Before we get to my review of East of Denver, I want to jump as quickly as possible to Gregory Hill’s answers to my six questions.
Hill’s colorful style—thought process?—will give you an insight into his colorful, quick style.
Question: What was the inspiration for East of Denver? And how much did the story evolve from when you first started putting it together?
Hill: Please note, as I type this, I’m applying a découpage faux-wood finish to a guitar amplifier. Please excuse any typos as my fingers are covered with paste.
When I first started, I had no idea East of Denver would turn into the story of a father and son as they watched (and participated in) the disintegration of their farm. The book was originally going to be a zombie novel. But halfway thru the first chapter, I discovered that the relationship between the two main characters—a senile father and his good-hearted but passive son—was far more compelling to me than the original zombie plot. There are probably enough zombie books in this world. Then again, there are probably enough Alzheimer’s books as
well. To set it apart from more typical Alzheimer’s stories, I made sure to put the characters in as many uncomfortable situations as possible. The book has drugs, a little sex and a bank-robbery sub-plot, which hopefully helps make up for the absence of the brain-eating undead.
Question: You’re a rock and roll musician who writes fiction–how does your sense of music and rhythm influence your writing?
Hill: When I write rock and pop songs, I cram as much as possible into as few lines as possible. The lyrics—and all the other musical bits, for that matter—exist in a rhythmic framework that creates and resolves tension on a very quick scale. From measure to measure, from chorus to chorus, from the introduction to final chord, a song builds and collapses within three minutes. With a book, those moments of tension and release tend to take place over a greater amount time. This allows for a more patient development and for more complex, overlapping moments of resolution. Every paragraph has a beginning and an end. Chapters tend to start with a premise and end with a promise. To conclude, this answer is far more pretentious than I originally intended. I will stop now and glue another piece of paper to the amplifier.
Question: I’m wondering about that title and the location of where the book is set. Why did you think it was important to reference Denver in the title when all we ever see of Denver is the city in Shakespeare’s rearview mirror?
Hill: In ascending order of profundity:
A. I was hoping to pick up some John Steinbeck fans.
B. The vast majority of humans think Colorado consists of Mile High Stadium, ski slopes, hiking trails, and the Coors Factory. I wanted to point out that the east side of our state does, indeed, exist. Denver, being more or less the eastern border of most people’s concept of Colorado was a convenient reference point.
C. The Homestead Act promised a new Eden on the Great Plains. One of the book’s themes is the un-homesteading of America, the restoration of the land to its Eden-state as economic and environmental forces force families away from their farms. I was hoping the Denver/Eden pun in the title would somehow allude to this.
D. Does anyone know how to keep the paper from bubbling up in découpage? Am I using too much paste?
Question: Has winning the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest changed how you approach writing now?
Hill: I suppose I take it a little more seriously. I’m more assertive about setting aside time to write, and when I do write, I seem to be more focused. The publisher hasn’t given me any deadlines or any pressure whatsoever so I feel comfortable taking my time. I’ve never been obsessed with writing a best-seller and I haven’t started obsessing about that now. At the risk of sounding sappy, my main motivation continues to be the joy of writing. (Although it’s more joyous now that I’ve received some nice validation.) Having said that, I do fantasize about quitting my job more than ever.
It just occurred to me that I’m trying to put a faux-wood finish on actual wood. A sensible person would rip all this stupid découpage off, sand the actual wood down to a fine finish, and slap some varnish on top, thus revealing the natural wood grain. I am not sensible.
Question: East of Denver ends with a wild scene — did you start with this scene in mind and work your way to it or did it evolve as you were writing the story?
Hill: Once I abandoned the zombies, I made an outline that included a rough sketch of the plot. And before I went any further, I committed myself to a first sentence and a last sentence for the book. I find it very helpful to know the precise conclusion of a book while I’m writing. No matter how far the plot may stray, I can always nudge it back toward that conclusion. Once I decided on that final sentence, I knew that the final scene would have to be a rip-roarer. And I wanted that final scene to mark a dramatic shift in tempo and tone. This was partially inspired by Jim Thompson, one of my favorite authors. He wrote Pop 1280, The Grifters, and a few dozen other noir novels, mostly in the 50’s and 60’s. Thompson wasn’t afraid to try something absolutely ludicrous in the last few chapters of a book. In many of his novels, there’s a snapping point where things just go nutty, where reality folds back upon itself. I love that concept. Much of East of Denver, even with its humor, has the feel of a band-aid being slowly peeled off. For that final scene, I ripped the band-aid away with a violent tug and gave the reader a view of the wound underneath. Sorry, I’m getting pretentious again.
