Owen Hill was born and raised in an industrial suburb of Los Angeles. He knocked around a fair bit-- baggage service at LAX, union rep, warehouse drone, janitor, “paid” political volunteer, ice cream maker—and other forms of boredom (as a poet said) advertised as poetry.
Landed in the Bay Area where he worked in several bookstores, finally settling into Moe’s in Berkeley as a buyer and events coordinator.
Had written poetry since puberty but had been shy about calling himself a poet. After taking a workshop with Tom Clark at UC extension he came to believe that poetry was his calling. He has since published seven slim volumes of poetry and read his poems at various venues around the country.
His first novel, The Chandler Apartments, was written in Berkeley, in the building so named. At the time he was convalescing from a life-threatening disease in the confines of The Chandler. The novel began as a satire, poking fun at the characters that inhabit the Bay Area poetry scene. It morphed into a murder mystery and became the first of the series featuring poet detective Clay Blackburn.
Currently in good health, he is working on the fourth Clay Blackburn mystery. The second, The Incredible Double, is just out from PM Press.
Most of the time, Clay Blackburn is your average, bisexual, book scout in Berkeley, but sometimes he’s a would-be private detective—without a license, gun, or even a business card. Despite his questionable qualifications, people still come to him for help, and he inevitably comes across more than his fair share of trouble.
In this latest adventure he searches for the fountain of youth, the myth of paradise, the pie in the sky—The Incredible Double. Fighting his way through corporate shills, Berkeley loonies, and CEO thugs, Clay struggles to understand the secret of The Double and discover the true meaning of life.
Joined by his three trusty but goofy sidekicks—best friend and lefty soldier of fortune Marvin, ex-FBI agent Bailey Dao, and smarmy but debonair Dino Centro—Clay confronts a host of bizarre characters, including drug casualty turned poet Loose Bruce, conspiracy theorist Larry Sasway, and Grace, the Tallulah Bankhead of Berkeley. Together—and sometimes not so together—they team up to foil Drugstore Wally, the CEO with an evil plan.
"Very well written, well paced, well time-lined and well-charactered. I chuckled seeing so many of my poetic acquaintances mentioned in the text."
-- Ed Sanders, poet, singer, author and founding member of The Fugs
"Owen Hill's breathless, sly and insouciant mystery novels are full of that rare Dawn Powel-ish essence: fictional gossip. I could imagine popping in and out of his sexy little Chandler building apartment a thousand times and never having the same cocktail buzz twice. Poets have all the fun, apparently." --Jonathan Lethem author of The Fortress of Solitude
"Guillaume Appollinaire and Edward Sanders would feast on this thriller of the real Berkeley and its transsexual CIA agents and doppelgangers staging Glock shoot-outs. A mystery of contingencies centering in the reeking Chandler Arms and the quicksand of Moe's Books."
"Is this Berkeley noir? I'd call it lustily readable. And such reading set me to thinking about tone and that to get it right is a a saintly gift (which Owen Hill has) of hearing and lavishly staying on one wiggly and implausible note throughout passages of poetic lore, pretty hot sex, action (of all things!) and multi-musings on "the life" of book writing, book selling and humbly accepting oneself as condemned to love the many leaves we turn with aimless passion before we ourselves rattle and blow away down these raunchy beloved streets."
--Eileen Myles, author of The Importance of Being Iceland
For a calendar of speaking events, please click here
This first appeard in Post Road, a magazine that comes out of Boston College: " I think crime fiction is almost like a product of capitalism. It's about social inequality." Ian Rankin If America ever sees a successor to Steinbeck (and we need one) I think he or she will come up through noir. What we call "literary fiction" can't seem to grapple with the silenced near-majority that makes up the underclass: the unemployed, the underemployed, the dirt poor. MFA infused journals, the New Yorker, and mainstream publishers mostly address the problems of the "middle class". The Indy presses, especially those with crime fiction lines, offer a tougher alternative to the soft focus "problems of the rich" aspect of mainstream fiction. If you want to read smart and you're willing to look around the scene is teeming with Steinbecks, Zolas, Dreisers... except that their work usually involves a murder. Although come to think of it those other guys dealt with murder, too. Maybe they were writing genre. My nomination for the Next Steinbeck award is Benjamin Whitmer. His first novel, Pike (PM Press, Oakland) is plenty tough, as you'd expect from noir. But it's more than that. He won't let us believe that his characters are losers. Beaten down, prone to quick violence, but not without dignity. Whitmer draws them with great heart and a lack of pretension. You won't exactly like these characters. Pike has a coiled snake quality, Wendy made me shudder with the depth of her anger, and they are surrounded by thieves and perverts. You will come to some understanding regarding them if you pay attention. And, forgive the word but there is a universal quality there-what they do to survive is what we all do, or will do when circumstances turn against us. All good crime writing must have a sense of place. Hammet's San Francisco, Chandler's LA, and so on. Whitmer brings us to the slums of Cincinnati. Neighborhoods like this don't get written about much anymore. Whitmer nails it with a painful elegance: The Long Drop Center is the first place you look when you go hunting for bums, especially if it's wintertime and the bum's a junky. So says Bogie. The staff makes a policy of not bothering to check the bathrooms when it's cold out. Unlike most of the other charitable spots in Cincinnati, they'd rather bums get high on their toilet than turn into an icicle in some alley. Grave, but precise and in its way, poetic. I can't imagine this appearing in a Review or a Quarterly. But, then, where would Steinbeck publish now? Perhaps in crime fiction magazines.
