This reading group guide for Gonzo Girl includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Cheryl Della Pietra. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
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Alley, a recent college graduate, is forced to succumb to bartending on Bleecker Street and working as an unpaid magazine intern while waiting for her big break in the grueling world of New York City publishing. Fortunately for her, Alley lands the job of assistant to notorious author Walker Reade, hoping that this will be her chance to get her own manuscript reviewed by an experienced editor.
While living with Walker at his compound in the Colorado Rockies, Alley quickly learns that this job is unlike any other. Attempting to encourage Walker to write at least one page a day, Alley becomes fully immersed in Walker’s manic lifestyle. From endless lines of cocaine to casual gunplay to rage-filled outbursts, Alley could be in over her head. But as she begins to sense that Walker’s book may never get written, she takes things into her own hands—blindly sealing her own fate in the process.
Based on the experiences of author Cheryl Della Pietra’s time as an assistant for the infamous writer of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
, Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo Girl
delves deep into the chaotic, raucous, and unfiltered life of a literary icon. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Gonzo Girl
opens with a tray of cocaine being passed among elite individuals, including a former vice-presidential candidate and an Academy Award–winning actor, while at a party in Walker Reade’s home. Thus begins Alley’s trial period as Walker’s assistant. In what ways does this scene set up the tone of the novel? What would you do if you were Alley?
2. Claudia offers Alley rules of advice in order to survive as Walker’s assistant, including “be ready” (p. 15). What does she mean? What does Alley need to “be ready” for? How do Claudia’s rules portray Walker?
3. Describe a typical day in the life of Walker Reade. Is it how you would expect a revered writer to behave?
4. Explore the topic of sexism in this novel. Walker consistently calls the women in his life “idiots,” denouncing their intelligence, clothing, and general way of being at any given opportunity. And then there’s Alley’s family, who are unsupportive of her career aspirations. Her father even says to her, “Door’s always open. When you come back” (p. 59), implying that she will undoubtedly fail. What do the sexist overtones reveal about these male characters? Does this type of behavior and way of thinking continue to exist today?
5. Walker continually dismisses Alley and her desire to be a writer. Is Alley naive to think that this job will help her garner literary success?
6. After spending several weeks as Walker’s assistant, Alley embraces a new philosophy for herself. “I would treat my time out here like AA, but in reverse. Instead of adopting a ‘one day at a time’ approach for not
abusing substances, I was going to take that approach for
abusing them” (pp. 75–76). Is this Alley’s way of convincing herself that it’s acceptable to participate in Walker’s debauchery? Is she just making excuses so that she doesn’t quit?
7. Unbeknownst to Walker, Alley has been rewriting the pages of his new book and submitting them to Walker’s editor, Lionel. Alley doesn’t even have any remorse for doing so. Instead, she says, “It has, in fact, been extremely rewarding to take the skeleton of his story and hang fresh meat on those bones” (p. 89). Do you think Alley is ruining her career before it even starts, or is this a strategic move?
8. Claudia has been Walker’s assistant for years and seems to be his only loyal confidante. Alley thinks that “Claudia’s job description would fill a phone book,” yet Claudia doesn’t get paid (p. 95). What makes her stay with Walker? Why do you think she cares so much about him?
9. In Chapter 10, Alley retreats to Walker’s back office to make a phone call, only to discover photos of Walker receiving his Pulitzer and even pictures of his ex-wife and children lining the walls. This is the first and only mention in the novel of Walker having a family. When studying the photos, Alley notices that “There’s no thinly veiled rage, no look of disdain. Or maybe it’s because he’s keeping good company in these pictures. There are no Devaneys, Alleys, or Claudias for him to slum with. He looks like his true self. Or perhaps what I imagined that to be” (p. 108). Albeit brief, why does the author bother to include this scene? What does this reveal about Walker’s former life and his current dysfunctional lifestyle?
