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Penrose staffer one of three finalists in Amazon novel contest

Penrose Library staffer Gregory Hill is a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest.

If all goes well, Gregory Hill may soon be able to live the dream of every librarian who writes fiction on the side: ordering a copy of his own novel to put on the shelves.

Hill, 38, who has worked as a book-buyer at DU’s Penrose Library since 2002, is one of three finalists in the general fiction category of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. The winner, who will be announced June 13, will receive a publishing contract from Penguin Group, including a $15,000 advance.

Hill was one of thousands of writers who entered the contest for unpublished novels earlier this year. (The contest also has a young adult fiction category.) He survived three rounds of cuts to become one of 100 semifinalists before Penguin editors moved him to the final three. In a sort of literary version of “American Idol,” Amazon customers now have until June 1 to read excerpts from the finalists and vote for the winner.

According to a press release, Hill’s submission, East of Denver, “tells the story of Shakespeare Williams, who returns to his family’s farm in eastern Colorado to find his widowed, senile father living in squalor. Facing the loss of the farm, Shakespeare hatches a plot with his father and a motley crew of his former high school classmates to rob the local bank.” It’s the second novel he’s written, and an effort to improve on his first, which remains unpublished.

“I decided to start writing novels four or five years ago,” Hill says. “I wrote one, it was good, not great, totally impossible to describe, not marketable, then I decided the only way I was going to get another one out was to write another one. So I wrote this one with the idea of being able to describe it in one sentence: Kid moves back to the farm to help care for his senile father and tricks him into helping rob a bank.”

The story is based on Hill’s own past growing up in Joes, Colo. (called Dorsey, Colo., in the book), and his more recent experiences watching his father’s battle against Alzheimer’s disease.

“It was supposed to be a book about zombies, but then my dad got Alzheimer’s, so I wanted to write something about that,” says Hill, who has a degree in English literature from the University of Colorado. “There’s all these Alzheimer’s memoirs that are really sensitive and thoughtful, and I wanted to write something that wasn’t as sensitive or thoughtful about that disease. So I said ‘what can you do to make Alzheimer’s fun?’ I was like well, I’ll have the kid try to rob a bank with the old man.”

The book has drawn acclaim from Amazon readers and the contest judges, including author and Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman, who praised East of Denver for its dark humor.

“[Shakespeare] spends much of his time tinkering with machinery and chatting with his demented dad, and their conversations are the heart of the book,” Grossman writes in a review that appears on the contest website. “They’re a comedy duo, part Laurel and Hardy, part Vladimir and Estragon. Emmett’s mind wanders as they talk, to the point where you think he’s lost the thread completely, then all of a sudden he zeroes back in and whops Shakespeare with a massive punch line. There’s black despair underlying every word they say, but it never overwhelms the humor. … This is writing on a par with that of top-flight black-comic novelists like Sam Lipsyte and Jess Walter, and it deserves to be read.”

Hill and his wife — who incidentally play together in a Denver rock band called the Babysitters — will travel to Seattle in mid-June for the announcement of the winner. Hill says he has no expectations of victory, but he hopes that making it this far will increase the odds of his book getting published. He’s already heard from one agent as a result of having his work on the well-known bookselling site.

In fact, he seems so flabbergasted by his success in the Amazon contest that all he can do is joke about it.

“I’m at this spot simply because people have read the first chapter of the book,” he says. “Which means that when they read more of the book they’re going to realize how [bad] it is. Clearly somebody has screwed up.”

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