Earlier, that same novel had won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest (out of 5,000 entries).
Some time ago Greg stopped by this little old blog for one of the most colorful interviews you’ll ever encounter, print or audio or video .
And now he’s back.
The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles comes out later this week (launch event at The Tattered Cover on Thursday, June 4). I was fortunate to get a sneak peek.
A review follows, but first, Greg was kind enough to take again take on the challenge of answering some hard-hitting queries about his work.
He’s got a cautionary tale about the Amazon-related “fame,” some thoughts about city living and more than a few musings on the difficulty of recording his own audio book.
Saddle up and hang on.
Question: How is writing a novel like writing a song?
Gregory Hill: Before I answer that question, let me set the stage. I’m in a basement, where I’ve just begun recording the audio version of The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles. I’ve decided, in the great tradition of audio books, to do the entire thing from memory. If I seem distracted, that’s why.
To your question. Writing novels and writing songs are absolutely nothing alike. I can’t even think about songwriting when I’m working on a book. Then again, I hardly think about songwriting when I’m writing a song.
Question: Is it possible to burrow underground on the plains of Eastern Colorado?
Gregory Hill: Certainly. Burrowing owls do it all the time.
My original goal with the audio book was to do it all in one eight-hour sitting, but I discovered that my temporal mandibular joints start to make distracting cracking noises after just forty-five minutes of reading. This is going to be more difficult than I anticipated.
Question: Okay, these two people. I mean, Johnny and Jabez have both found a way to enjoy isolation—or at least manage it. Do people need people?
Gregory Hill: People need people. But I tell you what. People don’t need as many people as many people think. On a typical day in a city like Denver, you’re going to interact–indirectly or directly–with, like, a couple hundred people. Statistically speaking, at least twenty of those people are certain to be complete jackasses, and at least one situation (usually in traffic or in a line or any other place where humans and courtesy should intersect), one of those jackasses is going to act like a jackass and ruin your day. To deal with this, you learn to mentally dehumanize all the jackasses you run into. But then you become a desensitized jackass, thus continuing the cycle.
In rural areas, especially on isolated ranches and/or holes in the ground, one interacts with roughly zero people per day, thus reducing the number of potential jackasses to one, that being oneself. When, a person–for example, a depressed rancher who lives alone–encounters another person–say, a traumatized former Korean War Nurse who lives in a hole in the ground–then those two people can establish a certain je ne sais rien that bonds them together in a literarily satisfying fashion, especially when the aforementioned theoretical rancher has a really stupid brother.
Question: Can man survive on beer and whiskey alone? And were you a fan of the old ABA? Was it fun to do research about 1975 or is that all fresh in your head like it was yesterday?
Gregory Hill: I knew this guy who went three weeks on a Guinness-only diet. Six glasses spaced evenly throughout the day. He had to give it up because he was gaining too much weight. He’s in prison now.
I was only three years old when the ABA went kaput in 1976 so I don’t have any direct memories. But when I started watching the Nuggets in the early eighties, the NBA still had a ton of former ABA players and my big brother–who had followed the ABA–also frequently lectured me on the Tragic Tale of David Thompson. Consequently, although the ABA was gone, enough of its artifacts remained for it to linger within the collective basketball consciousness for years. It’s like how, although the Beatles had broken up before I was born, Paul McCartney kept their essence alive via Silly Love Songs. I do not know if that previous sentence was sincere or sarcastic.
Speaking of sincerity, half the reason I set the book in 1975 was so I could make Johnny Riles a fan of “Horse With No Name,” the 1972 soft rock smash by America. People have been making fun of the lyrics to that song for forty years now. In the early seventies, Tom Waits famously (and allegedly) said, “How about, ‘I rode through the desert on a horse with no legs’? That I can see.”
Say (or be accused of saying) what you want, Mr. Waits, but I love America, the band, especially their lyrics. The lyrics to “Horse With No Name” are perfect for this story. They’re the Rosetta Stone for understanding Johnny Riles.
Four hours into my audio book experiment, I’ve decided that it’s time for me to start drinking coffee, which I rarely do.
Question: What was the inspiration for Johnny Riles?
Gregory Hill: I always wanted to write a western, but I never wanted to write a western western. I wanted to write a psychedelic western. As I came up with my outline for the book–an outline I would completely ignore–I made an effort to ensure that the characters and the story failed in every way to behave like a typical western. Consequently, our silent hero, Johnny, is depressed rather than bionic; the book does not contain a Most Beautiful Woman; and there are no gun battles. But there is a bloodthirsty poodle, which makes up for a great deal.
Oh, boy, coffee gives me headaches. And I’m reading way too fast. Chapters 24 thru 36 of the audio book are going to be very hard to listen to.
Question: Why do you feel drawn to Colorado’s eastern plains?
Gregory Hill: Most of your interactions in the city are with other humans. The quality of those interactions becomes the basis of your happiness. Most of your interactions in the country are with nature and you can’t really get pissed off at nature. Nature isn’t malicious, it’s just nature. Weather, for example, is rarely brutal on the plains, but it is frequently nearly-brutal. Wind and hail and cold and hot and wind and wind. And you can’t escape it, because when a storm hits and the power goes out and you don’t own a cell phone, you’re all by yourself in a house two miles away from any other humans. So you wait it out and tack up boards over the broken windows and contemplate the manner of your death.
Plus, there are some terrific musicians out there.
Question: Okay, you won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2011 for ‘East of Denver.’ How did winning that contest help your career—or not? What was it like working with Amazon during that time? It was well publicized that you would receive a $15,000 advance – which seems like a fairly decent investment in your career. Did Amazon get behind you? I asked you this question when you were here last, in 2012. Has your view changed?
Gregory Hill: The following answer may not actually address your questions.
