Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Novoirs, the genre that isn't but ought to be

"NOVOIRS" - The Genre That Isn't But Ought to Beby: Homer Hickam
Critique Magazine

On the Set of <i>October Sky</i>Since the publication of my series of books about growing up in the little town of Coalwood, West Virginia, I have been astonished and frankly humbled by the heartfelt messages sent to me from all over the world praising my work. Thousands of people have written to say that these books have given them hope, inspiration, and the realization that dreams can be turned into reality. Although I certainly appreciate these sentiments, I have to confess the letters that make me the happiest are the ones written by readers who tell me they couldn't put my latest book down and that they stayed up all night to finish it. They nearly always add that they were surprised that the book was so compulsively a page-turner because, after all, it was a memoir. I understand very well their surprise. In the last couple of years, many new books in the memoir genre have tended to be a bit tedious, if not outright boring. That's why I'm ready to chuck the subtitle A Memoir on my "Coalwood" books entirely.

It was just a few years back when memoirs became hot properties in the publishing world. Authors who wrote them were considered pioneers working in a new arena of literature. Because of the success of books such as Angela's Ashes and Rocket Boys, publishers hurried to sign up as many writers of memoirs as they could. Sadly, this rush to publish created a spate of depressing, loutish, and self-absorbed writing. Now, when a publisher tags a book with the A Memoir sub-title, readers often subconsciously think Boring. Memoirs, as they have evolved in the last few years, have too often become exercises in arm-waving, self-absorption, and, worse, failures to tell a good story. I therefore propose that a new genre be created for those writers who write non-fiction books in first person but also know how to tell a good, absorbing story. This new genre would be called novoirs, or novel-memoirs.

Novoirs, according to my definition as the coiner of the term, are books that tell interesting true-life stories about people through the eyes of the writer but are written first and foremost to intrigue readers, to get them to turn the first page and then the next and the next until the very end. I am a firm believer that I have a contract with my readers. If they're going to spend good money for one of my books, I'm going to give them the best, most entertaining story I possibly can, no matter what kind of book it is. A good story, well-told, that's my goal, no matter what label the publisher chooses to place on it.

When I began to write Rocket Boys, there was no clear guide as to how to properly write a memoir except as autobiography, usually the province of elder statesmen and people famous for one thing or another. I, on the other hand, was not at all famous. There was not much about me that was of interest but I still thought I had a good, true-life story to tell. As a boy growing up in the coalfields of West Virginia in the 1950's, I built rockets and eventually, along with five other boys, triumphed at a National Science Fair. Although certainly unique, it was essentially a straightforward story. I wanted, however, to do a lot more than just tell my tale in a flat rendition of sequential events. I also wanted to tell the story of Coalwood and the good and noble people who lived there. How to balance the exceptionally clear and strong tale of the Rocket Boys while bringing in the miners, housewives, teachers, preachers, moonshiners, and even prostitutes that were part of the surrounding culture was the challenge. Although it was my plan to tell the story in the voice of the boy I'd once been with all the innocence of the time, I also wanted to write seemingly unwitting humor through my narrator's voice that would allow the occasional belly-laugh by my readers. I also wanted to use that same voice to capture dramatic and mighty moments that might bring the occasional tear trickling down my readers' cheeks. It was quite a challenge but I thought I was up to it, even though I wasn't quite sure how I was going to pull it off. I therefore started to think, always a good idea when you're going to try something new.

After some thought, I realized that there were plenty of other authors who had already accomplished what I intended and done it very well. The only problem was they were writers of fiction. In other words, they made everything up, manipulated events, invented characters, and did anything they wanted to do to advance their story. I couldn't do that, not with a true story. Still, there was no denying what I wanted to write was nothing like a stale autobiography but more like Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and other novels I admired. Accordingly, I took a deep breath and set about writing Rocket Boysusing the techniques of fiction to build my characters and create tension as the events moved along. This included writing down conversations between my young narrator and other characters in the book as I imagined them to be, moving events and situations around here and there to allow the story to build tension, and not shying from taking very real people and combining them into composite characters that I could better manipulate to make the story unfold in an intriguing manner. I did this all for the purpose of creating a good tale, well-told, memoir or no. I also believed that by using these techniques, I could actually come closer to letting the real truth of what happened shine through.

