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HOMER HICKAM QUARTERLY NEWSLETTER
Spring '05 Issue, June 2005

click here for this issue's photos

Dear Gentle and Prodigious Readers:

As I sit here keying this in, it's raining outside, a warm mist-like rain, the remnants of Tropical Storm Arlene which smacked against the Gulf Coast and then spread out to cover most of Alabama with a warm, wet embrace. Maxx and Flopsy are outside, even though they're stubbornly huddled against the house waiting for an unlikely break in the weather. China and Batman, not allowed to be outside, are on our screened-in porch, alternately sleeping and watching the chipmunk, squirrel, and bird parade which goes on even in the rain. A gentle breeze tinkles the wind chimes on the porch and whispers through the dripping green leaves on the hundreds of big trees on our property. The koi in the pond lazily swim beneath the spreading circle of the occasional heavy raindrop. We have a lovely little patch of paradise here even if we've outgrown our small house. It would be difficult to leave it. How often Linda and I have looked at other houses and properties around the area but we just can't find anything we like as much as our little place on the hillside amongst the trees and rocks. Of course, we love Skyridge, our place down in St. John, too. In a way, it mirrors our situation here in Huntsville. A delightful property with a house that could use some changes but is architecturally resistant to change. Yet, although both houses aren't perfect, they feel like home. There's a lot to say for that, don't you think? I guess we could have a big, sprawling mansion if we wanted it but maybe that's just not us. For now, I think we'll stay put. The cats would like that, anyway.

THE WRITING LIFE:
My life as a writer has been complex as of late. The Ambassador's Son book tour impacted the time available to write, of course, along with some other travels.

I think you may have seen this announced on the home page, but October Sky producer Chuck Gordon has also optioned The Ambassador's Son a couple months back. There has been interest in perhaps having it be a TV mini-series and I like that idea, as there would be more time to tell this complicated tale. With all Hollywood projects one just has to sit back and wait, as many, many things have to fall into place for a project to finally make it to the silver screen.

I've started quite a few projects that should see some fruits in the not-too-distant future. Gradually, all my ideas and proposals seem to be coalescing around a number of writing ventures which I will now list (not necessarily in their order of priority) with some color commentary:

(1) The next Josh Thurlow. Josh is still in the South Pacific. I already have several chapters done and pretty much know what kind of trouble he's going to up against. This is the third in the series, following The Keeper's Son and The Ambassador's Son. No, the title of the new novel will probably not include the word "son." Too much of a good thing is still too much!

(2) The Paco Stories: Not too long ago, I wrote a simple "young reader" children's book about our wonderful and funny cat Paco. It is a true story which I titled Paco: The Cat Who Meowed in Space. Recently, I showed it to a very big publisher who loved it and is now testing the market for it. If the marketing looks good, they'd like a series of Paco stories. I think that would be fun to do and I hope it works out. (Photo 1)

(3) This same publisher asked me to consider writing a young adult's adventure tale. I told them I would think about it. I have one I wrote a long time ago that I might revisit.

(4) They also begged me to write an adult novel about dinosaur-hunting. I told them I would think about that, too. I have a screenplay titled Deep Things I wrote using dino hunting as a background. It's being shopped in Hollywood now so that might be the basis for a potential novel.

(5) A screenplay about girl's basketball is in the works with the treatment accomplished. This came about when a producer asked my agent for something that could be filmed near where he grew up and wouldn't cost much money. He also mentioned his daughter played on a high school girl's basketball team and he loved going to the games. I put two and two together and my treatment is the result. We'll see if it flies.

(6) A screenplay about smuggling, flying, high adventure, and romance is also in the works with a treatment finished on that one, too. Lots of Hollywood interest on this one. There's always a lot of twists and turns when I deal with the film industry, however, so who knows what will happen? The process should be fun, anyway. I wrote an article about this true story for Air & Space magazine in 1996 and it is linked from my Other Writing section: Go to http://www.airspacemag.com/ASM/Mag/Index/1996/JJ/cbst.html to read it.

(7) Another "Coalwood" book. Although I swore I'd never write another one, fans have been begging and I'm taking another look. Although it would not be a Rocket Boys-style memoir, I'm contemplating writing a novel set in Coalwood during an earlier, more robust era. More to come on this after negotiations with the publishers.

There's probably some other writing projects out there I'm forgetting but they'll pop up as needed. For instance, I just finished writing the foreword for an as yet untitled book about Hildegard of Bingen for Harper-Collins. And if you don't know who Hildegard of Bingen is, go look it up! I can tell you she was one fascinating woman.

