I Have America Surrounded - FAQ - Common questions for the Author:

Did you know Leary personally?
No I didn't. I came to his life as someone from a different generation and even from a different continent. Hopefully this has allowed me to get a clearer perspective on him and his influence.


Why is the book called 'I Have America Surrounded'?

A friend sent me the rushes of one of Leary's last filmed interviews (with World of Wonder LA). He was very close to death at that point, very drawn and frail and clearly in a lot of pain. When the interviewer asked him about Nixon calling him 'the most dangerous man in America' he nodded solemnly and replied in a completely deadpan tone, "It's true. I have America surrounded." It just struck me as quintessentially Timothy Leary, very funny, utterly absurd and yet guaranteed to wind up anyone who doesn't get the joke. I can't imagine anyone but Leary coming up with that sentence, so it had to be the title.


Is your book Pro-Leary/anti-Leary?
Well I hope it is neither! Leary is much too complicated a figure to paint as wholly black or wholly white. I'm aware that there has been a lot of heated 'Pro- or anti-Leary' argument recently, particularly in the United States. Whenever you have such angry fighting between two entrenched, opposite viewpoints, it's almost certainly the case that neither side is wholly wrong or wholly right. The trick is not to seek a compromise in the middle ground, but to move away and find a completely different perspective, one which is informed by both sides. Or to put it another way, it's never either/or, it's always both and more. That's certainly true when it comes to Timothy Leary! It's my belief that the really interesting debates will be about his work and the cultural impact of that period of mainstream psychedelic use. That said, while I don't find the "I like him/I don't like him" arguments that fruitful or interesting, I do find the levels of passion with which they stirring up to be very interesting.

My approach in writing the book was to just explain what he did and why he did it, and trust that the reader is intelligent enough to form their own opinions as the story progresses. But while I tried to be non-judgmental about his character, I did write the book from the viewpoint - which I stand by - that his life was important, and that it was incredibly entertaining. So the book was written, as an adventure story, based on those premises. I'm sure it can be considered 'pro-Leary' because of that, which is fine, but please don't confuse that with a book that tells you what you should think.


Do you cover Leary's ideas (eg imprinting/reality tunnels/the 8-circuit 'neurologic' model, etc)?
Yes, these are very important and I put a lot of work into presenting them in a way that is clear as possible without being simplistic. You can't understand Leary without them - his behaviour just doesn't make sense if you don't understand the ideas that were driving him. What I found most interesting about Tim was the way his life seemed to validate his theories. I'm thinking in particular of the way his personality and beliefs would change so thoroughly whenever he found himself in a different environment, which of course follows on from his ideas about being responsible for your personal reality and being able to change it. I find that fascinating but also deeply unsettling.

I hear a lot, incidentally, that Greenfield's biography makes no mention of Leary's books or ideas. If this is true then I find that astonishing. I could understand it if he wanted to criticise them, but to omit them completely - to me, that is like writing a biography of Enzo Ferrari and not mentioning that he made some remarkable cars.

Why did you want to write about Timothy Leary?

Initially because it was such a great adventure story, but I soon realised just how important his life was. If you look at the late twentieth century from the viewpoint of some future cultural historian, the most striking thing is that suddenly, over just a few years, everything changed. You might not like how it changed, but you can't deny that everything did change. It started slowly, in around '55, it peaked in around '67 and nothing has been the same since. Now, you can't explain that by studying politicians or artists, or factors like the increasing levels of affluence, etc. They are all part of the story, but the piece of the puzzle that is needed to make sense of it is the mass use of psychedelics, the fact that millions upon millions in a single generation took drugs which made them think differently. And of course if you're going to examine that, then you will soon find yourself studying Leary, and studying the tricky question of just what it is that LSD actually does. So I have no doubt that historians will have a lot to say about Timothy Leary.

A read a blog recently where someone compared Leary's roll inthe counterculture to that of al-Zarqawi's in Iraq, as in he was someone who could hardly be credited with all that was going on, but that he was a handy figure for the media to project the whole situation onto. I thought that was quite an astute analogy. I think that as years go by more and more of the detail of those years will be lost, and Leary's role as a personification of the whole thing will grow. Historians are a sucker for a scoundrel, after all! But it is shocking how quickly what happened in those years is being forgotten. The number one single here in the UK was a song called "I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker With Flowers In My Hair." As far as I can tell, that's not intended as some Dada-ish art statement; it's simply that teenagers no longer know how '67 was different to '77. That, I think, is a good reason why the book needed to be written.


Do you cover all of Leary's life?
Yes I do, but I concentrate on the fugitive and prison years. This was partly because it was the period that most accounts of his life get confused by. I also found it the most dramatic and exciting, and because it shows the correlations between his life and ideas so well. In truth, though, pretty much any period of Leary's life was interesting to support a whole book, and I suspect that this is how future writers will approach his story. I know Ralph Metzner and Ram Dass have been working on a book about the Harvard and Millbrook years, and I've got no doubt that will be the definitive book on that time. There's also a great book to be written on the last twenty years of his - and I can think of at least a dozen people who should step up and write that one!


I have never read any of Leary's books, where should I start?
I'd start with The Politics of Ecstasy. High Priest is also good if you are interested in the effects of psychedelics. If you like a good adventure story, then try to track down a copy of Confessions of a Hope Fiend, it's out of print but you can usually find it on eBay. I'd also recommend Timothy Leary: Outside Looking In, edited by Robert Forte, which gives a good image of the man by those who knew him.


What's the biggest misunderstanding about Leary?
Without a doubt - too many people miss his sense of humour! Granted, it was very dry, but I've lost count of the number of arguments against Leary that are simply based on someone failing to get a joke. In fact if there is one thing people should know about Leary it is that - he was fucking funny!