By Bill Hillmann
In November of 2005, I moved down to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to write a novel. I’d attempted to write a book the year before but it was complete garbage so I threw it in the trash. Then I saved up a bunch of money using my big shoulders, working as a Local 2 Laborer on construction sites all over the city and figured I’d rent a place, live simply, and like my mentor Irvine Welsh (of “Trainspotting”) advised me, “write every single fookin’ day.” I met Irvine around 2003 through a mutual friend in the Chicago boxing community named Marty Tunney. Irvine and I hit it off and he really fanned my flames as a writer. Anytime I asked him a question he gave me the best advice he could. As simple as it was, writing every day was the best advice I ever got.
San Miguel was even more breathtakingly beautiful than I’d expected. It’s a Spanish colonial town built on a small mountainside. Spectacular cathedral spires stretch into the sky amid colorful hundreds-of-years-old buildings. The cobble stone streets wind and climb the steep pitch of the mountainside. Art galleries and excellent restaurants haunt every path. San Miguel made an impact on the Beat Generation and is the town Neal Cassady left while counting rail ties on his way to Celaya when he died suddenly.
I found a big, cheap apartment and started writing. After putting in six hours of good stuff, I left my place to explore and walked into a gallery where a cute Mexican girl with big brown eyes, a nice smile and short brown hair was working. Her name was Enid (“A-need”) and she laughed at my attempts to pronounce it. I asked her out. She said yes.
That began my time in San Miguel. I’d wake up each morning, chant “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” I’m a practicing Nichiren Buddhist and member of Soka Gakkai International Chicago. The chant is a Japanese sutra which translates to Nam (devotion to) myoho (the mystic law) renge (simultaneity of cause and effect) kyo (through chanting). It’s based on the principle that world peace comes through individuals satisfying their desires and finding happiness. Chanting has completely transformed my life. I’d chant for a half hour then work all day on my new novel, a book that fictionalized many of the tragedies of my childhood: my eldest brother’s heroin addiction and imprisonment for armed robbery, my sister getting mortally wounded in a drive-by shooting, the hundreds of brutal gang fights I’d experienced in my low-level gang-banging days, and the series of murders that struck way too close to home and forced my family to leave Edgewater for the suburbs. Writing about all that darkness was liberating and therapeutic. The catharsis was punctuated by going out with Enid at night and traversing San Miguel and ending with her reading the very writing I’d written that day. Her instant feedback fueled my writing machine and I wrote forty-thousand words in five weeks. It was one of the most exhilarating times of my life and I recommend to any young artist that they escape their surroundings and devote themselves completely to a project like that. Dive into it, work at it for as long as you can but don’t completely exhaust yourself because the next day you need to do it again. Set minimum goals and hit them—no matter the quality, you can always come back and improve it another day—my minimum was a thousand words a day. What you are doing is building your endurance and focus too so that when you do hit a groove, you can ride it for hours. Swing for the fences every day and don’t allow yourself to be satisfied. Satisfaction is actually your worst enemy: you need to stay hungry, you need to stay humble, you need to stay desirous. That will drive your work and push you toward your destiny.
Of course, being young, mentally ill and an alcoholic, I found a way to screw it all up. I fell out with Enid and started seeing a crazy thirty-eight-year-old ex-beauty queen from Georgia who was a worse alcoholic than me. Once, we were walking around drunk at 5am when two guys rounded the corner looking to mug us. They hit me with a softball-sized stone but I luckily slipped it enough that it only glanced me on the side of my head. I cracked the guy with a short right-hand and put him down. I went to kick him square in the head to finish him off but I was so drunk I missed. I slipped on the stones, flew up in the air and landed flat on my back right beside him. I got to my feet and the other one started cutting me. As he sliced my shirt to ribbons, I laughed, not realizing what he was doing. I caught his swinging hand and a box cutter went deep into the pad of my palm. Then I caught his other hand and an ice pick stuck me in almost the same spot. When he had trouble pulling it out that’s when I realized he was slicing me all up. He got me in the ribs with the ice pick but it went in on a good angle and didn’t hit anything. I ripped what was left of my shirt off. My shoulders swelled. I started to let my fists fly on them and suddenly both guys decided they didn’t want to mug us anymore. As they ran off, I laughed and taunted them: “I’m from Chicago motherfuckers, City of Big Shoulders! I will beat you BOTH to fucking death!”
My bad karma didn’t end there. A couple days later, I spilled a full cup of coffee on the keyboard of my computer. It sizzled and smoke lifted off the keys. When it wouldn’t turn back on, I realized I’d lost forty thousand of the best words I had ever written.