Oh and fun news, a group of talented young men and women have been working on an adaptation of Rocket Boys to a musical play. It was conceived and adapted by Christopher Budinich and the music and lyrics are by Diana Belkowski and Daniel Tramon. We have heard six of the songs and just love what they are doing! (Photo 2). "Rocket Boys, the Musical," was accepted into the ASCAP/Disney Workshop in NY, a real honor for the composing team who are the first to win back-to-back years. With all the amazing talent in NY and the multiple-hundreds of musicals trying to break through, they are once again one of only four chosen. There have been two short presentations of the play that were very enthusiastically received. We'll see what happens next!

JOURNEYS:
The Ambassador's Son book tour (March, April, and May, 2005):

The tour included Barnes & Noble in Huntsville, AL (Photo 3 & 4); Chapter 11 in Atlanta, GA; Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC; Manteo Booksellers in Manteo, NC; Joseph Beth in Pittsburgh, PA; Barnes & Noble in Cincinnati, OH; Davis Kidd in Nashville, TN; Borders in Memphis, TN; Books & Company in Dayton, OH; The Easy Chair Bookstore in Blacksburg, VA (Photo 5); Borders in Cleveland Heights, OH; Page and Palette in Fair Hope, AL; Bayou Books in Niceville, FL; and The Alabama Booksmith in Homewood, AL.

As might be noted, it was an eclectic tour to lots of towns, large and small that included some of our favorite stores, and some picked by the publisher. Book tours are tiring and time-consuming but they're still the best way to get out and meet readers and booksellers who make or break any book or any author. I was always met with unfailing courtesy and enthusiasm from all I met on this long tour and I would like to thank everyone who came out and supported me. Thank you to Mount Gay rum who provided nice book signing door prizes of logo clothing and support for my tour.

Speeches and Community Reads:

Rocket Boys continues to be one of the most oft-chosen books for City and Library Reads across the country. It is a phenomenon that very definitely seems to have a life of its own. No matter what else I write or what else I do, the enthusiastic fans of this memoir keep calling me back to it. I guess I'm just going to have to accept that I've written a world-wide classic that is going to keep going on and on no matter what I do or don't do. Random House is even coming out soon with another printing of the hardcover and they are going to put my favorite cover on this one – the blue one that is on the oversize trade paperback edition.

In any case, this tidal wave of love for the work sends me off quite often to talk about it, sometimes to readers who have just discovered it. Among the wonderful places I've been to this Spring to join the fun and adventure of reading about and discussing the Big Creek Missile Agency and the Rocket Boys of Coalwood, West Virginia were Bountiful, Utah (I had a glorious time there and even launched some rockets with some delightful youngsters); Findlay, Ohio (just a wonderful town and people who reminded me very much of the people of Coalwood); Cleveland, Ohio (a great day of celebration of the book and reading!); Niceville, Florida (a sweet bunch of folks who have fallen in love with the boys of Coalwood); and Tulsa, Oklahoma (great fans of the book and an enthusiastic, energetic audience). The wave continues. Towns, cities, libraries, and colleges in great numbers are contacting Greater Talent Network (my lecture agency, see http://www.greatertalent.com) to ask for my appearance at their celebrations of the memoir. I have to say I'm pleased and excited about this but also a bit wistful. Just once, I wish they'd celebrate one of my other seven books!


The Caldwell March at Virginia Tech:

On April 9, 2005, Linda and I joined General Jerry Allen, Colonel Rock Roszak, and members of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets for an exciting hike across the mountains. A grueling 13-mike trek, the Caldwell March began just outside Caldwell Fields, proceeded over the very steep Brush Mountain and then back to the Virginia Tech campus. The corps of cadets' class of 2009, their training cadre, and the commandant's staff took part in the exercise. As the newspapers reported, "Hickam is participating with the marchers this year as a tangible expression of his continuing support of the corps and its programs, and to demonstrate a spirit of camaraderie among corps members that transcends generations." And that is very true. I also did it, of course, because I perceived it as fun which it was! Linda wisely skipped the first 3 miles march across a creek and up a mountain (Photo 6) but joined us for the rest (Photo 7). We had a great time meeting old friends and new along the way. It was a beautiful, sunny day and I couldn't think of a better way to spend my time, especially with the super young women and men of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. The Corps is a wonderful program and I encourage all young folks heading to Virginia Tech to think about joining it. For that matter, if you're going to college anywhere, please think seriously about joining the ROTC program. You'll learn a lot and you'll get the opportunity to serve your country, too.

