O’Brien on the Blue Angel motel downtown
Play It As It Lays the Joan Didion short novel set in Southern California and Southern Nevada. It’s actually turning out to be a really good book.
Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by local writer Alissa Nutting. She’s in grad school at UNLV. I have a pile of books I want to read, but I’ve moved hers to the top.
God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise by Ray LaMontagne & the Pariah Dogs
I get most of my DVDs from the library. I watched a weird, indie film called Old Joy recently with the musician Will Oldham. And Tideland, the Terry Gilliam film. Extremely bizarre.
Favorite off-the-beaten-path Vegas places?
Larry’s Villa, the seedy strip joint on Bonanza at Rancho. It really has an interesting history to it, which I write about in the book. The art gallery underneath The Strip in the underground flood channels. Also the Blue Angel motel. There’s a lot more going on there than meets the eye. It’s not all just drug dealers and prostitutes. There’s some interesting, cool, smart people who live and hang out in that area.
O’Brien on Hunter S. Thompson
Focusing on your new book, My Week at the Blue Angel: And Other Stories from the Storm Drains, Strip Clubs and Trailer Parks of Las Vegas, you first wrote the “Hunting Hunter” story for CityLife, then went back and revamped it. What do you think is not only Las Vegas’ fascination, but also the nation’s still to this day with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and its association with the city?
It always surprises me in some ways how many people are into Hunter S. Thompson and his writing, how many people he’s influenced. I’ve read most of his work, and I just think that is his best work that he ever produced, and I think he said as much. I’ve interviewed him on a few occasions, and he had some other writing that was kind of on level with that or close, but I just think that is him at his peak. At his most creative and what I appreciate about it, there’s so many writers who’ve come to town, parachuted in and tried to capture Las Vegas, and most of them fail. Thompson -- even though he only spent a few weeks here in the early ’70s spread out at different times here -- I think he really captured what Vegas is about.
Since you spent so much time reading his work and speaking with him, why do you think he created this combination of fact and fiction?
I think a lot of it with him is just desperation. It seemed like he was always under several deadlines and sometimes almost just winging it and making up stuff. But he was such a brilliant writer that he could pull it off. … He told me he probably would have given up on the piece had not Rolling Stone said, “Hey, we like this, and we’ll run it.” … When I asked him about the writing, he said it was blood, sweat and tears. It was really intense writing, and you can really see the craftsmanship in the book if you read it closely and not just laugh at some of the outlandish scenes and lines in there.
What did his passing mean to you and possibly even Las Vegas?
I was pretty shaken up by it for a few reasons. We had kind of developed a little bit of a relationship since I’d interviewed him a couple times, and he communicated by fax machine and he would send me the occasional fax and I would respond. He would call late nights sometime with weird requests and stories. For my first book, Beneath the Neon, I’d asked him to write an introduction, and he said, “Oh, everyone asks me to write those, and those are tougher to write than the book themselves sometimes. I can’t do that, but I’ll give you a blurb, get in touch with me when you finish the first draft, and I’ll write something up.” I was just finishing the first draft when I got news that he had committed suicide at Woody Creek at his fortified compound. So it was disappointing on several levels. What people don’t know about him and I got to learn in our brief interactions together is he’s a really cool, unselfish guy.
How do you think the Blue Angel stays in business?
Actually, part of the reason I wanted to go down there was to see the business side. How are weekly motels doing in this economy? Are they struggling or are they doing really well? What I found out is a place like the Blue Angel can actually do really well because they have low overhead. … In this economy, you have people who can no longer afford to live in an apartment or their home, and a lot of them are ending up at the Blue Angel, at least temporarily, until they figure out if they’re going to move out of town, going to try to find a different place to live in town, or a job, etc.
What does the management think about the book?
They’re pretty media-shy people, I’ve noticed. The managers and the owners weren’t really returning phone calls or wanting to be interviewed. I did have a minor breakthrough with one of the owners when I told her what I was doing, the book would be coming out, she seemed to think it could be a good thing for them possibly. But I think the story’s fair. I wasn’t doing a “hit” piece on the Blue Angel. It’s more of a human-interest story, who’s down there, how’d they end up in this place?
O’Brien on his home, The Diplomat apartments on Paradise
When you moved into The Diplomat, did you ever think it’d be the subject of a story?
I’d driven by it, and I actually assumed it was a weekly motel, but then I went in and there’s this nice courtyard, beautiful trees, bow-tie-shaped pool and these loft apartments that have really unique floor plans. I just figured I’d be there six months to a year. I’ve ended up staying there for five years and getting to know the neighbors, researching the history. Turns out when it opened in 1960 behind the Desert Inn -- where the Wynn is now -- it was one of the nicest apartment complexes in Vegas. A lot of famous or semi-famous entertainers used to live there: Louis Prima, Judy Garland was rumored to have lived there, Dean Martin.
O’Brien on writing about Las Vegas
What is one of the biggest mistakes writers make when choosing Vegas as their subject?
They walk in the wrong direction. They check in and, like moths, they’re drawn to the bright lights, to The Strip. I think more of them should turn around and go in the opposite direction of what they’re instincts are telling them to do. I think they would find some really interesting stories if they were to do that.
Do you worry those people that do come in and out are going to portray the city incorrectly, or just regurgitate the same cliches?
It doesn’t bother me. I kind of laugh at it when they come here and write the same old story. Or write this hit piece on Vegas as if they’ve discovered some new criticism that hasn’t been found before, some new insight.
Check out O’Brien’s insight on Las Vegas in My Week at the Blue Angel: And Other Stories from the Storm Drains, Strip Clubs and Trailer Parks of Las Vegas and his first book Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas. Stop by his book signing at 3 p.m. November 20 at Borders in Town Square.