The Rumpus Interview with William Hjorstberg
William Hjorstberg may be best known for the occult thriller, Falling Angel, which was made into the movie Angel Heart, directed by Alan Parker and staring Lisa Bonet, Robert De Niro, and Mickey Rourke. In addition, Hjorstberg has produced novels including Alp, Gray Matters, Symbiography, and Toro! Toro! Toro!, works which crossed genres and garnered praise from such diverse sources as Rod Serling, Jeff Bridges, and Jonathan Lethem. More recently he wrote the novel, Nevermore, which paired Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle as a crime-fighting team solving supernatural mysteries and Manana, a post summer-of-love romp across Mexico which is equal parts mystery and nightmare.
He is also the author of Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan, an expansive, intimate biography of Brautigan and fellow poets and novelists of the 1960s North Beach, San Francisco era. Hjorstberg was a close friend of Brautigan’s, part of a group of artists and writers who also lived in Montana and, at times, included Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane, Peter Fonda, James Crumley, and even Jimmy Buffet. They wrote, drank and performed together, producing some of the most original and influential work of their time.
Hjorstberg is currently engaged in writing a sequel to Falling Angel. We spoke on the phone recently about the art of such a project, the heady writing days in Livingstone, Montana, being a “Hollywood whore” getting “crumulated” with James Crumley at the Owl Bar, and the finer points of Richard Brautigan. We talked only days before the death of Jim Harrison, not only Hjorstberg’s friend but his family, as his son and Harrison’s daughter are married.
The Rumpus: Let’s talk about your current project, a sequel to your novel, Falling Angel, which was published in 1978. Is it difficult picking up the trail after such a gap in time?
William Hjorstberg: I’m a much more thorough writer now. Maybe I had that hammered into me for the research I had to do with the Nevermore book which had Houdini and Doyle as characters, and also the Richard [Brautigan] book. I couldn’t make anything up. Nevermore had a lot of made-up scenes but not the historical details of the 1920s. I’ve done a lot of research for this sequel and I don’t want to give too much away because that takes the energy away. It is set in Paris in 1959. The time sequence is immediate and it picks up right where the old book left off. I’ve been to Paris but I haven’t been to Paris in 1959 and I had to make sure a certain night club was there in that year. I was amazed to find a jazz club that was still there from the 1920s called Le Bouef Sur le Toit. The funny thing about Internet research is that one source claimed the club was not named after a ballet of that time. Le bouef is slang for a jam session, but the fact is that it was named after the ballet and was one of Cocteau’s favorite hangouts. Django Reinhardt played there a lot and because of that it became a jazz club and the slang came after the fact. So the Internet source had it ass backwards.
Rumpus: What else was happening in Paris in 1959? I think many of the Beat writers were living there then, in what was known as the Beat Hotel.
Hjorstberg: The Beat Hotel figures in my book.
Rumpus: It’s not there anymore as I understand it.
Hjorstberg: It’s a new spruced up hotel with a plaque on it. The guy who wrote some books on it is in my Brautigan book. Can’t think of his name…
Rumpus: Barry Miles?
Hjorstberg: Yes! Barry Miles. He was a friend of Paul McCartney’s and wrote a book on him.
Rumpus: I did some archive work for Allen Ginsberg during the 80s and sometimes Miles was there at the kitchen table, typing up his biography of Allen, while Allen looked over his shoulder. I don’t know how Miles did it.
Hjorstberg: He must be indomitable, but the reason he figures in the Brautigan book is because he produced an album with Zapple, the phonographic arm of the Beatles and they recorded Bukowski on a trip he made to California. They also recorded Richard for an album called Listening To Richard Brautigan. But Zapple went out of business before they released it. I think a branch of Capitol Records called Harvest Records released it, but it didn’t make the top ten or anything. But Miles produced it. Richard had many disputes with Miles as he was having a huge affair with Richard’s girlfriend at the time.
Rumpus: The inside dirt! Are you ever going to write another biography?
Hjorstberg: I’m never going to write anything like the project I did on Richard. It was too much like work.
Rumpus: One of the things I really loved about your Brautigan book was the portrait of the times as well as his fellow writers.
Hjorstberg: Thank you. I have certain illustrious writer pals who had never taken on a project this ambitious, so it was kind of like, ok wise guys! But yes, I felt Richard was inseparable from his times, from his miserable, impoverished boyhood in Eugene. I think I was more interested in those relationships than say, a critical evaluation of his work. I just took the position that he was a terrific writer.
