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Interview

WILLIAM HJORTSBERG P3

William Hjortsberg, author of Jubilee Hitchhiker, The life and times of Richard Brautigan, talks about specific information…

Specific information. “He would always say that. ‘Specific information. I’m interested in specific information.’ He’d get drunk and stutter it.”
Mr Hjortsberg said it was a Brautigan mantra.
“Maybe I went overboard on that, too, but somehow it seemed important to tell people how much he spent on his cheap red wine when he had no money, which he got for a pint of blood when he sold his blood [in San Francisco before his literary career took off]. I actually found, because it was in the Bancroft Library [in Berkeley, California], I found his blood bank book. I don’t have it now, but I looked at it and it had all the dates when he would come into this clinic and get blood drawn. I found that interesting.”
Mr Hjortsberg started interviewing people for Jubilee Hitchhiker in 1991, in Eugene, Oregon where Brautigan spent his troubled childhood, then Tacoma, Washington where Mr Hjortsberg tracked down Richard Brautigan’s father. He wouldn’t talk to Mr Hjortsberg the first time he went to his house, but he opened up on a second visit. It was the only time Mr Hjortsberg had a chance to speak to him.
The interviews, anecdotes and specific information make the book feel like a camera following Richard Brautigan around: through his rough childhood in Eugene, Oregon, on to San Francisco (the fifties seemed like a nicer time than the 1960s); then the Pine Creek, Montana years, hanging out with Mr Hjortsberg, Thomas McGuane and various movie actors and singers in Livingstone for the making of Rancho Deluxe (1975); and later his solitary sojourns in Japan.
Jubilee Hitchhiker is more than 800 pages long, but there is no fat on it.
“It’s a writer’s failing to go on longer than you need to,” Mr Hjortsberg said drily. ”We become seduced by the sound of our own words.”
Mr Hjortsberg also talked about the need for writers to learn to cut out sections of their work if it didn’t add anything to the story: to just draw a line through a page of work if need be. He said that when you saw the improvement it made, it became a pleasure after a while.
He made big cuts to Jubilee Hitchhiker.
“I was sort of on a rushed schedule at the end. I know that the Brautigan book would have profited by being at least 200 pages shorter. On the other hand I cut a thousand pages out of the original manuscript, so it’s not like I was averse to cutting at all. And I had no idea when I started it would be so long. I didn’t want it to be that long. It just developed into that.”
Eventually, after 20 years, he had to stop.
“I ran out of time and I ran out of money so I never did go to Japan, but I did talk to many of those people who were in Japan with Richard and knew him there so I thought I kind of got as much of that as I could.
“The page proofs for the first half of the book were arriving on my porch while I was still writing the last three chapters or so of the book. So I was like taking tranquilizers, because it just wouldn’t stop. I was proofing the beginning of the book I was still trying to write… I was still calling people up. Within weeks of submitting the final, I was still doing interviews. It was insane.”

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– copyright Simon Sandall.