After I stopped screaming at myself, I wondered why all of this was happening. In a moment of clarity, I found myself thinking of Enid. I realized I was deeply in love with her. She’d blown wind in my sails, she’d made me laugh like no other girl before her, and let’s face it, the sex was incredible. She was a tough city girl and all of her sensibilities matched mine. She was in love with me too and the fear of the power of that love had driven us apart. I’d been a coward in the presence of the purest love of my life and all this darkness was the consequence of my cowardice. So, I went to find her. We worked through our problems and a few months later, I asked her to marry me. We’re still together to this day.
A week after the coffee incident, I ran out of money so I went back to Chicago where my sister recovered my novel from my fried computer and I worked to save money to return to Mexico to be with Enid for a month. She had moved home to Mexico City. I finished the first draft of “The Old Neighborhood” while living in a very tough area in Mexico City known as La Nesa (where the assassin in the film “Amores Perros” lived). After nine years, thirty rewrites and thousands of hours devoutly chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” I finished “The Old Neighborhood” and it debuted this past April.
The week my novel came out was astounding. The Chicago Tribune raved about the book. It sold a couple hundred copies and even broke into the top 5,000 books on Amazon. But after that first week, sales fell flat. It almost completely stopped selling. I thought about the 2,500 books Curbside Splendor printed, lay down on the couch and didn’t leave it for a month, falling into the worst depression I’ve ever experienced. The darkness I plummeted into was vast and powerful; it could have easily swallowed me whole. I wanted to kill myself, badly. Enid kept trying to get me on my feet, yelling at me, “You have to go out and keep trying!”
This past June, the Printers Row Lit Fest came up and the organizers picked me to read from my new book at its swanky opening event where I wound up selling a bunch of books. Then I did a panel with fellow Chicago writer Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski the next day and sold even more. I rolled up my sleeves, handed out flyers for my novel at the Curbside Splendor tent, and ended up selling more than a hundred copies of my novel that weekend. The very next week, The Chicago Reader named “The Old Neighborhood” The Best New Book of 2014. A day later, the Chicago Sun-Times echoed the Best New Book of 2014 award.
Needless to say Enid was right, I just had to keep trying.
Over those three months, from April to June, I had tried to prepare for running with the bulls in Pamplona by sprinting and lifting weights in Chicago, but I hadn’t made much progress. I had run with the bulls in Pamplona for a decade. I had slowly learned the tradition and through luck, experienced some spectacular moments on the street communing with the bulls and leading them up the way. I knew the danger intimately, I had nearly died several times in my eighty-seven runs in Pamplona and the many other bull-runs in Spain. A bull named Cappuccino killed my running mate Daniel Jimeno Romero in 2009 in Pamplona. A few moments later, Cappuccino nearly gored me as well.
In 2013 in Pamplona, I was part of a group of five men who helped save the life of a runner named Jon Jeronimo Mendoza who had been crushed in a terrible pile-up in the arena. We carried him to the surgery room and got him there within seconds of it being too late. I felt the life escaping the young man as we carried him. All of these notable moments led to the top English-speaking experts of the running of the bulls in Pamplona to ask me to contribute to a survival guide on the run, which came out the first few days of July 2014.
I left for Pamplona flying high, but my good karma ended somewhere over the Atlantic.
As soon as I got to Pamplona, I lost my bag. In that bag was my medication for bipolar disorder that without I go completely insane within twenty-four hours, my passport, my computer with my forty-five thousand-word unbacked-up draft of my memoir, “Mozos,” about my decade running with the bulls in Pamplona and my Gohonzon, a Buddhist mandala. That Gohonzon was central to my practice; it already helped transform my life and I was supposed to have it until the day I died. We looked all over; we tracked down the cab driver we thought we’d left it with; we went to the police and the city’s lost-and-found looking for the bag but after forty-eight hours, we finally gave up.
My bad karma continued on the street during the bull runs. I ran like crap the first two days. The second day, a guy tried to jump over me and instead landed a flying knee to my mouth. The third morning, I ran bad again and then saw a suelto coming—a bull that’s loose from the herd. I started leading it up the street when I got tangled in the panicked runners and fell. The 12,000-pound bull named Brevito gored me in the thigh. I felt no pain and, at first, thought he was under and just lifted me into the air. I looked down and thought, “that horn is really close to my nuts!” So I grabbed hold of my junk and thought, “Thank god it’s not my balls! I want to have kids one day!”
The medics pulled me to the other side and I looked down. My inner thigh swelled horrifically like a balloon with a baseball-sized hole in the center of it. It looked like someone scooped a handful of flesh out of it. The horn brushed my femoral artery but didn’t sever it. If it had, I would have bled to death in seconds. I still hadn’t felt any pain so I refused morphine for fear it would make me pass out.
