Newsletters & Photos

Newsletters & Photos
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Winter '02 Issue

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Dear Friends:

Linda and I wish you and yours a very happy, adventurous, productive, and healthy 2003! We're excited about the coming year. There are always so many possibilities for good things to occur, and challenges, too, all of which add up to an interesting life. I believe that all the best intentions in the world can't add up to the power of a single action. That's why I believe that dreams without doing something about them can be worse than having no dreams at all. I am resolved to making all my dreams come true, one by one by one, simply by starting what it takes to bring them to fruition. Mostly, that means working right here at my Macintosh computer but it also means some adventures in the Caribbean and the summer dinosaur-hunting season! On February 19, I will be celebrating my 60th birthday on St. John, United States Virgin Islands. A few of our friends will also be down to help me celebrate including my dinosaur buddies, Frank and Bill. High atop a mountain overlooking Sir Francis Drake Channel, we'll take a few minutes to plan the summer dino-hunting season Some fun!

Right now, I am planning my writing season. Another book, some screenplays, and wherever my keyboard takes me. The truth is work at this computer is recreation, not true work. I am truly blessed to be able to do it, with the skills my Creator provided me, and with the education my parents and my teachers began drumming into me practically from the moment I was born on a cold, snowy night in McDowell County, West Virginia. Whatever you do, wherever you go, I urge all of my friends and fans to look for a life of adventure and productivity, always recalling the lessons of the people of Coalwood as written in We Are Not Afraid:

We are proud of who we are.
We stand up for what we believe.
We keep our families together.
We trust in God but rely on ourselves.

I am sitting here, inordinately pleased with myself. I just finished The Keeper's Son about when I thought I would, that is to say January, 2003, which was six months after my contract with St. Martin's said it would be ready. Of course, when I signed that contract (a two-book deal), I didn't know that I was going to write We Are Not Afraid. That book, a reaction to 9/11, not only required some unexpected writing but, more importantly in terms of schedule, a grueling book tour during the spring of 2002. (Notice how authors always have to tack a negative adjective in front of the words "book tour" such as "awful," "tiring," "horrendous," and "detestable"? Maybe we need to change our attitude.) Here's another reason why I was a bit late with this book. Our tail-less cat Maxx is my constant companion while writing and she is sweet, but it sure makes it hard to get to my shift key. Linda says Maxx just likes the warm lamp! (Photos 1 and 2).

Anyway, books have a way of being written when they're supposed to, and I'm glad for the delay else I probably wouldn't have written the book that this one turned out to be. In fact, to be completely forthright, I struggled for quite a few months writing a book that I didn't want to write, mainly because I couldn't quite find the thread I wanted. Had I not found that thread, I still wouldn't be finished. The writing was pretty good, actually, and my editor kept telling me he was happy with the samples I provided him but I just didn't think it had what it took to be a "Homer Hickam" book. I was not going to let it loose until I found that element that would bring it home for me. I finally found it, oddly enough, because of a dream that I occasionally have. It came to me just at the right time, waking me up, making me sit bolt upright in bed, my heart pounding, my breath coming in gasps. This dream has to do with unreasonable loss. And, just like that, I had my thread for The Keeper's Son.

What would it be like, I posed, if every day for seventeen years Josh Thurlow, my Coast Guard protagonist, had to struggle with the fact that he was responsible for losing his two-year old baby brother at sea? And, further, what if Josh was absolutely, utterly convinced that it was impossible that his brother was, in fact, lost? That it went against everything he knew about the sea off the island of Killakeet where he was born and raised? And then, seeing as how this is a story set along the storied Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1942, the U-boats arrive, and one of them is commanded by a man who might have the answer to Josh's torment? Add in a young woman who is in love with love and hates herself for it, who sees Killakeet as a refuge and instead discovers it to be a place where she can find both romance and purpose—well, there all hangs the tale that became The Keeper's Son. A tale of love in a time of war is what I call it. TKS should be published in the fall of 2003 and then I'll be out on another wonderful and fun book tour!

