Friday, September 12, 2014

The New Novel from Sarah Waters, "The Paying Guests," is out on Tuesday, September 16--Read Our Exclusive Interview.

Next week the new novel from Sarah Waters comes out. This is her sixth novel, following Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith, The Night Watch, and The Little Stranger. Waters was one of the Best Young British Novelists for Granta, and all her books have received strong review attention; three of her novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The Paying Guests has been hotly anticipated by Boswellians. Here's a recommendation from Jen Steele: "In the aftermath of World War I, Frances Wray and her mother must rent out rooms in their house, due to their accumulated losses and mounting debts. Newlyweds Leonard and Lillian Barber are the Wray’s first tenants in their home up on Champion Hill. It's a big adjustment for the Wrays, who come to terms with having "paying guests". Along the way, Frances & Lillian get to know each other, and what begins as a friendship blossoms into something more. Then one day a catastrophe strikes that upends their existence and that of everyone they know. Sexy, gripping, and suspenseful, Sarah Waters is in top form."

Boswellian Carly Lenz called The Paying Guests "A meticulously and beautifully constructed novel full of plot twists, character depth, and striking language." And Sharon Nagel praised the "supenseful and unpredictable story." With such enthusiasm, the three of them got together and asked me* to help facilitate an interview with the author. So we worked with our friends at Riverhead and to our delight, Ms. Waters (photo credit Charlie Hopkinson) was happy to ponder Sharon, Carly, and Jen's questions.

The Boswellians: Can you tell us something about The Paying Guests that's not in the book description?

Waters: It was a tough book to write! - both technically and emotionally. I took a lot of wrong turnings, and did tons of rewriting: I have a pile of discarded drafts that is literally three feet high. But once I'd found the tone I was looking for, it was a very rewarding writing experience, and I've ended up feeling fonder of this book than of any of my others.

Boswellians: What gets you in the mood when your writing books set in another time? Do you listen to any music from the topical time period/era while writing?

Waters: I can't listen to music when I write: I have to have boring peace and quiet. But I did watch lots of '20s films when I was writing The Paying Guests, and I looked at as many images as I could - of street scenes, say, and fashions, food, domestic artefacts. The internet is a wonderful thing for a historical novelist - though it can also be a huge distraction...

Boswellians: Your novels have a certain sexiness to them and your latest novel, The Paying Guests is being considered your steamiest novel yet. Was this something you wanted to explore in-depth? Is it awkward or fun to write love scenes?

Waters: It's fun, but a challenge, because sex is so complex: it isn't just the body that's involved, but the head, the heart, the emotions, and a good sex scene should do justice to all that. Sometimes, too, sex doesn't quite work, or fails completely - and again, an honest depiction should capture that untidiness. But one of the toughest things about writing lesbian sex scenes is that it's all 'she' and 'her': 'She put her head between her legs while she twirled her fingers in her hair', etc. Your characters can end up sounding as though their arms are ten feet long.

Boswellians: In the world of lesbian fiction, your writing of lesbian relationships has a rare, more literary feel than the average lesbian pulp, do you feel that portraying lesbian relationships as similar to straight ones makes that divorce from lesbian pulp easier? Also, The Paying Guests has a Patricia Highsmith feel. If you were writing The Paying Guests in the 1950s, do you think you'd have felt more pressure to conform to "pulp" standards or do you think you would have been able to write lesbian relationships in such a literary way?

Waters: I'm not sure that I portray lesbian relationships as similar to straight ones, exactly - or perhaps you mean I treat them with the sort of respect, honesty and attention that we're more used, in books and films, to seeing devoted to heterosexual lives? Yes, that's definitely something I aim for. As for the Highsmithy feel of The Paying Guests - thank you! Patricia Highsmith is one of my favourite authors. I'd like to think that if I'd been writing in the 1950s I would have had the courage to write in an ambitious, non-pulpy way about lesbians - she did, after all, with Carol. But I know that I've only been able to write in a relaxed manner about lesbians because so many other authors did it first, before me.

Boswellians: In your books, some of your lesbian characters live openly and some are closeted to all but their closest confidantes. What we liked about Frances is that she's true to her nature. Given the conservative attitudes in postwar England, do you think any gay people were able to live openly or were they all shunned? Is it possible that Christina and Stevie were living openly? (Help us settle a bet- Sharon says no and Jen says yes)

Waters: It was a really interesting time for gay people, because attitudes were changing, and sexual knowledge was spreading. Yes, society was conservative, and fictional portrayals of lesbianism from the time (e.g. in Clemence Dane's Regiment of Women or Naomi Royde Smith's The Tortoiseshell Cat) are pretty damning. But in real life, with the right resources behind you, it was clearly relatively easy to meet and form communities, to find lovers and sympathetic friends: look at biographies of women like Katherine Mansfield, Vita Sackville West and Daphne du Maurier and her sisters and you'll see that they had lesbian relationships in very unproblematic ways. Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge were part of a confident lesbian network. And Sylvia Townsend Warner and her lover Valentine Ackland lived together very openly in their small Dorset community. So I think that Christina and Stevie are living pretty openly, too, but benefiting from the fact that only some observers would understand them to be lesbian, while others might consider them to be simply arty, or eccentric, or two young spinsters sharing a flat. It depends what your idea of 'openness' is... So, Sharon and Jen, I think you are both right.

