This interview and set of questions asked by particpants in a week-long forum was done on EBook.Net in June, 2000.
This also resulted in a month long electronic bookclub being formed to read and discuss ROCKET BOYS together.
Q&A with Homer Hickam, author of Back to the Moon and Rocket Boys June 19, 2000
Q: Wade Roush, EBook.Net Interviewer: When did you first begin writing? What drew you to writing?
A: My first "published" writing began in the third grade. I wrote short stories and my teacher mimeographed them and distributed them throughout the Coalwood school which went all the way to the ninth grade. I had a fan base even back then who were waiting for my next work. My teacher then told me someday I'd make my living as a writer. She proved to be absolutely correct! I'm certain I liked to write because I also liked to read. I learned to read before I started school and I knew from the beginning it was just the thing for me!
Q: What are some things that you do to prepare for writing?
A: One of the things I do is exercise and, for the most part, that means running. I find that it relaxes me and I also come up with some great ideas while I'm out on the road. Writing, however, mostly requires discipline, a willingness to sit down at the word processor and work for hours to craft as perfect a story as possible, one that will grab the reader from the beginning and hold on.
Q: I would imagine that memoir writing can be a very difficult, sometimes even uncomfortable experience, considering the memoirist aims to tell about the details of real happenings and past experiences instead of fictionalizing them. Did you find that during the writing of Rocket Boys you were exposing too much of yourself or possibly not enough?
A: Well, it is a delicate balance. My job as a writer, whether of a memoir or anything else, is to find truth and make it interesting to the reader. I never, ever forget my readers. They want and deserve a good read and I work as hard as I can to give them one. I don't worry too much about exposing myself in my memoirs. It's the other people I write about that concern me. I have a responsibility to see things through their eyes as well as my own. That means I have to try to get into their heads and that can be difficult. I never, ever interview anyone for my memoirs. Everything must be entirely through my filter, according to my memory. That's what a memoir is all about! So far, perhaps through sheer luck, I've had no complaints from anyone I wrote about in my books.
Q: You seem to be first and foremost a memoir writer/historical writer. With Back to the Moon you took a stab at fiction; how did you like it?
A: Writing fiction comes easily to me. In the future, I hope to avoid being placed into any particular genre. In fact, I want to keep surprising my readership with new and different kinds of writing and subjects. I have a big backlog. For instance, I would like to write a novel based on the research I did for Torpedo Junction, my first book. Torpedo Junction was the true story of a lonely Coast Guard cutter fighting the U-boats off the American east coast during World War II. In the novel I have in mind, I want to write about the skipper of a similar cutter and his wife left back on shore. Also, I've had quite a few fans write and ask if I would do something more with Jack and Penny, my characters in Back to the Moon. I just might! The Coalwood Way, a continuation of my Rocket Boys memoir, will be out this fall. I call it an "equal," rather than a sequel in that it's a story within the Rocket Boys / October Sky story. I will shortly deliver another memoir that continues the story of my life in Coalwood, specifically the summer after I started college when I worked in the coal mine! It should be published sometime in 2001. I also have a Vietnam novel partially written, based on my experiences during the war but fictionalized. So many fans have asked for a memoir on my work at NASA, I am contemplating one combined with other adventures in my life such as some of the riotous things that happened while I was a scuba instructor. I also want to write a big scuba diving novel. There seems to be more things to write about than I possibly can do but, somehow, I plan on doing it!
Q: In the novel, Jack's grief drives him to take some pretty outrageous risks. Would you be willing to try to get to the Moon the way he did?
A: There are better ways to go back to the moon, of course, than refitting a space shuttle in orbit. Jack Medaris, however, has little time and is also driven by demons that I, fortunately, don't have. For one thing, there is something on the moon that he believes will allow him, for at least a moment, to reconnect with Kate, his beloved, who was killed in a rocket engine test accident. He will do almost anything to make that happen. Jack also have a love/hate relationship with NASA. He chooses to reconfigure the shuttle for his trip to the moon in such a way that he has to first nearly destroy it. His dumping of the shuttle mains is a bit of an allegory, his way of putting the stodgy bureaucracy called NASA behind him and striking out on his own. Taking a space shuttle to the moon is not a fantasy, however. Rockwell, the company that built the shuttles, worked up a design of such a mission back in the early 1980's. I don't use their method, which called for refueling of the shuttle in orbit, but I do use some of their analyses of masses, thrust requirements, etc.
Q: Is Jack's character based on anyone you know (or on a combination of people you know)?