Here's something kind of fun to think about. Fans are always asking me what the movie possibilities are for The Coalwood Way, Sky of Stone, and Back to the Moon. Well, here's the hot skinny (as they say in the Coast Guard even though I'm an Army vet). The Coalwood Way, sadly, was inadvertently bought by Universal Studios when they optioned Rocket Boys (aka October Sky). That happened because one of the paragraphs of the option stated that Universal was buying all the rights to any story of mine that might fall between the years of 1957-60. At the time, my agent and I thought nothing of it. But then, I wrote The Coalwood Way and it is a memoir of events during the autumn and Christmas, 1959. Oops! Unfortunately, October Sky was not a major block-buster (which means even though it is a movie that is loved by millions, will be shown for all eternity around the world, and will honor the studio for the rest of time for making it, it didn't make enough money even though it made a profit). And if a movie is not a blockbuster, Universal and most major studios have zero interest in making a sequel. Therefore, TCW will probably be locked up in perpetuity which is sad because the story is perfect for a Christmas television movie, at least. However, I have written a treatment called A Coalwood Christmas that has at least the spirit of TCW, though I had to place it before 1957. It was optioned for television by Columbia Tri-Star but so far no movement toward a screenplay (such as hiring a writer).

Sky of Stone was also optioned for a television movie (by Hearst) but so far there's been no evidence of a screenplay, either, so it seems stuck as well. Back to the Moon was optioned as a full-length, feature film and a screenplay was written by an A-list Hollywood writer, a screenplay so execrable that I have never been able to get through more than a few pages of it at a time without feeling a little sick to my stomach. So it is unlikely to be made unless something dramatic occurs.

I've been thinking lately that if I want any of these options to get off the dime, I should write the screenplays myself on spec (that means for no money) and see if my agent and I can get the studios interested again. Of course, my agent and I hope The Keeper's Son will find a home with one of the major studios but I have no idea if it will. Hollywood, as I like to say, has its ways and they ain't our'n. My next step will be to write a treatment for Hollywood for The Keeper's Son and then we'll see how it goes.

The selection of Rocket Boys/October Sky for "One Book, One Community" city reads continues and that is a great compliment. In particular, Ohio seems to have a large group of fans. The southeastern part of Ohio has about twenty libraries participating in a consortium-wide read of Rocket Boys and Linda and I will visit some of them in April. If your library is interested in climbing on the Rocket Boys (or any of my other books) bandwagon, Linda has done a complete "how-to-make-it-happen" list for interested cities and libraries. Just look on our website under the Reading Groups button and you should find everything you need from discussion questions to information on how to get one of the Rocket Boys to come to your event. Please email Linda for more info. Photo 3 shows the West Unity, Ohio Library’s nice bulletin board for their community read. Rocket Boys Roy Lee and Billy will visit there.

By the way, speaking of books, there's a new, great one out there – Cooking the Coalwood Way. I am so proud of the citizens of Coalwood who have published this wonderful book, filled with great recipes for traditional coal town cooking, plus some photos of old Coalwood and commentary from some of its citizens. Included are recipes by my mom, my wife, and the mothers of some of the other Rocket Boys as well and the local good cooks. I was honored to write the foreword. You can find the cookbook featured on the home page of our website.