- working writing fighting
The Poetic Labor Project Presents : *** WORKING *** WRITING *** FIGHTING *** A Gathering on Labor, Art & Politics this Sunday, September 4, 1pm to 6pm at the Niebyl Proctor Marxist Library 6501 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA This labor day weekend, please join us for a convocation on the intersecting themes of writing, work and activism. Confirmed participants include : Brian Ang, Jasper Bernes, Lindsey Boldt, Chris Chen, Chris Daniels, Owen Hill, Tim Kreiner, Bill Luoma, Melissa Mack, Sean Manzano, Michael Nicoloff, Steve Orth, Margaret Rhee, Jill Richards, Wendy Trevino, Dana Ward, Brian Whitener, and Laura Woltag. We'll meet for presentations at 1pm, have several panels interspersed with breaks, take a break for dinner, and then those who wish can reconvene for a facilitated collective conversation on the day's themes. This event is free and open to the public. Please distribute this announcement as widely as you see fit. Any questions ? Write to David Brazil at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- on Clyfford Still
This first appeared in Try magazine. Thank you, David and Sara. I was between apartments and Simmons, a painter friend, knew another painter friend who had once dropped out of SFAI and had moved into a house in Santa Cruz, or actually out on the road to Felton. Simmons did what he jokingly called tchotchke art-gathering up trash and gluing it together. He'd gone to Davis and had lived in Humboldt-the kind of artist that drives a truck and listens to Merle Haggard. The SFAI dropout was a different sort, I'd been told. He was following his wife to Japan, some sort of residency. Had dropped out of art school after a row with a painting teacher. This was years ago, when people were more apt to let big ideas interrupt careers. We could live cheaply, then, and MFA's didn't mean as much. He did big paintings that I probably wouldn't get. Or so my De Forest/Wiley trained friend said, with a smirk. I didn't take that well. I knew a little about art. I read High Performance, I went to openings, saw student films... Do you get them, Simmons ? I get them. I just don't like them. I'm not saying you're stupid-but he came up through minimalism and most of the canvases are like that, although now he's taken things in a different direction. More content. But probably just colors to you . Anyway they need a cat sitter and they're partial to poets. If you don't get the work just pretend it's the wallpaper-that's not much of a stretch. I thought about arguing, but at that point I was playing Boswell to Simmons' Dr. Johnson. I let it go. He'd hooked me into a free place and all I had to do was feed a couple of cats. I was grateful. The house was pretty ramshackle. Getting the toilet to flush was a real project, and the water was hot and then cold at minute intervals. The cats ran with raccoons and other small mammals-everybody used the cat door and shared the food bowl. The painter's wife did something with performance-pieces of costume were everywhere, things that were probably used as props, in that performance-artist/theater way. A kind of friendly squalor covered the floors and hid in the corners. But the walls! You entered through a side door, the kitchen. No art there-then, around through the living area, the minimalist stuff. Gray-blue, big-the thing (I learned, looking for hours) about minimalist canvases is that they are always changing, not just with the light but with changes in mood, or whatever feeds perception. That speck becomes a bird, becomes a big idea, becomes...until there's this constant state of becoming, and then not, and back again. I'd play at naming the things that I "saw", as a writer that came natural. And then, a state beyond naming. The paintings allowed me to go there-they had this openness. There were a couple of bedrooms. No Studio. I don't know where he painted. The bedrooms had what I assumed was the newer stuff. He'd changed, completely. He was taking control. Through jagged lines and dramatic changes in color he pushed my brain where he wanted it to go. I never got to know him, have run into him a few times through the years, but amateur psychology is impossible to avoid here. He was in his thirties, pushing forty, and he wanted control-wanted to lay down the law. The bedroom paintings possibly weren't as good, but I found, to my