Be open. Let your mind wander. It is when we allow ourselves to be susceptible to the universe that our destinies are revealed.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Homer H. Hickam, Jr.
Homer H. Hickam, Jr. was born on February 19, 1943, the second son of Homer and Elsie Hickam, and was raised in Coalwood, West Virginia. He graduated from Big Creek High School in 1960 and from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech) in 1964 with a BS degree in Industrial Engineering.
A U.S. Army veteran, Mr. Hickam served as a First Lieutenant in the Fourth Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1967–1968 where he won the Army Commendation and Bronze Star medals. He served six years on active duty, leaving the service with the rank of Captain.
Hickam’s first book was Torpedo Junction about the battle against the U-boats along the American east coast during World War II. A military history best-seller, it was published in 1989 by the Naval Institute Press. In 1998, Delacorte Press published Hickam’s second book, Rocket Boys: A Memoir, the story of his life in the little town of Coalwood. It became an instant classic. Rocket Boyshas since been translated into many languages and also released as an audio book and electronic book. In February 1999, Universal Studios released its critically-acclaimed film October Sky, based on Rocket Boys(The title October Sky is an anagram of Rocket Boys). Delacorte subsequently released a mass market paperback of Rocket Boys, re-titled October Sky. October Skyreached the New York Times # 1 position on their best-seller list.
Mr. Hickam has since had a very successful writing career with many best-sellers including Back to the Moon, The Coalwood Way, The Keeper’s Son, and Carrying Albert Home.
Mr. Hickam was also employed as an engineer for the U.S. Army Missile Command and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).He has received many literary awards and honors. Among them are the prestigious University of Alabama’s Clarence Cason Award and the Appalachian Heritage Writer’s Award for his memoirs and fiction. He also received an honorary Doctorate of Literature from Marshall University’
Mr. Hickam is married to Linda Terry Hickam, an artist and his first editor and assistant. They love their cats and share their time between homes in Alabama and St. John, US Virgin Islands.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” about how you grew up?
Glad to be here. I was raised in the little coal camp of Coalwood, West Virginia. My birth came on a snowy night in February 1943 when my mom insisted, I be born in a hospital. When my dad refused to drive her across two ice-covered mountains, she recruited a friend who took her slipping and sliding the entire way. Although Dad was not there when I first appeared, Mom named me after him, anyway. Some folks said she did it out of revenge. I don’t know. Both of them loved me dearly, at least as best they could considering what I turned out to be which was a nerdy little fellow everybody called “Sonny” and eventually the “Rocket Boy” since I decided in high school I would build rockets and launch them across the mountains that surrounded us. By then, my dad was superintendent of the coal mine and my mom had become something of an artist, painting beach pictures on her kitchen wall as a means of escape from the harsh life of Coalwood. Personally, I liked it there. My older brother and I along with our friends played in the mountains and became hearty and healthy. We were, however, aware that our fathers worked in a dangerous place underground. Over the years, many of them were injured or killed. That’s why there was always a certain melancholy about life
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or change your life?
Not one book but many. My parents were avid readers and had bookcases filled with books at home. After Mom taught me to read when I was four years old, I constantly pawed my way through their stacks of books and read anything that looked interesting. Our teachers at the Coalwood school also encouraged reading. We started with the Bobbsey Twins, then graduated to The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn. I nearly always had a book or two checked out of the school library. I read The Great Gatsby in the second grade but didn’t much like it. Mom told me I would understand it better later in life and she was right. Faulkner fell into that category as well although I found anything by Steinbeck as very accessible to me even as a child. When I was in the third grade, our teacher told us to write a short story. I wrote about a boy in ancient Rome and the teacher liked it enough she told me that maybe when I grew up, I could make a living as a writer. I thought to myself, “Why wait? I could use the money now!” This caused me to start my own newspaper which was somewhat successful until I wrote a story about my mom falling down in the creek. After that, she took my First Amendment rights away.
What was the moment or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world?
After I left Coalwood and went out into the world, it gradually dawned on me that I had grown up in a unique place filled with a very interesting people. After Torpedo Junction was published, I became busy with my work at NASA but still worked on the side as a free-lance writer for a number of publications including Smithsonian Air & Space magazine. When its editor asked for a short piece, I decided that I could at last write about Coalwood by wrapping around it the story of when I was a Rocket Boy. Titled The Big Creek Missile Agency, the article was a huge success with the magazine’s readership, enough that I started getting queries from publishers and Hollywood producers wanting to know if I was going to write a book based on my article. My reply was, “I am now!”
What impact did you hope to make when you wrote this book?
My purpose in writing Rocket Boys (aka October Sky) was to bring alive once more the town of Coalwood and its people by using the story of me and the other Rocket Boys as the strongest thread to pull my readers along.
Did the actual results align with your expectations?
I was surprised when the initial reviewers saw the memoir as something different and much larger than I did. They saw it as an inspirational tale that showed, through the many defeats but ultimate success of the Rocket Boys, that any great goal is possible if one is willing to stand up and work hard enough to attain it.
What moment let you know that your book had started a movement?
As soon as the book was published, I was overwhelmed by the mail that came flooding my way from readers praising what I had written and letting me know the book had inspired them to go after their goals and never give up until they succeeded. When the movie based on the book came out, the flood became a tsunami. Over the twenty years since, the mail continues to come in the form of snail mail, email, and public media forums letting me know how the book has affected readers and their families.