Oh, and another thing. I've noticed a few comments lately on that have been a bit derogatory towards poor old Back to the Moon. Let me address a few of the comments. An interesting comment is that the writing style of BTTM seems different from that of the Coalwood memoirs. One reviewer even suggested I had a ghost writer! Utter nonsense. I cry and moan and gripe for months when my editor or even Linda want me to change a single word in one my manuscripts. I will admit, however, that there is a difference in style between BTTM and my other books. The reason for that is because even though BTTM was my third published book (after Torpedo Junction and Rocket Boys), I actually wrote it before Rocket Boys. An author's style tends to evolve as books are written. BTTM was sitting in my desk drawer when my publisher asked me if I had anything else after RB was published. I said sure, just let me freshen it up a bit. So I worked very hard on BTTM to make it a lively and fun tale (I call it a beach book, but not disparagingly. I love beach books!) but there were vestiges of my earlier, developing style in it. Some of the other Amazon comments decry the technology in the book, saying a lot of the things that Jack and Penny do are impossible. Of course, everything I wrote about in BTTM is very possible or I wouldn't have put it in there. Well, let them gripe. I'm still proud of BTTM although I doubt seriously if I'll ever write another story about space or rockets. To get pigeon-holed as a writer is something I am absolutely determined to avoid. I've had to work hard to keep people from thinking I write technical books for men. I have never written a technical book in my life and I write for everybody. Women often come up to me in book signing lines and say, "I just bought your book for my husband." I respond, "You should read it first. You'll like it. Trust me." Their e-mails later confirm I was right. In fact, they love them. All right, I'll get off my soapbox.

Wait a minute. Let me get back on that soapbox for one more thing. Speaking of Amazon, I did not write The Last Dive. Bernie Chowdhury did. I've never even met Bernie but I thought he wrote a very good book and when his publisher very nicely asked me if I would consider writing the foreword, I said OK. I have been a scuba instructor for forty years so I thought I had some insight into the interesting and tragic true story in the book. But on, at least for the hardcover version, it looks as if Bernie and I are co-authors. Not so.

Did I say one more thing? All right. Here's another. Thanks to all my fans for your nice reviews on Amazon and also with Barnes and Noble and the other book sites. They make a big difference on whether my books will be read and I appreciate you taking the time to let other potential readers know your opinion. Believe me, there are a lot of readers out there who have never heard of my books who would love them. I say that, of course, with all the humility my mom pounded into me over the years. Getting "puffed up" is THE prime West Virginia sin. Should it ever happen to me, all it takes is one quick trip back to Coalwood to get me fully squared away (or one phone call from Elsie Lavender Hickam will do it, too).

Linda and I had a few nice trips this past Autumn. First up was our annual trip to Coalwood for the October Sky Festival. This year, the festival was held in old "downtown" Coalwood in front of the Club House. Within easy walking distance of the crowds were the machine shops (where our rockets were built), the Big Store, and the Community Church (where the sermon was preached that got my dad to reluctantly give Cape Coalwood to the Big Creek Missile Agency). The downtown location worked wonderfully and the weather cooperated, too. We had a beautiful, sunny day and Senator Jay Rockefeller and other dignitaries stopped by. Also, John Laird, the Captain's grandson, was there to help autograph Sky of Stone. The usual Rocket Boys suspects were there, too, including O'Dell Carroll and Billy Rose! A couple who met and married because of the book, Jim and Jennifer Fanson, also came to the festival – by train from LA! There are lots of photos and reports of the 2003 festival on the website’s Coalwood button.

Next up in October was the wonderful Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets reunion. I was asked to address the present-day Corps and was so impressed by the nearly thousand young men and women who form the Corps. I am proud to have graduated from their ranks. It was also wonderful to see so many of my fellow alumni from old Squadron A. Ben "Butch" Harper and I even got to fire the Skipper II, the big cannon the Corps uses these days that replaces the one Butch and I built in 1963. That cannon now rests in the Corps Museum after nearly forty years of hard duty.

Fall is always a heavy speech time, especially October for some reason! Linda added up the days I was gone from home last year, 125… Hey, there's another reason why The Keeper’s Son was a touch late! We traveled to Florida in November for the Orange County Library System’s "One Book, One Community" read of Rocket Boys. The library system services nineteen percent of Florida's population. We thought that was worth supporting. It was their first attempt to have a community read but they were very well organized and enthusiastic. All their hard work showed as they had a huge turnout at every event. I made lots of appearances and speeches, at schools, libraries and we even were in the Veteran’s Day parade! The selection committee said, "The story was selected because it addresses issues important to all of us in Central Florida: growing-up, education, family, technology and individuality. And, most importantly, how young people struggle to understand their roles in the world."