surprise at the time, that I was more drawn to them. Surprised, because at the time I thought of myself as leaning in some vaguely Zen direction-and here I was drawn to the more "western"-in that awful west coast pop usage of the word-type of art. Not so much balance-a knife fight! And I wanted to see more art like that, but even more dramatic-and the best of it. If you're going to free the doors from their jambs, I thought (had been reading Whitman), you have to push, pull, and kick...hard. 2. The old SFMOMA on Van Ness was a strange-ass building for an art museum-galleries that looked like hallways, weird little side rooms, and that huge light filled center that was too big for just about everything. I loved it-so obviously inappropriate, but dramatic, and the shows were great. This particular visit we were going to look at the Manuel Neri that they had in the stairwell-no, really. It was just there on a landing, where nobody looked. A painted torso, pretty indicative of his work, which is to say, exquisite. I told Simmons that I wanted to look at something big, dramatic and abstract. Well you know the players. But the best stuff's in New York, except for the Stills. They gave Still a room, off to the side, kind of on the way to the cafeteria. Bench in the middle, not too many paintings. And it was like a Sistine Chapel-that same catch in the breath and a dizziness. When I walk into places like that I'm so grateful to be an atheist. Because, once free of theological baggage you clearly see the coupling of imagination and action that makes the work bigger than the one. From the artist, out... 3. Frank O'Hara called him a force of nature. There's that ambivalence that comes out of the "artist as force of nature" idea. Oh, come off it...but then, how do you work big? You kind of have to think of yourself as big, too-involved in that struggle for immortality. Especially embarrassing, in these self-consciously unpretentious times. I admit that I hate that the paintings aren't really titled. I'm a writer, I want a clue in words. I understand-the Grand Canyon didn't name itself. But I'm bothered by it, and begin each looking "session" trying to name and describe before succumbing to awe. I guess I'm in love with them ("I think I am in love with painting") and the struggle is part of that. I look at those paintings and they beat me up-or I fight them, fight even appreciating them, fucking jags of color. There's a real abyss there, Grand Canyon sized drop-but also the possibility of flight. Reading interviews with Still-kind of opaque. Not much patience with other artists-their lack of integrity. But knew he was one of the great ones, so, here it is, take it or not. Makes me think that great art is always somewhere out beyond caring. The ocean does not mean to be listened to, as the poet said. Difficult paintings , overwhelming, and cruel sometimes, but not stingy. Singular and great-is anybody doing that, now?
- Union Steward (conclusion)
I was in the yard playing with the dog when the phone rang in the kitchen. I ran in to catch it-this was pre answering machine. It was Ernie, sounding a little nervous. First the good news-the Op Manager had been fired. Then-and I'll never know how this was worked out-- he said that my back pay would include severance pay, but that I really wasn't being fired, I could just call it a leave of absence and after a year or so I should call him and he'd fix me up with something. "Finish school, travel, have fun. Hell, you're not even twenty-one yet. Why work full time?" I decided in a second that I'd had it with the airlines. I must have been mad at Ernie but that's not what I remember most-I remember feeling relief, and a funny kind of pride. I'd been blacklisted. A real revolutionary! I decided to drop out of school and travel until the money ran out. My last act as a lame duck was to call people and strongly suggest that my friend the Brit anarchist be elected the next steward. She was, and she raised hell, from what I heard. The crew threw a nice goodbye party for me and I was presented with something that I kept for years-God, I wish I could find it now. Why didn't I frame it? Someone in middle management-I think I know who, but she never copped to it-had broken into the personnel files and found my application for employment. Scrawled across the front, in red letters: DO NOT REHIRE! UNION TROUBLEMAKER!