Boswellians: What was your influence for The Paying Guests? Was there any particular novel or writer that directly influenced you?

Waters: There wasn't a particular writer, no. One thing that struck me about the period was what a mish-mash of voices it was. The 1940s, for example, has always seemed to me to have a very distinctive idiom; but the '20s was much more diverse. So I just read all sorts of literature from the period - novels, plays, poetry, letters, diaries; highbrow, middlebrow and potboilers - and let it all seep in.

Boswellians: If you could, which time period would you prefer to live in: Tipping the Velvet or The Paying Guests?

Waters: The Paying Guests, no contest - simply because, as an unmarried woman in the 1920s, there'd be more ways for me to live independently. I think I'd have more chance of meeting other lesbians, too. And the clothes would weigh less!

Boswellians: In reading The Paying Guests, we felt like we were sucked right into the pages and were right there next to Frances, especially with the courtroom scenes. How much research did you have to conduct regarding the British Justice System for part three?

Waters: Tons! I really had to know what I was talking about, even if I never got to use all the details. I had in fact visited the Old Bailey in the past, so that was a good starting-point. But I had to get a handle on the whole legal process, as well as police procedure and stuff like that. Newspapers were a great help, along with transcripts of celebrated trials. I did so much research into it all, in such a short space of time, that I'm sure at one point I could have done a good job of defending you in court, if I'd had to.

Boswellians: Your couples seem so different from each other but they manage to fall in love. Do you enjoy writing "opposites attract" romances? They do seem to be enjoyable to read.

Waters: Well, I think it's partly something to do with writing lesbian love stories. Just because the lovers are of the same sex, it doesn't mean that there aren't going to be other differences between them - differences, say, of class, that might have a huge impact on how they feel about themselves, their bodies, their desires, their expectations and ambitions. The Paying Guests is the first time I've portrayed an affair between a lesbian and a married woman, so that was interesting. Frances is posher than Lilian, so has that class advantage. But oddly, her background weighs on her, too, in a way that Lilian's does not; and Lilian, as a wife, has a status that Frances lacks as a spinster. I like thinking about how those sorts of dynamics play out in a relationship. They're what give a love affair texture, and bite - don't you think?

Thank you to Sarah Waters and to Jynne and Liz at Riverhead for coordinating this. The Paying Guests is on sale Tuesday, September 16, at Boswell and, to use an old-fashioned tagline, wherever fine books are sold. Why not pre-order a copy from us? And to get another take on the novel, read Michael Dirda's review in The Washington Post.

*I'm just the secretary for this post, which is why it is in The Boswellians.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Introducing Your Boswellians: Todd

1. What do you love about working at Boswell Book Company?

It smells nice here... like toasted walnuts and hope.

2. What’s your absolute most favorite of all the things in Boswell right now?

There's a friendly umbra who whips about the store and plants more smiles in a day than I see almost anywhere. Maybe there are that many in the smile factory, but I wouldn't bet the house.

3. What’s your absolute most favorite of all the books ever?

Favorite. Favourite. Favorite. Favourite. I kinda like the ouuu sound in my head, even though it sounds the same aloud. Similar to theatre or colour. (I'm avoiding your question.)

4. What’s on your staff rec shelf?

Terrail's stuff! (We share a shelf.) Also, there are books from presses of all sizes: Paradise & Elsewhere (Biblioasis); Inappropriate Behavior (Milkweed); Woke Up Lonely (Graywolf); and One Man Guy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillan).

5. For which writer—living or dead—would you take a bullet?

I would grab a bullet out of the air for Alan Heathcock. He'd name it and pet it and make it get over its past.

6. With which character can you most relate?

Sid Geeder -- from Po Bronson's Bombardiers. (BTW: PO! Stop writing all that nonfiction and return to the Dark Side!)

7. Someone wrote your biography – what is the title?

Distillery Tour.

8. If you were a super hero/ine, what would be your name, what’s your power, and who would be your arch-nemesis?

IF? So, what would my *other* name, power, and arch-nemesis be, you mean. Hmm... 

Name: Litotes; 
Power: Fathoming the Double-Slit Experiment; 
Arch-nemesis: Quantum Light.

9. Which band or artist would you drop everything to party with?

Jamie Cullum.

10. What’s your spirit animal?

I Googled this, and a website told me the answer = Butterfly. Or Owl or Hummingbird.

11. Forget “you are what you eat.” We’re talking draaanks—what beverage are you?

Bourbon or whiskey on the raaacks. Actually, probs that green smoothie from Odwalla.