It took a lot of hard work but the result was successful. Rocket Boys, the first in my series, was nominated for the prestigious 1998 National Book Critics Circle award, was designated as one of the Great Books of 1998 by the New York Times, and became a #1 New York Times bestseller. To top all that off, Hollywood produced a well-received, although vastly simplified, version of the story in the major motion picture, October Sky. Soon afterwards, the follow-on book, The Coalwood Way, was published and it also became a bestseller. Now, Sky of Stone, the last in the series, is out. It, like the other Coalwood books, is sub-titled: A Memoir, even though I wish it wasn't.

When I'm out on book tour, I often ask the book-seller where he plans on shelving my Coalwood books after I'm gone. I tell him that it is wonderful how he has my books up front where everybody can see them, but I'm not so foolish to think that's where they're going to stay after I leave. "Well," the book-seller says nearly every time, "I suppose we'll put them on either the Biography shelf or maybe in American History." My response to that is, "Why don't you just take them out on the street and burn them?"

Putting my books on shelves meant for non-fiction history tomes is like putting Huckleberry Finn in the Travel section or To Kill a Mockingbird in with the Law books. In my most persuasive, tactful manner, I suggest to these book-sellers that perhaps they should erect a new shelf, title it Novoirs, and place it, along with the latest fiction, in the brightest part of the book store. There, not only my Coalwood books would be found, but other fine novoirs such as Frank McCourt's 'Tis and Rick Bragg's Ava's Man. (I found McCourt's books, by the way, on the "Irish Studies" shelf in a bookstore in Atlanta. I complained enough that the book store manager promised to move them, but he wouldn't say where).

With Sky of Stone, I asked Delacorte to not add A Memoir as its sub-title. "But that's what it is," my editor argued. "What else would we call it?" When I gave her my novoir idea, she shook her head and said, "There's no such thing!" "Well," I said, "how about we just call it a "Homer" book, then? A lot of my fans do." The icy response was to the effect that there were already "Homer "books, the Illiad and the Odyssey, for instance. A bit exasperated, I told my editor I'd take my chances over the confusion. The conversation, however, such as it was, was over. Sky of Stone, A Memoir is what came rolling off the presses. Look for my page-turner, at its heart a mystery story with far more in common with John Grisham than John Adams, at your local bookstore on the (sigh) Biography or American History shelves.

I am well aware that I will probably continue to fail to win my battle to call my Coalwood books, and books like them, novoirs. But sometimes just putting up a fight is enough. I'm proud of my books and purely pleased to have such a host of enthusiastic readers who have discovered them, no matter what they're called or where they're put on the shelves. For the next year or so, I'm going to be working on a couple of epic novels, pure pieces of fiction, so I won't be fighting this battle. But if I ever decide to write more Coalwood books, I'll keep arguing for the classification of the novoir. I think the original Homer, who also wrote a couple of page-turners and would probably hate to see them on the dull old Classics shelves, would at least admire my pluck. 

NOTE:  Recently, after some demand by fans, agents, and publishers, I decided to write another novoir.  The result was Paco: The Cat Who Meowed in Space.  

It is a Kindle Single, the short form ebooks being pioneered by Amazon.com, and I decided this is where I wanted to go with the new work.  Since I wrote the above piece about novoirs back in 2003, the publishing world has been turned on its head several times.  The traditional gatekeepers of the old-line New York publishers have lost much of their power and the brick and mortar bookstores, including the big chains, are struggling for survival.  As an author who thrived in the old publishing world, it's tempting to hang onto the past and hope the template for publication and distribution of my books will continue as it always has.  But I pay attention and I know that just isn't going to happen.  Ebooks are rapidly eroding sales of paper books.  Editors in the big publishing houses are increasingly bypassed  for self-editing and self-publication by fresh, new authors.  Amazon is coming on like a colossus and they're not taking prisoners.  It's a company which is nimble, always innovating,  and with its Kindle reader and such programs as Kindle Singles stands to take over the book world.  They won't, of course.  Other companies will figure it all out and come roaring back.  In the meantime, however, writers such as myself who are well established in the old publishing world are experimenting with the brave new world of e-publishing and thus my Paco mini-memoir/novoir, sold for only $1.99 on Amazon.  So far, I have to say, the experiment has been very successful.  A side benefit to prodigious sales is that Paco is not on the History shelves.  In fact, it's not on any shelf at all.  I kind of like that.

