Interview with Bill Hillman, author of THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD

By Jacob S. Knabb

At Curbside Splendor, we like work that emphasizes voice—unconventional, urban, distinctive. Bill Hillmann, former street brawler, gang affiliate, drug dealer, convict, Chicago Golden Glove Champion, and bull runner, is one of those voices.

We are so excited to be publishing Bill's first novel, The Old Neighborhood, in April 2013. The Old Neighborhood is a coming-of-age novel set in Hillmann's hometown of Chicago. It's about a bright and sensitive teen named Joe Walsh who is pulled down by friends and family into a pit of violence that reaches a bloody impasse when his elder sister begins dating a rival gang member. The book also explores the Great White Flight from urban centers in America before the turn of the century, and examines the origins of modern street gangs.

Curbside Splendor Editor-in-Chief Jacob S. Knabb recently interviewed Hillmann about The Old Neighborhood, his decision to begin writing, and what keeps him fighting.

Bill Hillmann

How does your experience as a former golden gloves boxer inform your writing? Do you see any similarities between boxing and writing fiction?

Dedication and courage are the two most important things a boxer has and both of those can overcome any level of talent. The same is true in writing. Also there is mad-stubbornness. The only thing that kept Ali and Frazier standing and punching in their three classic battles was the stubborn notion, ‘I am greater than you.’ In writing, that stubborn endurance will take you further than many realize. Without it Hemingway and Faulkner never would have won Nobel prizes.

The Chicago Golden Gloves selected me twice for their international traveling team. Seeing a good chunk of the world deeply changed me and my understanding of humanity. Also training and living at the legendary Windy City Gym with some of the most incredible characters in the world -- I've known so many characters, I could never write them all -- that helps with writer’s block.

In boxing you must prepare to absorb a tremendous blow and then deliver an even greater one. In writing life deals you the tremendous blow and you must absorb it and deliver a greater blow on the page.

You've said that this is a novel about the phenomenon of 'White Flight' that began in the mid-20th century and continued on through the '80s, and which was very pronounced here in Chicago. Was this something you experienced directly?

My family and I were part of the tail end of the Great White Flight in the ‘90s. Some see it as an embarrassing era where whites fled whole neighborhoods because a black or brown family moved in. My family's experience undermines that entire dynamic. My sisters are Afro-Caribbean and my neighborhood of Edgewater was incredibly diverse. One of the reasons I wrote the book is because my family has deep ties to the origins of modern street gangs. Most people don't realize that at the turn of the century nearly all inner-cities in America were predominantly white. Poor white kids were the original gangbangers and in fact taught the black and brown kids who migrated to the cities later what inner city violence was and what gangs were. I think it's important for mainstream America to realize that gangs may be seen as a black and brown problem but they have white origins. In my neighborhood plenty of white kids died and killed along gang lines. So in effect I've set out to undermine a racist assumption about inner city violence through the story of this family, this gang, and this kid. Also, I think you should write what you know and the Great White Flight is an enormous migration of humanity that I know very well.

One of the central themes of The Old Neighborhood is the effect of violence on individuals, families, and communities. What is interesting about violence to you as an artist? Why did you choose to write about violent people and people impacted by that violence?

I've experienced a lot of violence in my life. There was violence in my household. My brother was a feared, violent gang member who went to prison for armed robbery. My other brother's best friend died in a gangland murder. My sister got shot and critically wounded in a drive-by. I've been in way over a hundred fist-fights. I've been stabbed, beaten within an inch of my life, and I've done some very ugly things to people. I've stared down the barrel of loaded gun and witnessed shootings. All these experiences and the way they've haunted me have forced me to write about violence. I really didn't choose it as a subject matter; it chose me.

The other thing is, I know I have experienced very little violence in comparison to many people in America and many kids are going through worse things right now in Chicago. I wanted to write about violence and the effect it has on people, especially kids, to attempt to reach them and remind them of their humanity and urge them to stop hurting others, even though I know that in some cases it is impossible. I also want to show average Americans what it's like to be troubled, so that maybe they aren't so quick to judge troubled people. And 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.

By writing a novel about gangs and gangland activities, aren't you just glorifying that lifestyle?

I don't think my novel glorifies gang life. I think it shows a very realistic side of gang life. Not all gangbangers are ruthless homicidal maniacs. Some of them are, no doubt. I've met plenty of them. But some of them, like that kid you see waiting for a bus who looks rough around the edges -- maybe his pants are sagging, maybe his hat is tilted sideways -- that kid might just be a budding physicist and only needs some support and a nudge in the right direction and he could become something special and positive in society. At the same time, that same budding physicist might shoot someone in the head one day and destroy two lives.

Why did you choose to write a ‘coming-of-age’ narrative?