10. How would you describe Devaney’s role in Walker’s life? Do you think Walker and Devaney are in love? How would you define their relationship?
11. Claudia thinks sobriety would kill Walker, while Alley thinks he believes it would “render him moot” (p. 182). Whom do you agree with? Do you think Walker’s substance abuse fosters his creativity? Does his writing excuse his excessive behavior?
12. Did you find Walker and Alley’s sexual encounter surprising? Why does Claudia say “Everybody at some point, at some time, falls in love with Walker” (p. 193)?
13. Despite Walker’s verbal outbursts, unwanted sexual advances, and violent rages, Alley never quits. She consistently compromises her integrity to remain Walker’s assistant. Why is she so loyal? Is she that desperate for relevance or success? Is there a difference?
14. Alley struggles with her feelings for Larry. Do you think their union is genuine or simply convenient?
15. Does Walker redeem himself at the end of the story? Do you forgive him for his faults? Enhance Your Book Club
1. The title of this book is a nod to “gonzo” journalism, a style of writing that was popularized by Hunter S. Thompson. Pair your reading of Gonzo Girl
with one of Hunter S. Thompson’s popular books, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
or Hell’s Angels
. You can also try Hunter S. Thompson: An Insider’s View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged Out Brilliance,
by Jay Cowan, to learn more about his eccentric life. Discuss how Hunter S. Thompson compares to Walker Reade. Do you think Walker could have written Hunter’s books?
2. Alley isn’t the only assistant who’s had it rough! Watch The Devil Wears Prada
(2006) or episodes from Ugly Betty
and Mad Men
to see how other assistants handled the harrowing demands of their employers.
3. Take a bartending cue from Alley! For your next book club meeting, mix up some delicious drinks. Look up your favorite cocktail recipe online or try some literature-inspired drinks from Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist,
by Tim Federle. Give your book club an extra kick! A Conversation with Cheryl Della Pietra After you graduated from college, you lived with Hunter S. Thompson in Woody Creek, Colorado, for several months as his assistant. Discuss your relationship with Hunter S. Thompson. How did you become his assistant? How does Alley’s experience working for Walker Reade compare to yours?
Hunter had put the word out to Rolling Stone
that he was looking for an assistant. I had a friend who was working there, and he passed the information along to me. I just went for it. I wrote some sort of crazy letter (I was not shy about mentioning I was a bartender at the time), and they got it into his hands. He called my apartment at 3:00 in the morning and told me to get out there the next day. Thus started my trial period. The relationship was similar to that of Alley and Walker—good days and bad days. Lots of substances. Lots of fun. And every once in a while it would all break down into a screaming match and a dish would whiz by your head or something. But there is something uniquely intimate about watching a genius write, or try to write, night after night. I feel very privileged to have witnessed that. Why did you write Gonzo Girl as a novel as opposed to a memoir?
I’m twenty-three years removed from this experience, so I felt uncomfortable writing a memoir. I actually started my career in magazines as a fact-checker and research editor, so I’m a stickler for accuracy, and I don’t think I could rely on my memory to piece together a cohesive narrative that was 100 percent true.
I also wanted to be able to say certain things about this experience. I wanted to talk about the double-edged sword of the substance abuse. I wanted to explore these ideas of mentorship and the see-sawing power dynamics. And the only way I could think of to do it was to fictionalize it to give myself that freedom.
Also, the reality was a very visceral experience as opposed to a linear one. I’m not sure this story would have worked as a traditional memoir. It’s been more than twenty years since you were Hunter S. Thompson’s assistant. Why write this book now?
I always knew this was a good story, but I don’t think I was a good enough writer until now to do it justice. I have an unpublished novel on my shelf that I call my “test pancake.” You could
eat it, but I knew the next one would be better. And I learned from writing that book about how to structure a novel, how to maximize dialogue, decent writing habits—everything.