Rumpus: Brautigan often gets pigeonholed as a “sixties writer,” but I think he is timeless.
Hjorstberg: He was in the American Grain. He’s in there with William Carlos Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Crane. He’s the real deal. Most of these guys were not university guys; they were autodidacts. They came from a place that wasn’t scholastic. They came from the back alleys and battlefields.
Rumpus: They brought their passion with them.
Hjorstberg: Yes, and Richard found a way to say things about America in a voice that no one else could duplicate. People think his writing is so simple—to which I say, if you think Trout Fishing in America is so simple, let me see you write one paragraph that can equal him. It’s not that easy.
Rumpus: It’s deceptive…
Hjorstberg: It’s having a voice so distinctive that after having a paragraph read out loud you can identify the writer. One of the ways you know a writer has a voice is that you can write parodies of it.
Rumpus: I wanted to go back to Falling Angel. I was curious to know if, having had a movie made of your book, you’re influenced by the prospect of having another film made of your sequel. Do you find yourself writing more cinematically?
Hjorstberg: I always think of myself as a kind of visual writer. That’s one of the reasons I was able to fall into a screenwriting career without ever having seen a screenplay. It’s just that one, I write things that have a beginning, middle, and end. They like that in Hollywood. And two, I like to tell a story in pictures, I see the pictures I’m plotting out as my narrative. And that’s what a screenplay is.
Hjorstberg: So in that respect, yes, I think this book is about as visual as I can make it. Not because of Alan Parker. I admired his movie. There were things about it I hated but mostly I admired it. I loved the acting. I loved the atmosphere he created.
Let me tell you a story about having written this book. I was in my thirties when I wrote it and the way it came down was that I had an idea for this book when I was a sophomore in high school. I read a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet called “The Devil and Mr. Webster” and what blew my mind was that you could actually make the devil a character in your stories. So I wrote this story, almost like a fable and ended up winning third prize in the McBurney School short story contest. So, jumping ahead to the mid-70s, Tom McGuane was starting to have success in Hollywood and he kept telling me, ‘You ought to go down there, it’s like taking candy from a baby! Just tell them a story and they’ll hire you and you can make more money than you could make writing articles for Sports Illustrated,’ which was what I was doing at the time. I said I didn’t have any ideas and Tom said, ‘Hell, they’ll take anything.’ So then I thought of my old short story, and I asked Tom if I could pitch it to him and see if it was good enough. I gave him a five-minute pitch and he just looked at me. He said, ‘That’s too good, don’t waste that on Hollywood. You should write that as a novel.’
Rumpus: And the rest is history.
Hjorstberg: You know, as you get older, you drift apart from your friends. We used to share our material and critique each other a lot in the early days. But back then we had that kind of relationship and I just launched into it. Why not?
Rumpus: I’m intrigued by those Montana days with Jim Harrison, McGuane, Brautigan, and even Jimmy Buffet. Can you talk some more about that?
Hjorstberg: Buffet didn’t live here [Montana] much, but he did marry Tom McGuane’s sister Laurie.
Rumpus: Are they still married?
Hjorstberg: Yes, thirty-five years I believe.
Rumpus: Was James Crumley part of that crowd?
Hjorstberg: He was part of my crowd, but he lived in Missoula which is across the divide and there’s a whole bevy of writers there, many of which, except for Crumley, are with the University of Montana. That included Richard Hugo the poet, Leslie Fiedler, Bill Kitteridge. There’s always been a kind of friction between the Livingstone gang and the Missoula gang.
Rumpus: Academics vs. townies?
Hjorstberg: They thought we were Hollywood whores. I remember Tom [McGuane] saying, ‘If they could get their hands on a Hollywood contract they’d leap on it like a dog on a pile of shit.’
Rumpus: I enjoyed Rancho Deluxe. Was that a McGuane screenplay?
Hjorstberg: That was his original screenplay. He had met Buffet in Key West and they became buddies so Jimmy wrote the music for it. He was just a guy singing in the bars at the time. These people started out as impoverished artists.
Rumpus: Well, not many start out rich.
Hjorstberg: You do have people like the poet James Merrill who inherited money and didn’t have to teach. But most of us start out hardscrabble. Going back to Crumley, he was a great friend and he liked to come visit and get away from the crowd. There was a bar here called The Owl Bar and he’d come and sit in the corner all day and drink.
Rumpus: I gathered he was quite the drinker.
Hjorstberg: Yeah, we’d spend a day getting what I call “Crumulated.” He was just a wonderful guy. He had this kind of scruffy exterior but a heart of gold. A really sweet guy.
