Mind-altering substances and writing have often gone hand in hand, from Ken Kesey composing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a single drug-addled weekend to the apocryphal (and misattributed) Hemingway quote “Write drunk, edit sober.” Award-winning Denver novelist Gregory Hill will be talking about the close relationship between writing and insobriety at the Coffee Joint, Denver’s first licensed social consumption club and coffeehouse, on Friday, December 13.
The gathering is called "The Creative Application (and Mis-Application) of Drugs in Literature," and if the title alone doesn’t make you check your schedule to see if you’re free, then you’re probably not even reading this article. The Coffee Joint has brought Hill to talk a little, answer a few questions about his work, and defend “every album made in 1967 [as] the best album ever made.” You know, the usual, at least for the guy who writes some admirably trippy stuff.
We caught up with Hill in advance of his appearance at the Coffee Joint to talk drugs, creativity, legends and fiction. And he very nearly answered our questions.
Westword: You're speaking at the Coffee Joint on Friday, December 13, about drugs in literature. Can you start off by giving us an idea of what to expect at that event? What do you have planned?
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Gregory Hill: I'm not sure what I'm getting into. Yes, I've performed a million times for stoney folks (who are also, usually, drunk as well), but that’s always been as a musician. A stoned/drunk audience tends to work in favor of musicians, at least musicians of my caliber. Other-hand-wise, when I do my literary stuff, the audience is — presumably, mostly — sober, and so I assume they're, like, actually listening to the sounds I'm making. This gig will be my first-ever book talk in front of an audience that is — presumably, mostly — stoned. As for me, I do not intend to partake that evening, as I'm certain it would render me utterly incoherent.
I'll arrive that night with a lecture that will discuss how the inclusion of drugs can add to the absurdity of a book and/or act as a crutch for a writer who can't think of a more clever way of introducing a hallucinatory episode. I’ll probably abandon that lecture within minutes and instead dive into an improvised comedy bit.
So how did you come to be the guy to give this talk? Was this something you pitched to Coffee Joint, or did they come to you? How did the idea hatch?
One of my rules as a writer has always been: If things get boring, either kill someone or bring in the booze, meth, pills, weed, coke or mushrooms. When people get fucked up, they act crazy, and crazy is my favorite thing to write. But as I was working on my most recent book, Zebra Skin Shirt, it occurred to me that maybe I could write fucked-up characters without fucking them up on, for example, gelatinized psilocybin. And, hey, maybe it'd be fun to see if I could write weirdness as if weirdness were the norm rather than something that had to be smoked or swallowed. By the time this occurred to me, I was mostly done with the book, and so I wasn't able to properly integrate this epiphany. But my next book...
I didn't answer your question.
I think you sort of did, actually. So given Colorado’s pot-friendly culture, marijuana is probably the most natural substance to talk about — but historically speaking, there’s just as much connecting writers to other mind- and mood-altering drugs: alcohol, most clearly, but also acid and mushrooms and more. How does the type of drug affect the art? It must, right?
I'm not terribly suited to answer that question; I don't get messed up when I write. Please don't judge me. Clarification: I did deliberately get drunk when I wrote the big party scene in The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles. And then I sobered up and had to rewrite the whole mess. In the name of research, I may try some experimentation this week and share the results at the Coffee Joint. And I must confess that I don't know much about the drinking/drugging habits of the folks I read. Having said that, I'd wager my life that Thomas Pynchon is sucking on a bong right now.
What effects did drugs have on your previous novels?
Not quite answering your question: My first book, East of Denver, pissed off a few people with its depiction of drugs in rural Colorado. One of my favorite bits of fan mail came from a woman who wrote to tell me that she knew my parents and that they should be ashamed of me for depicting the good people of eastern Colorado as a bunch of druggies. I named a cow after her in my second novel. One of the sub-subplots of Johnny Riles was How David Thompson Became Acquainted With the Drug that Would Destroy his Professional Basketball Career.
So what’s your drug of choice for yourself, in the creative process? What does it provide you that sobriety doesn’t?
Hmm. To the limited degree that I can talk about that, I'll save my answer for the Coffee Joint.
Fair enough. Gotta save something for the show. So what’s your favorite drug to give to your characters?
Not booze, that's for sure. It's too sloppy and stupid. Johnny Riles was an alcoholic, but he never acted particularly drunk. Pot is always fun, but there's only so much that can go wrong when someone's stoned. Like, they're mostly gonna be wide-eyed and forgetful. I had a blast with the mushroom scene in Zebra Skin Shirt, which basically turned into a Kilgore Trout short story. (Speaking of Vonnegut, there's a guy who would write some wacky-ass stuff without getting his characters messed up.) And the cocaine scene in Johnny Riles, with our depressed cowboy protagonist doing lines in a bathroom stall in a Denver hotel alongside the world's greatest basketball players, is some of the most disorienting stuff I've written.
Clearly, there are a lot of works of fiction that depend heavily on some substances. What are among your favorites in the canon? What are your favorite examples, and who are the writers that depended the most on drugs as creative vehicle?
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I will very nearly answer this question. I'm no expert on the Beats, but what I have read — Kerouac and Cassady, full stop — sends me in the same way that all the pill-powered ’50s and ’60s country/pop/everything music does (don't get me started on pill-popping musicians): nutsoid, fearless, sloppy, manic, arrogant, and, once you submit yourself to the madness, utterly invigorating. I'm assuming that every word that Kerouac and Cassady wrote was squeezed out of them by a healthy diet of amphetamines.
Or something, for sure. And since we’re talking about Denver-connected Kerouac and Cassady, where do you see the state going in terms of drug acceptance and normalization in Colorado culture? Establishments like the Coffee Joint would have been unthinkable not that long ago. Where are we headed, in both the state and the art?
Give somebody a joint and a conga drum, and that somebody is gonna start whacking that drum as if they're Ricky Ricardo. Yay! But let's say there are two people observing this conga performance: one sober person and one stoned person. There's a 50 percent chance that the stoned observer will dig the drummer, irrespective of any meaningful definition of competence. There's a 100 percent chance that the sober observer will want to start digging the drummer a grave, because stoned non-musicians cannot and should not play congas. My point is, thank Odin for sober people. Otherwise, who would tell the rest of us to knock it off and go take some lessons?
Award-winning Denver novelist Gregory Hill will appear at the Coffee Joint, 1136 Yuma Court, at 6 p.m. on Friday, December 13, to discuss “The Creative Application (and Mis-Application) of Drugs in Literature.” The event is free.