A: Some friends of mine claim to see a lot of me in Jack. I didn't deliberately set out to do that and I don't much agree with it. It is true, however, that we're both passionate in our belief that we need to go back to the moon. Jack certainly embodies characteristics of many engineers I've known who work for the space agency. Beneath those plastic pocket protectors beat hearts filled with passion and fire!
Q: Back to the Moon is fairly critical of NASA. Assuming that today's NASA had the money to return to the Moon, do you think it has the drive and the expertise required?
A: I didn't mean to be particularly critical of NASA which is quite capable of doing anything and going anywhere, given the proper leadership. I am, however, very critical of NASA's bosses, the executive wing of the federal government and the American people who get the space program they deserve. Since the Apollo program, not a single President of the United States seems to have any idea of what to do in space. Instead, they took the path of least resistance and cancelled Apollo and initiated the space shuttle program. Nearly as soon as it was approved by Congress, however, the shuttle program developed into a series of engineering compromises due to the continued waffling of support by our Presidents and the American people. As originally designed, the shuttle probably could have delivered people and tonnage into orbit at a relatively low cost. As its budget was cut, however, NASA redesigned and redesigned the shuttle until it became the bloated monster of a program we see today. The space shuttle is a magnificent machine but it will never be a commercial enterprise, will never be anything but a device to get people and payloads into orbit at tremendous cost. It will go down into history as the most expensive, inefficient space launcher every constructed while it was meant to be just the opposite. The International Space Station continues along the same lines as the shuttle: too complex, too expensive, too many times redesigned, and having no real mission. What we need is a President who understands that the purpose of NASA is two-fold: (1) to spread humanity across the solar system and (2) to develop commercial enterprises that can bring the wealth of the solar system back to earth. A great nation does great things. To go after (1) and (2) would be a great thing and one worthy of the United States. To continue just looping around in low earth orbit is unworthy of us.
Q: In your mind, what are the biggest reasons - both practical and symbolic - for resuming human travel to the Moon?
A: The moon is a logical stepping stone to the solar system, both from a practical engineering standpoint but also from a psychological one. It is near enough that an infrastructure could be rapidly constructed that would allow routine transportation back and forth from the earth to the moon. We could even do it with the chemical rockets we have today, although I would hope we would build better systems. The practical reason to go back to the moon -- this time to stay -- would be to utilize it for its energy resources and its location. The moon, for instance, is covered with helium-3, a great fuel for fusion reactors. There are other mineral and energy products on the moon. To utilize them, we should first set up a laboratory analogous to the ones we have in Antarctica. We should then shuttle to the moon scientists, engineers, teachers, preachers, poets, writers, and anybody else who wants to go. We should make the moon an extension of earth and get a mindset going that it is a very normal thing to live there. As far as location, it is a nice, quiet place to observe the galaxy and the universe from a stable platform. >From an observatory on the far side of the moon, we should be able to see earth-like planets around other stars. As soon as we get some photos of another earth in newspapers or on the web, we will become a spacefaring world, such will be the enthusiasm of the people to find out more about it. The moon is also a great jumping-off point for Mars and other places in the solar system. I do think, however, that we would be wise to develop new means of propulsion before we go any farther out than the moon with human exploration. Chemical rockets are too weak and too slow to accomplish our overall goals in space. We don't need the International Space Station to tell us what we already know: space is bad for the human body! We need to get through it as fast as we can. Fission, fusion, or anti-matter drives are what we need to truly explore and conquer the solar system. I believe we could develop such drives within fifteen years, given the proper vision of a President and the support of the American people.
Q: What inspired you to release Rocket Boys and Back to the Moon in electronic format as well as in print?
A: I believe in the future of e-books! Any writer who ignores the changing ways of communicating with his fans is risking obsolescence. Most readers still like paper books but I suspect the next generations are going to be far more comfortable with electronic formats. I want to be there for them.
Q: How do you think electronic publishing can help you as an author where traditional print publishing might not?
A: One thing it might do is to allow rapid updates to my books. There are always ways to improve any book. Maybe someday we'll see titles that read, for instance, "Rocket Boys 1.0" followed by the improved "Rocket Boys 1.1" and so forth as the author decides to add to his work to make it better.
Q: What do you think of the whole Internet copyright debate?
A: I certainly don't want anybody downloading my work for free. I work too hard writing it to give it away! Maybe after I'm dead and gone and my work enters the public domain, that will be all right but not now while I'm alive. I can only hope that encryption techniques will continue to evolve faster than methods of defeating them. I believe, however, that most readers will continue to go through "normal" channels to gain access to the writers they like. Pirated books and other materials will always be the playground of the few who seem to get a kick out of defeating the system. I grieve for them.