What kinds of things did you hear right away from readers? What are the most frequent things you hear from readers about your book now? Are they the same? Different?
Besides those readers who said they’d been inspired to succeed, I also began to receive many messages from men and women of my generation telling me they had similar experiences with their parents, especially their fathers who came out of the Depression and World War II and expected a great deal out of their children. These were invariably tough men who rarely expressed affection for their children. One letter I received said, “My dad never told me he loved me but your book has given me unexpected insight about that. I just want you to know I’m going to tell him I love him whether he likes it or not!” I also hear from many engineers and scientists who tell me they decided to go into their professions after reading my book. I didn’t expect that at all. There is another movement that started as a result of the book and the movie and that is the number of people who have gotten involved in model/amateur rocketry. This hobby has expanded many-fold and some of the amateurs have moved professionally into the rocket/space field.
What is the most moving or fulfilling experience you’ve had as a result of writing this book?
Because of Rocket Boys/October Sky, Coalwood itself experienced something of a rebirth, at least for a while. For thirteen years after the memoir’s publication, the few people left in the town held an October Sky Festival and I attended each one, allowing me to savor being back in my old hometown with friends and family while also helping its people raise much-needed financial assistance. After the people there could no longer support the festival, the larger town of near-by Beckley picked up the challenge and have held a Rocket Boys Festival each year since. I am always inspired by the men, women, and children of the coalfields of West Virginia who come to the festival and allow me to meet them and hear about their hopes and dreams for a better future.
Have you experienced anything negative? Do you feel there are drawbacks to writing a book that starts such colossal conversation and change?
The primary drawback of Rocket Boys/October Sky was the book and especially the movie seared in the minds of many people that I am principally a NASA scientist even though for the last two decades I have been fully engaged in a career of writing both fiction and nonfiction. As an example, I wrote a well-received trilogy of novels set during World War II but when I was on book tour, most of the questions that came my way were about Rocket Boys/October Sky or about NASA. That can tend to be frustrating but I work hard never to show it.
Can you articulate why you think books, in particular, have the power to create movements, revolutions, and true change?
Reading is an active pursuit with the mind involved so as to create pictures of the people and actions described on the printed pages, or to take the ideas expressed and allow them to bump up against our beliefs and modify our very thought patterns and how we feel about anything and everything. In contrast, movies are generally received passively while we are at rest. Only a little thought is required to take in scene after scene on the screen and although we may experience emotion while watching, it is generally not the kind that is retained for long. This is why films rarely change us the way that books do. The occasional film, however, can break through in a powerful way and October Sky is definitely one of them.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer?
My writing habit is to constantly rewrite, revise, and restructure as I go along even while plowing ahead. This may seem a dichotomy but it’s just the way I do it. As I write on, fully knowing it isn’t my best work but needing to get it down and the story moved ahead, I am thinking about what I’ve already written and how to make it better. Some days, I spend entirely rewriting up to the point where I stopped the day before. Other days, I push ahead. It creates kind of a push-pull to the process that works for me. It can stress my wife, however, when she asks what chapter I’m on a few days before the manuscript is due and I reply, “Chapter One.” One of the reasons I think readers like my work is that I won’t let it go until I am fully satisfied with it, that it is structured so the reader will want to turn the pages to see what is going to happen, and that the characters I write about are interesting enough that folks enjoy spending their valuable time getting to know them.
What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career?
It is always hurtful when a book doesn’t do as well as my publisher and I hoped and even expected it would. I have a few of these. When I go back and re-read them, it is with some sadness that they didn’t find their audience, or at least a large enough audience per our expectations. It is like having a child who was once full of potential but became a failure even though trying very hard. You still love them but when you see or think about them, your heart can’t help but ache a little. I don’t know if there’s a lesson there other than it’s OK to
love all your books but don’t let any of them hold you back from writing the next one with all the passion in your heart and soul.
Many aspiring authors would love to make an impact similar to what you have done. What are the 5 things writers needs to know if they want to spark a movement with a book?
1) To be a good writer, you have to be a good reader, especially in the genre you want to work within. For example, if you want to be a romance writer, read every romance you can until you understand what makes that genre tick.
2) When you are reading something you enjoy, stop for a moment and ask yourself why. Take a moment to dissect the writer’s technique and learn how and why his/her work is effective.
3) Write something interesting, tell a good story, and put passion in your work. What will grow from that only time and readership can tell but it might spark something greater than expected.
4) Don’t get hung up on your first book, reworking it over and over for years and years. It’s usually the second or third book that truly makes a writer’s career because he’s learned so much from writing the one(s) that didn’t work.
5) Be open. Let your mind wander. It is when we allow ourselves to be susceptible to the universe that our destinies are revealed.
The world, of course, needs progress in many areas. What movement do you hope someone (or you!) starts next?
I am at the stage in my career that I just want to tell a good story with interesting characters that might also have a moral or philosophy or two hidden away for my readers to discover. The movement started by Rocket Boys/October Sky — that anyone can succeed if they have the passion to do so — just keeps growing and growing. There is little I can do at this point to enhance that except to be gratified that I was given the talent to accomplish the work by my maker and further encouraged by my parents, my teachers, and the people of Coalwood.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I am on Facebook (two places: Homer Hickam and also the Homer Hickam Official Page) and Twitter (@realhomerhickam).
I also maintain a website, www.homerhickam.com.
Thank you so much for these insights. It was a true pleasure to do this with you.
My pleasure as well.