With all due respect to my gift horse, when people start asking if your company is worse that Walmart, it’s time for some oral hygiene. To their eternal credit, the folks at Amazon who worked on the contest were genuinely concerned with helping out unknown writers. Alas, Amazon the Organization seems to be more concerned with avoiding sales tax and undermining small booksellers than it is with furthering the advancement of human expression.
So, yes, to answer a question you did not ask, I felt odd receiving that award from Amazon, but also, being desperate to get published, I never even considered declining it. Which means I feel guilty now.
Once Amazon wrote me the check (the largest sum of money I will ever receive for any of my creative endeavors), they were pretty hands-off. From there, I worked with Penguin, who published East of Denver as a consequence of partnering with Amazon on the contest. The experience was mostly pleasant, and I learned some terrific lessons about the book industry. I learned that, when an editor concludes an email with, “Let me know if I can help you with anything,” you should interpret it as, “Please don’t ever attempt to contact me again, unless you write a best-selling thriller.”
After Penguin sent me packing, I learned that if you include “Winner of the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award” on your query letters (the letters you send to publishers and agents in which you beg them to invest their time and money into your nutty novels) you are guaranteed to receive no response. Independent publishers tend not to like Amazon. If you change it to read, “Winner of the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, but please don’t hold that against me,” you will receive a response roughly twenty percent of the time. Ninety percent of those responses will be, “No.”
However, one of those responses was yes and it came from Leapfrog Press. They’re small, they’re humans, they welcomed my advice on the book’s design, and they didn’t tell me to change the book’s ending (for the record, Penguin didn’t ask me to change East of Denver’s ending, either), and they’re fearless. It’s an honor to work with them.
Question: I happen to know you have cautionary advice for kittens. Care to share?
Gregory Hill: Keep ‘em away from great horned owls. I won’t go into the details, because I’ve found that people find those details disturbing. Just keep the kittens away from the owls. Life on the plains can be rough.
You know what else is rough? Reading a book from memory. Every time I make a mistake, I go back to the top and start again. I may revise that policy.
Question: Favorite writers – go.
Gregory Hill: Willa Cather, Jim Thompson, Arthur Koestler, René Daumal, Ishmael Reed, David Lee Roth.
Fifteen hours into the audio book and circumstances have deteriorated. I’ve started drinking whiskey, which will surely help.
Question: What jokes are you going to tell at The Tattered Cover? Also, what’s next from you in terms of writing?
Gregory Hill: I’ve been working on a series of racist jokes. Here’s one: A racist walks into a bar. And everybody leaves, because racists are assholes.
I’m well on my way toward finishing my next book, which is tentatively called Asynchronous Man. It won’t be called that forever, though. “Asynchronous” doesn’t roll off the tongue so much as tumble down the stairs. The book’s about a smart-ass amateur basketball referee who gets stuck in Eastern Colorado when time totally freaking stops. The whole book takes place over roughly ten minutes on the same day that East of Denver ends. It’ll answer, more or less, a whole heap of questions that people have been asking me about East of Denver. And I’m going to get a whole lot more questions with Johnny Riles because it’s even more ambiguous that East of Denver. Which means I’m also going to get a load of hate mail, too, which always makes my day. Right now, I’m wresting with what role aliens will play in the book’s ending.
I’m going to take a nap now and finish the audio book later this week.
Words that come to mind about The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles by Gregory Hill: raw, untamed, gritty, bold, fantastic (in all its forms), spirited, lively and slightly, wonderfully crazy.
The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles is unforgettable. When you see that title some years down the road you’ll think, “oh yeah, Johnny, I wonder how he’s getting along?” You’ll remember Johnny and what he’s been through. You’ll wonder about his brother. You’ll certainly remember when Johnny was last spotted, getting down and low and going to unexpected places out on the gritty, windblown eastern plains of Colorado.
It’s 1975. It’s October. Johnny Riles is looking for arrowheads out along the Old Stinkum riverbed, now “just a stripe of moist stand with half-dead cottonwood trees lingering on either side.” Johnny is on horseback and, not for the first time, he’s contemplating whether life is worth living. “Previous contemplations of this sort had always ended inconclusively and, on this particular occasion, I was having even less success than was customary.”
Yorick-like, Johnny finds a skull. This one is not a human, but it’s stuck in an ancient grave. And Johnny starts scraping the dirt and, given all the work, it’s a good thing Johnny has brought along a flask to help him endure the work. But the horse won’t take to carrying the skull and, well, bolts. Johnny is left alone, not for the first time, to his own devices.
By page four, we are deep in Johnny’s barren world. The earth is only in the early stages of giving up its secrets, including one of the most feisty, unusual creatures you’ve ever met. (Nope, no more details here.)
The story is effortless. There is a natural, easy energy on every single page. There are flashes of magic and mysticism. Johnny’s world may be small, but there’s plenty of things to do, including figuring out where you belong—and how.
Johnny’s simple needs, in terms of alcohol consumption and family management, drive everything. He grows sweet on a girl named Charlie. He endures the visits and communications from older brother Kitch, who is getting his shot with the American Basketball Association (as a player with the Kentucky Colonels) and who is brashly attacking the big wide world—for all the obvious benefits (money and women).
Kitch sees “nothingness” in Johnny’s world. “It’ll drain your brain,” Kitch tells Johnny. “And the people. Ignorant, dumb, and racist. Not my type. I can only thrive in a free society.”
Of course, Johnny doesn’t see nothingness. In fact, he sees a busy landscape that feeds his soul. He’s open to possibilities. His needs are straightforward. He’s scrappy, nimble and goes with the flow. Whiskey helps. Like that first weird skull he spent time digging up, he’ll do whatever it takes to get the full story. He sees beyond the surface. He will burrow down the darkest hole for a shot at redemption and that very necessary human touch.