When I was admitted to the hospital, the doctor came in and asked me, “are you in pain?” I said, “No, not at all.” Then he said, “Are you ready?” I was like, “Yeah for what?” He took his blue-gloved index finger and stuck the entire thing in my wound. His finger felt like a live, sparking electrical wire. I screamed like a newborn baby getting electrocuted. Afterwards, they asked if I was in pain, I said yes and they shot me with morphine. I didn’t feel pain again for a very long time.
By the time I got out of surgery, the story of my goring had spread around the globe. Most outlets considered it highly ironic that a Pamplona survival guide contributor had gotten seriously injured. A good portion of the world was laughing at me. It devastated me. I was on a hospital bed, having just narrowly escaped death, fighting a terrible infection that could potentially kill me, and people all over the world were cracking jokes at my expense. The animal rights activists were the creepiest. They came out by the thousands to tell me they wished I’d died. I started fighting with these online trolls and as I did, I got sicker. I could actually feel the infection growing in my leg the angrier I got.
That’s when I looked at the whole thing as a Buddhist and realized I had to forgive my internet trolls. They couldn’t have known what they were doing to me; they were killing me. These trolls were just lost, ugly people taking time out of their miserable existences to attack me. I felt sorry for them. “I forgive you all.” When I made the choice to forgive them, these wonderful shivers began running up and down my thigh and all over my body. The infection that had felt like it was growing seemed to disappear. My karma nearly instantly transformed. Thirty minutes later, my phone rang. This lady on the other end said, “I have your bag.” I was like “What! Are you kidding me!” She was from the Pamplona Lost and Found, she had seen me on TV, and recognized me. I got all my stuff back, all of it.
The first thing I did when I got all my things back was hang my Gohonzon on my IV post and chant for the happiness of all of my online trolls and the rest of the people who had made fun of me and sent me death wishes. I felt a lot better after that. And an hour later, the Toronto Star and Washington Post asked me to write an op-ed. This was the biggest break in my writing career. And as the days progressed, the world news story which had been a big joke turned and became a serious in-depth story which opened the door for compelling revelations about my experiences running with the bulls in Spain and my novel. NPR produced a fascinating story about my misfortune, the “Today” show ran a good story about it, then the BBC World Service brought me into the station in London; that interview circulated around the world. The Times of India even put me on the cover of their Economic Times.
Then something miraculous happened: journalists all over the world began to write about my novel. The Spanish translation, “El Viejo Vecindario,” appeared on TV in Spain multiple times. Journalists in the UK and India, People magazine, you name it; they gave me blurbs from all over the world. Having the world acknowledge and praise my magnum opus was a dream come true. When I’d think about all the attention my novel was receiving, those swirling vibrations would rush all over me and I’d nearly crumble into joyful tears. After all that struggle and almost dying, my dream of having my novel become an international success finally came true.
I’d been struggling to get my novel the attention I knew it deserved. I knew I’d get gored one day because I run in a daring way, very close to the bull’s horns. Pamplona gave me a “million dollar wound” at the most pivotal time in my life. It was a major goring but it missed anything vital. I’d be able to recover fully. In essence, the wound had opened the door for my novel to become part of the world book conversation. But it never would have gotten into the spotlight unless I forgave those who lashed out at me and used my Buddhist practice to transform my powerful karma into something positive. This experience further cemented for me that no matter how bad it gets, never feel sorry for yourself and never blame anyone for your predicament. Accept responsibility for your situation and strive to make the best of it. Giving into fighting with petty people only feeds the negativity in the world. You just need to turn your back on inconsequential bickering and move toward goodness and positivity.
But it was just the beginning of my new journey as an author.
Irvine Welsh championed “The Old Neighborhood” from the early stages. He took the time to read my novel and gave me great notes on it. He even contributed words to the book. There are several pivotal passages that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for my friend and mentor. He was fundamental to getting “The Old Neighborhood” to the level it needed to be. When the book came out in April, he invited me to do a little tour in England with him in August. I headed to the UK still walking with a cane.
The highlight of the England tour this past summer was the August 12th Book Slam event at York Hall. Book Slam is the biggest and coolest literary night in the entire world. When the curator Elliott Jack found out I was a former Golden Glove Champ, he booked a big boxing venue for our reading. He even invited a former World Champion boxer, Junior Witter, to do some sparring as an opener. It was insane. 800 people showed up and I gave the best performance of my life. It was astonishing to have 800 people in another country roaring extended applause at me. An unforgettable moment. They instantly sold all of the copies of my book on hand. I was already grateful to Irvine but that night took my gratitude to a whole new level. He is a very generous and loyal friend.
After the England tour, I headed back to Spain to complete the second draft of my memoir. Obviously, I had some new material to explore. Joe Distler, a legendary American bull runner let me stay at his apartment during my time in Pamplona. It was wonderful. Then the iconic Pamplona runner Juan Pedro Lecuona took me under his wing and brought me all over Navarre to see the great bull runs of Tafalla, Falces, Lodosa and Estella. He even took me to a real ranch. I got to know Lecuonaint, interviewed him a lot, and we became good friends. My time with him gave me the key to finish the book.
