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Hustler Interviews Evan Wright

HustlerWorld Book Club: Hella Nation by Evan Wright

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In the tradition of Hunter S. Thompson, Evan Wright’s Hella Nation is a no holds barred immersion into America’s gritty underbelly. We’re a bit biased because Wright began his career with Hustler magazine as an entertainment editor. This position proved to be the perfect vantage point to begin his exploration of the American fringe, whether it’s porn stars or radical anarchist plotting to undermine corporate culture. Wright went from Hustler to Rolling Stone where his series of articles reporting on the second Gulf War became the award winning book and HBO mini-series, Generation Kill. Hella Nation compiles his essay work into a joy ride through the sometimes hellish worlds of the Aryan Brotherhood and drug murders to the entertaining worlds of the Motley Crue tour bus and Las Vegas UFC fighting. We were lucky enough to get time out of his busy schedule for an interview.

The subjects of Hella Nation range from ecoterrorists to Internet scam artists to members of the Aryan Brotherhood. What, in your mind unites the seemingly disparate subjects of Hella Nation?
I always liked the term “Other America.” Before presidential candidate John Edwards imploded, he was the guy with that term “other America,” that was his term for poor Americans.
I’ve always liked the idea that we are a  huge country, much more diverse than it appears on TV, and I’ve wanted to explore that county – the Other America – and find those American who totally don’t fit in and make a portrait of them before they get co-opted and turned into an ad.
Hella Nation is one journey through that Other America as I define it.
The thing about the internet is it provides an illusion of diversity. The people going online posting things about themselves are a self-selecting group. They are by definition, exhibitionists. I’ve always been attracted to people that don’t necessarily want to be written about or seen. To me that’s sort of what defines the Other America. It’s part of the county that actually doesn’t want to be found.

You’ve resisted the characterization of your subjects as “disenfranchised.” Why don’t you like this term? Because “disenfranchised” implies people want to be enfranchised in the thing. A lot of my subjects simply don’t want to be a part of it whatever “it” is. They’re rejectionists, againsters.

How did you become an entertainment editor here at Hustler? What was a normal day like for you?
A writer friend of mine had written some non-porn, free-lance journalism for Hustler. In his dealing with the staff he heard of an opening. He told me about it and I applied on a whim. I was temping as a word-processing tech-support person at a law firm at the time, and Hustler seemed more interesting.
I was responsible for writing or editing, 12 porn reviews a month and writing copy for “Beaver Hunt”. I also wrote an advice column in Barely Legal.
Most of the writing I did at Hustler was to amuse myself and fellow staff members. I once wrote a Christmas issue of Barely Legal whose sub-motif was suicide. This was sort of a comment on how I felt at the time.
I also did cover news of the adult industry. It was at the time a huge, mostly opaque industry with pay and health issues among workers. One of the cool things about working for Larry Flynt is he allowed us to attack the industry and people in it, for things like shoddy treatment of porn stars exposed to H.I.V. Like most other business in America people within porn didn’t tolerate criticism of their industry. Flynt was one of the few exceptions.
To cover the porn industry I spent a lot of time on porn shoots, at porn industry parties, interviewing performers, directors, the owners of the companies. This was all totally fascinating, and I really loved it since it was a true subculture. A lot of people like to say they are rebels. People in the business, especially performers, they really are. That’s not to say they aren’t screwed up or exploited, too. But there are a lot of layers to those people, as with people anywhere. Some of the finest people I’ve met are porn stars.

You mention in the book that you drew from the work of New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling during your years here at Hustler. What inspired you about his work and how ere you able to apply that in your coverage of porn? I am sure Liebling wrote about the exact same dancers and street people who would have populated the porn industry had it existed in his day.
Beyond this, Liebling had all these traits that resonated with me, his interest in people outside the mainstream, his lack of condescension, him humor, his affection for his subjects. When he appears in his pieces he does so, it seems to me, to bring his subjects more fully alive, not to make the pieces about himself. He was a genius at that.
People should just go out and read Liebling to understand what’s inspiring. I still read him and try to learn from him.

How did you make the leap from Hustler to Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair? The downside to working at Hustler was people viewed me as a hack. The upside was editors at more “esteemed publications” would always take my calls, since they wanted to know about the porn industry.
In Generation Kill, both my book and mini-series, I wrote humorously about gaining access to American soldiers simply because of their curiously about my past career at Hustler. Magazine editors were no different. They took my calls and eventually gave me work.

You mention in the introduction to the book that you studied medieval history in college, under the Annales school of thought – an approach that pieces together history by studying the daily minutiae of tax records, diaries, and exhumed trash heaps. While your work as a journalist may not seem the most obvious extension of your medieval history training, is there any way in which you think your studies have influenced or informed your current work? By some measures Hustler is the cultural garbage heap of America, so my schooling as a historian was useful. I understood the value of trash.
Some writers just have a fondness for detail for detail’s sake. It can actually be a problem. I find an almost sensual pleasure in cataloging details on a subject. Sometime you have to strip a lot of this out to avoid overtaxing the reader.

How did the title of the book, “Hella Nation” come about? What does that title mean to say about the book as a whole, and about the America reflected in its pages? A teenage anarchist girl I wrote about used “hella” all the time. It’s slang that generally means “very” but this girl misused it to mean either “awful” or “awesome.” The nice thing about slang is it can be used a lot of ways. In Hella Nation I explore a lot of worlds that are both awesome and awful.
I think Joan Didion pretty much owns the profoundly meaningful essay collection title with Slouching to Bethlehem. Unable to top that, I went the route of using a title whose sound I liked, and that related in a personal way to one of my subjects.

Hella Nation is out now from Putnam Press.

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