12. Now we’re talking…dreams. What’s yours? 

Oh, I'm not ready for him to hear that!

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Book Review from Boswellian Mel: On Fire for Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory

I mean, come on--look at this jacket design!!

If you read nothing else this year, read Caitlin Doughty's debut collection of essays Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessonsfrom the Crematory. It’s not what you think. Perhaps you see that word—crematory—and wince. Perhaps you’ve had a rough year and death looms large. Or you don’t want to jinx a splendid year. Or just don’t like to think about death. This book is surely morbid and depressing, right? Wrong!

Now, I won’t go so far as Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is the MOST UPLIFTING THING you’ll read all year. Instead of a cheerleader, Caitlin Doughty is a firm realist. Her voice is that of the friend you go to when you want the unflinching truth. She does not revel in death. Nor does she abhor it. Rather, she approaches death with a scholar’s focus and the passion of person who has found her calling in the industry.

One part memoir to one part anthropology-meets-sociology study, Doughty is frank in her portrayal of the many aspects of the death industry with which she has been involved. Her flair for the written word makes her descriptions of some tasks—from embalming a corpse in advances stages of decay to shaving babies—easy to imagine and difficult to shake. This is exactly the point. Most people in this country believe death is a frightening, abstract thing that should be overcome, but when the battle is lost—preferably behind closed doors—professionals are required for the clean-up. That’s not fair. Doughty feels it’s time for people in the US to face death. Given that it is the one thing everyone on this planet has in common—we’re all terminal from the day we’re born—death should be the one thing we can count on to bring us together.

Doughty--labor of love.

I learned from Smoke Gets in Your Eyes that a typical American funeral home is invested in driving a wedge between people and death. Bodies are embalmed and covered with makeup to look “natural” so grieving families aren’t shocked during viewings, and then buried in metal coffins to stave off decay. There are infinite ways to “personalize” death—if you can afford them. In this day and age, you can even order a cremation online: have the cremationist pick up the body, prepare it, process it, and deliver the ashes to your front door. For a price, a person can choose not to face death. These are the supplies our death denying culture demands.   
Once upon a time, every house included a “dying room,” usually at the front of the house. We have replaced these with “living rooms,” filled the space used for death at home and quiet reflection with TVs and couches, and people are trundled off to nursing homes and hospitals to die. Whereas once people could die in the privacy and familiar surroundings of their own homes to be cared for by loved ones upon death, today most Americans would rather leave death to professionals. Caitlin Doughty believes—and I agree after reading Smoke Get in Your Eyes—that this is a sad state of affairs.

My problem with this hands-off approach to death is the same problem I have with hospital intervention in birth: if a person wants to handle life-alterings event in the comfort of their own home, they should be allowed to. I’m not saying that amateur hour is nigh—just that professionals shouldn’t intervene or control intimate moments if the family doesn’t want them to. If a person wants to handle the preparation and burial of someone they love, they can! It is safe and legal to wash and dress the body of a deceased loved one. There are laws in this country against home burial (check with your state, county, and district), but if you want a loved one to die at home and you want to grieve with them, and to wash and dress the body for a particular ritual, this is perfectly within your legal right. To say this another way, if your loved one is dying and they don’t need a hospital, they don’t have to die in a hospital—they can die at home. This is the crux of the revolution…because many of you might be thinking that if your loved one is dying, they must certainly need a hospital.

The Marilyn Munster of the Death Industry. 

You may be tempted to write Doughty off: she’s young, vivacious, healthy, perky, pretty, optimistic, and neatly groomed, so what could she possibly know about death? Doughty is all these things, and she certainly has her critics. But Doughty is also whip smart. She’s the founder of The Order of the Good Death, a salon gathering thinkers from myriad fields to discuss the death revolution. She keeps a blog and posts regular “Ask aMortician” videos on the Order website. In Smoke, we learn that Doughty is a woman who understands that the best way to change the industry is from within. She completed mortuary school, despite differing views on some of her instructors’ messages and practices, to validate herself to critics who interpret her Polly Anna demeanor as naiveté and lack of industry experience. Doughty is the Marilyn Munster of the Death Industry. She doesn’t fit in with traditionalists—and this has nothing to do with her looks. Rather, she is out of place with traditionalists because she believes a revolution is necessary. After reading Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, I agree wholeheartedly.

Caitlin Doughty’s mission is only beginning with The Order of the Good Death, “Ask a Mortician,” and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. One aspect of this work is to address the myriad misconceptions about death and dying that are so pervasive in the US. Another piece of the puzzle is to address the funerary rites our culture deems acceptable. Did you know that there are midwives who specialize in helping families cope with grief? Yeah! They’re called death doulas. Did you know that you don’t necessarily need to be embalmed or cremated? Nope! You can choose a “green burial,” which is placement in the soil at a green burial site, covered in just a simple shroud or a biodegradable vessel (like a wicker casket). No headstone necessary: should your loved ones want to visit your grave, they can take a GPS waypoint at the green burial location or plant a tree that will then absorb your decaying body as nutrients. Artist and designer Jae Rhim Lee has even developed something called an Infinity Burial Suit, which is a black garment laced with infinity mushroom spores. Cultivated with the amazing ability to break down the tissues of the human body, these mushrooms can even process toxins and heavy metals.