- Union Steward (part five)
The airlines seemed intent on firing my co-worker. Things went back and forth for a week or so. When the Airlines agreed to allow a grievance hearing I thought we had them on their knees. We still didn't have a contract, but management had agreed to negotiate and things seemed to be moving. Raises were coming soon, we were assured. The crew was happy-morale was high. I remember some great parties during that period. We met with Ernie and the lawyer at a Marriot in Century City. Went over strategy-that the clocking in rule was a form of intimidation and that employees tried in good faith to show up on time. I was to argue the case but Ernie and the lawyer would be there to watch my back. Were they grooming me, or throwing me to the wolves? I'll never decide. The rules regarding the grievance process are pretty ambiguous, at least with regard to transportation workers. Common sense would call for an arbiter, or at least a referee. This was backroom stuff-a couple of union reps, management, the accused, maybe a witness. No rules of order-you scream it out. And management makes the final decision, or at least they did at that point since we had no contract. I blew up when Ernie sketched out the "rules" a few minutes before the meeting, but I calmed down. What could I do? The accused just shook his head, leaned over to me, said, "I'm getting out of this bloody fucking country". That ride out from the terminal to the office in the blue and white tram then into a conference room that seemed too big for the occasion. We waited, then someone came in and said that the plans had been changed and that the meeting would be in Mr. Harlen's office. Down a hall and up one flight of stairs. Big window facing the Pacific. The beach, the ocean, big planes heading off toward Asia. Very nice. We waited awhile-such an obvious strategy but the obviousness makes it more effective. Something like, "this guy is fucking with me because he can." And the psych worked on me-I remember thinking, "we're dead". But Ernie chuckled and smiled that horizontal smile, said, "this is so fucking bush league". Harlen came in looking like The President of the United States. I'd never seen an expensive suit close up but I knew he was wearing one. Tall, with graying temples. A Skycap had told me that he was once a ticket agent and that he'd worked his way up the ladder. I've learned since that they're the worst kind. Scab mentality. Think and grow rich, win friends and influence people. We all shook hands. I caught an eye roll from my defendant. I mapped out my case and made my argument. Ernie backed me up but it seemed that his heart wasn't in it. Harlen didn't present any kind of argument. There was lots of sage-like nodding, ahems and uh-hums. At times he'd look out the window and nod, or follow the flight of a 747. I wanted to ask him what he was thinking but I didn't, I just kept talking. First, I tried to show that a superhuman attempt was made to comply with the rules. I asked the accused a few questions, got the answers I expected, but there was no attempt to cross-examine, or whatever you'd call it in this situation. Then I questioned the rule itself. Harlen leaned forward, slowly, half-smiled, said, "but we make the rules Mr. Hill." I got a blank look from Ernie. Instinctively I put a hand on my comrade's shoulder. I figured he'd blow soon. But he didn't. We'd been hung out to dry. I quickly reached that kind of anger where you feel steely and calm. This must be where people start shooting, I thought. Harlen straight at me, said, "Do you think I'm wrong, Mr. Hill?" and I felt, still feel, the ramifications. Morally wrong, destructive, evil, but correct in his statement. They made the rules. But I looked back at him, said, "yes, you're wrong" and started a speech. Ernie cut me off with a look that could kill. Harlen said he'd "reach his decision" in a day or two. The tram was usually a quiet place. I mean, it was noisy on the runway but people didn't talk much. They were on their way to or from work, that funny transitional time. Lean back, rest your head against the window and enjoy a few minutes of freedom . We probably made that tram pretty uncomfortable for the others-yelling at Ernie Mogg. A double tirade-me calling him a trader and my friend bringing Kropotkin into the fight. Ernie waited it out, rope-a-doping us until we were out of insults. The word that seemed to wake him up was "scab." I don't remember who said it. He shook his head. No. He was big to begin with and he seemed to get bigger, and the lawyer, who had been playing the "I don't know these people" game, joined the fray. They'd both been through hell for the union, really, and they lets us know it. Lost jobs and fistfights and jail time. The phrase I remember is "this is how we survive". They hated the game too but they knew how to play, and if we'd just shut up and listen... A few days later Ernie called me at home. "Harlen's going to tell you that nobody will be fired over the rule, that he'd ease up on it. There will be a two week suspension without pay. When you talk to him, thank him. " And he hung up. The call came and I did what I was told. My friend went back to England but his sister stayed on. She said she liked the states despite the sorry politics. Contract negotiations dragged on for months but the intimidation eased off. Ernie would call occasionally and asked what I thought of this or that point. Mostly I agreed with him-happily surprised by some of the accommodations. They hadn't gotten around to flight benefits but the proposed raise was substantial, also more sick and vacation pay and a more structured grievance procedure. Finally I got the call that a contract could be signed. The union rented a large suite at the Marriot, really swank, and called staggered meetings so that the whole crew could show. I was given a sick day to stay all day. The contract was good, solid. It included back pay dating from the day we signed our cards. The flight discounts were small and hard to obtain. Still everybody, even the "scabs", voted yes. Money talks.
