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Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh bullshits with Chicago writer Bill Hillmann

The Scottish transplant to Chicago interviews his friend on the occasion of the Chicago native’s new memoir, Mozos: A Decade of Running With the Bulls of Spain.

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In a way, Irvine Welsh is responsible for Bill Hillmann's new memoir, Mozos: A Decade of Running With the Bulls of Spain. The two met outside a White Sox game a decade ago. At the time Hillmann was 23, a former Golden Gloves boxer, a current coke dealer, an aspiring novelist, and a self-described complete mess; Welsh was twice his age and already famous as a chronicler of Edinburgh's low life in novels and screenplays, most notably Trainspotting. The two men became friends. When Welsh got married in Dublin that summer, he invited Hillmann, who scraped up the money for the plane ticket and then realized that, for $60 more, he could go on to Madrid, and then to Pamplona, setting of The Sun Also Rises, the first book he ever read cover to cover. The annual running of the bulls, he dimly recalled, happened sometime in the summer.

Hillmann did get to the Fiesta de San Fermin, and he did stumble into one of the runnings of the bulls, and he survived. The experience gave him such a rush, something he hadn't felt since he quit boxing, that he vowed to return. During his annual pilgrimages to Pamplona, he fell in with the mozos, a group of expert bull runners, and became an expert himself. In Mozos, Hillmann comes across as both brave and ridiculous, but his joy in running, and in writing, is infectious.

Last week, he and Welsh—who moved to Lakeview in 2009 and whose next book, A Decent Ride, drops here in February—sat down to talk about boxing, bull running, bullfighting, and writing. I listened in over the phone; if I'd been in the room with them, all the testosterone might have caused me to grow my own set of balls. Aimee Levitt

JASON LITTLE
  • Jason Little

Irvine Welsh: You became an international superstar [after you were gored by a bull last year], didn't you?

Bill Hillmann: Oh, man, the Huffington Post got me real bad. When the article came out, the writer—because she found out I was a Buddhist—was like, "Bull delivered a tremendous force of karma when it gored him."

[Laughs.] You got a lot of guff from animal lovers.

Oh, yeah, man. I was like a poster boy, a dartboard for them.

What was their objection? It's not like bullfighting—you're not killing the bull, you're running away from it.

They just lump it all in with bullfighting. That's the problem: most PETA people and animal rights activists, they really know very little about animals. And especially they know nothing about Spain. It's ridiculous.

How do you feel about bullfighting as opposed to the running?

I'm a hunter. My whole family are hunters. Killing animals—as long as you're going to eat them, as long as there's a purpose to it, I don't object to it. You know, the bullfight is a ritual sacrifice, it's a very ancient art. I enjoy bullfights, I go every year. I can't really afford it, though. It's really expensive.

I seem to remember that I was looking for a bullfight somewhere, and you had said that they banned them from certain regions.

Yeah, Catalonia banned it, but they're thinking of repealing it.

You've been running with the bulls now for at least ten years now. Just after that, I got to know you, and you started saying that you met these Scottish guys down there. You always meet crazy Scottish guys doing crazy adventure things like that.

[Laughs] You'd fit right in, man!

I'd never get away from the bulls. They'd make mincemeat of me. I'd be the easiest snack they ever had. [Laughs.] You'd be digging me out of the cobblestones.

Have you always been up for adrenaline things like that?

Yeah, man, I was always a troubled kid and was always street fighting and stuff, so it was always just part of who I was. My whole family are construction workers, and that's a real dangerous job and a lot of adrenaline goes on with that kind of work. The adventure stuff has always been in my blood. And that's definitely something that drove me [to bull running]—the adventure of it.

After you've done something like that, how do you feel after? Do you have a rush and then a lull after it?

No. When things are going good, I have a buzz that lasts 24 hours a day for the whole time I'm there. I can't sleep, but I don't need any sleep. I feel stronger than I've ever felt, happier than I've ever felt. But when things go wrong, man, I fall apart. I lay in bed all day and avoid people and totally lose it.

I suppose the only thing I can correlate it to is when I was a journalist and went to war zones with UNICEF. I went to Darfur in western Sudan when the crisis there kicked off, and I went to southern Sudan before that with the Sudanese rebels. Going into a militarized war zone, you're quite protected as a journalist. It's a lot of bullshit, like, "I'm on the front lines and bullets are flying past my head" and all that. Then you've got 14-year-olds who've probably lost their families, seen their friends executed, and then some white fuckers like me come along—my ancestors carved up half of Africa and all these political divisions are there. And so you think someone's going to turn their guns on you, so you're on this sort of heightened level all the time. I did maybe three or four of those trips to those kind of zones, and coming back I didn't feel like I was really alive in the same way. Coming back was such a disappointment, because you're on this constant high. And it wasn't like a rush of adrenaline—it was just a constant level of a little bit more than you usually have, and your senses are just a little bit more keen. I can see that must be so hard for people that are in the military and people that are [embedded] journalists. You can see why they go back again and again. So that was an interesting experience for me, and when I got married my wife said, "You've got to stop all this shit now," because the more you do these things, the more chance you have of getting in trouble.

