Gregory Hill on His New Book, The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles

In bands like Six Months to Live and The Babysitters, Gregory Hill earned a reputation for embracing the weird and refusing to pander to expectations. His work as a novelist has followed the same path: His debut novel, East of Denver, the tale of a man who drags his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father into a plot to rob a bank, won the 2013 Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction despite — or because — of its black humor and loopy plot. His followup, The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles, promises to be just as weird, and just as great. Before he appears at the Tattered Cover Colfax on Thursday, June 4 to read from and sign the book — and play a song or two — we caught up with Hill to ask about writing a different kind of Western, hating indie rockers and the joys of hate mail.

Westword: This is your second novel, right? I remember that when your debut, East of Denver, came out a couple years ago, it was received well by critics.

Gregory Hill: Yes. It was received well. It was a weird deal, that book was. It got published because it won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel award, about which I’m kind of embarrassed, but I’m also happy because it got published. It got put out by Penguin, which is freaking ridiculous. I should not be on Penguin, and they didn’t really want to publish the book but they were obligated to do so because they sponsored the contest.

Did it sell a bunch of copies and make you a rich man?

I think it sold like 7,000 or 5,000 or something. It certainly didn’t knock anybody’s socks off that way. Under normal circumstances, that’d be great for a first-time author of a book that’s kind of fringey mainstream and fringey weird.

Now this book, The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles, is apparently a Western-noir set in 1975 and it’s weird? That’s what I got from the blurb.

[Laughs] That’s pretty much it. I didn’t … well, I kind of set out to do this. I wanted to write a psychedelic Western novel. Westerns are dying and no one gives Westerns any credence any more, because they’re all exactly the same. So everything I did in this book, I tried to make it not exactly the same. Such as… you want an example, don’t you?

I’d love an example.

Our narrator, our hero, is a depressed, alcoholic rancher whose brother plays in the ABA — you know what the ABA is?

I do not.

Oh man! It’s the American Basketball Association. It was the rival of the NBA for seven years. Doctor J was an ABA player.

Got it. Okay, so back to our story.

First of all, I’m terrible at describing my books. And I’m terrible at writing plots, because they don’t really follow any regular … they just don’t make sense half the time. People like to write me e-mails and let me know that.

Anyway, he’s a depressed rancher and his brother’s in the ABA. The rancher’s horse gets murdered. And his neighbor is a nurse with PTSD who was in the Korean War, and she lives in a hole in the ground with a lot of weird stuff in it. His brother turns into a coke dealer and gets into a bunch of trouble and introduces the rancher to cocaine … is this the way I’m supposed to do this?

Sure. There’s no right way.

So the basketball brother finds out about the secret hole in the neighbor's land and shows up the next day and forces the rancher to take him there. They enter the cave, there’s some punching and what not, and a chicken gets stabbed and a poodle bites the basketball brother in the crotch and a bunch of stuff happens [before the big ending].

I’d say that’s not a typical Western.

[Laughs] But there are horses! And lots of whiskey.

Definitely some of the trappings, but just a little different take.

It’s a little different. And I think the more subtle thing that’s different about this is the men in the book, especially the main character, is not like a “manly man.” I mean, he can do cattle things and what not, but he’s kind of thoughtful and…

Since I’ve been spending so much time out here [on Colorado's Eastern plains], I’ve really seen the gender roles out here are really defined and they can be frustrating sometimes. Like, a man has to prove he’s a man by waking up earlier than everybody else, and getting more scars, and all that crap. Also being able to tease women all the time and subconsciously keep them in their place. But Johnny Riles ain’t like that. He’s like a thoughtful, sensitive dude. He’s like an indie rocker who’s stuck trying to raise cattle. But he lacks the coy attempts at poetry they foist on us.

Sorry. Everything goes back to my hatred of indie rockers.

From the way you describe it, it reminds me somewhat of Carl Hiassen. Is that a legitimate comparison?

I read his book Sick Puppy, and I’m sure all his books have a certain thread that runs through them. He’s more coherent than me, or more mainstream. He’s also more gleefully funny. This book is funny, but it’s really subtle and a lot of people aren’t going to get it. The more people who know this book is weird going in, the less hate mail I’ll get.

So people expecting some kind of slice-of-life Americana out on the Eastern plains of Denver are going to be wildly disappointed, and possibly angry?

Yes. The last book [East of Denver], the hardcover version had this nice, pastoral picture of a prairie with a windmill, and it’s about Alzheimer's, with a son taking care of his father, so it was marketed to older people. That’s who reads book these days. Half of them loved it, and we’re like, “Oh, this really captured the essence of the country.” And half of them were like, “Your parents should be ashamed of you! I know your family! How could you have so many druggies in your book!”

It took me a while to get used to that.

You’re still doing music? I think the last time we spoke, you were just starting an act called The Babysitters, but that was a few years ago.

We’re going to call it quits after our next show, just because we’ve done it. Everything has an expiration date and we’re going to move on. The other band I’m in, nobody cares about anything. We just go and have a great rehearsal, and maybe we’ll play a show. This is the golden age of my life right now. I’m so happy.

That’s a great place to be. Does this new band have a name?

Oh, we have a name. We’re the Super Phoenixes. It’s like Super Diamond, but better. Every show is our debut.

I’ve also got a little recording studio in Denver and guys come in, generally guys older than me, and they’re usually coming in to record their first-ever solo album. So I make a little bit of money off of that. And Maureen, my wife, and I helped start a music night [out here in the country], a monthly music jam at the local community center here and local musicians — not even local, guys drive an hour — come here and sing country songs for five straight hours. And there will be five people in the audience and everybody’s having a blast. Nobody wants to leave, and I’m going, “Everybody go home, I need to sleep.” It’s so fun, to see everybody just loving music.

I’ve been going nuts this past year. I remastered some old CDs that I’d recorded ten years ago, and I’ve been putting them on the Sparky the Dog — that’s my label — bandcamp. I’ve got like two dozen albums up there. Nobody ever listens to them, but I’ll just go there and look at them and say, “I did this with all these people who were having fun.” That’s all I care about.

Anything else we should know about before we wrap up?

I just read and recorded an audiobook for Johnny Riles, which I’m in the process of getting all put together. That was like two months of work and no one is going to download it or listen to it. It’s ridiculous. My voice completely changes halfway through it. It’s not super-amateur, but it’s this goofy thing I did for kicks.

See Greg Hill at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 4 at the Tattered Cover Colfax, 2526 East Colfax Avenue. Find more information here.