More than a treatise detailing her views on death as a mortal working in the death industry, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a collection of recent scientific and sociological developments dealing with death, as well as a chronicle of some little-known traditions and beliefs about death. The writing comes from a place of passion and intellect; in these pages, Doughty feels like a friend and mentor. She does not condescend. She does not flaunt her knowledge. Nor is she flip about her work, as some of the more “traditional” morticians who have criticized her would have you think. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes may be the most important book you read in your lifetime. It’s paradigm-shifting, conversation-starting, life-altering stuff—buy a copy for yourself and several to share with friends and loved ones.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Meet Your Boswellians: Carly

Without further ado...hhhheeeeeRRRRREEEEE's CARLY!!!

1. What do you love about working at Boswell Book Company?

My first experience at Boswell as a customer/shelf-peruser was so positive and memorable, especially the customer service aspect, that I just wanted to work with such good company, to be honest. As a huge bibliophile and a practicing people-person, the environment at Boswell was calling my name. The fact that so many amazing events take place here, too, was beyond appealing. 

Also, books. Everywhere. They are everywhere.

2. What’s your absolute most favorite of all the things in Boswell right now?

Right now? Peter, probably. Have you met him? He's a swell guy.

3. What’s your absolute most favorite of all the books ever?
In an attempt to do the impossible, I will just say that a definite fav of mine is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Absolutely brilliant and haunting.

4. What’s on your staff rec shelf?
The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan, The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell. BAM.

5. For which writer—living or dead—would you take a bullet?
Probably my boy Stephen King. He's just such a great guy, he's funny, he's an avid supporter of the Red Sox, his wife's name is about awesome. Now if only we were actual friends.

6. With which character can you most relate?
I would like to think I'm as independent in personality and as revolutionary in the "girl power" cause as Nancy Drew was in the 30s. She was very curious and innocuous as a teenager, she didn't let her boyfriend Ned get in the way of her sleuthing, and she liked being active in all realms of her life. We have all of these traits in common, except I've never known anybody named Ned.

7. Someone wrote your biography – what is the title?
Carly Lenz: A Weird Life Beneath the Lens
8. If you were a super heroine, what would be your name, what’s your power, and who would be your arch-nemesis?
I would be Rudegirl, adorned in checkered uniform and sassy hairstyle, actually much friendlier than my name intimates. Whenever conflict arose, I would summon my friends in the band Madness, who would show up and start singing "Our House," which will immediately dissolve all fighting, all rage, and consequently bring people together in song and bliss. My arch-nemesis would be Downbeat, whose virtues and style I don't agree with.
9. Which band or artist would you drop everything to party with?
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame. He's awkward and cute and would probably be more likely to take a selfie with me if he was drinking some Irish whiskey simultaneously. Can Tegan and Sara join the party, too?

10. What’s your spirit animal?
Dolphin. No question.

11. Forget “you are what you eat.” We’re talking draaanks—what beverage are you?
If I'm having an Old Lady Day I like me a nice Tanqueray & tonic with lime. For the most part, though, I'm a nice glass of wine, either a Zinfandel or a Malbec.

12. Now we’re talking…dreams. What’s yours? 
Working as an archivist for the Smithsonian in D.C. is definitely on my mind all of the time, however, having a book published at some point in my life is just as dreamy. Lastly, if I could do both of those things AND finally get my all-girl punk band "Bildungsroman" moving, then all of my dreams would come true. We will see what happens!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Meet Your Boswellians: Peter!!

Apologies for the hiatus, but we promise that the following collection of stuffs is well worth the wait!! Without further ado...MEET PETER!!!!

1. What do you love about working at Boswell Book Company? 

The staff! Books! The staff!

2. What’s your absolute most favorite of all the things in Boswell right now? 

Anytime someone has a question about comic books or graphic novels, i get to talk about and introduce people to an underrated form of literature.

3. What’s your absolute most favorite of all the books ever? 

Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan

4. What’s on your staff rec shelf? 

Nao of Brown (takes my breath away every time!) by Glyn Dillon.


Captain Marvel - Volume 1: In Pursuit of Flight WORDS by Kelly Sue Deconnick, ART by Dexter Soy, Emma Rios (Great jumping on point of new readers! Wrestling with her idenity Carol Danvers (formally Ms.Marvel) must overcome odds and do the hero thing, great read.)

Batwoman: Elegy WORDS by Greg Rucka, ART by J.H Williams III (Classic coming straight out Detective Comics! A modernized version of Batman's origin, a tale of tragedy overcome by the dedication of hour hero as she defends Gotham against the strange forces of the night.)

