Gregory Hill lives on the High Plains of eastern Colorado, where he writes novels, makes odd music and frequently wonders why. His previous works include the Srattford County Series, which has received the Colorado Book Award, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and the American Book Fest Award for literary fiction. To learn more about the author and his diverse pursuits, click here, here and here.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Gregory Hill: To the mind that births it, an idea is a revelation. An idea is a thought that makes one say, “I have an idea!” An idea is a gift from the cleverest and most mysterious part of one’s brain.
Here’s a 10-year-old idea: I SHALL WRITE AND RECORD A ROCK OPERA ABOUT A STRING OF MURDERS ATTRIBUTED TO RINGO STARR.
Another one, shared with me some 20 years ago, by my big sister: FIND A WAY TO PRINT IMAGES ON POTATO CHIPS AND YOU WILL SELL MANY POTATO CHIPS.
Alas, both of these ideas — which were, upon their conception, considered by their host-humans to be revelations — have not come to fruition. One is tempted to conclude that the ideas are fruitless — and should remain fruitless — on account of both of them are lousy.
That’s because, to the mind that didn’t birth it, an idea is an abundant and cheap thing.
I believe that all ideas, including my own, and especially my ideas that concern the conception of a novel, are equally abundant, cheap, and revelatory. To turn an idea into a novel is easy: Choose one — it doesn’t matter which one, they’re arbitrary — and pour several dozen thousand words on top of it and then watch closely how those words puddle together.
“Sister Liberty” started with Jason McDaniel’s idea in a hotel room in Jackson’s Hole Wyoming in 2014: LET’S START A COUNTRY BAND CALLED THE STABLE BOYS.
The Stables Boys made their first appearance at the tail end of the acknowledgments for my second novel, “The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles,” first published in 2015: “And the Stables Boys are right on the horizon.”
Two years later, after Jason and I had not started a country band called anything, I had an idea: WRITE A SERIES OF NOVELS ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF JASON’S NON-EXISTENT IDEA-BAND.
I knew that the Stables had to be of French origin, because I like France.
Several thousand words later, I found myself holding a book that did not contain a single reference to the Stables Boys — unless you count a brief cameo from a pair of actual stable boys, which you shouldn’t.
That’s how it’s done.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context.
Hill: Pansy (age 11, missionary from the Church of Solemn, based in Solemn, Indiana) introduces her new friend, Auguste Lestables (age 11, French, illegal immigrant, admirer of Auguste Comte’s Positivism) to her (Pansy’s) home, where he (Auguste Lestables) will now be living.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write?
Hill: After writing three increasingly claustrophobic first-person novels about self-analytical, semi-depressive men who dwell on the Great Plains, it was necessary to head sharply in one of the many directions that led far away from that: third person, cast of thousands, France, 1885, verdant Indiana, women in most of the lead roles.
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Initially, “Sister Liberty” was going to be about four sisters who, with the aid of lyrics composed by the ghost of French philosopher and writer Auguste Comte, become a semi-famous country band. A variant on the Carter Family. Or the Staples Singers. But as I was researching Spiritualism, I became sidetracked by 19th-century American religion in general. I was beguiled by the staggering variety of denominations that had materialized as a progressive/reactionary/untamed response to the stuffy old Church of England.
It soon became clear that the puddle-of-thousands-of-words would have to end up in the amphitheater of a religious revival.
SunLit: Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
Hill: Once it is planted, an idea-seed sends shoots in all possible directions, while I try not to get bucked off. It’s chaos with a saddle on its back. From this saddle, I round these shoots into what will become a series of discrete stages of decreasing entropy.
The first stage is loose, governed by first-thought, open to all digressions, sloppy and unpruned.
The second stage is a defining stage. A general analysis of content. A taxonomical description of this unpruned bush. How do the characters express themselves? What kinds of trees do the characters see when they enter a forest? Which metaphors/themes merit reinforcement, which should be cast aside?
From here the bush is no longer a bush. It is a musical score. Metaphors and themes are simplified into motifs (“Do we all pray to the same God?”). Each character behaves according to a set of rules, a scale, a mode, each with its own assonance and tension relative to the others.
