When during the summer of 2014 Bill Hillmann made the news for getting gored by a bull, I was shocked but not surprised. When I heard him read publicly months before, my former Columbia College classmate had told a harrowing tale of a pileup he had witnessed during his 2013 trip to Pamplona. Despite the terrible scene described to us that evening, one where he had to drag a body out of the tunnel leading into the arena, Bill said he planned to return and run with the bulls. Later I’d learn Hillmann wasn’t surprised by his goring either. As he writes in his new book “Mozos: A Decade Running with the Bulls of Spain,” his first thought after the horror of it was “Accept it. You knew this day would come.”
Hillmann, author of last year’s novel “The Old Neighborhood” and founder of the Windy City Story Slam, recognizes the dual natured attention his goring has brought him. He spends a portion of “Mozos” detailing the media circus that followed his goring, attracted by the “ironic” story of the bull-run expert tripped by a fellow runner and gored by a bull, but in a chat I had with him walking his dog, Bill told me the most revelatory thing was the vitriol online: “It’s bothering that there are people so ugly inside they’d send a dude a personal message on his hospital bed, while he’s still maybe dying because of an infection in his leg, saying ‘I wish you had died.’ That person has bigger problems than me; I was only gored by a bull.” On an even more personal level, Hillmann lost friends in the foreign bull-runner community, but Hillmann also acknowledges that good came out of it too: “I got closer to my wife after a following rough patch. My novel got worldwide attention. My memoir’s being talked about in major outlets.” He also made new friends. Local Spanish runners, including legendary runner Juan Pedro Lecuona, visited him in the hospital and continued to be friends with him following his recovery. “I’m good friends with Juan-Pe now. I’m not sure that would have happened without the goring,” Hillmann says.
Hillmann hopes “Mozos” will convince tourists who think running with the bulls is a “fun thing to do traveling Europe in the summer” otherwise, but Hillmann still plans to run this year. Hillmann is one of those people he describes as those who “have to do on a spiritual level,” but Hillmann’s continued attendance is as much the guilt he’d feel if he didn’t. As he says during the “Mozos” account of the 2013 pileup, the same one where he assisted an unconscious runner, Hillmann says that a huge reason he runs is “because if something bad were to happen and I wasn’t there to try and help, I’d never forgive myself.” Hillmann’s need to perform heroics perhaps lends to a Spanish news outlet’s description of him as “the last and most serious Hemingwayites,” a statement that can be used to describe him on a lot of levels. Hillmann cites a few writers as influences, Jon Krakauer and Cormac McCarthy among those he listed, but his Hemingway fascination is part of his origin story. In past lives, Hillmann was a Chicago Golden Gloves champ and a drug dealer, but as detailed by himself and then teacher David McGrath, his junior college encounter with “The Sun Also Rises” sent Hillmann onto the path of becoming a writer, but also to Pamplona. One early moment in “Mozos,” Hillmann describes himself napping at the feet of Papa’s statue in front of the arena. No image better captures Hillmann, who if I didn’t know better, I would think is a Hemingway character brought to life.
“Mozos: A Decade Running with the Bulls of Spain”
By Bill Hillmann
Curbside Splendor Publishing, 200 pages, $15.95
June 17 Launch party at The Book Cellar, 4736 North Lincoln, (773)293-2665, 7pm. June 20 Discussion of “The Old Neighborhood” at Edgewater Library, 6000 North Broadway, (312)742-1945, 2pm. July 2 Curbside Splendor’s “Pamplona Send-Off” at the Whistler, 2421 North Milwaukee, (773)227-3530.