Hey, Wait... by Jason (Beautiful in its minimilistic style, a gut punch of guilt and regret.)

5. For which writer—living or dead—would you take a bullet? 

If Alan Moore would duel Grant Morrison, i'd stand in the middle. Ha, i'm dooommed.

6. With which character can you most relate? 

Frank Einstein, Mike Allred's Madman. re-animated corpse named after Frank Sinatra and Albert Einstein.

7. Someone wrote your biography – what is the title?

Existential Crisis on Infinite Earths.

8. If you were a super hero/ine, what would be your name, and what’s your power?  

i would be a 5th dimensional being called "That Guy."

9. Which band or artist would you drop everything to party with? 


10. What’s your spirit animal? 

jimmy the cricket. GO BIG RED!!!

11. Forget “you are what you eat.” We’re talking dranks—what beverage are you?

Heart-breaker: cup of ice + can o'cola + shot of espresso.

12. Now we’re talking…dreams. What’s yours?

Under construction. Perhaps, i should have said Merv the Pumpkinhead for #6 (amirite Sandman fans).

If you look closely, you can see Boswellian Peter hiding behind a beard (plus Boswellian Mel and some sexy shots of Boswell!) in this awesome teaser trailer for The Spoliers, a documentary about Milwaukee-area comics enthusiasts by the excellent Troy Freund and the singular Ku Mays.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Books to read.. in July!

Everyone likes to be part of building buzz... right?  Here are two novels for adults that you desperately want to read.  Both release in July.  It will be a long couple of months until then.

Nick Harkaway is my favorite author.  This is his third novel.  They are all different and are all excellent.  The cover is designed by design guru, Chip Kidd.  Tigerman releases July 29th.  There is a chance that Boswell will host him on tour.  If that doesn't happen, I plan to host a release party.  You're invited.

Here's my review:
Lester Ferris is a British diplomat of sorts living a leisurely life on Mancreu, an island slated for destruction. That fact has turned the waters off of the island into a free-for-all of illicit activity by every major world power. Lester's befriended a local kid who learned his English from comic books and movies. Together they float through the days avoiding acknowledging that soon they will have to leave. But when they are both witness to a violent act, they each decide that extreme measures must be taken to regain a sense of justice. With kickass action scenes, reluctant heroism, and characters that break the mold of predictability, Tigerman is 100% full of win.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
The day after I finished this, I asked when the next one would be ready.  I want to spend more time with Kelsea, in fact, I will probably re-read TQOTT soon.  This releases 7/8. 

Here's my review:
Kelsea has been training to be queen of the Tearling her entire life. The trouble is that she's been doing it in hiding so that assassins do not find her before she is old enough to assume the throne. When it is time, she faces the great challenge of protecting her right to rule and healing a kingdom ruined by decades of her selfish uncle's neglect and greed.  Kelsea is the perfect hero in this new-but-old world Johansen has crafted; she shines in conflict, is stubborn for the sake of her people, and inspires loyalty by being herself.  I greatly look forward to the next installment in her journey.   

I know you're eager to read these two very good books.  Waiting will only make them better.  I promise!  

Thursday, May 1, 2014

An Interview with Chicago Golden Gloves Champion Bill Hillmann, author of The Old Neighborhood

In anticipation for Bill Hillmann's event at Boswell Book Company at 7 PM on Saturday, May 10th, Boswellian Mel (and superfan of The Old Neighborhood) had a rap session with the award-winning author and founder of Windy City Story Slam about taking punches, Chicago tough guys, death-by-machete, and the positive impact of physics. If this doesn't pique your interest, then you must have one heck of a story yourself and you should stop by Boswell to share your story with Bill!!

As the founder of Windy City Story Slam, you know a great story when you hear one. Who is the best storyteller you've ever heard and what makes them so good?
Actually my wife. Whenever we do a national or international competition she always wins. She’s lived this incredible life herself. She joined the Zapatistas and survived a machine-gun attack. Her grandfather killed a man in a machete fight. She grew up in Mexico City, so her life was nonstop absurdity in comparison to an average American life. Having great material isn’t everything, though you have to be able to craft a story. She manages to do this with great timing and usually comes in well under the time limit and leaves everyone rolling around laughing. She’s good at storytelling because she enjoys it and gives herself over to the audience. You need to remember that you are providing a service as a storyteller and you need to do it with effort and sensitivity.

You mention in your acknowledgements that you met your wife the day you started writing The Old Neighborhood. How did falling in love influence your writing?

It influenced it a lot. Enid’s love has protected me and kept me moving forward in my life. She has always fanned my flames and this book is very much a product of our love. 

In your interview with Jacob S. Knabb, Editor-In-Chief of Curbside Splendor, you talk about being able to absorb tremendous metaphorical blows. So, how do you take a punch? What advice do you have for people fighting battles at home and in their neighborhoods?

