It’s a peculiarity of these apocalyptic times that we don’t have any writers who can evoke the hyperreal grotesquery of 21st-century humanity with the sort of razor-blade satire practiced by our 20th-century Jonathan Swifts (Terry Southern, William S. Burroughs, Michael O’Donoghue, and Hunter S. Thompson, among others). Could it be that today’s writers just aren’t taking enough drugs, or, at least, enough psychedelic drugs?
In 1996, Todd Brendan Fahey came close with the “acid novel” Wisdom’s Maw, which he wrote while under the influence of 500-microgram doses of LSD-25. The novelist would drop as soon as his wife went to work and be back inside corporeality by the time she got home. I spent 36 years as an acid head, and it never occurred to me—that is, until I read Fahey's latest book, Dogshit Park—that the eight-hour work day is just the right amount of time to get up and come down.
I first heard of Todd when we both found ourselves in the November 1991 issue of High Times—me as a study of my odd self, Fahey for a truly jaw-dropping investigation of Captain Al Hubbard, the so-called “Johnny Appleseed of LSD” and confirmed OSS agent (and suspected CIA agent). Wisdom’s Maw swirled the story of 60s revolution with the CIA’s investigations into psychedelics as agents of warfare and mind control. And after umpty-some rejections from mainstream and alternative publishers, it was finally published, in 1996, through Fahey’s own small-press imprint, Far Gone Books. It got rave reviews in the Village Voice, High Times, and a bunch of underground magazines, but suddenly it seems as if a switch were flipped downward. Fahey was championed by Hunter S. Thompson’s agent throughout the 90s, but he was unable to catch a fucking break. He remains unjustly obscure, which may be a function of his whacked-out literary style.
I thought it high time to catch up with him.
VICE: Hi, Todd. First off, how did you get this way? In other words, what weird combinations of influences sculpted your writing style?
Todd Brendan Fahey: I had been writing poems all during high school and into my bachelor's-degree years. I never studied "poetics"; they just came to me and through me—usually fully formed—and without notice. I would feel it coming, and a poem would be born.
Before graduating college—facing life as an attorney, as my major was pre-law, and really anguished about it—I was gripped by a stretch of writing, this time for longer pieces of fiction. They came out of nowhere. I showed the stuff to a professor who I knew to be a frustrated playwright, and he sat down, read what I'd given him, came back and told me, "I've been writing plays for 25 years, and I can't write dialogue like this."
So I applied to one graduate school and was accepted. I remember those months very clearly, and felt then and still feel that I was "directed to do this." Writing is my one great joy.
You openly embrace gonzo. How does one work in that genre and not seem too derivative?
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart opined correctly when he ruled, "I know it when I see it." Gonzo is a hybrid of righteous indignation, some last-ditch survival instinct before taking the Big Sleep, a heavy measure of the absurd and grotesque. Henry Miller's great scene in Plexus did it for me—a group of neighborhood delinquents wheeling an eight-year-old confederate around their 'hood and who is swaddled in infant wrappings and sucking on a pacifier.
Or Guy Grand in Terry Southern's The Magic Christian tossing pound notes into a pool of human excrement… to gauge the real value of money. Or Hunter Thompson delivering sermons from the Book of Revelations from atop the staircase of the Sheraton-New Orleans on the eve of the Super Bowl.
You know it when you see it.
Anyway, I'll be happy to take a polygraph on this one. From my first writing screed into my first nonfiction novel, Hell Bottled Up: Chronicles of a Late Propaganda Minister, I had never even heard of Hunter S. Thompson, much less read his works. It was not until a few friends began reading drafts of it that the comparisons began. That's when I went to Earthling Bookshop in Santa Barbara, CA, and cleaned out its supply of everything Hunter had written. And, quite obviously, I saw the parallel.
Hell Bottled Up was my autobiographical look back at the three violent years I'd spent in Arizona and working within the John Birch Society and with and/or for some heavy ultra-right politicians, military men, and a spy. I had become interested in the JBS after having read None Dare Call It Conspiracy (by the late Gary Allen), on a beach one afternoon in Santa Barbara, with a headful of magic mushrooms.
I've said before, in an interview with a long-ago Philly 'zine called Carbon 14: "I am of a black-comedic cast of mind, as was Hunter"—misanthropic soul-brothers; an egg separated through time and space, from different mothers; who the fuck knows? But I did not copy Hunter, and I'll probably be answering this same question for the rest of my life.
You wrote a lot of Wisdom's Maw—your fictionalization of the overlap between LSD counterculture and the CIA's involvement with acid—on 500 mics of LSD. Are you aware of anybody else writing novels on such high doses? I think my keyboard would start to seem too weird at 200, like that scene in Cronenberg's Naked Lunch where the typewriter turns into a fleshy bug thing.