Sunday, April 15, 2012



We're sponsoring a contest for garage or professional bands to enter.  All they have to do is record a song  based on the lyrics of "Moon Dust Girl" in Homer Hickam's big new science fiction novel CRATER.

Go here to watch the book trailer for Crater.  And go here to see the interactive site. 

Crater is the name of a 16-year old boy who lives in a Helium-3 mining town on the moon.  Among his other attributes, Crater has a band that mostly sings "Lunarian Country" but also in other styles.   He sings "Moon Dust Girl" to a very special young lady at the Earthrise Bar & Grill in Moontown where he lives and works.

Here are the lyrics:

All I want is a Moon Dust girl,
Down in a crater waitin' for love.
All I want is a Moon Dust girl,
Kissin' me 'neath the world above.

All I need is a Moon Dust girl,
Makes workin' in the dust almost fun.
All I need is a Moon Dust girl,
Scrapes Heel-3 up by the megaton.

Now I have a Moon Dust girl,
Puts her helmet next to mine.
Now I have a Moon Dust girl,
She's one sixth gravity fine.

The idea is for bands to use the lyrics as a starting point.  They can add any chorus they want and tweak the words any way it helps them musically.  But context is everything so reading the book is a good idea for entrants.

The rules are pretty simple.  Video your song and put it up on Youtube or any other Internet site where we can find it.  Let us know where it is by emailing us at h3hickam@homerhickam.com.  We'll view it and you'll be in the running for the prizes which will be:

An autographed and inscribed set of Homer's Crater, Rocket Boys, and The Dinosaur Hunter plus Facebook and Twitter publicity (Homer has 5,000 friends on FB plus another 4,000 at his official page).  We'll also announce the winner nationally in a press release.

By sending us your song, you automatically give us permission to put it up on our website, Facebook, Twitter, or any other placement we wish.  However, it's your song.  If you want to record it professionally, you have our permission to take the lyrics and run with them!

Deadline is May 15, 2012!  Now, get out there, write your song, and create, create, create!!!! 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Homer and Linda Hickam Spring 2012 Newsletter


Dear Gentle and Prodigious Readers,

A wary reader considers Homer's new novel.
"Well, I loved his other books so OK..."
Linda and I are always happy to see spring come to north Alabama. It is a beautiful time of blooming dogwoods, redbud, daffodils, tulips, and phlox.  We didn't have much of a winter here (which could mean lots of bugs this summer) but still spring was welcome.  Although there is always a great deal of work to be done, we like to take a moment and just savor life and all its beauty.  We hope you will do the same.


We're pleased to announce the publication of Crater, my long-anticipated young adult novel!  Publication day is April 10, when it should be in all of the book stores including Sam's Club, of which we are proud! It is the story of an orphan boy named Crater in a mining town on the moon 120 years in the future.  Although uncertain of himself, and a bit shy, Crater is given the task by the owner of the mine to join a convoy of biofuel cell-powered trucks to cross a thousand miles of the Lunar wayback and then go into space to recover a secret artifact.  Along the way, Crater encounters subhuman warriors sent from Earth who are determined to kill him.  When he isn't dodging knives and darts from electric guns, Crater is also trying to figure out his romantic feelings for Maria, his fellow convoy scout. Helping him in every way is his gillie, a sentient clump of slime mold, and Pegasus, a warhorse imported from Earth.  Can you imagine what a horse could do in the low gravity of the moon. . . or how and why one would be there?  Crater has gotten great reviews and I hope you'll consider getting a copy not only for yourselves but your children and grandchildren.  If they can read Harry Potter, they can read Crater.  There's nothing offensive in it, just a great adventure for all ages.  The publisher is, after all, Thomas Nelson which is known for great books with fine content.