In November, Linda and I took another trip to St. John to visit our new house down there and get it ready it for the rental season. We love that island. It is a funky place surrounded by some of the prettiest water any scuba diver or snorkeler every saw. Of course, Linda worked herself to the point of exhaustion painting all the bedrooms and baths island colors and answering all the questions from our contractors on other renovation work. Me? I contented myself to coming out of my office occasionally and observing Linda's work and saying "You know, I think you missed a spot, honey." Then I got invited to disappear which made me happy since I was on deadline! Sometimes, it's a good thing to be on deadline, folks! An amusing thing is that the outside of the house is newly painted a creamy white color, Benjamin Moore’s color "October Sky" (with turquoise trim)! Linda found the color on their white chart and of course that was that! We just thought it should be a lucky color for us. See our favorite chair in Photo 4.

Right now, we're home and happier for it. Our cats love it when we get to stay home and the truth is, I love it, too. It's nice to see more than a few days stretch out before me without having to crawl aboard an airplane, a time when I can just write to my heart's content, pet and play with the cats, take a run, talk over this or that with Linda, call my mom (which I should do more often), write e-mails to old friends and new, and just generally live life!

That's it from here. Keep aiming high!

- Homer Hickam

Of course I have to put a couple of the nice letters you write here, as usual. Thank you for permission to share. Lots more like them on our Letters button. Thanks for writing! LTH

hi I'm a student in high school reading your book i was going to drop out of school until i started reading October Sky and i wanted to let u no that the book sent me a message not to give up easily and give it my all i just wanted to say thank you for the inspiration ur story sent me
- Chelsie


To my hero, I am a student from india. i don't know how to speak good english. iam just learning it. i had seen the movie "october sky" for about 4 times to under stand it completely. but i won't give up your writings.

i had not enough money to buy your books. i am dreaming about them that they will be like that, like this. but one day or other i will come to you with my own talent. you had inspired me. i had borrowed money from my friend to do this mail to you. those words are always in my mind "you don't have to proove any thing to any one" one day i will make a internet service provider that will provide poor students like me to get accessed with the outside world. this is my aim and i will get it. no matter the limits. but with my own money.

thanks to AMERICA for giving me such a hero. thanks for every thing sir.
- Yours sincerely pavan


From a teacher
Dear Mr. Hickam: I teach English to 140 seventh graders in the Gifted and Talented Center in a Middle School in the north. Our program has a strong math/science/technology base and our core team of five teachers does all it can to keep these bright, creative little minds growing and motivated.

Toward that end, we use your novel October Sky for one of our most successful interdisciplinary teaching units. Students study the novel in my English classes, discuss the events of its historical context in their social studies classes, review the relevant science and math concepts in those respective classes, and design and build their own rockets in technology.

This spring 2003, we plan to have our third annual "October Sky Celebration." This is the culminating activity of our study and falls in the second week of June. We start the day with a breakfast hosted by the students' parents. We dress in 1950's garb, golden oldies play in the background, and students add their own performing talents. We then break into groups and rotate among centers for flight activities, rocket launchings, and viewing and critiquing the film "October Sky." We end the day with a whole group We end the day with a whole group gathering for ice cream and a special speaker.

As speakers we have had a former NASA engineer who grew up and studied during the time frame of your novel and Dr. Edward Weiller, Associate Administrator for Space Science and former Chief Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope. You and the special world of your creation, October Sky, are very much a part of what we are learning and enjoying here at our center! B. A.


Hi Homer, We Are Not Afraid is being used in a behavioral psychology course at University of Maryland in Baltimore County. The bookstore at school has stacks of the book. Hickam books keep popping up when I least expect it. Good going!
- Dr Paul Lovett


My name is Peg McGuire, I'm a social worker and teach social work at Ohio University. I'm teaching a graduate seminar at Ohio University this fall and am using Sky of Stone as the main text. I couldn't think of a better way to convey the essence of Appalachian culture to future social workers.
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