In college, Brian Kevin discovered Hunter S. Thompson’s writing and was hooked. He was intrigued by Thompson’s letters in The Proud Highway where he recounts a yearlong adventure as a journalist in South America. When he found himself at a turning point in his own life, Brian decided to follow in Thompson’s footsteps and trekked across South America to explore the continent and a chapter in the life of Thompson as a foreign correspondent. His book, The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America, won the 2015 Maine Literary Award for Nonfiction.
Brian is currently associate editor at Down East magazine. His writing can also be found in Outside, Travel + Leisure, Men's Journal, Sierra, Audubon, and the Fodor's series of travel guidebooks. He’s a recipient of a Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers, and his work has been recognized in the Best American Essays and Best American Sports Writing anthologies.
He grew up in Wisconsin and has lived in Minnesota, Montana, and Oregon. He currently resides in Damariscotta, Maine.
Joyce Brown: What prompted you to take this journey across South America?
Brian Kevin: I started binge reading Thompson in the late 90s when I was a college student after I saw the Terry Gilliam film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I read just about anything of his that I could get my hands on thereafter. At some point, around the early 2000s, I read his first collection of letters, The Proud Highway. It's excellent as letter collections go, but it's just an excellent book too. It was the only time I had ever read any reference to the fact that he had been a foreign correspondent in South America. It was this very tantalizing glimpse.
I can remember pretty clearly sitting on a couch in a coffee shop in Minneapolis and thinking, ‘Oh, shit. I should do something like that,’ instead of what I was doing. At the time, I didn’t pursue the idea any further. I was in my early 20s teaching inner city kids at a job that... I'm probably supposed to say was fulfilling and rewarding and I liked a lot, but I didn't. It was hard, and I wasn't fulfilled or rewarded. But that’s what I was doing.
Some 7 years later I found myself at a crossroads after grad school in Montana. I was recently divorced, and I wasn't going to stick around. I flashed back to having read about Thompson’s stint in South America, and I thought maybe I'll do the thing now that I didn't do then.
I initially pitched it as a Fulbright proposal, which is a detail that I don't think I mentioned anywhere in the book. I tried to get the Fulbright committee to send me on a multi-country proposal — which are unusual — to Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, which still only scratches the surface of what I later took to calling the Thompson Trail, but I think the limitation is that you can only pick up to three countries. Whether it was because it was unusual in that way or maybe because Thompson just didn't seem like an appropriate subject for the academy, I didn’t get it. Or maybe I had a lousy proposal.
Joyce: Do you believe the population of South America is better off or worse off compared to fifty years ago?
Brian: I preface this by saying that it’s a big continent, and conditions in a place like Argentina are quite a bit different than in a place like backwater Peru. But people are better off in the sense that the standard of living is substantially higher. Sure, there are pockets that probably look pretty damn similar in 2015 to how they looked in 1962 — and if you were to look town by town, there are probably more pockets of Latin America that look similar now to how they looked in 1962, compared to pockets of the US. On the whole, though, it's hard to argue with the fact that people are living longer because they finally have vaccines, for example. They also have something resembling democracy to a much greater degree than 50-plus years ago.
Clientelism still exists. You could say multinational corporations and other interest groups, even non-profits, still have undue influence in the affairs of ostensibly self-governing people. But the U.S. isn’t down there as overtly — or, I don't think, as covertly — installing puppet governments and things like we were prone to do for quite a few decades. I don’t see how that can be anything but a net good.
Joyce: Once you were back in the United States, how long did it take you to write the book and get it published?
Brian: I had a really tight deadline, as a matter of fact, although it got complicated. This will be a rather abstruse answer to a simple question, but I came home in May of 2012 and Random House wanted to get the book out by 2013 to mesh with the 50th anniversary of Thompson’s original trip in ‘63. People like those round number anniversaries.
Anyway, we had a tight deadline, and boy, did I bust ass that summer. I think I finished the first draft in early September. But then what happened is — this is a little inside baseball — my initial editor, who's a great guy and publishing veteran, he got let go, in the way that the publishing industry has these weird, inexplicable movements.
It was at the worst possible timing. It was long enough after I had turned in the first draft that he had been sitting on it for a while and a bunch of time had elapsed. I think we'd had a phone call or swapped an email and he had given me an overview, and he was like, ‘All right. Next week, I'll send you the big memo for what you're going to do for your second draft,’ and then he got canned.
