Q&A: William "Gatz" Hjortsberg speaks volumes about Richard Brautigan in Jubilee Hitchhiker

Richard Brautigan spent a few years basking in the celebrity sun as the author of such counterculture classics as Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar. But it was a short honeymoon, and the writer, who came up from poverty, fell into a trough of depression and alcoholism later in life. He ended his own life with a gunshot to the head.

Author William "Gatz" Hjortsberg, who was his friend, wasn't willing to let Brautigan be forgotten. His novels were slim but they went deep, and so Hjortsberg went deep into his late friend's life to write Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life & Times of Richard Brautigan, a new biography of nearly 900 pages. Hjortsberg will introduce and sign the book tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Tattered Cover Colfax; visit the website for details.

We asked Hjortsberg a few questions about Brautigan and why it took so many pages to do him justice. Here's what he said.

Westword: Your book is huge. Is that somehow a reaction to the brevity of Richard Brautigan's best-known novels?

William Hjortsberg: Yes, it's enormous -- only a shade smaller than Webster's Dictionary. It's the biggest damn book you've ever seen, and I cut 800 pages out.

It just grew. My background is that I'm a fiction writer of screenplays and novels. I was so naive, I had no idea what was involved in writing a biography -- the verification of everything by two sources.

But I played by the rules. I was writing and revising and calling people right to the wire. I interviewed hundreds of people and spent countless hours in archives and libraries, and I was still interviewing people within weeks of the book's publication. Think of it as on-the-job training.

Hopefully, the book will hold interest -- think of it as a bag of Doritos. You start eating, and you don't want to stop. It could be a 100-pound bag, but you could keep going.

Why write a biography of Brautigan now?

Brautigan was a friend of mine. I knew him, and that gave me an inside track. I think he is one of the truly great American writers, but the public lost interest. At that point, his work went into an eclipse, like Scott Fitzgerald, when he was completely out of friends and looked upon like some kind of curiosity from the flapper ages. But now he's a star. He's remembered as the F. Scott Fitzgerald of the Gatsby era. A certain segment of the American population picked Richard, and he became a kind of a fad. At the end of his life, the same thing was held against him. He was dismissed as being one of those hippie poets, when in truth he detested hippies, and never considered himself one.

For one thing, he was way older than most of the hippies. But he fell in love with the Diggers, and the idea of giving your stuff away for free. He had a book, Plant This Book, that included poems printed on seed packets. He wanted to give his poems away for free. The Diggers were tied to the Haight Ashbury of the '60s, and he became indelibly linked with that world. Ken Kesey referred to Richard as the "American Basho." Five hundred years from now, when the rest of us have been forgotten, people will still read Brautigan.

What makes him such a compelling character?

He belonged to a certain school of American writers -- Melville, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway -- who were schooled in the school of hard knocks rather than at Princeton. Sometimes, really great stuff comes from regular men and women who forge art out of real life, not out of other books.

One reason I stick with him is that he was my pal, and he was dealt a bad hand at the end of his life. And two, I think his life is so darn interesting -- he was a true bohemian. I became increasingly fascinated with this.

All of his books, which I thought were so fanciful -- they're all completely linked to his life. I wanted to show how his art connects to his life. It became an obsession, but he would have called it my unconscious joke.

He would have hated all my talking to family members and old girlfriends. Maybe he would've called me a "cannibal carpenter" -- one of those people he said "wanted to build a cage for you out of your bones." It may be that I've done that.

You write yourself into the book, too. How does that work?

All of my novels are hybrids, and I'm always shooting for whatever it means to be literary. I take inspiration from B movies and comic books. This book is an amalgam; it's as much a social history as it is a biography.

So it's partly a memoir, and I'm in it. But it truly is a biography. I put in the hours. It's everything you always wanted to know about Richard and more.

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd

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