An interview with Todd Fahey about his gonzo conspiracy theory novel Wisdom’s Maw
SPIKE note: This interview first appeared in the print zine Carbon 14. Todd Fahey is still without a UK publisher for Wisdom’s Maw, despite rave reviews from every sector of the literary press. Go figure, as they would say in America. Check this and then check his short story “Fear And Loathing In Amsterdam” in SPIKE’s “New Writing” section…/p>
About five months ago, we received a copy of Todd Fahey’s book Wisdom’s Maw. I’d seen ads for it somewhere. Or maybe saw his Web page. Either way, I had definitely heard about it before it appeared in our mailbox. (Which kind of makes sense now that I know a little more about the book and its author.) Personally, I’m not that enthralled by conspiracy theories, although I am fascinated by Larry’s insistance that JFK was killed by Woody Harrelson’s father, but even I was intrigued by the theme of this novel. Was the whole 60’s counterculture “beatnik” revolution the result of the CIA screwing around with college kids’ lives and minds? Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg government pawns? And how does that tie in with JFK’s assassination? You’ll have to investigate for yourself. I recommend a visit to Todd’s Web page (http://www.fargonebooks.com) which explores the book’s terrain more than this interview. -Leslie
Carbon 14: How long had Wisdom’s Maw been completed before you decided to self-publish it?
Todd Brendan Fahey: Wisdom’s Maw was conceived at the turn of 1988-89, in a period of increasingly heavy LSD usage for me. I was living in Santa Barbara, CA and had been accepted into the prestigious & ultra-expensive Professional Writing Program at USC for the Master’s degree – this after having basically been run out of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University for writing “too much like Hunter Thompson.” It is important to note that, at that time. (Spring 1988), I had never read Hunter Thompson. Not a word. I’m fairly sure I’d never even heard of him (I’ve spent many hours on this question and poured over all my old college folders. and there is no evidence at all of my ever encountering his work). I can pinpoint the exact moment that I recall discovering Thompson, and it was not until I bailed ASU in May of’ ’88 and moved back to Santa Barbara. (If you want to know the particulars, check out the article I wrote for a skin-mag back in ’91, on my Web site.) This is an absolutely critical point if anyone is to fully appreciate my writing. I am not a “Hunter Thompson clone” (though one could do much worse). I share with Thompson the “black comedic” cast of mind; I am also an inveterate outsider and loner, with tendencies toward misanthropism.
“No one knows better than I
CI4: What are the advantages you’ve found to being self-published?
TBF: Being self-published means basically to be a one-man (in my case) whole-service industry. I am the shipping clerk, the order taker, the PR mouth, the advertising specialist – the training for which has been all on-the-job. By the time I’m through with this whole Wisdom’s Maw process, I really feel I could and should command a $100k yearly salary at a NY publishing house. ‘Cause, if Wisdom’s Maw takes off as a seller, it will be me & no other who got it there. The real advantage to me in this process, is to meet people like you. Truly, that’s been the human bonus. I am on pretty cozy terms now with the ed/pubs of most of America’s best counterculture magazines. No one knows better than I how fucking tough it is to get published, and to be able to just pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, buddy! I’ve got John Barlow hangin’, wanna see the interview? Groovy. Let’s do cola soon. Ciao,” is kind of a mind-boggling thing. (I’m kidding about the cola – haven’t touched it since 1987.) The horrendous disadvantage to self-publication is, obviously, the money. I’m in hock about $20k to Citibank right row and they ought to be conscious of remaining REALLY NICE TO ME, because it would be incredibly easy to declare Chapter 7 and call this whole thing a bad dream. But I want to keep Far Gone Books running. And so it’s not in my best interest to go belly-up.
CI4: What influence have psychedelics had on your writing?
TBF: I have a deeply-embedded fear of being ‘straight.’ I’ll be frank about it. I have been enamored of chemicals since my childhood and it is surely the bane of my existence. I lost my wife over it just this past year. I love her and respect her enough to have finally told her, ‘l can’t promise I will change & a promise is what you want.’ So, we divorced after 5 1/2 years of a rewarding and tumultuous marriage. She did not know about my LSD intake during the writing of Wisdom’s Maw. I hid it from her – an LSD addicton that sometimes went for 40 days in a row – and in hiding my usage, psychologically, I almost destroyed myself. I am digging myself out of the wreckage that is lies as we speak.
[For the record, it was my soon-to-be-ex-wife – just after I had told her about my LSD years – who laid out the book in Adobe PageMaker. She is a wonderful Mormon woman. I can’t thank her enough. The getting out of this book is one of the miracles of modern medicine. Maybe someday I’ll get a chance to write about it.]
My relationship with chemicals is an uncomfortable one. To be very honest I am either bored of the “sober life,” or else it scares the shit out of me. I don’t know which. From the age of seventeen, I don’t think I’ve been straight more than a week at any given period. My survival is a testament to the strength of the human will. I had a hideous relationship with alcohol from 1982-1986 (from the age of 17 to a wizened 22, when I went through rehab.) I relapsed to the bottle in ’93, after about the 120th rejection of Wisdom’s Maw. I ‘drank-to- die’ until Thanksgiving of ’95 – a fifth of Wild Turkey a day. I’ve shed many tears over the memory of those days. I was so desperate to get Wisdom’s Maw published.