After serious consideration, I’ve decided to stick with the decoupage. The lumps will be fine. All I need is some shellac. Seventeen coats of shellac will fix anything.
Question: What’s coming next from Gregory Hill?
Hill: I’ve just begun the revisions of my new novel, for which I have not yet come up with a pithy description. It takes place in the same area as East of Denver, but in 1975. Important characters will include a depressed, semi-suicidal rancher, his brother, who plays basketball for the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA, and various fossils of Pleistocene megafauna. No zombies, unfortunately.
This découpage is going to look great. Think about it. The speaker cabinet is upholstered with Astro Turf. I’ve decided to give the amplifier Plexiglas sides. Fake grass, fake glass, and fake wood with real vacuum tubes glowing inside. Very elemental.
I saw Greg talk about his book at an event at the Summit County Library in Frisco, Colorado last month. He was as likable and down-to-earth as the interview, above, suggests. He seemed utterly serious about his art and equally willing to step back and marvel at the whole process. It was impossible not to walk out with a copy of East of Denver. And I was glad I did.
Thanks for the insight on découpage, Greg, and also for answering those questions.
Never in a million years should you judge a book by its cover. I learned that in grade school.
But, of course, the much more reliable adage is to disregard all those reviews you encounter on Amazon because, you know, they were written by readers and readers don’t know squat.
And besides, Amazon is positively wrecking the book-selling business and has taken a toll on independent stores and the big box chains. Amazon wants to rule the publishing world—that can’t be good—and and since 2008 has run the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award that includes votes from readers (gasp) in the judging process.
You got that right. Real readers weighing in, not just the critics with an East Coast address and some snooty degree in literature.
And then you come across a novel like East of Denver, which won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2012, and you have to stop and reject your strict adherence to the tenet that you will only read books pre-screened and carefully sorted by critics who only do their reading quietly in high-backed comfy chairs, preferably somewhere on the East Coast, and have published at least thirty long essays in the New York Review of Books.
That’s because East of Denver is evocative, moody, funny, bleak, desperate and, somehow, optimistic all at the same time. The story is chock full humanity and the images are chiseled with sharp, clean strokes.
Hill had me from the opening paragraph, an 11-sentence beauty that packs the kind of energy and forward momentum that carries the book along. We are with Stacey “Shakespeare” Williams on his way out to the family farm in eastern Colorado to bury a dead cat and also to discover a major challenge with his father Emmett, who has gone mostly senile. Shakespeare confronts his past, finds a way to build a new home and put down roots (both figurative and literal) in a place that makes him, at first, uncomfortable.
But Shakespeare doesn’t dwell on his discomfort, he plunges in and reconnects and makes do. He makes it work. He makes things work. He cleans things up. He doesn’t wallow, he steps in. He reaches out to former classmates. He tries to make connections with them, some successfully and some not. He tries (in one case, literally) to pull his classmates back out into the sunshine and fresh air. But he doesn’t push it, doesn’t go overboard. Ultimately, he locks in on the distant corporate foes who are creating havoc and despair in this rural community and comes up with a plan to right some wrongs.
But the core of the book is the relationship between Shakespeare and his father, a re-bonding through the haze and miscommunication of Alzheimer’s and old age. Hill’s ability to capture this relationship is organic, honest and devoid of sentimentality.
The story reaches its peak after a nifty crescendo and you realize Hill’s fairly casual “plotting” has been just the opposite. He’s been planting seeds all along and they’ve all borne fruit at the same moment, ripe for Hill’s perfect plucking.
Currently, East of Denver has 16 reviews on Amazon and is carrying five stars.
And, if you must, check out that cover. It’s spare, intriguing, open and inviting. I’d judge the book immediately and give it five stars on that basis alone.
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