It’s going to hurt. Life is suffering. Be prepared for that. Sometimes people think hardship depletes us—they are wrong hardship strengthens us. The closer you are to being completely broken by something the stronger you will become when you gather yourself and get up. So embrace it. It might send you through hell but get up and battle back and you will grow to know more about yourself and the world and what it is to be alive.

In physical fighting, “don’t get hit” is the best advice. That might mean run, dodge, hit first, and hit with bad intentions, but if you’re in that freeze-frame moment when that punch is coming and you can’t get away from it, move with the punch, i.e. if the punch is coming from your left move your whole body to your right. That motion will take a lot of power away from the collision when the punch hits you. Think of it as a car crash. Which would cause less damage: to hit a car in a head on collision, hit a parked car, or to rear-end a car that is going slower than you? That’s where the phrase “roll with the punches” comes from: you roll your head and upper body with the motion of the punch that’s landing. That is what absorbs the blow. It comes down to physics. But taking a physical punch spiritually, wow that comes down to heart. You have to be willing to die and kill if you’re going to win in a bad fist fight. And being able to go to that place, that all comes down to what you’re fighting for. So you better believe in what you’re fighting for deeply, otherwise you should just walk away. 

Some of your lines are incredibly poetic. Do you have a background in music, poetry, or other study of rhythm? Do you consider boxing to be a study in rhythm?

Yes, I wrote poetry for a long time and one of my mentors is Marc Smith, the founder of Poetry Slam, though I wasn’t really a slam poet. Rhythm is incredibly important to me in my life and writing. When I’m focusing on a project I wake up at the same time, I eat the same things for breakfast. I have this rhythmic ritual that goes on for weeks and months sometimes. On the page it is also incredibly important to me: sentences need rhythm if they’re going to move and move people. 

Boxing is completely about rhythm, it’s one of the best ways to defeat a boxer who is a more gifted athlete than you. If you can upset their rhythm and get into your own rhythm you can beat anyone. Also figuring out another fighter’s rhythm allows you to time and counter them. A powerful counter punch can turn an entire fight around. 
Why does physics matter so much to Joe? Does science have a special place in your heart?
Physics was an obsession of mine starting in my adolescence. I was originally a physics major in college before I started writing. In the book it’s central. The dominant metaphor is Joe’s obsession with the origins and destiny of the universe and its subparts, galaxies, and solar systems. The Old Neighborhood of course is about origins and destinies of its characters, and of hatred and violence and what survives hatred and violence, which is love. The super nova referenced in the final passages is a metaphor for a solar system’s regeneration; it is the end of a star but the birth of something new. Joe’s life has been forever destroyed but in that destruction he has survived, protected by the love of his father, and now will embark on a new life. There’s also the positron electron annihilation metaphor which mirrors the way Chief and D-Ray seemed destined to destroy each other as perfect nemeses. There are several other smaller subplots where physics intersect with the street for Joe—exploring astrophysics and particle physics is his way of assimilating all the horrifying emotions he is experiencing throughout the second half of the book.

Joe's family is fraught with complex gender and racial tension. Does white guilt figure into Joe's family and neighborhood? 

Race is such a complex issue. Almost every day I drive through two very dangerous neighborhoods: South and North Lawndale. I live in South Lawndale; it’s a Mexican immigrant neighborhood, very poor, and very violent. My wife works in North Lawndale, which is black, even poorer, and more violent. I observe the teenage kids. Most are gang members and drug dealers; these are kids who are surviving a war.

The biggest difference in the two neighborhoods is the family structure. Mexican families tend to stay together—there is a mother and father in the household. Black families tend to not stay together—they tend to be led by single mothers. The Mexican neighborhood is nearly one hundred percent blue collar: construction, factory workers, and small business operators. In the black neighborhood, a lot of them are struggling to find work at all, there are very few small businesses, and most of the small businesses are owned by outsiders to the neighborhood.

So what you see are these troubled Mexican kids who dodged bullets, shot people, dealt drugs, and when they get a little older and have kids, they get married, follow in their father’s footsteps and become blue collar workers or work in the family business. They settle down into family life. The black kids they don’t seem to have that luxury. They don’t have the ladder to climb out of their warfare lifestyle: they get stuck there in the street and you see 30 and 40-year-olds still out there gangbanging and dealing drugs. And I think it all comes down to having that father in the household, having that father who has a blue collar job or any type of job. It creates an escape.

Joe is the only kid out of his friends and enemies who has a father in his life. He is also the only one who escapes. As he’s headed out of the city over the Skyway Bridge he does feel guilt but I wouldn’t call it “white guilt.” Joe feels guilty because he has a father who loves him and is willing to do whatever it takes to protect him. That is one of the most important themes in this book: the value of a father.

