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."