Hill is funny, and we aren’t just talking about his Bob Dylanish ‘do, (imagine drum roll, cymbal crash here), or self-deprecating comments on on his webpage where he writes that not having a Facebook page or a cell phone or a Twitter account might make him come across as “curmudgeonly.” In spite of his publishing success, Hill explains his books rather humbly: “I write weird books about the West (a dying genre) with basketball in them,” but he makes no apologies for his hair. (On a side note, at broad, where we tend to appreciate things others ignore, society’s stupid hair politics merits notice and we find Hill’s approach to hair refreshing.) But this article isn’t about hair. It’s about Gregory Hill. Hill wrote The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles and East of Denver on the job while working as a book buyer for the University of Denver library.
Broad: We celebrate woman first in these pages, so let’s talk about a woman near and dear to your heart. In Lonesome Trials, a female kickass character figures prominently as the murderer of Riles’ horse. Can you talk about her?
Gregory Hill: Jabez Millstone; but I can’t tell you anything about her without talking about everything in the book. She lives in a hole in the ground just outside Johnny Riles’ ranch. She was a nurse in the Korean War. She came back from the war with PTSD issues. Nobody gave her any credit because wasn’t out there shooting or getting shot out; she was trying to shove the insides back into young boys. That messed her up.
When she came home, she walked out of that (normal) life to go live in a hole in the ground, this vast cavern beneath the Great Plains which had been appropriated by ancient people who left paintings. That’s where she encounters Johnny Riles. She’s living this outcast life, but she’s satisfied because she hates humanity so much. She’s become self-sufficient, doesn’t need anybody.
She’s confident in what she does. She says ‘to hell with the world.’ It’s important to me that my woman characters have a soul that belongs to them. When I write I do my damnedest to be a feminist and make sure that the women I write are actually human beings.
Broad: Why do you do your best to be a feminist?
Gregory Hill: Because everyone should.
Broad: But why should they?
Gregory Hill: Because it isn’t that complicated. From what I understand, just don’t be an asshole anymore. My characters… Can you ask me more questions?
Broad: Do you think that men have been assholes to women for some period of time?
Gregory Hill: That’s a leading question. Of course they have.
Broad: You can say, ‘Don’t be an asshole anymore,’ but how do you actually do that as an author?
Gregory Hill: I just try to make sure. I can’t articulate this. I’ll just talk in a general way, then. In rural areas women are marginalized and treated like the help. Women are trained to talk about boring subjects and guys; [in my novel] they get to talk about whatever they want, tell all the dirty jokes. Get drunk.
Broad: Let’s talk about that rural setting that was your childhood. It’s a farm in Joes, Colorado, called Goathead Junction (current population: 82; current size: 2 square miles). Your first published book, East of Denver, took place on that farm, as did the Lonesome Trials.
Gregory Hill: Yeah. I took that, all the structures, and turned it into a doll house and put characters in it.
Broad: Do you still have the farm?
Gregory Hill: Yes. Right now, half our land isn’t being farmed at all, for which we get paid. On the rest of it we have two really good guys, friends of ours, who rent the land and they grow mostly corn. We’re working with them to get hemp going. We just planted half an acre on our property as a test run. If it goes well, then next year we can up that to a whole lot bunch of acres and save a shitload of water.
Broad: How did you end up in Denver?
Gregory Hill: I fled Joes immediately after high school. Went to CU in Boulder where my brother and sister had gone before me. Want to get deep? I mean shallowly deep? One of the first days, (late 1991 time of grunge popping up), I wore this flannel (shirt) and I felt like such a hick, but everybody in the cafeteria was like, ‘cool, man.’
Broad: So you went to CU and you knew you didn’t want to be a farmer.
Gregory Hill: I always wanted to be a writer. Graduated in English Literature. People said, ‘You aren’t going to write your first novel until you’re thirty,’ and I was like, ‘Fuck it; I’m not going to start until I’m thirty.’
After college I got caught up in the unsuccessful rock-and-roll world. Started my own record label that makes albums that nobody hears, Sparky the Dog. Started with rockabilly stuff and moved into more psychedelic punky business. It’s all over the place. I’m not a… You can’t pin me down, Michelle.
I recorded people for free for a couple of years, because I believe this: Music and art are for the people and the greatest gift you can give a person is just to acknowledge their existence, and everybody has this creative shit inside of them that you can facilitate getting out of them–and I can be pretty good at that.
The first five people we recorded each got twenty copies of a five-song EP and then I had a buddy who did cover art and it just was cool. That was before everybody did that. The Christmas album was one of my very favorite things I did.
Broad: Do you still do it?
Gregory Hill: Lately, I’ve been doing some recording for actual money. I’m cheap as hell, though–and I still get to work with wonderful people–so I don’t feel like an asshole. I’ve mostly stopped doing CD releases unless they’re for a band I play in. Then, we’ll make them to give away at shows. But lately I’ve posted everything for people to download if they want.