The Amalfi Coast, Italy:

Many years ago, when I was just a pup and living in Grafenwoehr, Germany, I decided to drive my VW bus to Italy. Naturally, I took the long way around to do it. First, I drove across the Alps and thence on down across France to Monaco where I took a ferry to Sicily, drove around that big island, then took another ferry to the boot of Italy and then drove up its western coast, visiting various towns along the way. One of them I recalled with some joy was a little fishing village on the famous Amalfi Coast. This year, for a reason I still can't quite discern, I decided I wanted to take Linda and go back. With her birthday in May, that seemed the perfect time to go. And so we did. We flew into Rome where a car and driver met us and took us to Positano, that most beautiful little town built on a mountain slope high above the Mediterranean. The town was shown in the movie Under the Tuscan Sun. It's the seaside town where the Italian boyfriend lived. We stayed in the beautiful Villa Fiorentino (http://www.villafiorentino.com) which has lovely rooms, beautiful gardens and magnificent views of the town and sea (Photo 8 & 9). We fell in love with the place immediately. It also didn't take long before we were made to feel like we were part of the Fiorentino family. Dr. Fiorentino, a cardiologist, even gave me a tour of his office, showing me the medical manuals and other books collected by generations of his family. Some of them were centuries old and written in Latin! Mama Fiorentino took a shine to Linda and although they didn't share a common language, they still managed to converse about gardening, food and fashion. Domenico, the personable and capable son, runs the Villa (literally, running the hundreds of steps!) and makes sure you are comfortable in Positano.

Besides taking it easy at our villa, adventures abounded everywhere in Positano which included some great food and wine at a variety of wonderful restaurants. We also took a ferry up the coast to the delightful village of Amalfi and then an adventurous bus ride to the little town of Ravello high, high (and I mean high) in the mountains. This entire coast is made up of very steep mountains that shoot nearly straight down to the sea. The locals are not reluctant to build on these slopes, however, and there are some amazing houses built that seem to just be hanging in the air!

My favorite day was when Linda and I climbed the mountain behind the Villa nearly to the top. Up and up we went from near-sea level to 1700 feet (I had my GPS). The cliffs and gorges were truly spectacular but one slip and you were a goner. As I told someone near the top, "I wasn't scared on the way up but I was frequently alarmed." One house I called "the bad house" sat right on the edge of a cliff that went at least one thousand feet straight down. Fall over the edge of that yard (no fence!) and there would be no recourse, nothing to grab, nothing to do but think about what was going to happen when you reached the bottom. I wondered how you'd raise children, chickens, cats, and dogs in such a house. Surely, you'd need to take a head count at the end of every day and make sure you had plenty of each to make up for losses! On the hike down, we stopped at a local tavern/restaurant called La Tagliata where the food was as spectacular as the view (10 & 11)! The owner's son, doubling as a waiter, fell in love with Linda, an easy thing to do, and proceeded to give us far too much food and wine. All was wonderful and we went there three times, including for Linda's birthday dinner.

We also made a couple of other side trips including one to Pompeii. I'd been there years ago but this was Linda's first visit. It is a grand place. Go some time in your life if you can. To peek into the lives of people who lived nearly 2,000 years ago is astonishing. Although there is much different about the way they lived and thought, there are also so many similarities. I think it's the latter that makes Pompeii so fascinating. We also visited the Island of Capri, another place where the cliffs and gorges are amazing. While on the lift to the top of the mountain, I got a most unexpected phone call. Pat Stadt, the skipper of the USCG Cutter RUSH, called me on my cell phone. (Photo 12) Pat had graciously allowed me to spend nearly a month aboard his cutter last year out in the Pacific. I wrote about that adventure in my Winter 2004 newsletter http://www.homerhickam.com/cgi-bin/included/newsletters.cgi?id=9 It turned out he and wife Michelle were nearby on a cruise. He was hoping we could get together. Unfortunately, our schedules didn't mesh but it was still fun to talk to him and Michelle while dangling over a fantastic view high above Capri!

I should explain why I had a cell phone and had it turned on while I was on vacation. It was for the cats, of course! Our friend Amy Bandas who looks after our cats while we're out of town, called us every day to let us know how they were doing (all did great). To receive her calls, I had rented a cell phone that would work in Italy. It worked great, didn't cost much money, and kept us all in touch. I even used it to call my mom. If you're traveling overseas, I highly recommend their service. Go to http://www.cellularabroad.com for more information.