I also feel like the whole of the experience—what was going on at the time, what it meant—didn’t come into focus until I was at least forty. I was so naive when I was out there that I didn’t really grasp what I was witnessing. What’s the biggest difference between you and Alley?
I would never rewrite someone’s work. Never. This is where fiction and the truth depart. But it’s very consistent with Alley’s naiveté and her hero worship of Walker. She is naively trying to save him from himself, even though she’s ill-equipped to do that. Like Alley did for Walker, did you also edit Hunter’s writing while you were his assistant? What ever became of the book that he was working on?
The book he was working on was a work of fiction called Polo Is My Life.
It was never published, and I don’t know what became of it. Thompson was an admittedly frustrated novelist. My sense is that it was like Madonna trying to act. His real life was way bigger, way more dynamic than any fiction he could write. And I didn’t “edit” his writing in any traditional sense of the word. My job was to get him to write. He was a tough enough editor of his own work. Is it fair to say that Walker and Alley’s relationship can best be described as a twisted mentorship? How would you categorize their relationship?
“Twisted mentorship” is about right! I think their power dynamics flip-flop throughout the book, even from page to page. There is boss-worker. Friend-foe. Then there are the sexual dynamics. But the mentorship aspect is there. She is learning from him day by day, even if it’s not in a traditional way. Even if it’s just a lesson in what road to avoid. But Walker has the heft of his success behind him. And what he does with her manuscript at the end shows that he believes in her. When talking to Alley about writing, Walker says, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed” (p. 147). Do you think, to some extent, that this is true? Do writers need to pour their entire being into their work in order to produce something they are proud of?
Well, he’s quoting Hemingway when he says that. And certainly I think this is true for some writers. But I’m personally not of this mind. Oliver Stone says that the secret to writing is nothing but “ass plus chair,” and I put myself firmly in this camp. You can’t wait for some ethereal muse to “inspire” you. To me, it’s not that dramatic. Writing is more like digging a ditch or escaping from Shawshank. You just have to keep chipping away at the wall. What was your biggest challenge while writing this book? What did you enjoy the most?
The biggest challenge was striking the right tone (I still don’t know if I succeeded at this). I was afraid that people might find this book irreverent when my intention was to write a love letter to a person and an experience that basically changed my life. But I didn’t want to sugarcoat the experience either. No one, least of all Hunter, would have wanted me to do that. So I hope the fondness for the experience comes through.
What I enjoyed the most while writing this was going back to that place. It was complicated, to be sure. But it was fun, and being with Hunter was never boring. And it obviously left a lasting impression. What advice would you give to Alley or to your younger self?
Calm down. It’s all going to work out. There is an intensity to Alley—she’s trying so hard to make something of herself. She’s ambitious. But it all doesn’t have to happen in a day. The last chapter of the book reads like an epilogue. Why did you feel like ending the book this way?
I didn’t want to be obtuse about what happened to either Alley or Walker. As a reader I would want to know. The backdrop of 9/11 also made sense to me. Thompson wrote an amazing column for ESPN.com on September 12 that basically predicted all that ensued politically over the coming years. The world had its collective jaw on the ground and he was already off to the races, ten steps ahead of everyone else about what was going to happen. But that is just illustrative of the many ways in which his political incisiveness was unrivaled. What would you like your readers who are interested in Hunter S. Thompson’s writings to take away from Gonzo Girl?
Read his books! Of course, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
is iconic and a must-read, but if that’s all you know of Hunter S. Thompson, you are missing out. I am particularly fond of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,
which I consider his masterpiece. And I love The Great Shark Hunt,
as I have a magazine background and it includes many of his famous magazine pieces. The two books of his letters edited by Douglas Brinkley are also outstanding for showing the evolution of both his voice and ideology. Can you share with us any news of upcoming writing projects? What can we expect from you next?
I have been a freelance copyeditor for Us Weekly
on and off since 2001, so I’m hard at work on a novel set in the realm of celebrity culture. I also might defrost the test pancake to see if I can make it edible.