Broad: When did you start playing guitar?
Gregory Hill: 1987. I was the kid who spent the whole afternoon trying to learn to play a Jimi Hendrix song. I was always recording stuff with the classic two-tape decks. My first album was a live album with all the crowd noises and me going, “HaaaWhaaaaaaaaaaa.”
Broad: Getting back to your book.
Gregory Hill: I’ve written four, published two. Sent out 140 queries for my first novel, The Funnercise Handbook, and got 140 rejections. The first book is the sacrificial one. You have to learn how to write.
Broad: Can you talk about your journey getting your last two books published?
Gregory Hill: I think that’s a great question and I’m going to answer it. The second book (East of Denver) I wrote about a kid who returns to the farm to take care of his dad who has Alzheimer’s, and he robs a bank. My dad was going through Alzheimer’s at that point, so there was a lot of my own experience in that one.
It’s not something I like to do in books, but I thought, ‘What the hell.’ Started giving it to friends, and they actually liked the damn thing. So I started sending out queries and getting a bunch of rejections. And then, guess what happened? I was screwing off at work one day and I saw that Amazon was having their annual Breakthrough Novel Award contest. I said, ‘I’ll enter that dumb thing.’
A few weeks later I got a phone call where I was one of the finalists and they said, ‘We’ll fly you and your wife to Seattle and there’ll be a guy to pick you up at the airport and he’ll offer to score you cocaine if you want.’ (Well, they didn’t say that explicitly, but the driver did, but we did not take him up on it, but it made us feel like rock stars).
But then I won the damn thing (2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award; winning included an advance and a book publishing deal with Penguin Group).
So here’s an analogy. Ambitious writers all standing with their thumbs out, limos driving by, nobody will stop, and then it’s so fricking hard. Then, for me, this giant, evil helicopter picked me up. Then my patrons were Amazon, which is weird for me. Fifteen grand was my advance.
I got interviewed by the Denver Post and it was pretty overwhelming. And it was fun, but nobody had read the book yet. From the time the book comes out and the award there’s a year. There is this year of strangeness, being given credit for something nobody knows what it’s like.
Then the book comes out, and they have me speak at The Tattered Cover, and it was a blast. I’m a pretty good public speaker, believe it or not. A kick in the pants. The people at Penguin were pretty cool, put together a decent cover.
But I don’t think Penguin likes being associated with Amazon, because Amazon eats the book industry. (Oh, and here’s a decent article by Usula Le Guin about the poopy nature of Amazon. It’s a strange confluence of winning the lottery. Five thousand people entered that contest. There were three judges. One of them, Lev Grossman (author of The Magicians), was big that year into books without plots.
Broad: Then you became famous.
Gregory Hill: Then I became famous and the book had its run, had reviews. People liked it, but people fucking hated it, too.
Broad: What did your dad think of it?
Gregory Hill: He couldn’t read at that point. But one of the first Amazon reviews of the book was, “This guy has no understanding of Alzheimer’s, and he made his dad into a clown.” This was two days before my dad died of Alzheimer’s. Amazon pulled this review. But we’re talking about the sausage part of the book, not the writing.
Broad: So this is the sausage-making part of book-making.
Gregory Hill: Yeah. So Penguin promoted the book, cover had a pastoral scene. It seemed it was marketed to older people and their Alzheimery parents, but that’s not what this book is about. I got an email from a lady I’d never met and she wrote, ‘I know your parents and you should be ashamed.’ That was a strange thing, but I was overall very happy with the book.
Broad: How did you get The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles published?
Gregory Hill: I assumed that since East of Denver did alright, people would be jumping at the chance to publish my next book. Not the case at all. I don’t write books that have conventional plots. I got dumped by Penguin. When I sent them Johnny Riles, the editor had already been getting kinda distant… East of Denver was classified as a crime story or a mystery, so it went on a subsidiary of Penguin that focuses on crime stuff, like James Patterson. That was a weird fit. I’m not really plot-oriented or character-oriented; I don’t know what I am. The editor said, ‘Sorry, we can’t do this; we need something more like James Patterson.’ I was pretty bitter about that. Then I was happy because I never should have been with a major publishing house for my first book. It’s not my vision. It’s not what I want to do. I want something smaller, more down home.
Broad: Hold on. Already most writers make so little money for the effort they put in. Why don’t you want to have a bigger publisher? You’re saying you want to make less money?
Gregory Hill: Money is stupid. I want a dedicated readership. My ideal publisher knows how to market the West. Someone who knows Colorado versus a big publisher who wants to market to everybody. The big publishers are going to tell me to change my endings, tighten things up, add more, and add more kinky sex. And I don’t care about that. The writing itself is what really matters.
