Homer Hickam is probably best known for his classic memoir Rocket Boys which was made into the 1999 movie October Sky. He is also a bestselling and award-winning author of more than a dozen other books including his military history Torpedo Junction and his popular “Josh Thurlow” World War II series that began with The Keeper’s Son. He is a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, a scuba instructor, an avid amateur paleontologist (which explains his novel The Dinosaur Hunter), and loves reading, his wife, and cats (which explains his mini-memoir Paco: The Cat Who Meowed in Space). He is also an engineer who designed rockets for the U.S. Army Missile Command and trained astronauts for NASA. He is the recipient of Alabama’s Distinguished Service Award for his underwater rescue work, was picked to carry the Olympic torch during the Atlanta games, and selected for many other honors. Most of all, he loves to write which is what he does for a living.
1. How has the world of publishing changed from an author’s point of view since you published your first piece?
There have been five huge changes, four of them related, since Torpedo Junction was published in 1989.
(1) First was the successful war against independent book stores by the chains in the 1990′s. Few indies survived the onslaught by Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books-a-Million. This meant many midstream writers lost their venues as the chains focused on a few best-selling authors.
(2) Next came the rise of the Internet which put vast quantities of reading material in the hands of readers, material that came from everywhere including individuals with no ties to the publishing or news industry and largely out of the hands of the bookstores.
(3) The Internet sparked the emergence of e-books.
(4) The Internet and e-books combined to devastate the chain bookstores.
(5) The publishing gatekeepers, meaning the big New York publishers, became weaker, the cracks in their empire just now becoming evident. Amazon.com began to exponentially increase in importance.
Prediction for the future: Independent bookstores will rise from the ashes of the chains. The big New York publishers will attempt to survive by merging but will eventually totter and fall. Smaller, nimbler publishers will rise to take their place. Amazon will keep getting bigger until a smarter, more user-friendly version starts competing.
2. What kinds of social media do you use? How early did you adopt them?
3. Of all the stories you’ve written, which is your favorite?
I think Sky of Stone. Overshadowed by Rocket Boys, it is the third in my memoir series and sadly overlooked by most readers. It was an intricate mystery that took all my skill as a writer to pull off. It should have won the Pulitzer.
Maybe just one. Paco: The Cat Who Meowed in Space is a memoir not only of my marvelous and magic cat Paco but also of my early days working for NASA. Ultimately, it’s a story of triumph for a fluffy black and white cat and a sick astronaut.
5. What was the process that took Rocket Boys to the big screen?
It was a most peculiar process. The book was optioned before I’d finished writing it! Universal Studios bought it based on an outline I did (called a treatment in Hollywood) and filming started well before publication. That’s one of the reasons why the film is so different from the book in many important respects. I tried to revise the screenplay to more closely track the memoir and succeeded somewhat but not entirely. The new musical is entirely based on the book.
6. What was it like seeing your work performed as a musical?
Surreal, just as it was to see it in the form of a movie. However, as a writer, I can take a step back and objectively look at the manner in which these very different art forms are applied to my work. There are many things I admire about the movie October Sky. Of course, I admire the musical because I helped write the stageplay.
7. With such an impressive list of works, how many people do you have around you to handle all the details like maintaining the website and communicating with all your fans?
One, my wife Linda who answers all the fan mail, publishes our newsletters, and even maintains an online Homer Hickam bookstore!
8. What are the worst conditions under which you’ve ever had to write?
Noise and physical discomfort don’t bother me much when I write. I wrote a fair portion of Back to the Moon while workers were jackhammering up my old driveway. I find it harder to write when I’m in the midst of promoting an earlier work. For instance, right now I’m writing the second Helium-3 novel which is due very soon while promoting Crater, the first in the series. It’s tough writing a novel while not certain the one it’s based on is being properly marketed and read.
9. What’s the most pleasant writing environment you’ve ever experienced?
Time to work makes for a pleasant writing environment and I had the most time available to me in writing Rocket Boys. The publisher set no hard deadline. They just wanted to make sure I wrote it the way I wanted to write it. I savored that and I think it shows in the work.
Eastern Montana in Garfield County which is the size of Connecticut. Only about 900 people live there but about 100,000 cows. I called it Fillmore County in The Dinosaur Hunter. It’s a great place to hang out and hunt dinos.
11. What are your favorite places to scuba dive?
My early diving career included the awesome wrecks of Cape Hatteras, the vast coral reefs of the Red Sea, and the vivid islands of Honduras. These days, all my diving is done near our home in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, and I love it.
12. Have you ever combined scuba diving and dinosaur hunting?
No but my diving has allowed me to identify certain mollusk fossils formed during the Cretaceous because, even after 65,000,000 years, they’ve changed very little.
13. What are your favorite places to meet fans?
Anywhere but I am always thrilled to be on an airplane or on a beach or even in a coffee shop and see somebody reading one of my books.
This particular week I’m staying home working on Crater2 except to go running in the nearby woods and giving graduation speeches at local schools.
15. Were you able to see the eclipse this past weekend?
No. I was so deep into Crater2 I forgot about it.
16. What are your favorite SciFi terms or inventions that are used by multiple authors?
I don’t know about favorite terms or inventions but my eye and brain tend to get caught on basic errors by many of these writers. They don’t seem to have a proper appreciation for the harshness of space or the technology it takes to keep humans alive within it. They also don’t understand what happens to the human body in a vacuum. It isn’t pretty but eyeballs don’t bulge and nobody actually explodes. A quick tutorial. Boyle’s Law (pressure and volume vary inversely) applies to gases, not liquids. That means astronauts get decompression sickness (the gas in the blood comes out in the form of bubbles which is not a good thing) just like scuba divers. Also, low gravity causes muscle and bone density loss plus weakens the heart. I account for all that in Crater.
17. Are there any terms you’ve coined that you’d like to see catch on across the genre?
I don’t know about the genre but I anticipate that miners in space might eventually use some of the mining terms I’ve coined in Crater. “Scrag” is what I call the residue of moon mining and used as a common expletive in Crater. ”She don’t know scrag,” for instance. The Helium-3 mines are called “scrapes.” Piled-up dust is called a “tent.” Cellular pressure suits are called “biolastic.” Also, the bio-computer that keeps Crater company is called a “gillie,” which is sort of Gaelic for servant.
18. In your book Crater (Which the Liftport Book Club will be discussing on Monday May 28 at 8:30 pm Eastern Time, 5:30 pm Pacific Time) the moon has a space elevator. What kind of research did you do to write about this technology?
I read some books about space elevators and sorted through the stuff on the Internet. Eventually, I tried to think through the engineering for myself. The more I thought about it, the more I understood how difficult space elevators will be to build. A very good business case will have to be made for them, that much is certain, but the business case is certainly going to be easier on the moon because of its lighter gravity.
No. he worked in Houston where I think he trained astronauts to fly in those neat little T-38 jets. I worked in Huntsville and trained the astronauts how to perform science in orbit, how to live in space, and how to work outside to accomplish such tasks as fixing the Hubble Space Telescope.
20. Who shot first, Han or Greedo?
Han, of course. It was written that way before the character was fully developed and Lucas didn’t have enough money to reshoot it (and the schedule was also too tight). We book writers have the luxury of changing a character as we go along and it doesn’t cost anything!
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