Months passed and I didn't hear a damn thing. It actually soured me for a little bit on the process. In January my new editor was assigned, at which point she had to read the first draft and we started at the beginning.
It took a couple of months before she got back with the proper second draft revision notes. It was then that we bumped the whole thing up to 2014. It was actually a relief. I'm a big believer in revision — that's where the best stuff comes out, I think. The first draft, as far as I'm concerned, is just this blah of words.
I feel that way as a writer. Nowadays, I feel that way as an editor. So, as a consequence of pushing the book back to 2014, we had this leisurely schedule with which to do the revision, and that was kind of a joy. Oh, and my new editor kicks enormous amounts of ass. She was fantastic.
Joyce: What do you think is the difference between knowing a lot of facts about someone and knowing someone personally?
Brian: I might wake up later and think I’m wrong about this, but short of one’s significant other or perhaps close family members and besties of besties, it's a pretty rare thing, I think, to be afforded the opportunity where you can say that you really know someone personally. To a certain degree, all we're ever doing is collecting facts and impressions about the people that we interact with. And then you create the story that is your relationship to that person — that act of knowing is really an act of creation.
There's a sense in which I feel like I know 25-year-old Hunter Thompson more intimately than I probably know some of my co-workers or casual friends. But that’s because I wrote about him, about the two of us. I can tell that story in a way that has more detail and richness and personal significance.
So for example, I wrote this piece recently about Annemarie Ahearn, a restaurateur in Rockport, and I interviewed her for about a total of eight hours over the course of a summer. I also talked to a lot of people who alternately think she's the greatest and aren’t super fond of her. You collect an awful lot of facts about a person during that process. But I can’t really say I knew her any better for all that. Then I sat down and wrote this 5,000-word article, and now I feel like I know her. Of course, it's just the version of her that emerged from that work, but really, what else is there? Isn’t that what we’re all doing, all the time?
Joyce: Who would you say you admire most as a writer?
Brian: It's hard to say... I look at somebody like John McPhee and I'm pretty blown away. He's a master of this form that I think is one of the hardest to write in. His narrative nonfiction seizes upon subjects that aren't sexy by nature, but he makes them beautiful. He’s inspired generations of good writers. I know for a fact there are many writers, like McPhee, that I’m ripping off unabashedly and regularly.
Joyce: Why do writers always say that? Why do you feel like you’re ripping people off?
Brian: There's a quote along the lines of ‘Good writers borrow. Great writers steal’. I think it's just a viable approach. You see techniques that you want to try out, and you give them a shot. Maybe they don't become foundational to your voice, or to the work you like to do, but you pick up a little bit, and you just source ideas.
So that Rockport restaurant article, again, is written in the second person — which is a little peculiar, but Down East let me get away with it. There's a writer named Steve Friedman who writes in the second person really well. He doesn't do it so often that you can call it his schtick, but he has written a few pieces in the last 10 or 15 years where he does that. He's got it down; he understands it. I'm sure he understands what kind of story it lends itself to.
When we were sitting down to put the Ahearn story together, we knew could run the risk of making her appear not particularly empathetic. She's ambitious and was at one time a little headstrong. She has a lot of advantages in life: family money, she's white, she lives in a beautiful area of Maine. The challenge was to have readers develop empathy for her. So I looked to Steve Friedman, and we decided to try what he does so well, and hopefully it worked.
Joyce: You don’t want to be pegged as a travel writer, do you?
Brian: No. I don’t. I don't understand how anybody could make a living only writing about travel. Paul Theroux can. Bill Bryson could if he wanted to, but he doesn't, because why would you want to? If all the people who call themselves travel writers on a business card or on a website actually were churning out the amount of content one would need to churn out to make it a viable living, we would be smothered by reams of horrendously boring bullshit.
You can write about things that necessitate travel, for sure. And yeah, there's some amount of The Footloose American where I actually am writing about travel as a phenomenon, because Thompson's journey raises these kinds of questions about what travel does to a person, how it changes them.
But there are writers I really admire who will sometimes get saddled with the label of travel writer when they really do much more. Patrick Symmes comes to mind. He’s writes about a variety of topics like terrorism and literature and cultural change and food, and a million other things that just happen to require leaving home.