Absolutely.

You had been doing it a while before you got gored.

I've had so many close calls, though, man—dozens, maybe 20 or 30 times where I almost got gored and barely escaped.

Do you think it's because you stayed closer to the action than a lot of people would, you were a bit more reckless so you could get a bit more buzz?

Well, it's more than just the buzz. The whole purpose of it is to create an entierro, a moving enclosure around the herd made out of human bodies that's supposed to protect and guide the herd up the street. When you start to realize that's the purpose, you want to be as close to that as you can. The ultimate in an entierro is the guys who run in front of the bull. When you run in front of the bull, you link with the animal, and the animal links with you and will follow you anywhere you go. It's like this transcendent moment: a perfect wave, the summit at Everest. The bull accepts you as the leader of the pack.

Right, you've joined it in a sense. You're one of the gang. You're joining them in this communion with the animal.

It's really an act of compassion to run, because the bull doesn't know where it's going and you're supposed to be there to guide it and make it understand that all it has to do is run this path. When a bull separates like it did the day I got gored, all their herding instincts go away.

They're individuals then.

They look around and see everyone as predators, and they just go into kill mode. Kill and survive. If you're running with a pack and a bull decides to gore you, it's just going to gore you, toss you, and you're done—and it's going to keep running. But if a suelto [a lone bull] gores you, it's going to stay on you and gore you. That's what its instincts tell it to do: kill that animal. That was the situation when I got gored. I encountered a suelto while I and two veteran runners were leading a bull up the street, we ran into some guys and fell, and the bull was on me and that was it.

After the goring, I'm sitting in the hospital, and one by one all the greatest Spanish runners, the guys I look up to, they started coming to visit me in the hospital.

It's a real kind of a community. A few of them must've had injuries as well.

Oh, yeah. One of the best runners out there has been gored, like, seven times since I've been doing it. He's a genius runner. I've watched him save people's lives about five times. He's just a magician. But he got gored in the thigh in 2012. It's just part of the run. They've all been gored. One guy, one of the most famous—I had seen a documentary on him, and in it he says things like how in Pamplona you're in the best hands in the world to deal with goring. He came to the hospital and got real close to me—and my Spanish is horrible—and he says, line for line from the movie, "You're in the best hands. Don't leave. Stay here. These people are going to fix you."

You were sick and struggling for a while, but then—bang!—it was like nothing happened almost.

It was a pretty quick recovery. Once I started to forget to use the cane, I knew I was getting there.

The craziest thing that happened in all this is that I was getting all this flak from reporters all over the world—American, British, Australian—people who didn't know anything about the run. They were going out and telling everyone how stupid I am. At first, the Spanish were very positive toward me, saying he's a writer, he's this and that—they liked me. But as soon as that world story started to catch on and they became aware that a lot of people were making fun of me, the commentators in Spain started to make fun of me too.

So I'm sitting there in the hospital and they're interviewing this guy after the run and the newsperson started to make fun of me, and the guy goes, "Stop right now. Stop. I know Bill, and he's a good runner. He's one of the few runners who really feel it in his heart. He's a friend, and I won't let you talk about him like that." It was incredible. People came to the hospital to tell me about that interview.

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We became friends years and years ago. I came to share about books and writing, and you were a boxer—you were quite successful, you won the Golden Gloves in Chicago. Do you see any connection between boxing and writing?

I think they're incredibly intertwined. They're both such individual things. You gotta be self-motivated, you've got to be driven. At the same time, you have to be able to accept guidance from your trainer and cornerman. You have to be able to function with other people, and at the same time you have to be able to be incredibly individualistic. How about you?

I see the commonalities definitely, but the opposites also attract me. When you sit at a desk, you can just let your brain unspool and fly all over the place—your head's away and you don't really know where you are. When you're boxing, you've got to be really present in that moment or you're going to get punished. So to me, boxing is a great discipline. The Zen-like thing about writing is letting yourself explore your subconscious.

There's something too about the competition in boxing: to be a great boxer, you really have to master yourself and master your craft.

When you do a novel or a screenplay, you can be 80 percent there and think, This is really great. But it's that last 20 percent that makes it brilliant. I think both boxing and writing have that dynamic: it's easy to be good but it's very, very hard to be great. You have to go through some kind of pain to really get to that level.

In the great fights, guys have this sense of, I'm willing to die tonight. There's kind of that feeling with writing too, just because there are so many obstacles.

You sit in that room writing away forever, not knowing where you are. My wife will say, "You've not washed for days, and you're stinking. Go and have a shower. We've got people coming over for dinner. Talk to some real people." And I'll go downstairs and sit there and be basically unable to say anything. But I've gotten better at that because I do more boxing. It gets me into the moment.

