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HOMER HICKAM QUARTERLY NEWSLETTER
Winter '04 Issue
click here for this issue's photos
Dear Gentle and Prodigious Readers:
Here is another installment in the life of a writer on deadline (and what writer worth his royalties isn't?). As always, I appreciate your interest and hope that this note will give you some enjoyment and maybe a thing or two to think about. I hope by now that you have read The Keeper's Son, the first novel in a planned series. I still get letters from folks who say they have read Rocket Boys/October Sky four or five times. Folks, I agree with you. That's a darn good book. But, honestly, the ones I've written after that are every bit as good and maybe even better, I swan. Check them out and I bet you'll agree. If so (or if not), let me hear from you. An interesting review of Sky of Stone recently popped up on Amazon.com. It was a five star review and said:
• I'm sure Mr. Hickam was a great scientist, but just think how many more wonderful literary masterpieces we would have today if he'd focused on writing instead! I picked this book up at the library after I happened upon some good reviews here. I must say, I am very much impressed with Homer Hickam. The writing is fluid and very well developed. The story is wholesome and reminiscent of simpler times, and the plot is superb. I am definitely going to be reading more of Mr. Hickam's works, which, if you notice, all receive 4-5 stars here. America, I think the writing of Homer Hickam will continue to do us proud!
While I really appreciate the review and think the reviewer is obviously well-read, wise and astute, I have to comment that I was never a scientist, good, bad, or otherwise! I was trained as an engineer and worked for the Army and NASA often with some superb scientists but I could never claim to be one of them. As for focusing on writing earlier in my life, the reviewer may have a point. On the other hand, I would not have seen as much of life if, right out of college, I had started writing novels. As I've often said, I think people are most interested in other people. That's why none of my books are technical in nature but are stories about interesting people who are doing interesting things. During my careers as an engineer, a scuba instructor, an army officer, and an amateur paleontologist (as close to a scientist as I'll ever get), I've managed to interact with a lot of different folks and understand a bit about human nature and perhaps reveal some of what I've learned through my writing. A writer without much experience with real people will always have difficulty creating interesting characters. Fortunately, considering the characters I've been fortunate to associate with during my life and times, I will never have that problem!
THIS WRITER'S LIFE:
Although this is a Winter newsletter covering the past three months, Spring is delightfully springing here in North Alabama. The birds are chirping in that special way they do when the chill leaves the night air and the days turn warm and sunny. The daffodils have already bravely blossomed, giving us swaths of yellow and white across our little mountain. Now, the cherry trees and redbud are busting out in vivid color and we know the dogwoods aren't far behind. The cats are all craving to be outdoors and so are we. The air is fresh and every breath is invigorating. But I am very much on deadline for the next "Josh Thurlow" novel so, good weather or bad, I must put in my time behind my trusty Macintosh to create The Ambassador's Son, the next installment in the series. I will be turning in a major portion of the draft of TAS to Sean Desmond, my editor at St. Martin's, in mid-April so that he can share it with the movers and shakers and start the buzz. Sean has already seen some of the manuscript and is quite excited about it. TAS is a story of love in a time of war and has many of the same characters as Keeper's but is very different from that work in its setting and point of view. It is based on solid research of the era (1943) and place (the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific) and includes a few characters who really existed at that time. The result is an exciting tale, a chase through the magnificent vistas of a tropical paradise that is also paradoxically afflicted with disease and destruction. Here is the paragraph I first used to describe the book to Sean and St. Martin's:
They had two weeks to accomplish a mission no American should ever have to do. They were going after one of their own countrymen - Lieutenant David Roosevelt Armistead - a Marine Corps hero awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, an ambassador's son, and a possible future President of the United States. Armistead has disappeared in the midst of battle and it is suspected he has taken the wife of an important coast-watcher with him. The coast-watcher is the key to the next campaign against the Japanese in the northern Solomons and is threatening to quit. Josh Thurlow's orders are to find Armistead and bring him back, or, failing that, to kill him. Reluctantly joining Josh and his boys in a desperate venture north into Japanese-held islands is a discredited, tormented, and frail PT-boat commander known as Shafty. Thus begins a journey for Josh and Shafty across a tortured sea and bloody landscape. Before long, the expedition is in ruin and both men find themselves in the arms of remarkable women who have astonishing secrets and desires. The Ambassador's Son is a chase, a romantic adventure, and a mirror of a very real and desperate time when two nations fought to the death in a tortured tropical paradise.