For more on Crater on our website and where it can be purchased online plus ebooks and audiobooks, please go here.

The exciting Book Trailer, like a movie trailer, for Crater is here, please have a look.

Our little Curly Bill is VERY proud of the Helium -3 series and is helping with the second book.
Ok, after seeing THAT, Crater WOULD make a great movie wouldn’t it?  Already, whole classrooms are picking Crater to read together, and the publisher has developed a wonderful fun and educational website to support this book and the other two in the series. Go here to have a look at the website. I recommend you show this site to teachers and home school parents who are interested in teaching about the moon and spaceflight to their students.  It's an excellent resource and very fun with games and videos of the landing on the moon that will bring back great memories for those of us around when the magnificent Apollo program happened. 
Where were YOU when we landed on the moon? :)

Rocket Man Tim Pickens with HIS autographed book.
A surprise T-shirt Linda made for me. What a great wife!
For those folks interested in autographed and personalized  first edition copies of Crater, Linda now has her own little on-line bookstore called KnowInk!  See her section below with details on how to order, and remember, when you're stuck for a gift, there's always a signed Homer Hickam book. Click on the gift box at the top of www.homerhickam.com for the list of all fourteen of my books available to be personalized and autographed for that special gift.

As a reminder, in our special newsletter sent out only a few weeks ago, we told you about my memoir Paco: The Cat Who Meowed in Space, a brand new Kindle Single ebook.  I'm happy to say you've kept Paco in the top 30 Kindle Singles ever since!  I'm so glad you enjoyed my true story of our special cat whose meow saved a NASA mission!  This mini-memoir also told about my early years at NASA. For those who haven’t read it yet, it's only $1.99 and you can get it instantly on your e-reader from Amazon here:

By the way, if you don't have a Kindle or another kind of compatible e-reader, you can still read Paco by downloading the free Kindle app on your computer, and can even print it out then.  Go here, then to the Amazon link above to order.

Lots of things to tell you but I'm working on the second Crater/Helium-3 novel with a short deadline.  We'll cover everything in our next newsletter with some exciting news on Rocket Boys The Musica!  One thing is that it will be performed again at Theatre West Virginia, August 1- 16 so start making plans to attend. I don't think they are set up by e-tix yet but by calling you may be able to reserve tickets. Also news to know ahead of time is that Coalwood has decided not to have their festival this year. They love to see everyone, but just don’t have enough people to handle it. But nearby Beckley, WV has stepped up and they have a yearly chili cook off going at the same time and would like to have a Rocket Boys/October Sky Festival with it. October 5, Friday will be the date so plan on further news about that.  We will attend, of course, and so will the other Rocket Boys!   Linda and I are also heading to Italy with the Rocket City Glass Girls in June.  We'll be sure to give you a full report about that!

Your writer and friend,

Homer Hickam


Hi everyone, yes, very, very busy here with mailing out your orders – keep them coming – and helping Homer promote his new books, as well as our usual office mail and TAXES, ouch, hate that. I am the bookkeeper too. Anything that helps Homer write, I am that person. Keeps me sitting a lot more than I want to, but it is always interesting.


If you want autographed, personalized copies of any Hickam books, here I am with my little bookstore KnowInk!  Of course the hot “must have” book is Crater, especially when autographed and personalized by Homer, with the special authenticity embossed seal (we have seen forged signatures). Cost is $18, with $6 priority shipping, so a total of $24. Be sure to add the information about who it is to be inscribed to and let us know if it is an occasion such as a birthday. :) For more than one book, shipping is increased to $11 but I can put up to six books in the box for that price and that could be any book. Just email me if confused. LTerry@Hiwaay(nospam).net - PLEASE remove no spam.
April says, "Buy my daddy's book, or I flat keel you."
 Crater/Rocket Boys April Special:  My April Special!  Crater AND Rocket Boys (trade version), BOTH autographed and personalized for $32, shipping included. Normally $42, so a savings of $10! April only and only this combination of books.

