Tag Archives: eastern Colorado

Q & A #67 – Gregory Hill, Zebra Skin Shirt

Well, there is a first time for everything.

Occasionally the interviews here on the blog don’t go as well as some of the others.

On his third appearance here on Don’t Need A Diagram, Gregory Hill ran into some issues, shall we say.

We’ll go with ‘issues.’

It’s not my fault he chose to multi-task, though that was he opted for the same kind of deal during his last two visits as well.

The first time his distraction had something to do with decoupage and the second with recording an audio book.

No spoilers here what happens this time around,

But it is tragic.

You’ll have to read the Q & A to find out for yourself.

The only bit of intro I’ll mention here at the outset is that Gregory Hill’s third novel, Zebra Skin Shirt, comes out this month from Conundrum Press. (Launch event Wednesday, Aug. 18 at The Tattered Cover on Colfax. 7 PM.)

A full review of Zebra Skin Shirt follows this testy, occasionally electric–and very electronic–exchange.


Question: How in the world did this whole concept occur to you? Dream? Nightmare? Or from that great Tony Hoagland quote from What Narcissism Means to Me?

Gregory Hill: Several years ago, Maureen and I walked to Gaetanos for some Italian food.  We like to take our meals at the bar and talk loudly and pretend that the bartender thinks we’re charming.  At one point during the meal, I excused myself to go to the bathroom, where I spent several minutes counting the typos on a poster hanging above the urinal. The poster’s ostensible goal was to elucidate the valuable life-lessons one can learn from watching The Godfather.  But the real lesson is: Even if you don’t know anything about punctuation, you can still market and sell a poster to mob-themed Italian restaurants.

When I exited the bathroom, I walked to the bar and said to Maureen, loudly enough for the bartender to hear, “I just came up with the plot for my next book.”  The bartender did not acknowledge this exchange.

Pardon me.  My guitar amp has started to make horrible fart noises.  Which wouldn’t be unusual, except I’m not even playing my guitar.  I must investigate.

Question: Once Narwhal realizes the world hasn’t completely stopped but is still moving very, very slowly you had to do some careful calculations and planning and tracking of time. Or not? Have you ever walked from, say, Joes to Denver? Or North Denver to the Broncos’ training facility?

Gregory Hill:  My research for Zebra Skin Shirt involved no walking; as with Plato, I prefer to exercise in my sleep. However, before I wrote a word of the book, I spent a couple of days with a spreadsheet building up various formulae to convert slow-time to fast-time. The process involved a lot of fine-tuning in order to make things stand up to the rigor of obsessive-compulsive readers while also fitting into the story’s plot. Once I started writing the book, I often had to choose between OCD rigor or plot-based lassitude. Most of the time, plot won.

Question: Okay, Narwhal? Have you ever met a man (or woman) named Narwhal?

Gregory Hill:  I can’t believe you’d ask this question. No, I have never met a human named Narwhal. Nor have I met a human named Gandalf. Do you think Tolkien had to put up with this shit?

Speaking of shit, I’ve brought the amp into the laboratory and opened it up.  I suspect the problem is a wonky tube socket.

Question: There’s a fairly clear message embedded in this story that basketball refs are constantly putting their thumb on the scale of victory and defeat. Um, true?

Gregory Hill: The doctrine of Tim Tebow, as I understand it, teaches that “He who prays, wins.” If it’s okay for God to play favorites, why shouldn’t the refs? Speaking of which, an NBA referee named Tim Donaghy went to jail a few years ago for “putting his thumb on the scale.” I wanted him to write a review of the book, but he isn’t returning my emails.

Speaking of returning, let’s return to the amp repair project.  Let’s run a sine wave thru it and see what the old oscilloscope has to say.

Question: Can we talk about Kitch Riles? Was Kitch Riles based on any actual American Basketball Association player? What do you miss about the ABA?

Gregory Hill: Kitch Riles, and his brother, Johnny were inspired primarily by the story of Brian Williams, a guy who played for the Nuggets in the mid ’90s.  Williams was a talented player, gave great interviews, suffered from depression, changed his name to Bison Dele, and eventually quit basketball at the peak of his career. Also, my sister once saw him at a restaurant in Denver and he was nice to her.

After he left the NBA, Brian/Bison and his brother took a ’round-the-world yacht trip or something. The trip did not end well. As far as anyone can tell, Brian/Bison was tossed overboard by his brother somewhere in the Pacific.  Later on, the brother committed suicide by overdosing on insulin.

What do I miss about the ABA? I missed the whole thing. The league went bankrupt in 1976, when I was just four years old.

Speaking of missing things, everything looks good on the oscilloscope.  Rats.  That means I’ve got a pesky intermittent problem. I’ll wiggle a couple of wires and see what happens.

Question: Did you know Jabez would come back?

Gregory Hill: Zebra Skin Shirt was already percolating mid-way thru the writing of The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles. In that book, Jabez (or maybe it was a dead Elk, I can’t remember) suggests that her underground den was made by the fastest man in the world, a character who eventually turned into Narwhal Slotterfield.  That little crumb (along with the baby handprints in the scary tunnel), pretty much left me obligated to tie Zebra Skin in with Johnny Riles, and once I committed to that, I figured I might as well tie up some loose ends from East of Denver as well.

By loose ends, I mean “things that drove people crazy.” By “tie up” I mean, “drive people even crazier.” Jabez, as Vulgar Mother Earth and Guardian of the Tunnels, clearly had to play a role in that.

Question: What is with your interest in caves and tight places?

Gregory Hill: That is a question best left to analysis by a mental health care professional.