Broad: I haven’t read your book yet. I don’t know how much kinky sex is there already.
Gregory Hill: It is below the threshold of bestseller kinky sex level. My autobiography will be called Fifty Shades of Greg.
Broad: Ha, ha.
Gregory Hill: Thanks for that. It’s really, really cool to get your stuff published because there’s a chance that more people will read it. But the genre stuff doesn’t appeal to me unless it’s really well-written.
Broad: What’s your day job? You have to have one if you have this attitude.
Gregory Hill: That’s a good question. I don’t have one. It’s hard to write if you don’t have the time to do it. Right now my wife and I don’t have to be in this place where we work all the time for somebody else.
Broad: So then you got a deal with Leapfrog.
Gregory Hill: It was the greatest feeling, being accepted at Leapfrog. You don’t hand someone a trophy for just showing up for the race, and that’s what Penguin was. I got my name pulled out of the hat (by Penguin).
Broad: How would you classify your work? Is it literary?
Gregory Hill: It’s genius shit is what it is. What I like about Leapfrog is that they let me work on the cover with them. They’re small. It’s great to be in a place based on reality. They aren’t about sales. But this, this is relevant to your readers: You send out your queries. You say, ‘Just respond, just do me the honor.’ Writers are working their asses off. You asked for their submission; you can tell them ‘no.’
I’d like to go on a rant…
Broad: Rant away.
Gregory Hill: You have people who say ‘please’–that’s the writers–and people who can say ‘no,’ and the people who say ‘no’ own the people who say ‘please.’ Ambitious writers still have hearts. The fuckers who are saying, ‘It’s not personal, it’s just business’–? Fuck it, it’s personal. I’ve worked on this. It’s my dreams. That’s the most bullshit response. I hope they all go to hell.
Broad: Me, too, except the ones that say yes.
Gregory Hill: Anytime anybody sends me anything I’m never going to say ‘no,’ even if it takes all my time.
So it dawned on me that the only way to guarantee anybody reads your stuff is to enter these contests where you pay $25 so you’re guaranteed at least a ‘no.’ I entered a handful of those and these guys at Leapfrog said that my book won the thing. I got $150 for winning the contest, then $500 advanced.
Broad: Let’s get back to writing female characters for a second.
Gregory Hill: So many female characters in books and movies are pretty things. It’s important to me that my woman characters have a soul that belongs to them. Carissa McPhail in East of Denver is obese and anorexic, which is a setup for a caricature, this goofy situation. She’s ready to be a thing.
My job as a writer is to make her into a human being in spite of the disadvantages I’ve given her, like the way people will be predisposed towards seeing her. I want to buck that. All my characters have strange, goofy flaws and then we’re going to find out why they have them. And they aren’t flaws, they are fucking strengths. Carissa McPhail is a strong human being who made one mistake.
All my male characters are lost and it’s because they are trying to be dudes. And when they get into an intimate conversation with certain of the women in my books, they get this perspective on life where they can let go of all of the expectations of masculinity. And I mean that. I’m not just picking that shit up.
Broad: I like that. So the next book, Zebra Skin Shirt…
Gregory Hill: Riles and East of Denver both have ambiguous endings to them that frustrate people, so Zebra Skin Shirt ties everything together, answers all the questions and still finds a way to frustrate people even more. It takes place on the day East of Denver, ends in the course of ten minutes. I had to figure out how to stop time.
I want to get weird with my writing. I want to get experimental and more avant-garde. I just love that. The guys in my older books say everything but what they’re thinking. My narrator in Zebra Skin Shirt just says everything he’s thinking. To have a guy who can just blurt and use semicolons in his blurting has been fucking fun, man.
Broad: Who are your influences?
Gregory Hill: Thomas Pynchon, (for convoluted sentences), Willa Cather is bad ass (for prairie writing), then Jim Thompson who is the complete antitheses of a feminist writer. He wrote The Grifters and a million other books in a week. He pumped out these novels that were super brutal and involved horrible behaviors towards women.
I love his writing because he was a bitter, angry, drunk drug addict who had a hard life growing up in Oklahoma, and he was a communist, and he believed in all the right things and his stories. If you know where he’s coming from, then all that stuff becomes American Psycho caricature of what’s going on. He was a great writer, if you’re me.
His sentences are great. His characters are all psychotic. None of his endings make any sense. The books veer hard in some direction. They are just great. He followed what was in his head at the time. He didn’t care about convention.
He cared about just enough of it to get published and blow your mind. People will say he’s a negative influence on me because I will do this thing where I’ll write a book that seems like it’s making sense, and the closer it gets to the end it goes crazy and people will be like, ‘That’s not how this is supposed to end,’ and I’ll say, ‘I don’t care.’