cleaning guns needed to get done, in order to shoot them. It’s a manly kind of thing, and we shared the hobby. Without recognizing it, we probably seized on the opportunity: here’s something that we can do together, that can help connect us. So guns took on a greater importance because they provided a bonding ritual between us.