Behind The Old Neighborhood‘s truculent tale is author Bill Hillmann. Bill’s bio mirrors the novel’s fierce story and setting as a former brawler, gang affiliate, a Chicago Golden Gloves Champion, and a bull runner–which sounds absolutely terrifying. At the time of the interview, Bill was flying to Colorado on his book tour, but was able to answer a few questions on writing the novel, and his views on Chicago’s gang violence.
What was the most difficult (technically speaking or otherwise) part of this book to write and why?
Navigating the autobiographical material was difficult. Statutes of limitations came up in a lot of my thought process. This is a book about heavy things and a lot of them really happened or similar things really happened. Also dealing with how my family would read the book was a big struggle for me. So far the reception has been good and no one has been arrested on old charges as result of the novel’s publication…
How much research went into crafting the novel’s characters, dialect, setting and et cetera?
I know that neighborhood by heart. My family lived in that area of Chicago for about one hundred years. The dialect, the setting, the characters, all that was easy because it was part of me. I did go back and research a lot of the criminal folklore of the neighborhood. I found plenty of articles, one I included in the prologue, I found that a lot of the shit really happened and was far stranger than even the lore. I also found out some didn’t quite happen the way the lore preserved it and I thought that was very interesting and chose to keep some of the lore and put some of the real hard facts in as well, this is a work of fiction and I think the best fiction is a blend of fact and fantasy; the Old Neighborhood is definitely that.
Why did you choose to write the novel from Joey’s adolescent point-of-view?
I didn’t write from Joe’s adolescent point of view. The point of view is of an adult Joe looking back on his childhood, adolescence, and teens. I also use third person for a lot of it and second person for the prologue. I chose to have a complex point of view because I thought there needed to be more components to build the family and the neighborhood. As the book progresses Joe’s narration takes over nearly completely, I wanted an adult narrator because I wanted that feeling of looking back at what had happened to him and what he’d done in an attempt to heal from the trauma he and his family endured as well as to face the pain he inflicted over those years and come to terms with it all
This maybe an unfair question to ask but I’m curious of your response: how can communities address and stop gang violence from occurring?
I think most of the problems in gang ridden, urban centers is lack of opportunity and problem of having to secure the drug trade. If we had more programs for kids and funded schools better with customized curriculum focused on kids dealing with crisis and overcoming violent situations things would get better. As of now they are trying to teach all children the same and hold them all to the same standards. That’s stupid because a kid who lives in Naperville and a kid who lives in Englewood are completely different and need to be taught in completely different ways. If someone just murdered your brother, you are not going to be able to learn your multiplication tables that week and if major traumas like that happen in a kid’s life on a regular basis, he will fall helplessly behind. We are expecting kids to learn inside of full-blown warzones and it’s just not fair to hold them to same standards of a kid who let’s say their major crisis that year was that their dog got sick.
Also some neighborhoods just need to change. There’s no question that the demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini Green and many other housing projects have reduced crime in Chicago. Those places were a failed idea. Stacking desperate people on top of each other bred violence in a way never seen before. There weren’t any social programs that were going to turn those projects around. My neighborhood got better because a whole new group of people moved there. My family lives in near complete peace now in the suburbs, for the most part my nieces and nephews have never witnessed a violent crime. Physical change can be a very good thing.
The legalization of all drugs would prevent street drug dealers from having to secure their business with bloodshed. They would be able to call the police when they were robbed. The police would be forced to protect a heroin shop. This would also take the drug market out of rundown neighborhoods allowing those neighborhoods a chance to regroup and find new ways to create commerce. It would also defund the war machine in those neighborhoods. No money for new guns would mean the police could actually put a dent in the number of illegal guns on the street. Right now if police get an illegal gun off the street it is quickly replaced by these drug-funded armies.
Also I strongly believe that the right to conceal fire arms is going to dramatically reduce crime in Chicago. People often forget that the Wild West was won by barbers, bartenders, farmers, and bankers, getting up on the roofs of these small western towns and shooting the outlaw cowboys dead as they rode in. There are plenty of good people in these violent neighborhoods, if they were empowered to conceal a gun for self-defense they could actually stop crimes in a way no police cruiser could. My fantasy image is of a father walking his kid home from school when a gangbanger starts shooting at a rival while there are hundreds of grammar school kids walking home in the vicinity. That father pulls his legally concealed gun and kills the gangbanger. It’d be a clear message to the gangs, stop shooting after school lets out. It would do more to protect little kids and moms from getting caught in the cross-fire than any police presence ever could, because it’s easy to spot and avoid uniformed police. When gangbangers realize they don’t know who could be armed, they will think twice before randomly shooting on crowded streets. More broadly right to carry will undermine the gang’s ability to terrorize the neighborhood, if everyone has a gun it will equal the playing field between the good and bad people in the neighborhood.
And of course all this rests on the good people’s shoulders. Not just in standing up to protect their neighborhoods but in standing up to be positive role models in their neighborhoods. There is a shortage of good men in these places. The main point of The Old Neighborhood is the power a good father (even if flawed) has over the destiny of a boy. Joe is the only one of his friends who escapes. Ryan and Angel don’t and the only reason is because they had no father to save them. Good men need to step up and fight for the kids in these places and maybe just help them escape…
Bill Hillmann is an award-winning writer and storyteller from Chicago. His writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Newcity, Salon.com, and 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