Rumpus: Back to your sequel, how is it coming along otherwise?
Hjorstberg: Closing in, maybe another 150 pages to go. I don’t reread my books once they’re out because I find mistakes or things I hate. But I have to go back and reread Falling Angel to make this sequel dovetail. The premise for this book is that the hero escapes police custody so it can go forward and so I have him start to grow a mustache. At one point I needed some info about one of the female characters in the book and came across a scene in which the only physical description of the hero in the book appeared which says he has a mustache—he already had one! It was one of those moments where I realized I didn’t know my book as well as I thought I did.
Hjorstberg: Even now I haven’t entirely reread Falling Angel, but there really isn’t much I need. Because in this sequel there’s a lot of the same characters but in a way they are not the same. I can’t say much more without being a spoiler.
Rumpus: You answered part of my question already. I was wondering what driving force motivated you to write Falling Angel. The book is part noir, part historical novel with even some anthropology thrown in. Was there a dominant motivation?
Hjorstberg: I’ve never had a genre. Each of my books are different. Even this sequel is different. I’d feel as if I were stuck in a rut if I did the same thing over and over. I just couldn’t write twenty books about the same person because each of my books has a different inspiration. It would be like a day job. I’m a writer because it is fun. I want to be in the sandbox enjoying myself. A large part of the motivation for writing the book was to do something new, something no one had seen before. I was motivated by fun.
Rumpus: I want to go back and talk about the Montana crowd, this group fascinates me. I am glad that there are writers who don’t live in Brooklyn or LA. Can you talk a little more about that?
Hjorstberg: When I first came to Montana in ’69, Jim Harrison was staying at a ranch with Tom McGuane for the summer. I was living in a VW bus and Tom said, ‘Why don’t you drive your bus here, the fishing is great.’ So I went and we all set up our typewriters in Duane Neal’s barn which wasn’t much of a functioning barn. It was full of old tractor parts and curling deer hides. We just cleared away some spaces on the worktables and wrote. I think back on those days with some amazement. Jim Harrison was working on his Ghazal, an ancient (pre-Islam) Arabic verse form originating in North Africa. Tom was working on The Bushwhacked Piano and I was writing some offbeat short stories. My first novel was about to be published.
Rumpus: Which was Alp?
Hjorstberg: Alp, yes. In fact it was published while I was still living in Montana. I left in December and I think it came out in October so this would have been August when I met Jim Harrison. Maybe Jim and Tom were working on a series of literary letters, which they may still be doing. For the most part people did not talk about their writing but they did talk about their movie deals and how much money they made. And the mischief they got into. So we would have these great parties which were less literary than you might think. It was more manic.
Rumpus: Do you think you are ever going to write a memoir?
Hjorstberg: People urge me to do that, but the Brautigan biography is as close to a complete memoir as I want to get. I had a thin little novella come out not so long ago called Manana and it’s the most autobiographical thing I’ve written. I was part of that world in Mexico in the late 60s and some of the things I report on actually happened to me. The circumstances and places I knew really well. I finally gave the book to Open Road Media, who had done well with others of my books with the idea that they would publish a trade paperback at the same time. They don’t do advertising except for on social media so it was the first of my books which were never reviewed in the New York Times. So I’m putting in a plug now for Manana!
Rumpus: Do you have a projected release date for this sequel?
Hjorstberg: I don’t even know if we can sell it! After my Manana experience I’m just hoping that the energy of writing it carries it through. I’m hoping a first draft will be done by May or June.
For years I had saved a title that would be perfect for my sequel should I ever write one: Burning Angel. But I was in a bookstore a couple of years ago and there was a book by James Lee Burke called Burning Angel. Some time later I took him my copy to sign at some book event and told him the story of my title. He said ‘Hell! Go ahead and use it.’ And I said ‘I can’t use it. You’re a famous author, everyone will think I ripped you off.’ So I have a new title I’m afraid to tell anyone about. There used to be an unspoken rule in Hollywood where you wouldn’t take anyone’s title, a gentleman’s agreement, but those gentlemen don’t exist anymore.
Now when you set up a meeting to pitch an idea there are scribes writing it down and then you see later on that someone else has used your idea. I have been stolen from so many times it’s unbelievable. But still, I made a lot of money and got some movies done.
Rumpus: Well, let’s not end on a sordid Hollywood note. Any parting words?
Hjorstberg: The moral is live everyday to its fullest. Suck it in. It’s all so brief.
Rumpus: Live until you die.