So, you’re an author, a journalist and a bull runner. Did reading Ernest Hemingway have anything to do with these life choices?
Hemingway has everything to do with those choices. I hadn’t read a book until I was 19. I took Professor David McGrath’s Hemingway class at College of DuPage and it changed my life. I sat down in the library with The Sun Also Rises and read it in one six-hour sitting. That experience made me want to be a writer and want to go to Pamplona and run bulls. When I want something, it usually happens, eventually.
Is it true that your first year in Pamplona, you slept underneath the statue of Hemingway?
I thought I’d be able to find a place to stay in Pamplona, which is very foolish. I of course ended up sleeping on the street. Pamplona is in the mountains so it gets really cold at night. I found the curved stone slope at the foot of the Hemingway statue a comfy bed. The police would smack my foot with their night stick in the morning to wake me up for the run. Who needs an alarm clock when you sleep near the portable police office?
But then, in 2014, you were gored. What did THAT feel like?
I felt a tiny pin prick, then a vast universe of nothing. The bull lifted me which was an astonishingly graceful experience. Then when he gored me the second time I again felt nothing but when the horn was still inside me he seethed viscously and I felt his horn resonate inside my leg.
Is it true that after the goring, you got notes from PETA activists telling you they wished you’d died?
Hundreds of death wishes and other terrible things that really made me angry, but now I look back on it and think, hey, my leg healed but those people? They’re still despicable human beings with tremendous hatred in their hearts and I actually feel sorry for them.
Do you really hate animals? And if not, why do you participate in this torture?
I don’t, actually. I love animals. My wife and I treat our lap dog Puggles as if she was our beloved baby. If you’re referencing bull running as torture, you couldn’t be further from the truth. Bull running when done correctly is an act of compassion. Our purpose as runners on the street is to serve as the animals’ guides along the path. Mozos, the title of my book, is a nickname for bull runners—it also translates to “servants.” That’s what I am; I’m a servant to the Toro Bravo.
What is a Toro Bravo?! That sounds like a fancy car name or something.
A Toro Bravo is what the English-speaking world calls a Spanish Fighting Bull.
In your memoir you establish yourself as a wasted ex-Golden Gloves champion with tendencies toward violence and terrible relationships with women. Does that pretty much sum you up as a person?
It definitely sums me up when I was in my early twenties. I was a pretty bad and broken person. This memoir is about how my life transformed over the past ten years since I started running with the bulls. How I became a mentally stable, happily married guy who tries very hard to defuse his violent nature. It’s about how the running of the bulls changed my life and helped me find happiness and opened the door me make my dreams come true.
And what is this photo I’ve seen of you clutching some unconscious Mexican and running around the stadium?
Are you talking about Jon Jeronimo Mendoza and the horrific Monton of 2013?
Yes, I think so. Something like that. I used Google Translate.
Well there was a terrible pile up of people in tunnel to the arena that year. Over one hundred people crushed on top of each other. The bulls crashed into the pile up and trampled through it. Several people at the bottom of the pile where crushed to near death. I was there and tried to help. Another runner and I dragged Mendoza away and then a group of us carried him into the surgery room. He was dying in our hands. We got him there first and it was very lucky that we got him there first because he was the most gravely injured runner of all that day. He had only a few seconds left to get oxygen before it was too late and he would have been brain dead. He slipped into a coma but then, after over a day on life support, he miraculously woke up and survived. It is a day that has stayed with me ever since and a reminder why I should always run in Pamplona, if I am capable, because something terrible might happen and someone might need help.
So you’re going back to Pamplona to run with the bulls this year?
Yes. I never once questioned if I would go back. Even when I thought I might die I still knew if I lived I would run again. I love Fiesta. I have a great band of new friends in Pamplona. The people of Pamplona are the most noble and beautiful people I have ever had the honor to know. I can’t wait to get back to Pamplona.
BILL HILLMANN is the author of Mozos: A Decade Running with the Bulls of Spain (June 16, 2015, Curbside Splendor). He has covered the San Fermin/Pamplona Fiesta for Esquire, Outside Magazine and National Public Radio (for which he won the Edward R. Murrow Award) and his commentary on bull running has been featured on the Today show, CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose, and many other programs. In 2014, during a Pamplona bull run, he survived a near-fatal goring which made headlines worldwide. His fiction debut, The Old Neighborhood, was named Best Novel of 2014 by the Chicago Sun-Times and received rave reviews from Booklist, Chicago Tribune, and The Week. Hillmann is a former Chicago Golden Gloves champion. He lives in Chicago where he works as a Local 2 union construction laborer.