Did you face challenges writing about a real neighborhood in a fictional work?
It makes it easier for me. But there are challenges, like the Edgewater of my youth is way different than Edgewater is today. Today it’s a rich neighborhood a healthy portion of it is Gay and Lesbian. Most of the people who were there when I was a kid are long gone. So it will make it hard for new Chicagoans to see what I’m writing about in this new Edgewater. At the same time I think it will interest them to know what the neighborhood used to be.

The Edgewater in your novel is like a Faulknerian town in that it is a character itself. Have you seen this Edgewater in your travels? What resonates? What's different?

Mexico City reminds me of the wild and intense excitement that the Edgewater of my childhood had. I was living in this ghetto called La Mesa and this family that was exactly the same size as mine as a kid sort of took me in. I was broke and couldn’t afford to eat well and the kids would trick me into coming over and when I walked in there’s be a plate of food waiting for me. It was bringing up all these emotions: “my god this family is incredibly poor but look at how happy and generous they are.” 

I was working on the second half of the first draft of The Old Neighborhood at the time and it really nourished me in a lot of ways. So yeah Mexico City reminds me of the Edgewater of my childhood, but the people are just way more generous and happy. I went back to see that family about a year afterward and tricked them. I wrote them a long letter thanking each and every one of them for all the fun we had together and how welcoming they were to me and feeding me and I stuck a couple hundred bucks in the envelope and made sure they didn’t open it until I was long gone because otherwise they would have given it back. I would still go to see them but they moved away we lost touch. 

There are a few different dialects in the novel; they're all written well. What advice do you have for writing dialect? 

You’ve got to go immerse yourself in it before you can really get a handle on it. I don’t mean looking up YouTube videos or watching The Wire: you need to be in touch with it day in and day out before you really start to understand it. Dialect is fun but you have to know the rules before you can really play with a dialect. That’s why it’s good to write what you know, otherwise you better be very, very good and very well researched. Like the word “Finny” or “Finna” or “Fin-to:” I can play with those words because those words were in my vocabulary when I was 8 years old. They weren’t spoken at home but my friends used them and I learned them on the street. I’ve always been drawn to different people and different ways of being, so my curiosity has given me an advantage when it comes to dialect. So I guess you should be curious and go talk with people and create friendships with different people so you’ll have more to draw on when you start to write.

The Texan for "Finny," "Finna," and "Fin-to" is "Fixin' to." There are people in the novel, like Tank, Ryan, and Joe's Dad, who solve their problems with their fists. When life gives them lemons, they beat the hell out those lemons. Yet, they are not cold, loathsome, or vilified. What's the secret to writing the emotions of tough, physical guys?

Just be real. There are no human beings who are completely bad. Everyone has a heart. Some people just can’t communicate verbally as well as others. So they communicate physically instead. Some people may say that this is animalistic—well, we are all animals as well as humans. Joe’s father has trouble expressing his deepest emotions verbally, so he does it through his brutality. To be honest, if Joe’s father talked about his feelings, Joe would be weirded out and his father wouldn’t be a very believable tough dad. The guy’s a construction worker. At the same time those emotions are very powerful in the father and he finally does express them verbally at the end and with much more power than if he’d said them all the time or tried to talk sense into Joe when he got in trouble.

In the novel, we only ever see prison from the outside through visitor's eyes or in Pat's letters. Why not show prison from the inside?

Yeah I could have done some third person of Pat’s experiences but I didn’t feel it needed it. He tells the story of getting his eye busted and that seemed powerful enough because of the way he told it as if it were nothing, as if worse had already happened to him. It gave enough of the feeling that Pat was living in an extremely dangerous place and surviving it using his own brutality which he took pride in. 

Is humiliation gendered? What does it mean to be tough, yet vulnerable, and what does that look like "on the street?"

I don’t think humiliation is gendered. Humiliation is individual: no one can humiliate you unless you let them. You can also humiliate yourself; that is a dark place to be, but deep down your human dignity remains. There’s a female boxer in Chicago named Maureeca Lambert. She is this nice 112 lb girl from the suburbs, very friendly and cute—but when she enters the ring it’s like a young Manny Pacquiao was unleashed on a novice. She is ferocious and completely transcends gender with her boxing. Lambert is a great example of someone who is both vulnerable and tough. 

Everyone is vulnerable on the street. The toughest guys get killed all the time and get beat up sometimes too. No matter how hard and cold that façade is, deep down they get scared, they get hurt, they feel deeply. That’s what a lot of people don’t want to face, these people killing and dying in urban centers all over the United States are not animals. They are human beings: they are suffering and there needs to be more done to stop the violence. 

Musician Pharoahe Monch's new album is called P.T.S.D. He claims the inspiration for it came from his desire to connect with people from a place of post-traumatic stress disorder and families grappling with mental health issues. Monch claims PTSD isn't racial—it's human.

In Demon Camp, after interviewing a veteran grappling with PTSD, author Jennifer Percy asks how much of our personal trauma is wrapped up with the trauma of others.