Although I anticipate the manuscript to be essentially complete by May of this year, Sean and I have decided not to bring out The Ambassador's Son until Spring, 2005. This is so the novel won't get lost during the 2004 general election this fall. It would be nearly impossible to get much in the way of print, radio, or television attention during that time so our decision is to avoid it. In the meantime, however, if you haven't read The Keeper's Son, the paperback version will be out in August. Also, Torpedo Junction, my first book, is still in print and is the historical background for Keeper's. Try them out.
Here's the latest on Sky of Stone: the Movie. Screenwriter Pat Duncan (Mr. Holland's Opus, Courage Under Fire (he's also the author of the book), The Painted House, etc.) has completed the script for Hallmark Television. Pat called me while I was visiting Acapulco (more on that below) and requested some assistance for one particular scene. I was more than glad to help. Although I haven't seen the entire screenplay, if Pat's past work is any guide, I think Sky of Stone is going to make a great Hallmark movie. If Hallmark likes Pat's script, it will likely be produced next year. Can't wait!
Finally, many of you have written to say how much you enjoy our new completely redesigned Web site (http://www.homerhickam.com). Thank you very much! It is indeed a vastly improved site, colorful, interactive, and informative. Linda should take all the credit and also our great webmeister, Jeremy Capp of Cre8ive Web, Inc. Please have a look if you haven’t yet.
The fall book tour for The Keeper's Son was exhausting and exhilarating, both at the same time. Friends, fans, media, and booksellers wherever I went made me feel most welcome. It was, by any standard, a successful book tour and I'm grateful to the folks at St. Martin's who organized it and all those who participated in it to make it a worthwhile trek across the country. Our focus was on the heartland and the east coast and I think we covered those areas very well. I wish, however, that I could have made some stops on the west coast. I have many, many fans there and I apologize that I wasn't able to get to you. I am going to try to make that happen in the next tour!
In December after the tour, Linda and I stayed at our home in the Virgin Islands. The heavy rains in the islands had filled up our cisterns and that was the good news. The bad news was that there was also some flooding that damaged the roads and some homes. Skyridge, however, was in good shape and it didn't take us long to settle in. What a wonderful place it is to rest and relax and contemplate the great swath of sea and islands we can see from our front porch. (Photo 1) We also got to catch up with island friends. One of them—his nickname is "Bite-me" Bill—had quite an adventure to relate. Bill is a great young man with a fishing charter business that specializes in taking tourists out onto the open ocean for some first-class Hemingway-style big game fishing. He has, however, much respect for the ocean and its denizens and, it turns out, a soft heart for at least one great fish, a barracuda that lives in the bay where he ties his boat up at night. This barracuda—let's call him Big Barra— is a giant six-footer who especially liked to nap under Bill's boat. Before long, Big Barra and Bite-me Bill had become friends with Bill often giving the barra the remains of the day's catch. Naturally, the always hungry Big Barra kept an eye on Bill! This was all well and good and both man and fish prospered until one day, things didn't go quite as planned. It seemed Bill had a little trouble with his engine one morning. Feeling the impatience of his party of tourists, Bill hurried the repairs along, then leaned over the side to wash off his hands in the sea. You guessed it! Mister Big Barra was watching, thought Bite-me Bill was offering him some breakfast and went for it. Anyone who knows anything about barracudas will tell you they have the sharpest teeth in the ocean. Linda and I were diving off Guanaja in Honduras some years back and a small barracuda, interested in her bubbles, bit completely through a thick plastic decompression card she had hanging off her regulator. Well, Bite-me Bill's hand was just flesh and bone and Big Barra got him good. He was now Bit-Me Bill with thirty or forty stitches worth! After he got out of the hospital, Bill caught Big Barra on a hook and line, dragged him aboard and gave him a stern lecture before releasing him. I hear now they're still the best of friends.
We returned to Skyridge again in February, this time with our friends we call the Mountain Marauders. These are buddies who grew up with Linda here in Huntsville and now live around the country including a few in Bozeman, Montana. In fact, Frank and Bill, my two dinosaur-hunting buddies, are included in their number and we used the time to plan our dino expeditions for the summer and to celebrate my birthday. (Photo 2) We also accomplished some fantastic snorkeling, diving, and general heck-raising including a trip to the world-famous Willie T's, a watering hole/ship in the British Virgins. You are promised a free t-shirt if you leap off the high flying bridge of the ship naked! I leaped (Photo 3) but my conservative Coalwood upbringing made me keep my trunks on (to the relief of all concerned)!