CI4: Is Wisdom’s Maw your first book?
TBF: I’ve been writing a goddamned long time. I wrote my first book-length nonfiction ‘novel’ – a thing called Hell Bottled Up: Chronicles of a Late Propaganda Minister – in 1988, in my first semester at USC. Wrote it in a white-heat in six months, basically smashed on acid. Hell Bottled Up! is an autobiographical novel centering on my two violent years as a right-wing activist in Arizona, during the heyday of Governor Evan Mecham and a revival of the John Birch Society. You drop the name Todd Brendan Fahey around certain circles in Arizona today and you better watch your back. Oh, I’ve lived a really weird life.I became acquainted with conspiracy theory through the John Birch Society in 1984 and am credited with founding the first-ever college chapter of the JBS. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But I was also a terrible drunk and was more than a little curious about psychedelics. Plus, I was a slut. (Heeee.)
“But then it dawned on me:
That manuscript made the rounds of New York for three years, and at one point Faber & Faber fell in love with it, and Villard took a look at it. Thunder’s Mouth Press wanted to see it specifically – but my then-agent couldn’t close the deal. I finally shelved it in ’92 , as I was becoming a better writer. I thought I should clean it up, and I didn’t have the strength to look at it again. So, before I had even begun Wisdom’s Maw, I had this other semi-notorious “novel” written and was frustrated about not selling it. So, by the time I got a hundred pages into this incredibly dark and deranged CIA/LSD novel, I was antsy to sell it pre-finish. I must have ridden my agent terribly. I was so certain it was going to be a blockbuster. I just could NOT understand why the NY majors weren’t beating my door down. I still can’t, fools! Now that Wisdom’s Maw is getting great reviews in about every counterculture magazine that matter, I feel vindicated. It’s not selling extremely well, but it’s also not in very many book stores (like 10, maybe.) The chains won’t touch it. I can’t buy a distributor. It’s a monster. I’ve sold about 3000 copies through my Web site and word of mouth. I unloaded 50 copies while I was in Amsterdam; visit any of the English/American book stores there and you’ll find it. They loved it over there.
CI4: What other titles are planned for Far Gone Books?
TBF: Fresh Fruit & Gravity, a first-book of poems by Jim Tolan, will be out in about a month. It’s a gorgeous thing, and at $9.95 (big commercial plug) is a steal, for a signed first. Jim is a friend of mine, a fellow Ph.D. at U. of Southwestern Louisiana, and a 1994 winner of the AWP Intro Award for poetry. He is working very much within the Whitman-bardic tradition – the larger “I-as-soul-of-America” thing – and I hope this book wins an award for best small press design, because it is stunning. I’ve been very lucky to have had two hungry graphics guys offer to design my first two books for pocket change. In May, I will release my demented short stories, titled Dogshit Park & other atrocities, which are the blackest things to come out since the heyday of Burroughs, Terry Southern and Hubert Selby, Jr., all of whom are my forefathers. After that, a collection of scholarly criticism on Hunter S. Thompson, which I think will surprise a lot of academics. Past that, I’ll have to figure out my money situation. Any addled philanthropists out there reading this interview should mail checks & money orders to: Far Gone Books, P.O.Box 43745, Lafayette, LA 70504.
CI4: If you aren’t trying to be the next Thompson, where did the idea of a “Fear and Loathing” piece originate?
TBF: As far as this “Fear and Loathing” piece, the story is pretty simple. I sent a review copy of Wisdom’s Maw to Smoke (a NY cigar magazine aimed at Gen-X) and their assistant editor loved it. After a few fruitless phone calls back and forth with assignment ideas, they came up with the idea of “Fear and Loathing.” I almost lost my lunch. Really. I walked around in a shit-eating daze for a week. So, I went to Amsterdam, started getting REALLY out of my head, like I hadn’t in several years. (For the record, I stopped eating LSD in the summer of 1994 and, Bog willing, I will never pick up the habit again. Too many reminders. Too much psychic trauma. I’ll probably do it again, ’cause I did it in Amsterdam – some incredibly pure & powerful stuff – but not as a “means of writing.”)
But then it dawned on me: ‘Crap, I can’t pull a Hunter, Jr. I just can’t.’ I don’t have much going for me these days – I’m probably unemployable in terms of a tenure-track teaching job, even though I will have my Ph.D. by May ’97. God bless the school that gives me a gig. A “charitable institution,” indeed. I have my writerly reputation and I can’t afford to soil it. So, the article became a ‘How-to-write a ‘Fear and Loathing’ piece,” mixed with some insight on Thompson, who is my patron saint, and then a little segue into this fictional thing that will be Fear and Loathing in Amsterdam: A Gonzo Novel. Aaron Sigmond, editor-in-chief of Smoke, hated what I gave him, and he “killed the piece.”
I admit, I went totally sideways on it; but I’m the loosest of cannons, and that’s what I do best. My ex-wife loved that about me: “Never, ever a dull moment around the Toddmonster.” It’s going to be a great book and a lot of fun to write; but I like writing. I don’t consider it, as does Hunter, “the most hateful kind of work.” I’d rather be writing than doing just about anything – except maybe cruising the Red Light District of Amsterdam…so let me get back to work.