East of Denver
add to cart
When Stacey “Shakespeare” Williams returns to the family farm in eastern Colorado to bury his dead cat, he finds his widowed father, Emmett, living in squalor. There’s no money, the land is fallow, and a local banker has cheated the senile Emmett out of the majority of the farm equipment and his beloved Cessna.
Unemployed and without prospects, Shakespeare settles in as caretaker to both his dad and the farm while simultaneously getting drawn into an unlikely clique of former classmates. Threatened with the farm’s foreclosure, Shakespeare, Emmett, and his misfit friends hatch a half-serious plot to rob the very bank that stole their future.
Gregory Hill works at the University of Denver library and plays in The Babysitters, a rock-and-roll power trio that includes his wife on drums. They live in Denver.
You and Shakespeare seem to come from very similar backgrounds (anosmia included). How much of the novel is autobiographical? Did you find it difficult to write about things you yourself experienced? Or was it harder to create the completely fictional elements of the story?
None of the book was particularly difficult to write. It was a joy to assemble those scenes that were inspired by my experiences (the miller moths swarming the locust tree and Shakespeare’s rambling drives with Emmett come to mind). It was even more of a joy to twist and exaggerate those scenes so they fitted into the tale. One of my rules in writing East of Denver was, “If it’s weird, make it weirder; if it’s sad make it sadder; whatever it is, make it more so.”
As a consequence, as far as I’m concerned, none of the book is autobiographical. Although portions of the story were inspired by things I’ve seen or experienced, the process of writing rendered them all completely fictional. Had that not been the case, I would have been reluctant to share the story with the public. Of course, this doesn’t stop people from finding autobiographical elements in the book. That sort of thing is fun and I won’t discourage that. Just please don’t holler at me if the book diverges from your version of reality. And let me make this clear: I never gave my father marijuanalaced brownies.
East of Denver is, among other things, a poignant depiction of a son’s relationship with his dementiaaddled father. You’ve said in other interviews that you originally intended to write a zombie novel. What changed your mind, and how did that transition come about?
In first chapter, Shakespeare buries a dead cat in a pasture. Originally, I intended him to accidentally awaken a horde of zombies while digging the hole. This would set off a string of events that I hoped would result in a stunning and profound zombie novel. On a whim, I included Shakes’ forgetful father, Emmett, in the catburying scene. After a few lines of dialogue between Shakes and Emmett, I fell in love with the way they worked together. I decided the story should be about them, not some stupid zombies. For the zombie lovers out there, keep hope. One could reasonably argue that most of the characters in the book are zombies. In their own ways, they’re all lost and they all wander aimlessly. And they eat canned tomatoes, which bear a mild resemblance to brains.
This is a blackly comic novel. Was it hard to toe the line between comedy and tragedy as you were writing? Many of the plotlines are, at their core, deeply depressing situations but you managed to make them funny, as well. Were some of the absurd situations the characters face part of your planning from the beginning, or did you add them as you went along to lighten the tone?
Very little of the book was written with the intention of being comedic. None of it was written to dilute the depressing situations. This includes the scene where the narrator gets puked on by his potential love interest.
Absurdity and tragedy are pals. The idea that something horrible could happen without being accompanied by something equally ludicrous is both ludicrous and horrible. The book’s final conversation between Shakespeare and Emmett is a good example of this mingling, which you’ll find defined in the dictionary under “ludicribbleness.” We’re in the middle of an incredibly intense moment and the characters should be hugging one another and sharing emotional declarations of familial love. Instead, they start throwing puns back and forth. Why? Because, even though their world is bubbling with chaos, they’re having the time of their lives.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up my next novel. It takes place in the same county as East of Denver, but in 1975. The main characters are two brothersone’s a depressed rancher, the other is a professional basketball player. There are some mammoth bones, too, and a mad hermit. No zombies.
- How do the first few pages set the tone for the rest of the novel? What do you make of the reappearance of Shakespeare’s cat at the end of the book?
- Both Shakespeare and Emmett have no sense of smell. How does this serve to set them apart from the rest of the townspeople? In what other ways are they different from their neighbors?
- What were your first impressions of Shakespeare’s high school friends, Vaughn, Clarissa, and D.J.? How did your perceptions of them change over the course of the novel?
- What is Shakespeare’s relationship with his dad like? Are they a comfort to one another? Despite the obvious difficulties they face, do you think Shakespeare would really rather be anywhere else?
- The entire novel is darkly funny. How does the author’s use of humor shape the story itself? What other techniques does he use to give the reader the fullest possible sense of the situation Emmett and Shakespeare are in?
- Consider the bank robbery. Does Shakespeare really intend to go through with it? Does Vaughn? Does discovering what Clarissa has done at the end of the novel change your view of her? How so?
- How would you describe Vaughn? Did Shakespeare understand how unhappy he was? Shakespeare mentions at the very beginning of the novel that he’s “not much for reading people.” How does this manifest itself over the course of the book?
- What do you make of Crutchfield? Clarissa remarks that he’s “just an asshole...doing what his asshole job allows him to do.” Do you agree with her assessment? Are you satisfied by the way the author wraps up his story?
- What does the Rocket represent to Shakespeare? Why is he distraught when his father takes it apart?
- When the garden is almost entirely eaten by deer, how does Shakespeare react? Is he less upset than you might imagine him to be? Clarissa tells him that he needs to worry, and not just quietly take each problem as it comes. Is she right?
- Emmett’s senility is alternately heartbreaking and humorous. Do you think the author treads this line well? Is this an accurate portrayal of living with and caring for someone with dementia?
- Shakespeare tells a story about Emmett rescuing a man with his Cessna once, many years earlier, flying him to a hospital. How is that plane ride juxtaposed against the one Shakespeare and Emmett take at the very end of the book? Is Emmett saving them, in a way?