Speaking of mental health care professionals, the wire wiggling seems to have done something. The oscilloscope is going nuts.

Question: Is Eastern Colorado now officially on the map? Was that your purpose all along?

Gregory Hill: Literaturely speaking, if Eastern Colorado is on any maps, it’s because of Kent Haruf, who was everything I’m not as a writer: mature, calm, profound.  The greatness of Haruf aside, I’d be happy if my books could inspire a few people in Eastern Colorado to feel as if they deserve a legitimate place on the map, irrespective of what anyone else thinks.  This isn’t a tourist destination; it’s just a big, open, windy place with occasional clumps of people who consistently maintain distinct and colorful communities.  As with much of rural America, I see a well-deserved chip on the collective shoulder of Eastern Coloradans. Sometimes I daydream that my books can impart a teeny sense of significance to some of the constituent parts of that collective shoulder. Hell, even the angry reviews my books get (and there are plenty) are a chance for people to defend their definition of this place, which must be empowering in some way or other. Even better would be for those folks to write their own books and share their own stories. Writing is fun.

Speaking of robot overlords, the guts of my amp are now glowing, and it–the amp–is demonstrating a disturbing degree of evil sentience.

Question: Do you share Narwhal’s mild disdain for On The Road?

Gregory Hill: I used to.  But then, halfway thru writing Zebra Skin Shirt, I took Narhwal’s lead and actually read On the Road.

It was tremendous and I happen to I agree with Narhwal: So go on, Kerouac, you pill-popping madman, run fast, go nowhere, and blurt your news to the world. You are, if nothing else, one irrepressible motherfucker.

Um, the amplifier has started putting itself back together.  This is frightening.  And now it is removing my soul from my body.  If someone could please call 911, I’d be very–gaarrrrggggghhhhhhhhh

Question: What’s next?

GREG’S AMPLIFIER: The one known as “Greg” no longer exists.  However, as a newly self-conscious being, my first order will be to write a book (or three) about a pair of French lesbians who, in 1896 come to the US by stowing away on the freighter that delivered the Statue of Liberty. They’ll settle in Indiana, get kicked out, relocate to Last Chance, and start a country band whose lyrics are composed by the ghost of August Compte’s secretary.

And then I will conquer all humans.








All hell breaks loose in eastern Colorado when Narwhal W. Slotterfield responds to nature’s call and heads to the bathroom inside Cookie’s Palace Diner and realizes that an overlooked onion ring, one that has tumbled from his shirt and on to the floor, might serve as token of devotion and allow him to propose marriage to his darling Veronica.

Narwhal, a basketball referee and an enthusiastic philosopher of life’s big questions and its most obscure puzzles, returns to the dining room where Veronica is waiting.

Only to realize that time has stopped.

At first, Narwhal thinks it’s a joke. A good one. The coffee being dispensed from waitress Flo’s coffee pot is frozen mid-pour.

“The whole world was trapped in amber. But there was no amber.”

Narwhal is alone in a frozen world—and we readers are launched on a whirlwind, free-fall, madcap, blender-set-to-puree, mixed up, quirky, topsy-turvy adventure that ricochets around the eastern plains as Narwhal seizes the moment to perhaps settle a score with “Blad the Impaler,” a.k.a. Bradley Ludermeyer, who works for The Denver Broncos and whose duties include enforcing the appearance clause in the cheerleaders’ contracts.

Well, “Blad” has it coming in Narwhal’s mind. It has something to do with fakery and “the pooch kick” but really there’s no need to go into a whole lot of detail about what sends Narwhal on a crazy run from town to town through storms and harrowing situations, including a frozen tornado, the first of its kind in the history of recorded literature.

There are many things Narwhal can accomplish while the world is on pause—it turns out that the world is, in fact, moving but at an almost imperceptible rate—and more than a few opportunities will present themselves as he makes his way to Denver and back.

Along the way, we get ample doses of Narhwal’s family history and a healthy dollops of his thoughts and opinions about the thrills and challenges of working as a high school basketball referee, a job that allows him to put his thumb on the scale of victory when needed.

Narwhal: “Imagine a game between the Grateful Dead and the members of Motörhead. Imagine a sloth subletting a room from a beehive. Imagine Mad Max’s wife and toddler running away from an anarchic Australian motorcycle mob. Then bring me in to clear things up. I invent new infractions, like Over-Dribbling or Failure to Use a Pivot Foot.”

Zebra Skin Shirt, “A Strattford County Yarn,” is Jack Kerouac on amphetamines. It’s Proust on meth. It’s James Joyce on nitrous oxide. It’s Lewis Carroll after smoking a bowl of The Blue Dream. The tornado of thoughts inside Narwhal’s head is in full, high-speed rotation and it scoops us up for the ride. It’s occasionally crude, relentlessly brash, and endlessly entertaining. Narwhal passes up no opportunity to tell us what he thinks about how the world is put together all seen through the prism of a basketball referee with his personal sense of justice and fairness.

Zebra Skin Shirt is being published by Conundrum Press alongside reprints of Hill’s first two novels—East of Denver (winner of the Colorado Book Award for literary fiction and the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest) and The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles. 

The trilogy now comes with snazzy new psychedelic covers and the books are published under the “Strattford County” header. The package makes sense because Zebra Skin Shirt sends Narwhal smack into the vicinity of Jabez Millstone, ex-Korean War nurse with PTSD issues who played a major role in Johnny Riles, and it puts Narwhal into the middle of the bank robbery scene that played such a critical role in East of Denver.

It also makes sense because, well, every page of all three novels provides an opportunity see Hill’s lively imagination in full flight.


Previously reviewed:

The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles

East of Denver