Crater/Paco Special:  OK, this one's complicated, so stick with me as I explain.  To celebrate the first time Homer has two new books out at the same time, I am offering a special discount on autographed copies of Crater for those folks who have also read Paco: The Cat Who Meowed in Space.  I am going to subtract the full price of Paco from your order of Crater! Just let us know your Order number for Paco and you'll get the price of Paco, $2, off of Crater!  So Paco is free and Crater autographed is only $16 plus mailing.  It's easy to do.  Go to Amazon.com, click on "Your Account," then click on "Your Orders," then "Your Digital Orders." and let me know your order number for Paco.

So how to order?  It's simple.  Just write your check or money order to Linda Hickam and mail it here:

Linda Hickam
2124 Cecil Ashburn Dr Suite #100
Huntsville, AL 35802

Yes, those numbers are correct in the address.  Confusing, sorry, but that's the way it has to be!

Knowink's very capable mailing and packing department.
For those who want to use credit cards, email me at LTerry@Hiwaay(nospam).net - PLEASE remove (no spam) - and I'll tell you how to pay with your credit card.  Forgive me for this added step but I'm not quite set up yet for you to enter your credit card number on-line.  We'll get there, I swan! 


Mango in April
The cats, well that IS a story!  First, prayers for my most special darling orange tabby boy Mango, as he is having bad heart problems again.  We have been stabilizing him with shots of lasix but his problems are very serious.  We just love on him as much as he will tolerate. But he is a strong boy and has a will to live and love, so we keep hope he will stay with us a long time more.

Some of the 40 Limestone abandoned kitties.
On Valentine's Day, Homer and I, working for Forgotten Felines,  went out to an deserted and ramshackle druggie’s house to evaluate a report of abandoned pet cats. We found what eventually turned out to be nearly forty friendly cats living in squalor in a frigid, junk-strewn open house with no food or water. Many were Siamese and Manxes but most were silver tabbies. Since we'd brought food, we were able to feed them all though there was little we could about their awful living conditions.   

Mom Molly and her three kittens.
We also found four tiny kittens on a filthy sheet. Immediately we put them and the mom in a carrier in our warm car.  We also took along a blind male kitty. The momcat, soon to be named Molly, was sweet and so thankful for a warm and safe place for her babies. When we took her and the kittens to the vet that night, she was negative for disease (hooray!) but all needed eye meds and antibiotics for an upper respiratory infection. Sadly, the blind cat was very sick and he and the weakest kitten died. 
Faced with a desperate situation, we enlisted our friends at Forgotten Felines and much of the Huntsville/Madison County pet rescue folks.  Soon, we had a ChipIn fund going to donate for the care of all of these cats, all of whom were eventually rounded up and put into foster care for adoption.  Our kittens found good homes (well, two kittens stayed with us!) and the mom cat found a great home too. The full story is here and additional donations are gratefully accepted. Our new kittens were named by Homer for outlaws, which is fitting, as at eleven weeks they are getting pretty rowdy. Formerly nicknamed The Adorables, we are now calling them The Wrecking Crew! The blackish one is Curly Bill and the Siamese is Wyatt. The other cats are starting to tolerate them, at least!
It is hard to get good kitchen help, but we did.
Summer and China enjoy eating the wheat grass Linda grows for them.

Bonefish mobile $38.
Besides all of Homer's stuff, I'm staying really busy with my Rocket City Glass Girls fused glass art, getting ready for our big April art show, where we are proud to be asked to be their Featured Artists. Please ask to join us on Facebook, RocketCityGlassGirls, to see our work, and anything you see there could be yours, as we can ship after our show April 27!  We have plates, wonderful jewelry, mobiles and windchimes and much much more. We are HOT about warm glass!
Some dichroic glass pendants on leather, $36
Shade plants ready for Linda to plant around our little goldfish pond.

Happy spring indeed!