During everything, I continued to work on The Ambassador's Son but very soon, I was off on another remarkable adventure, this one aboard the United States Coast Guard Cutter RUSH. The skipper of the RUSH read The Keeper's Son, e-mailed me that he thought I had captured life aboard a Coast Guard vessel remarkably well, and I responded with my thanks, noting that I had actually never been aboard a working CG cutter. So it was that Captain Pat Stadt, commander of the RUSH, responded with an invitation to come aboard his cutter which was currently on patrol. Of course, I took him up on it! In early March, I flew to Acapulco, Mexico to catch the cutter while she was in port during part of her anti-drug smuggling patrol. (Photo 4) Below is some of my log:
March 2-5, 2004 - I arrive in Acapulco to be picked up by Captain Stadt. We go immediately to the RUSH where I am piped aboard and given a complete tour of the cutter. I am completely lost but am determined to find my way around. While the RUSH waits for fuel, I go out on the town with her crew. I discover I am three times older than most of them but do my best to keep up. They are a lively bunch with a million questions and I try to answer as many as I can. The famous cliff divers of Acapulco are amazing!
March 6, 2004 - We're on our way! But we don't get far before the RUSH receives a SAR (Search and Rescue) request. A man is in a desperate medical situation aboard a big container ship some miles away. Capt Stadt fires up the twin turbines and the RUSH is true to her name as she rushes ahead to get within range to launch her helicopter to the rescue! This is accomplished, the helo returns with the poor man and we turn around and zoom toward Mexico until we get within helicopter range of a land-based hospital. The crew of the RUSH are cheerful and efficient as they go about their duties. These young men and women are all amazing. They have saved a life and just shrug it off as another day's work.
March 7-10, 2004 - My favorite place aboard the RUSH is the flying bridge. I hang out up there as much as possible with the lookouts. We have some great conversations and get some looking-out done, too! I am finding my way around, getting tours of the engine room, the bridge, engineering, weapons, galley, everywhere. One of the best places to go is the laundry. There, I get to talk to off-duty Coasties about life in the oldest American service. I come away more and more impressed by the dedication to duty of these great young folks.
March 11, 2004 - Yesterday, there was a General Quarters drill. I was on the flying bridge during most of it. The guys were dressed in their fire retardant masks and gloves and manning the guns and binoculars. All very professional and ship-shape! The sea is amazingly alive with red-footed boobies, flying fish, dolphins, and pilot whales.
March 12, 2004 - We are suddenly on an empty sea. Last night, Mister Gephardt taught me a little about the ship's radar. There was nothing out there, only some clutter probably reflected back from the tops of small waves. It is odd to think of such a large space without any sign of human activity but we've spotted nothing all day, not so much as a fisherman or trawler or tanker or anything else. I guess there are highways on the sea and ships tend to follow them. We're cutting across an empty pasture on our trek across the Pacific from Acapulco to Honolulu. Tonight, the Captain and I have dinner with selected crew members in his quarters. I did my best to be interesting and casual, all at the same time.
March 13, 2004 - Saw the green flash at sunset!!!! The Green Flash is an atmospheric phenomenon that occurs usually at sunset under special conditions. I wrote about it in a romantic way in my novel Back to the Moon, saying you had to be in love to see it. I still believe that. But, technically, it's the result of the refraction of the sun's rays at the edge of the sea. If all conditions are perfect, there will be a brief but very definite flash of bright green light before the sun dips below the horizon. It's spectacular! Here's a good site for a fuller explanation: http://mintaka.sdsu.edu/GF/
March 14, 2004 - The sea is a lot bluer, the air a lot warmer. Ran 50 minutes around the gun deck. Life is good on a CG cutter when you don't have any responsibilities! Even got in some good writing today and yesterday.