Our last day and a half was spent in Rome. We did it all. We visited St. Peter's and the Vatican (saw the Pope, Photo 13), the Coliseum, the Forum, the Spanish Steps, the Trivia Fountain, the Pantheon, and learned how to use the subway. It was all so much fun!

Coming up: I'm heading soon into the wilds of Montana to hunt some dinosaurs and to help dig up the little T.rex I found last summer (called the H-Rex by paleontologist Jack Horner). That should be an adventure. I'll write about it in the next newsletter. Linda and I also plan on spending some time at Skyridge in St. John. Can't wait for all that snorkeling, hiking, and diving!

Happy Reading this Summer!

Your writer,
Homer Hickam

PS Plan now to come to the October Sky Festival in Coalwood October 1 this year. Details are on our Coalwood page and fair warning: the hotels fill up fast!


FROM LINDA:
Let's see what has happened... I had Lasik surgery on my eyes and can see clearly without contacts! What a grand thing that is for someone as vision challenged as I was.

Homer planned our wonderful Italy trip top to bottom without ever using the phone! Isn't the internet a wonderful thing? He took care of every detail to make it hassle free and wonderful – a perfect birthday gift to me.

My volunteer work with the kitties is still a great joy and can be a full time job if I let it. Much more fun than sitting on the computer, let me tell you! China, our youngest “kid”, is still a hoot of a kitty and lives to play. She fetches! Batman is doing well, as are Maxx and Flopsy who China thinks of as "my evil sisters." (Photo 14)

I must show you our pond that we worked so hard on last fall (Photo 15). It is a delight this spring, and all settled in. I loved building it and the fish are so beautiful to watch. I have a hard time keeping Homer from feeding them too much though! He thinks they always look hungry. . .

A couple great letters, thanks always for the feedback:

* Dear Mr. Hickam, Recently, digging through the pile of magazines our Library has in a swap section, I picked up a copy of the New Yorker and discovered an ad for The Ambassador's Son.

The book and the copy intrigued me enough to send me to Google where I discovered your web site. I called the library and asked for the book and The Keeper's Son as well. I devoured them in two days. My wife has been through "Keeper's" and is halfway through the sequel.

In my personal library, I have a copy of Jim Michener's Tales of the South Pacific. It is a favorite and I have reread it many times, always feeling that I wanted more of the same and Michener never provided it, not in "Return to Paradise," or in his subsequent novels. In The Ambassador's Son I finally found what I craved. For this I am grateful.

I intend to find copies of both the "Thurlow" books for my library and while I realize that your intention is to continue the series, I urge you to write a prequel, much as Clive Cussler did in his Dirk Pitt series, several years after The Mediterranean Caper with Pacific Vortex. I believe the "Thurlow" books will develop enough of a readership to cause the success of a novel about Thurlow's adventures in the Bering Sea with Captain Falcon.

It's always good to discover a writer. I was pleased to discover your work and look forward to more. Sincerely, RM


* Homer, ... Meanwhile, I whizzed through Back to the Moon, enjoyed it thoroughly, and look forward to rereading it at a later date to better savor the style and detail.

And, for Jacki's birthday, we week ended at the Radisson Resort Hotel at the Cape, where, appropriately, I read Back to the Moon.

It is not often that a page-turning thriller can move one to tears as Back to the Moon" did with me. Most of the thriller writers, Robert Ludlum, Nelson DeMille, etc., can hold your interest and make you lose a few hours sleep until you reach the conclusion, but they can't tug at the heart strings and make you care for the characters. Most of those people seem unable to write a convincing love story. . .

* Dear Mr. Homer Hickam, My husband and I recently finished reading Sky of Stone. Since we travel somewhat regularly, we have gotten into the habit of my husband, Kent, reading aloud to me while I drive. We read October Sky/Rocket Boys, The Coalwood Way, and Sky of Stone in order. We were moved by all of them, but I think both of us were especially struck by Sky of Stone. We loved the life lessons you so eloquently tucked into a beautifully crafted telling of your past.

When we were reading October Sky/Rocket Boys, we were going through a difficult point in our lives. Reading about your cat, Daisy Mae, and the comfort she provided inspired us to get our own cat. Six months ago we went to a shelter and picked out a four month old kitten and named her Daisy Mae. She has provided, I think, as much care and love as your Daisy Mae once did, so the spirit lives on. Not a day has gone by since that I have been without a smile or a laugh because of something Daisy Mae has done.

You also inspired my husband to being writing a story about his own life, specifically a bike trip he took between high school and college, from Washington State to Florida. He (well, we) was impressed by your ability to tell your story in a way that was captivating and imparted wisdom at the same time.
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