Q: Would you consider writing a book in serial form meant strictly for electronic reading as Stephen King is?
A: You bet! That would so much fun! When do I start?
Q: What's your next project? When and where should we look for it?
A: As mentioned, The Coalwood Way, an "equal" of Rocket Boys/October Sky will be published this fall by Bantam-Dell (October 10, to be exact). Here's a brief description: All the world fell in love with the people of Coalwood, West Virginia, in Homer Hickam's number one best-seller Rocket Boys (aka October Sky). Now, fans of this cherished and critically acclaimed memoir will fall in love all over again as Homer continues the series with The Coalwood Way, the story of how the Rocket Boys launch their dreams of steel and fire amidst a struggle against forces bent on destroying Coalwood's unique way of life. The Coalwood Way is Homer at his best, telling his tale in a haunting and literate style that will have his readers chuckling aloud just before wiping away a tear. In 1959, as southern West Virginia settles into a season of snow and ice, Sonny (as Homer was called during those days) realizes it is the last winter he will know as a Coalwood boy. His dreams seem just within reach but something is troubling him that he can't quite define. Before he can leave the town of his birth, he knows he must discover what it is.
Q: Back to the Moon has been optioned for a possible movie deal. Would you write the screenplay?
A: I would have been happy to do it but Beacon Pictures, the production company which optioned the book, has hired Tom Rickman, an "A-list" writer to do it. I'm very pleased they chose Tom. He wrote, among other things, Coal Miner's Daughter. I think he will develop a script that will not only include great special effects but will also show Jack and Penny's quirks and foibles along with their heroic qualities. Beacon's hiring of Tom, by the way, shows how serious they are at making Back to the Moon. A-list writers don't come cheap. Beacon also made Air Force One so they're quite capable of pulling this off. I'd go see this movie even if I hadn't written the book!
Q: Rocket Boys might be made into a Broadway play. If it were made into a musical, whom would you like to write the music and lyrics?
A: Too bad Rogers and Hammerstein are dead! They would have been perfect for the Rocket Boys. If I can't have them, how about Paul McCartney? I think he would understand the working class dynamic the Rocket Boys represent as well as our enthusiastic love of classic Rock and Roll!
Q: The official "Rocket Boys Day" festival was held on Saturday, June 24, 2000, in Coalwood, West Virginia. If you would, please fill us in on the highlights.
A: As of this writing, it hasn't occurred. I will send you what happened after the event! I have a hunch it's going to be a ball, however. Governor Underwood is flying down in his helicopter and will be landing right in front of Little Richard's Mudhole church. Rocket groups will be there, launching their rockets from the restored Cape Coalwood. NASA is sending a huge space station model. About 3,000 people are expected to attend including me and a couple more of the real Rocket Boys. It is going to be a most amazing day. For more information on "Rocket Boys Day" in June and the annual "October Sky Festival" in Coalwood each October, please see www.homerhickam.com.
Q: What do you consider your greatest personal achievement? What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
A: As to my greatest personal achievement, I hope I haven't done it yet! If not much else happens, however, I suppose I will probably be remembered for writing Rocket Boys and being the subject of the film October Sky. Certainly, many honors have come my way as a result. Yet, the most important thing to have occurred as a result of that book and film is the rebirth of Coalwood, my home town. Can you imagine growing up in a little town, seeing it all but die, and then because of something you've done watch it come alive again? That makes me wonder if maybe I'm part of some greater plan and that's pretty daunting. But "Rocket Boys" and "October Sky" have only been a small part of my life. I survived the Vietnam war and did some good things there, I think. I became a scuba instructor and taught many people a valuable and fun skill. I also made some great dives on wrecks and reefs around the world. Another of my books, "Torpedo Junction," told the story of some very brave men who defended our shores during World War II. Nobody else had ever told their story and my book gave them a great deal of happiness and pride. When I was working for NASA, I trained the first Japanese astronauts, getting to know the Japanese people a little better as a result. I am very proud of that as I'm also proud to have trained many of the other astronauts, including the Hubble Space Telescope repair teams. On a personal level, though, what greater achievement can one have than to say he or she has had some wonderful friends? I have many lifelong friends in the United States as well as Germany, Japan, the UK, Tanzania, Honduras, and other countries around the world. Of course, my wife Linda is a constant joy, too. No achievement, regardless of how grand, is worth anything without good friends and family to enjoy them with you. As to what I hope to accomplish in the future, I hope to continue to have an adventurous life and write books my fans will like! To keep up, check in on www.homerhickam.com from time to time to see about the latest!