March 15, 2004 - Real bouncy last night. Captain Stadt says it's mostly because the RUSH is getting lighter as fuel is burned off, causing the cutter to roll more. Fortunately, I've never been seasick in my life so I just enjoy the ride. It's foggy this morning, so much so we had to blow the fog horn. Today was also a live fire test of the M-60 machineguns. Some fun. (Photo 5 & 6) I hadn't fired an M-60 since Vietnam. I hit my targets, then posed for photos, Rambo-style. Next up was boat-helicopter operations. Seaman Anderson, Bosun Billy (driver), and Seaman Ortiz were my shipmates. We went out in the big orange Zodiac, dropped down by sling into the water. We were up against 5-6 foot seas, big chop, some fearsome swells. The helo (pilots Ryan and John) came over and practiced dropping the rescue basket. Everything went well and the training was accomplished. (Photo 7)
March 18, 2004 - Woke up, looked out the porthole, saw many, many lights in the darkness. We're nearing Oahu. Went outside and took pictures as the sun came up. Thousands of twinkling lights on shore. Lighthouse where CG admiral lives. High rises of Honolulu. Diamond Head. The RUSH is home. I will take many memories from my visit aboard her but most of all my pride in these wonderful American boys and girls who are out defending us every day and night. I hope the rest of us can remember to be at least occasionally grateful...
For more information on the RUSH and their magnificent crew, please go to http://www.uscg.mil/pacarea/rush/index.htm.
I wrapped up my RUSH adventure with a few days on Oahu, staying on the Waikiki in Honolulu. My last time there was in 1968 while on R&R from Vietnam. I had to wonder what the young first lieutenant who was once me would have thought had he known that the next time he would return to Hawaii would be as a successful writer aboard a Coast Guard cutter. I doubt that he would have believed it. I scarcely do now!
So now I'm back in Huntsville, working hard on The Ambassador's Son. It's all fun.
I hope you are having a wonderful 2004 as we roll toward summer! Until next time, dear friends and prodigious readers...
I was happy to support Homer’s wonderful adventure aboard the RUSH and keep the office and house going here. Now am getting this newsletter out before I head on my vacation, attending a hiking camp in Utah with girlfriends.
The letters about “One Book, One Community” city reads, schools, book clubs and universities reading Hickam books together continue to amaze us. The most common pick is Rocket Boys, but the others are being read now too. Our new website’s Reading Group button has everything needed to help your group do this also. If you do this, let me know about it as I have more files to share available.
Let me report on our cats too… Our angel kitty Paco’s grave is lovely this spring with daffodils and now red tulips. (Photo 8) It has been almost a year since he left us, but we will always miss his sweetness. Our Sugarcat, diabetic Batman has had trouble regulating his insulin dose but he is always cheerful about all the poking, as long as he receives a bribe of a small bit of tuna! (Photo 9) Of course the others want the “good food” too and it is always a shuffle getting their noses in the correct bowls. Maxx really missed Homer while he was away for so long, as she spends most of the day on his desk next to the computer. (Photo 10) Flopsy often helps me on the computer (Photo 11) We are all happy Dad is home!
As usual, I want to share a few special letters with you. Thank you to all of you who let Homer know his writing pleases! Happy spring, Linda
Homer, I have given many of your books as gifts over the years. My latest gift was of The Keeper's Son to our local pastor. He and I have very different reading tastes - I read almost all non-fiction, history and biography mostly, and he reads novels, often looking for sermon illustrations and quotes. I decided that Keeper's Son was one we might both enjoy so I presented a copy to him a couple months ago.
Well, the last 4 sermons at our church have had quotations from and mentions of your book. The pastor told me it was a great book and he found many nuggets he could use. He really enjoyed your dialog and character descriptions. This was a real treat because I don't think I have ever heard him mentioned any other book maybe more than twice. It was so enjoyable to hear items from one of my favorite books mentioned and have people ask about the book after services. I am looking forward to next installment of the Josh Thurlow series and possibly some more sermons I can particularly enjoy.
Keep up the wonderful writing. Your books are my favorites to both read and give as gifts! MP
Dear Linda, Since you are in charge of this part of your husband's writing life, thought I would just write you and tell you what a joy it was to read The Keeper's Son. I have my mother, sister and one of my friends husbands waiting to read it next. It was so refreshing in this day of blood, guts and sex, to read a book that was certainly not bland, but was full of life, love, war and mystery and done so well. Looking forward to the next in the series. Sincerely, MLN
Dear Mr. Hickam, I just finished reading your Rocket Boys memoir for school and have found myself most inspired. Your words, how they are used in a sentence, captivated me where I couldn't just put the novel down...but had to remain reading it, despite teachers complaints. The way you described Coalwood, the southern part of West Virginia, and the characters names were so vivid that I felt as if I were there. Please, I urge you, though you need no urging, to continue writing novels. I, too, hope to one day become a writer... now that I have found your work... a writer like you. Sincerely, MC