With the definition of these tonal elements, the novel’s musical score now has a key signature, a tempo, and a meter. (“Sister Liberty” is in F major, to be played spritely in 6/8 time. Which happens to match Mingus’ “Better Get Hit in Your Soul.”)
Motifs (motives), tone (theme), and mode (mood) established, I pass the score to the characters/instrumentalists, who have by now become self-aware behavioral algorithms, perfectly capable of interpreting the score amongst themselves (“Perhaps this God we pray to is a great, fiery ball of lard” or “Perhaps not everyone prays” or “Perhaps there will be bacon for breakfast”).
From here, the characters do all the heavy lifting, plucking, strumming, bowing, exhaling. I’m just waving my hands in front of them — for a year, or two, via several more drafts — until the book reaches an acceptable state of internal coherence.
In other words, my ambition in writing is to give my books minds of their own and then follow where they take me.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
Hill: Re-learning how to write in the third-person was a pain in the neck. First-person, you’re inside one brain, processing everything through one pair of eyes, judging everything from one perspective. Third-person requires a leap from one dimension to three. Instead of describing the story from a single point, I had to take on the responsibility of a whole mess of minds, most of which were women and children, all of whom came from circumstances entirely different from my own.
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At one point, flustered by this great expansion of data and descriptions and human social behaviors, I considered scrapping the whole thing. Maybe I needed to stick to my rut, write another emotionally confusing but hilarious story about another down-and-out plainsman.
This is the stuff of grade school writing lessons, and not for the faint of heart.
I persevered thanks to a chapter in a book by Tony Hoagland. It’s easy, he said, to do the same thing over and over. It’s hard to start from scratch, and it’s worth the effort. I’m paraphrasing.
Gregory kept on, and eventually fell in love with the omnipotence engendered by the third-person.
Nevertheless, he plans to return to the first person in his next novel.
SunLit: Do you expect the book will provoke strong opinions among your readers?
Hill: The final third of “Sister Liberty” is set within a gigantic, multi-denominational evangelical religious revival. Participating in this revival are such sects as:
The Greco-Roman Catholic Church (“We wrestle with Godliness”)
The Church of Nimrodian Protectors of the Impermeable Cotton (“A Mighty Hunter Wears Mighty Garments”)
The Church of Integrated Newtonian Morality (“Goodness Bound by Gravity”)
The Church of Jobian Agony (“Good Weather is Bad Weather”)
The absurdity is dense — approaching that of reality itself — and so it may provoke some strong opinions.
I cherish all opinions. Some are useful, others are irrelevant.
Lucky me, I get to decide which is which.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Hill: I typed the first draft on my grandma’s Smith Corona Classic 12, the pinnacle of manual typewriter technology.
In order to keep things interesting, I chose to imitate Jack Kerouac by typing this draft on a single scroll of paper. As you read the book, you will notice that most of the sentence clauses are no more than four-to-six words long. That’s because the scroll of paper was 2 ¼” wide.
And that’s because, in the basement, near where I found the typewriter, I found a box of 10-key calculator tape rolls left over from the ’70s. I taped the end of each roll to the beginning of the next and typed until I ended up with a great, tangled mass of paper on the floor.
When it came time to transcribe the 2 ¼”-wide-10-key-calculator-tape-roll draft, the tangled mass quickly became a knotted mass, then a torn mass, then an unmitigated morass. But I managed.
The exercise gave the prose an almost subliminal rhythm. A cosmic background radiation. An expansion by constraint.
I will never do that again.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Hill: My wife Maureen and I are assembling a Kinks tribute compilation for my imaginary record label Sparky the Dog Records. All songs are being recorded on a 16-track tape machine that I restored during COVID. Analog, whether by tape or by typewriter, preserves the humanity within the creative act.
Novel-wise, I shall write a 60,000-word libretto for the RINGO STARR AS ACCUSED SERIAL MURDERER ROCK OPERA. The libretto will be published in collaboration with the makers of Ringles Potato Chips, with one sentence printed upon each chip, available as individual chapters (one per tube) or as the complete work (buyer must be able to take delivery of a full pallet of chips). There will be no e-editions. The audiobook will consist of chewing noises.