We have the most potential energy in our youth and the things that happen shape us for life. I had a lot of crazy stuff go down when I was a kid. I could easily have ended up in prison or dead as result and some of the kids I grew up with did, but the goodness of my parents and a few teachers saved me during a vulnerable time in my youth. I guess I wanted to promote goodness in others toward kids. Kids need good teachers, good parents, good brothers and sisters now more than ever, especially in Chicago.

You have overcome so much in your own life and have mastered many of your own demons. How does that impact your work?

First and foremost, I wouldn't have completed and gotten this novel published if I hadn't sobered up. I also probably wouldn't be here if I hadn't gotten a grip on my violent streak and found Buddhism. I still want a drink now and then, I still lose it sometimes and get violent, but it's the constant struggle to defeat those two ugly urges from within that allows me to be so happy and productive. That struggle to master your demons is a very universal struggle. We are all battling within. Joe Walsh is at war with himself throughout The Old Neighborhood and most likely he would have lost that war if it weren't for his father. We can't defeat our demons alone. I truly believe that we need each other and that belief colors everything I write.

Of all of the art forms you could have gravitated toward, why did you choose writing?

Hemingway. My father wanted me to read him. I resisted because I was always a lazy ass in school and found ways to get by without reading a full book. The first book I read cover to cover was The Sun Also Rises. I was twenty years old and I read it in one sitting. I decided immediately that if I had any talent or ability with writing I'd pursue it and devote my life to it. I entered a contest with a story about a bloody street fight I was in and it won. That was it: I went for it. Looking back I think I was always a storyteller and when I realized that the stories I told, if done correctly on the page, could move people and be considered art and even more important art that really excited me. But it was Hemingway's writing that sucked me into this world and I'm very grateful it happened.

You founded the Windy City Story Slam and have toured the country telling stories. What is the essence of a good story? What is the key to telling it?

A good story has a beginning, middle, and end. A lot of talented performers forget that. The key to telling a story is to tell it the way you would tell an old, dear friend who truly knows you and has never heard this story. Just give yourself over to the audience and let them have it.

You're going to be touring this summer with Irvine Welsh, a man who has assumed a mentoring role in your writing life. What is the impact of having such an amazing talent edit your work? What is the best advice he ever gave you?

It's really weird because the guy is just Irvine to me, a normal guy who likes soccer and boxing and is kind. To me he’s just a cheerful, friendly guy who could be a TV repairman and I'd still like him and want to go to the fights with him. To have him edit and talk with me about my book and suggest rewrites and even write passages that he thinks I should use as starters for rewrites...I mean, it's cool and extremely helpful. I try not to dwell on the fact that he is probably the most popular and successful and coolest author of urban realism in the world because then I'd just kind of gawk at him in awe. The impact of it is that I have a lot of confidence. I know if Irvine believes in my writing and is willing to get behind it then at least it’s good enough to be published and maybe good enough to make real noise in the publishing world.

The best advice he ever gave me he gave me the first time we hung out. It was after a Sox game. I had given him a short essay I'd printed up for him like any idiot would. He read it right there at the bar where we'd been drinking for a few hours already, then put his arm around me and said “You want to be a writer? Then you got to write every day, every day, and you'll write and write and it'll be shite and more shite and then you'll get to the good stuff and then it'll be real good and then you'll be a writer.”

Your book is in the tradition of Chicago writers like Nelson Algren and Joe Meno. What is the essence of “Chicago writing” in your opinion? What are the key ingredients in a true “Chicago novel”?

People have compared my writing to James T. Ferrell's. Ferrell wrote the Studs Lonigan Trilogy which actually is how Studs Terkel got his nickname. The books follow a young tuff in the Irish Southside through his evolution into adulthood. I agree on some levels with the comparison. Joe Walsh is a roughneck like Studs but he also has a sensitive side. I also have a trilogy mapped out which will follow Joe Walsh into adulthood. The Studs Lonigan Trilogy is episodic novels and it'd be hard to say that The Old Neighborhood isn't. In a lot of ways, Ferrell defined what a Chicago novel is: rough, working class, corrupt, the streets in their own ink type of writing. Several novelists have done that over the years, most notably Nelson Algren. Joe Meno and Stuart Dybek continue the tradition today.

In my opinion a Chicago novel needs violence, a main character who has heart but struggles with his dark side. It needs to open the doors to the streets and neighborhoods of the city as they are and as they were. It needs to hit a bastard in the mouth and put him flat on his ass and it needs to kiss a woman hard and true and take her breath away. It needs to ruffle the hair of the youth and give them something to strive for and it needs to make the old grin with pride. It needs to remind us that we are a complex city but at the same time that we are one, of one origin and one future and that we need to constantly strive to unite and grow together.