 Are urban decay and PTSD are related?
Yes they are definitely related. As soon as a city begins to fall apart, violent crime skyrockets. So many cities in America—especially Chicago—are active war zones. Way more Americans have died in the wars raging in Chicago than have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. And remember those are nations: we’re comparing them to one city.

The thing I’ve heard people say on National Public Radio is that for a kid growing up in Englewood there is no “P” in what they’re experiencing. For them it’s just the constant traumatic stress of living in a warzone: that’s their life. You talk to kids there and they’ve gone to a lot of funerals, many don’t believe they will live to be adults or definitely not old age. So maybe for a person who escaped the urban decay you can call it PTSD but for the ones who live their whole life in a warzone like Englewood or North Lawndale there’s no end to your traumatic stress. Every week someone you know or are related to is attacked, shot, or killed. It’s endless. 

 Given these thoughts about PTSD, at one point, Joe thinks Ryan would make a fine soldier and that enlisting might save him from a gang-related death. Is enlisting a "way out" of the Neighborhood? Is it a ticket off the streets? A ticket to healing from PTSD?

 Many of these gangbangers in these tough cities are some of the bravest and fiercest warriors you will ever come across. Their lives are constant warfare and many would make excellent warriors on modern battlefields. Others are complete cowards and backstabbing evil-doers but you see those types of behaviors in the military too sometimes. War breeds a lot of ugly things in people. A kid like Ryan, yeah he’d make a fine soldier. But with the way the USA waged the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I wouldn’t advise anyone to join the military. Who knows if we’ll get another war hawk in office like Bush and end up in Syria in the next few years. In a perfect world where we only go to war when we absolutely have to defend our nation or to stop a holocaust then yes, the military would be a great option for a kid growing up in a violent neighborhood. Also because the military creates a ladder to a job when you get out or even just a career in the military is a great thing. But to be clear I have a great deal of respect for and pride in the young American men and women who fought those wars. I just don’t agree with decision to fight them. 

 Joe feels his shock and numbness at The Old Neighborhood's climax is PTSD. You've mentioned that you'd like to continue with Joe in a trilogy. So, then: what does suburban PTSD look like?

Hahaha! A kid that is very dislocated from his surroundings. A kid who is very angry and violent and can’t communicate with the kids around him. But be careful about talking about the suburbs like they’re all so nice. Maywood, which is surrounded by very rich suburbs, has an extremely high murder rate and is a very dangerous warzone. So Joe will find some surprising things out in the ‘burbs. 

 Is it possible to heal PTSD by moving to a new neighborhood?
I think the first step toward healing is escaping the war, whether that be in Iraq or Chiraq. You can’t heal when you’re still struggling to survive. You need some peace and security. But it’s not the only thing you need. You have to actively try to work though those emotions. Writing was a great way for me to work through all the rage and anxiety and pain that I hung onto after going through what is basically nothing in comparison to what an average kid in Englewood experiences in their life. So yeah it’s a process of healing yourself. But I’m no doctor, I am very concerned with the issue though and would love to get involved with helping people recovering from tragedies through the arts. 

 Is it possible to heal PTSD in a war zone?
Exactly, I don’t think that is possible at all. That is one of the main problems looming over these violent neighborhoods: there’s no end, there’s no healing. It’s just war all the time. Not to say there aren’t pockets of good, that there aren’t good people because there are: there are churches and activists doing great things in these places trying to overcome the violence but it’s obviously an uphill battle. I believe escape is the only hope. 

 What does it take to begin healing?
You have to actively seek healing. You have to find a way to express those emotions that are drowning you. Otherwise you’ll continue to suffer and lash out at the world. Healing is hard work but I healed a lot through writing this novel. It was a very therapeutic experience. 

 Are these questions you're planning to explore in the second and third books in the trilogy?
Yes actually Joe is going to start boxing in the second book and find plenty of healing in the ring. Boxing is an art. It’s not a sport, though sports can be good too. But boxing is one of those rare physical arts where you must conquer yourself before you can succeed. It’s very individualistic in that way. Learning the art of boxing and training and disciplining yourself as a boxer can be a very healing thing for a troubled kid.  

Bookseller Bonus Question: What are you reading right now?

Mike Tyson’s UndisputedTruth and Seven Years in Tibet because I’m working on a memoir and I like to read books that are somewhat similar to what I’m writing for inspiration.

Bill Hillmann is an award-winning writer and storyteller from Chicago. His writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Newcity,, and has been broadcast on NPR. He’s told stories around the world with his internationally acclaimed storytelling series the Windy City Story Slam. Hillmann is a Union Construction Laborer and a bull-runner in Spain. In the not so distant past, Hillmann was a feared street brawler, gang affiliate, drug dealer, convict, and Chicago Golden Glove Champion.

"...Maybe I'm writing to people like me, looking back and maybe regretting some of the things they did in their pasts and trying to forgive or at least stop being so angry about what they endured, trying to come to terms with it all and heal."