Irvine Welsh is the hardest working writer I know; He’s got to get custom-made shirts to fit around his huge shoulders. He puts out a book almost every year and writes all kinds of other stuff as well. His work ethic inspires me and I’m always working on my next project just like him. I’d been hard at work on my memoir about the running of the bulls for years and after the goring, I put it in high gear and finished it in Chicago this past October. My memoir, “Mozos: A Decade Running with the Bulls of Spain,” goes to the printer soon with Curbside Splendor and will debut this June. It is already very highly anticipated, several national TV producers and outlets all over the world are chatting me up about it and plan to have me on their shows in June leading up to my return to Pamplona to run with the bulls in July. The Times of India has also expressed interest. All this and Curbside hasn’t even put out a frickin’ press release yet. I’ve watched plenty of writers rest on their laurels, sit on their success; writers with broad but small, weak shoulders. I wasn’t about to do that. I still had hundreds of copies of “The Old Neighborhood,” sitting at the warehouse in Tennessee.
I got home in September after my time in Europe and was like “Man, I want a second printing of ‘The Old Neighborhood’ bad! I’ve got all these blurbs from all over the world now; I want to show them off!” I knew I was going to have to do all the heavy lifting myself. Chicago is the city of big shoulders not broad shoulders. Broad shoulders you’re born with; big shoulders you earn through hard labor. I was going to have to put my big shoulders to work. I decided I was going to go to every single literary night and storytelling event in Chicago and sell all the books. I even got my own hashtag: #SellAllTheBooks. So I booked every night I could and sure enough books started selling incredibly fast. I sold forty books one night at the Green Mill Uptown Poetry Slam. Some nights I only sold a few but others I did great. Several nights, I even offered to show my scar as a reward to the crowd if I sold all the books I brought.
I began ordering books by the hundreds. That’s when Curbside started to consider a second edition. Recently I sold seventy-two books in three days, including twenty at a big event down in Mexico City with Irvine. That was pretty much the last straw to initiate the second printing. The new front and back cover of “The Old Neighborhood” will have blurbs from major outlets on four different continents.
I could have given up back in April when all my luck and momentum grinded to a halt and I fell into the worst depression of my life. I could have smoked myself or just let go of my dream. I didn’t though. I tried and made a great effort and things happened. But if I didn’t have love in my life in the form of my wonderful wife, Enid, I never would have made it this far. It’s so easy to be blinded by the darkness of this world. The light of a true and deep love is the only thing that can guide you through the darkness. Enid saves me from the darkness on an almost daily basis. I would be a pathetic mess—if not dead or in prison—without her love which fortifies my life. You can’t fear the power of love. If a cute girl with big brown eyes and your best interest in mind walks into your life and scares you, she might just be the one who will save you. You have to follow your heart; it knows more than your mind.
This city is full of thousands of independent artists with a dream. And if you’re one of them, listen up, because what follows, applies to pretty much any art form.
No one is going to go out there and make your book a success for you. You have to put it on your shoulders and do it yourself. If you have hundreds of books sitting in a warehouse, order them back! Get them in people’s hands! Your novel is a business and if you haven’t sold out your first run, your business is a losing endeavor. Someone invested thousands of dollars to print all those things. They believed in you. You owe it to them. You need to get up off your backside and sell all the books!
Matter of fact, you owe it to all those writers out there who slaved away for years, the ones who didn’t have enough talent, or skill, or luck, or whatever magic it takes to get a book published. The ones who’d kill to be in your shoes with a chance to be in the publishing game. You honor and inspire them when you give it your all. But when you sit on your hands, you disgrace them and yourself and your art.
If I can change the trajectory of my book, you can change the direction of your art too. They say the print book industry is dying. Well it can only die if we let it. Take responsibility for and control of your destiny. If your karma is bad, you can change it. Transform it into something powerful that can make your dreams come true. Put them shoulders to work! This shit takes EFFORT! And Karma rewards the stubborn and the hard working.
We all got shoulders and they bear our load, the question is are you going to strengthen yours, build them into big muscular shoulders that can take on any challenge that can overcome any hardship?
It’s up to you. I’ve made my choice and it’s made all the difference. What do you choose?
Upcoming Bill Hillmann appearances include January 8 at Story Club at Holiday Club, 4000 North Sheridan, (773)348-9600, 7:30pm doors, 8pm stories; January 10 at Stoop-Styles Stories Live as part of the Fillet of Solo Festival at Heartland Studio Theatre, 7016 North Glenwood, (773)791-2393, 7pm; and January 11 book signing at Edgewater Historical Society, 5358 North Ashland, (773)506-4849, 2pm.