It's great for that. The thing you were saying about boxing being a great opposite with writing—if I'm writing hours a day, I get so much coffee built up in my system that I'm twitching and dehydrated.

Just on a purely practical level, I would be such a huge, fat bastard if I didn't do boxing. You're just sitting at a desk.

The frustration and stress that comes with writing—when you're trying to figure something out or get something done, you build up this physical tension in your back, and then your back is all screwed up. Then you go into [the boxing gym] and you start hitting something, it's like, whoa! Your circulation starts, suddenly you're thirsty and you're drinking water, you're hydrated again.

When you find your rhythm with the bag, it's like when you've got something in your head and you're tapping the keys and not really thinking about it.

That's so true about the rhythm in boxing and the rhythm in writing—rhythm is really what wins the fight. You make the fight happen at your rhythm, you dictate.

For the writer, when you're in that kind of a rhythm and, you know, it's just popping out—that's good stuff.

That might be it, man—finding your rhythm. The first three weeks or so that I'm working on a project, it's hard to get into that rhythm, and I struggle and I get frustrated and all that.

I think you have to go through that because when you start off, it's very abstract. It's like you're trying to work out this puzzle and make the ground rules and set the structure and figure out what your objectives are. When you finally start to write, you've moved yourself into that zone, you've performed all the crappy stuff and you can get into the kind of fun part.

There's nothing more fun than turning pages out every day. If I could do that for the rest of my life, I would die very happy.

Me too, but you have to have that first part, the part where you're struggling. The best stuff you write comes from doing the work and wondering, I've got this thing, now what the fuck do I do with it? It's a different kind of work than boxing.

That's true. And it's the same thing with boxing. Whenever I'd get back into the gym and start sparring, I'd get the dog shit kicked out of me. I'd get a concussion or get my nose busted. I'd be thinking, I beat that guy three months ago, now he's kicking my ass. That sort of pain and ass whupping you need in the first couple times you spar.

It's motivation.

Yeah, you get so angry. I'd be walking around with a black eye and people would wonder what the fuck was wrong with me. And I'd be like, "I'm going to beat the fuck out of the next guy I spar with. I'm gonna get sharp." It would drive me.

It gets you to train harder.

To focus. When I look at the pages from the first couple weeks of the stuff I wrote, I'm embarrassed.

Yeah, but it's good. You gotta just get something out, then you make sense of it. It's almost like shitting out a fucking lump of clay and molding it.

I've learned from you: if you don't have fun when you're writing, then you shouldn't be a writer.

I think that's the difference between real writers and people who just want to do writing: you kind of have to do it but you also enjoy it.

Yeah, there's nothing more enjoyable than when you're in a rhythm and you're working on something big.

We were both sort of party guys. We were always getting fucked-up and getting into adventures and shenanigans and all that. We were both able to sort of cut that out now. Do you kind of miss those days?

Yeah, I miss 'em. I don't miss the next morning though. [Laughs.]

You never do, yeah. [Laughs.]

I miss them, but I thought that I wouldn't be able to hang out with my friends and have fun if I wasn't drinking. But I've had better times going to the fights and stuff.

The great thing about [sobriety] is that you don't talk shit and you don't get into trouble.

I definitely commit less crimes since I stopped drinking. [Laughs.] Man, as strange as it sounds, I think running with the bulls helped me get sober.

Well, it's not something you can do while you have a hangover.

Exactly! The party over in Spain is so insane it's really hard to stay sober over there.

So you've got a book coming out, which is all very good. What will you do next?

I want to do a one-man show. I got inspired by Tony Fitzpatrick's stuff he does over at Steppenwolf. He's got a body of work and he does a show about it. I want to do a show about the novel, The Old Neighborhood, and the memoir—meld the two together in a 40-minute show, maybe put some photos or video in and see what happens.

I used to love DJing, I just don't really have the time.

So what do you got going on right now?

I've got a new book [A Decent Ride] to come out next year that I'm working on. It's about a guy who gets into a lot of trouble and has no impulse control, basically. And he becomes more calculated—he's still a bad guy, but he's just more calculated. I'm doing a kind of Las Vegas kind of novel.

When is your Chicago novel going to happen?

I don't know! Chicago's got writers like you who understand the nuts and bolts of the city, so I feel kind of intimidated. I don't have the backstory like you have.

Maybe a story of an immigrant in Chicago getting into trouble.

Yeah, a drunken old Scot moving to Chicago—that would be a story. [Laughs.]

I would read it!

So are you going back to Spain this year?

Yes.

And you're going to run with the bulls?

Oh, yeah. I'm going to run on the horns every day. That's the term for when you're leading with the bull. I'm going to have a better year than ever. You watch.

You're crazy! [Laughs.] Be careful.

Yeah, I'll try, man.  v

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