One month ago, on 19th March, I flew from Phuket to Phnom Penh. It was a risky move but one that I felt was necessary. At that time, the countries of the world were falling to the Covid-19 pandemic one-by-one and no one knew what was coming next. Half of people still seemed to think it was nothing and the other half thought that the end was almost here.
Meanwhile, I was thinking about my book.
Whether or not the end of the world comes in 2020, I want to have my next book finished. I’m not a believer in the afterlife, but if the virus comes for me and I am lying on my deathbed, I would quite like my last thoughts to be, “Fuck you, virus; I finished my book.”
The book to which I am referring is an untitled project about Hunter S. Thompson. I have been planning it since 2006, one year after his suicide. For years, I possessed neither the time nor the resources to write it, but last year, after moving to Thailand to work online as an editor, I realised that I had the perfect opportunity. In late 2008, I had quit my job and decided to start my own business. It provided me with enough money to pay the bills and plenty of free time.
From March, 2019 to March, 2020, I read and re-read every book by or about Hunter S. Thompson. In 2013, I had written about William S. Burroughs and Scientology and, in 2019, I had written about Allen Ginsberg and travel. The next one would be about Hunter S. Thompson and…
Well, that part is largely a secret. Initially, the book was about the extent to which he blended truth and fiction in his writing, and that is certainly a part of this book, but it is not the focus. I had intended to call it Fact and Fiction in Las Vegas… but that is the sort of stupid idea that a twenty-one-year-old comes up with.
Instead, the book is about Thompson’s writing. I won’t say more than that, except to clarify that it is not a book about his legend or his life. I don’t care how much coke he did or how many bats he saw after taking L.S.D., and I am not going to attempt to deify him. What’s the word… hagiography? This ain’t no hagiography, buddy.
So… for one whole year, I read and made notes, building an understanding of Thompson’s work that would allow me the clarity of mind to write honestly about it. Let’s face it: this is a really, really misunderstood author. I would venture that 80% of his fans have never read more than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… and some of them have only seen the movie.
My book is going to come as a rude shock to most of these people. Although I do greatly admire his writing, this book is going to be savage – and I don’t mean it’s going to have a derivative title like The Strange and Savage Writing of Doctor Hunter S. Thompson…
I mean that this book is honest and critical. It will be among the first books that look at his writing critically and in depth. So far, there are two books that look critically at his work, but one only focuses on the ten-year period starting with his visit to the Republican Convention in San Francisco in 1964 and the other, whilst valuable, is not exactly an exhilarating read. I want mine to be informative, critical, and also entertaining. I have found many errors in the books currently available, so I also intend to set a few records straight. Diehard fans will no doubt feel aggrieved with some of my claims, but I am fine with that. Serious writing deserves criticism.
Is that too much to ask from a book? Possibly… but I don’t think so. It requires the right balance of focus.
But, like Thompson always did, I have digressed. I was talking about Cambodia rather than the qualities of a critical book.
Yes, Cambodia… the place where I have been living for the past one month and five hours… and the pandemic… who could forget about that?
A month ago, my Thai visa expired and so did the lease on my apartment. There was little chance of renewing the visa because I was working online. I had to leave and that meant a quick assessment of my options. I had known for a year that I wanted to start writing my book and that Cambodia would be a good place.
But did I want to get trapped there in the middle of a pandemic?
Well, I thought, Cambodia is as good a place as any… and probably safer than Scotland, which was another option. As long as the country doesn’t plunge into an orgy of violence, I should be able to ride out the storm there.
I arrived n Phnom Penh and took a bus to Kampot, a small town on the coast, not far from the Vietnamese border. I had visited twice before – once when I was living in Cambodia in 2014 and again when I passed through on a short holiday a few years later.
Whilst the rest of Cambodia has changed quite a bit in the last six years, I was pleased to find that Cambodia was much the same. The Chinese had raped Sihanoukville and other parts of the coastline, but their impact on Kampot has not yet been very pronounced. It is still a charming little town, chaotic and dirty but beautiful nonetheless.
The ravages of Covid-19 had reached this part of the world but it was not the major problem it is elsewhere. People wore masks and a few businesses had shut down temporarily, but overall things felt normal. There was a temporary restriction on travel, but it was lifted after just a few days. The virus has left Cambodia relatively untouched.
I tried out a few hotels and guesthouses before finally settling in at Baraca, which was very cheap and offered comfortable rooms. My one came with a pleasant balcony/garden area that was home to much wildlife. After a couple of days, one of the local cats had a litter, and a few weeks later those kittens began to roam around. I quickly became friendly with them and shot some photos of their playtime.
What appealed to me most about Baraca, however, was having a big, scrap-wood desk in my room, where I was able to spread my books and notebooks around and start writing. It has so far been about four weeks since I opened that dreaded blank Microsoft Word document and pondered my first words. The book is now about 110,000 words.
Yes, that was a non-subtle form of bragging. But I don’t care. I’m proud. 110,000 words in four weeks is the most productive period of writing I have had in my life, and if I live to be a hundred years old, I doubt I will ever reproduce it. That is about 4,000 words per day. More than 25,000 per week.
In my final days at Baraca, my productivity slipped. I had been writing from 6am to 6pm every day, but when the cats got old enough, they began to bug me. They would come into my room, sit on my lap, make ungodly noises outside on the metal roof… They were angels and devils at the same time. I am allergic to cats but I love them and they quickly stole my attention. When it came time to leave Baraca, the kittens brought me a parting gift:
I was surprised, disgusted, saddened, and impressed in equal measure. The cats are barely bigger than this thing, and tokays normally stick high up, out of the way of predators.
Yesterday, I moved into a small apartment a mile or two south of the town. It is not much bigger than my room at Baraca, but it is mine. I have my own space, limited though it may be, and there is also a tiny swimming pool outside. My neighbours here are mostly humans with a small number of dogs, but there are no cats here to interfere. I have set up my desk, which is not as wide as the one at Baraca, but it will do. It is enough.
I have a three-month lease and a three-month visa, so that should be more than enough time to finish the book, proof it, re-write whatever needs fixed, and then get a suitable draft in order to think about publication. Perhaps I will need to conduct a few interviews to fill in a few blanks, but the basics of the book will be there. Besides, next year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (in book form). It would be good to celebrate it with a new book about HST.
Will the world be back to normal by the time this book is written? I doubt it, but hopefully some semblance of order will have been imposed. Perhaps the economy will not be so nightmarish… maybe there will be open borders again… Who knows?
I am glad that I came back to Cambodia. The peace and quiet here has afforded me the ability to write my book, and having a place where I could live on a budget of just $600 per month meant that I could give up some of my paid work and focus on this foolish task. After all, who cares about books when the world is crumbling?
I care, and I think others do, too… and I think that whenever the world begins to recover, there will be a place for a critical analysis of the work of Hunter S. Thompson, who needed crises in order to produce his best writing. Difficult times brought out the best in him. Gonzo was born from failure and torment.
There is a lesson in that.