No, I don't know of anyone who actually writes whilst under the influence of psychedelics. But it works for me. I used (and have not since 1994) LSD as "a creative tool"—solo, away from "others," cloistered in my writing chair and at the computer, and it all came out. I wrote three books, sum-total, in four-month stretches, over a five-year period, each of which were the result of having come into significant quantities of very pure LSD, which lights me up and makes me feel like writing.
What were some of the most interesting responses to Wisdom's Maw?
Probably the most interesting responses came in the two or three years before I decided to form Far Gone Books in 1996 and issue it myself—as my then-wife knew that if I did not "let it out," I would go insane from frustration. I had been signed by Hunter S. Thompson's agent, William Stankey, in 1989, after he'd read the manuscript of Hell Bottled Up; I had tracked him down by calling the San Francisco Examiner—during the period soon after Hunter had written his Generation of Swine sketches—and the editor gave me a phone number for Hunter's agent. We talked for a few minutes; he said, "Sure, send your book, and I'll tell you what I think."
On Martin Luther King Day, 1989, I get a call from Bill Stankey, who tells me, "I'm drinking a bottle of Scotch right now, and this is the funniest shit I've read in years!" Bill Stankey went to the wall for me; probably spent $10,000 of his own money trying to get Hell Bottled Up and Wisdom's Maw signed by a major publisher, and always to the same responses by top editors of every notable house in New York: "We've read it; this guy is good, there is no doubt. And we'll get our ass sued and never make back court costs."
When Wisdom's Maw was finally published in 1996 and got a five-star review in the Village Voice, I could finally say, "Fuck them."
Your new book, Dogshit Park & Other Atrocities is a collection of short stories, interviews that you performed with Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, articles that were "killed" by editors who'd probably bought more than they'd bargained for. There's a sense of exasperation about the plight of the ignored and financially desperate writer that crops up frequently in the book. Do you think your position is a function of the times or just the luck of the draw? And do you feel like there's a unifying theme to the whole shebang?
Um… repeated failure in Anger Management 101? And LSD. Those are basically the two personal ties that bind. This collection is the whole of my 1990s. I probably "made" $3,000 on my writing—apart from Wisdom's Maw—over the span of a decade. Spin commissioned a piece in 1990; editor got shitcanned just after signing the deal with my agent. Smoke magazine commissioned a piece, then "killed" it (and its commissioning editor-in-chief was fired shortly thereafter). I had interviewed Ken Kesey, who was known as "a hard lay" for an interview, Leary four times, and I could not get my stuff printed anywhere but in DIY boho 'zines.
I channeled the bile into these stories. Fortunately, one night in Amsterdam I was granted spiritual reprieve [see the story: "Room 55, the Hotel van Onna, Amsterdam"], which allowed me to lay down the pen and know that I'd done my job—and a whole lot of it—and be as content as I can manage ever to be.
A decade went by before I got the itch again.
Adventures and misadventures—getting out into the world—seem to provide the grist for your mill. Are any of your compositions strictly from the imagination? Is that something you'd like to try?
I know where I'm going next—been working on it, on and off, since 1999. At around 800 pages, it'll be America's Ulysses and the last thing I'll ever write. Won't blow the surprise for you now.
I see the influence of Terry Southern in this collection. Was he an influence… and if so, what is it about his work that inspires you?
I love everything about Terry Southern. He was a "writer as rock star" long before Hunter. The Magic Christian was published 15 years before the world had heard of gonzo. For fans of black satire, Terry Southern is ground zero.
Satire, in American literature, ain't been in vogue since forever. America is just so wadded up with its "thou shall not say"-s and "If thou says, thou shalt not deviate from sayin' it EXACTLY as thus"-es, that there is no fucking fun anymore in reading long-form texts.
Past the Onion, the only funny moments being produced today in America are Amanda Bynes's mugshots. No chuckles at all over that other troubled lass tossing a bong out her high-rise window ("a safety hazard!"); shit, even PeeWee Herman has cleaned up. I mean: Where's the fun?!
Your literary productions come with ample illustration and design. Any stories to tell?
I "met" (virtually; still have never sat down with him) Christopher Hunt, in late 1994, when something called "the web" was in not even in its teething stage. He was producing a digital 'zine out of British Columbia called Circuit Traces; I sent him some unpublished segments of Wisdom's Maw, and he became the design genius of Far Gone Books and still is, 20 years later.
The three illustrators—Rich Mackin, Mark Reusch and Dave Dawson—came from a 'zine that compensated its "talent" at, like, $25 apiece and that failed to pay me at all for my final works. I got back in touch with Rich Mackin after a decade and offered him more than $25, and he had fun creating a few new illustrations. Thanks a ton, guys—for homing in on my vibe and for allowing me to utilize those long-ago offerings in this new Far Gone book.
Fahey’s new book, Dogshit Park & Other Atrocities was released via Amazon earlier this month. His psychedelic novel, Wisdom’s Maw, is available through Amazon. He is currently at work on a full-length novel titled A String of Saturdays: The New Southern Romance.