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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
2003 


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.

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