- An Interview with Owen Hill: Mary Magazine
- Audio Interview: Judy Jones Show
- Hardboiled for Hard Times- Crime in the City panel with Owen Hill, Barry Eisler, Summer Brenner and Michael Harris, October 20, 2010
- Book Review - The Incredible Double: Los Angeles Times
- Owen Hill's The Incredible Double: Professor of Pop
- Hill, Brenner Read at Moe's: Berkeley Daily Planet
- The Southside Sleuth: East Bay Express
An Interview with Owen Hill
By Kevin O'Neill
The Incredible Double is full of humor, but also manages to highlight stark and uncomfortable realities. Hill is concerned with giving his reader a spectrum of experience—from distraction and sheer pleasure, to absurd but cutting satire—all in the service of a compelling mystery, because at its heart, that is what The Incredible Double is: a well told mystery. As for the novel’s humor, Hill says his taste for satire comes from a desire to “hold up the mirror” to the world he sees each day as a Berkeley-based poet and novelist. Appropriately, Owen and I met at a coffee house fifty feet from Berkeley’s border. Sitting outside, amidst foot traffic and exhaust from passing cars, we talked about his approach to fiction and poetry, his most recent novel, and his belief in the left’s need for a Clint Eastwood type.
Book Review - The Incredible Double
By David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times
January 20, 2010
"The Incredible Double" is the second Blackburn mystery (the first was 2002's "The Chandler Apartments"), but to categorize it as a work of genre fiction is to miss the point. Rather it is a work of fiction that plays with genre, that slyly tips its hat to the conventions of the hard-boiled tradition even as it uses them to its own ends.
Like many great detectives, Clay likes to mix it up in the bedroom, although as opposed to Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, he's not straight but bi. And like many great detectives, he also has a sidekick, "an old lefty, and very active," who tells Clay that he's "rooting for the killer" when he discovers the nature of the job. "The guy's a pig," he says of Jerry Wally. "Undercuts the competition, beats the unions. Middle America loves him, though. He's been born again, and he gives 'em cheap Twinkies."
Owen Hill's The Incredible Double
The Professor of Pop
October 16, 2009
Owen Hill's first novel, The Chandler Apartments, was a page-turner, read literally in one frenzied Saturday morning. Declaration of (minor) interest: Owen is a friend of a friend (& once kindly gave me discount @ Moe's but don't tell anyone that.)
Here's the opening para from his new novel The Incredible Double, words that will draw you in like a punter to a strip club -- ok then problem drinker to a dive bar -- if you read them aloud:
Hill, Brenner Read at Moe's
By Ken Bullock
The Berkeley Daily Planet
June 11, 2009
Owen Hill, longtime bookseller at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue, will read from his new humorous detective novel about the Berkeley adventures of Clay Blackburn, book scout and private eye, The Incredible Double (P.M. Press), for the reading series he established and continues to run at Moe’s. Summer Brenner will also read from her latest, I-5: A Novel of Crime, Transport, and Sex.
“Summer and I read together on tour,” Hill said, “Five readings in New York City. We come off as a team. She writes hardhitting noir; mine’s full of jokes.”
Hill’s detective fiction comes from the building he lives in, around the corner from Moe’s, on Dwight Way, the Chandler Apartments, also the title of his first novel, published in 2002 and now out of print...
The Southside Sleuth: Berkeley Eccentrics Animate Owen Hill's Mysteries
By Anneli Rufus
East Bay Express
June 9, 2009
Clay Blackburn gets to prowl around strangers' houses and peek into their lives. He does this under the auspices of not just one but two different occupations: Blackburn, the bisexual Berkeley-based protagonist in a series of mysteries by poet/novelist Owen Hill, is a book scout: That is, he browses yard sales, estate sales, and other venues seeking secondhand volumes that he can sell for a profit. But he's also a private eye: very private, in that "I barely qualify. I don't have a license, don't carry a gun," Blackburn muses when about to meet a prospective client at the start of Hill's latest book, The Incredible Double. Books are his main gig. "But sometimes I take these jobs."
Against the Weather. Santa Cruz: Blue Press, 2008.
The Chandler Apartments. Berkeley: Creative Arts, 2002.
From Rolling Rock, Out. Colorado Springs: Angry Dog Midget Editions, 2002.
The Incredible Double. Oakland: PM Press, 2009.
Loose Ends. San Francisco: Thumbscrew Press, 1996.
Migraine Auras. Palo Alto: Gas Editions, 1996.
Hill, Owen and Richard Retecki. Quasi Erotic Poems/The Rainbow Dance Studio. Norton Coker Press, 1996.
The Selected Poems of George Sanders. San Francisco: Angry Dog Press, 1992.
Smile. Oakland: Words & Pictures Press, 1987.
Songs. Berkeley: Self published, 1999.