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Growing up in New York and the importance of experience and travel for writers...

Jubilee Hitchhiker was a major departure for Mr Hjortsberg, into non-fiction and the world of research, after writing many fiction novels and stories, mainly fantasy. The biography took 20 years to write and ran to more than 800 pages. Now he’s returned to fiction with his latest novel Mañana, released May 12. In Mañana, Tod is an American hippy living in Mexico in the 1960s. He wakes up with a dead prostitute and a hunting knife. He’d had his first shot of heroin the night before, while he and his wife were partying with their ex-con neighbours. Now his wife is missing.
And Mr Hjortsberg is currently working on a sequel to Falling Angel. The action resumes in 1959, and mainly takes place in Paris. Harry Angel escapes police custody and goes in pursuit of Louis Cyphre, the Devil, who originally hired Harry Angel to find wartime crooner Johnny Favorite.
Falling Angel (1978) is his most famous novel, although Mr Hjortsberg said Jubilee Hitchhiker might end up being more important. Falling Angel has been translated into Bulgarian, Japanese and other languages and is regarded as a horror classic.
The idea for the book came from a 10-page story he wrote in his Sophomore year at school. Later when he was earning a living as a stringer writing for Sports Illustrated, his friend author Thomas McGuane was writing scripts for Hollywood and suggested that Mr Hjortsberg do the same. Mr Hjortsberg told McGuane about his story of the devil hiring a private investigator. McGuane said it was “too good for Hollywood” and so Mr Hjortsberg wrote the novel Falling Angel (1978).
Later he wrote the screenplay based on this novel, Angel Heart (made in 1987).
Falling Angel drew on his memories of growing up in New York where he lived until he graduated high school in 1958.
William Hjortsberg was born in 1941 in Manhattan at Lennox Hill hospital.
His father owned a large Swedish restaurant, and his family lived on West 57th Street in a building called the Parc Vendome. “That building is still there. That building was built sometime before WW1, so it’s a really classy old New York apartment building. We lived on the 11th floor of that building. It had a working fire place, if you can believe it, on the eleventh floor. And it was a beautiful old building.”
They also had a house in the Catskills where he learned fishing.
Then when he was 10, his father died. They sold their house and moved to “a kind of slum”, “living for two years in a single shabby room in the early ‘fifties at 79th street and Amsterdam in the West Side”.
Then they moved to 66th Street and York Avenue while his mother worked as a maid, till he graduated high school in 1958. He said he never lived in New York again except a couple of summers.
He led a “weird kind of Huck Finn existence” growing up in New York.
There was jazz everywhere from Harlem to Greenwich Village, he said.
He just needed a fake draft card to get into jazz clubs, and stayed out in bars till 4am in high school.
“It was cheap. New York was cheap. Everything was cheap. Even for someone who was making a buck an hour. I saw Westside Story twice. In its original production. Because I took my highschool girlfriend and we sat in the orchestra. The tickets were three dollars and fifty cents a piece, so it cost me seven dollars to take a date. That would cost five hundred dollars or more today to do the same thing; to go to a big musical on Broadway. And we liked it so much that a couple of months later we went back and saw it again. It was so cheap. It was amazing. So my fear is like if I hadn’t had all that chance to like soak up experience, the music, the theatre, the night life. If I couldn’t have afforded to do that, and if I couldn’t have afforded to live in places like Mexico, Spain, for dirt cheap and then work a job for six months, save a thousand bucks and then run off to Europe for a year…I don’t know how a young writer without any money could do it now. Everything is too expensive. Where are the cheap places you go to hole up and learn your trade? I don’t know. It’s sad.”
He graduated college in 1962, then spent year at Yale drama school where he met Thomas McGuane. They decided to apply for Stegner fellowships at the Stanford University Creative Writing Program, “one of the few places an unpublished writer could make a decent amount of money. We applied. Tom got it the first year then I got it.”
He also travelled to Mexico and the Virgin Islands. In 1965 he went to Europe and Morocco. He travelled to Formentera in the Balearic islands, “rented a house for twelve bucks a month”, with no electricity or running water. “Very cheap. I don’t know how young writers do it now.”

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– copyright Simon Sandall