Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dinosaurs, Anyone?

We're delighted to have a friend of the Playground back with us today. He's quite the Renaissance man in both his private and professional lives and is sharing about his latest release, which is quite a departure from his previous works. He'll explain the how and why below. We're having a cold snap here. Oh heck, who am I kidding. It's freaking freezing! So we've built a roaring fire to warm the place up for you and our special guest Homer Hickam.

After Red Helmet, my romantic coal country novel written for Thomas Nelson, and My Dream of Stars, the memoir I co-wrote with Anousheh Ansari for Palgrave-McMillan, I was itching for a change of pace in my writing. Publishers, of course, hate this. They like to pigeonhole their authors in specific genres because that's the easiest way to market them. When you see a book by John Grisham, Dan Brown, James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, and so forth, you can be pretty sure what you're going to get. A quick check of my backlist, however, and you see nonfiction military history, memoirs, techno-thrillers, historical fiction, self-help, and romantic fiction. This is a failing in marketing but I have to follow my heart where it leads.

My next book was one I had agreed to write for the Thomas Dunne imprint of St. Martin's Press. I'd already written for them the rough and tumble series that included The Keeper's Son, The Ambassador's Son, and The Far Reaches about Josh Thurlow, a hard-drinking, womanizing fellow who is slowly going mad in the South Pacific of World War II. Actually, I consider these three novels to be my most literary works and underappreciated. They delve deeply into the hearts and souls of men and women thrust into the crucible of war. They are Heart of Darkness times three. Sometimes Josh and his compatriots make my readers cry, sometimes they make them laugh, but they are always interesting. These novels have sold well enough but I still consider them undiscovered gems that may resurface after I'm gone to that great bookstore in the sky. To the astonishment, amazement, and delight of American Literature professors of the future, I think these novels will remake my reputation. Well, we like to dream.

Anyway, I get passionate about things. It's just the way I am. For the last dozen years, my most passionate sideline has been hunting dinosaur bones in Montana and I'm pretty good at it, having found two Tyrannosaurs out of the 38 ever found. This began honestly enough when Joe Johnston, the director of October Sky (based on my memoir Rocket Boys otherwise known as Homer's little annuity), was hired to direct Jurassic Park III. Joe was going into the field to research the script so I tagged along with him into the bone-rich ranchlands of eastern Montana. Once there, three things happened: I fell in love with hunting ancient bones, I fell in love with the Montana ranchlands, and, most importantly, I fell in love with the people who live there.

Not counting their pickup trucks and 4-wheelers, the people who live in those rugged badlands and ranchlands live the pioneer life of the 19th Century. Their lives revolve around their families, their land, and their cows (not cattle - call them that and they know you're an outsider). Garfield County, their home, is the size of Connecticut which has around 3.5 million people. The population of the county, however, is less than 1000. Their nearest neighbors are generally 30-40 miles away. What they do is raise cows while being fiercely protective of their property. I liked them immediately but it took a while to be accepted. I am dogged, however, and after a few years in search of the elusive and wily dinos, the cowboys and cowgirls of Garfield County gradually became my friends. Good researcher that I am, I began to peel back their lives, their loves, and their secrets. And, of course, I wanted to write about them.

But how to write about these marvelous folks? I briefly considered a memoir, telling in a humorous way my sometimes bumbling, sometimes successful attempts to discover dinosaurs while also becoming a friend of these isolated ranch folks. This was tempting as my memoirs always sell very well but, after giving it some thought, I decided nonfiction would be considered too intrusive by my new Montana friends. I therefore decided to write about them in a fictional genre I hadn't yet touched: Mystery. My editor at St. Martin's gave my idea the go-ahead and I set about it.

All my other novels have been written in third person and that was the way I began the novel that would become The Dinosaur Hunter. But as I got into it, one of my minor characters kind of sat up and started talking. His name was Mike Wire and he was the top hand at the Square C Ranch owned by Jeanette Coulter, a dour, spunky widow, and Ray, her teenage son. Against all reason, Mike was in love with Jeanette, an affection that was decidedly not returned. I woke up one morning and threw the hundred pages I'd written away and just let Mike tell the story. And did he ever! I learned, to my surprise, that he was a former Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective who'd also worked as a private eye for Hollywood. Retired by a gunshot to the stomach and disgust with the film industry, Mike had escaped to Montana to pine over Jeanette and look after Ray and the people of that land he had come to love. Enter a young paleontologist by the appropriate name of Dr. "Pick" Pickford, and his two lovely female dinosaur diggers, and the story gets going. Murder and mayhem ensue, not to mention what has been called one of the most unusual and oddly erotic romantic moments in a cow barn yet written in a popular novel.

Happily, my foray into the mystery genre has worked as The Dinosaur Hunter, out on Nov. 9, 2010, is selling very well. It has even been picked up by The Mystery Guild Book club as one of their alternate selections! To my surprise, it's been included into yet another popular genre, the western. In fact, it's been one of the top western best-sellers on Amazon for weeks! Holy Larry McMurtry! Carolyn See, the always tough reviewer for The Washington Post, loved the novel but thought it was one for the guys more than the gals. Based on my correspondence, I don't think that's so if, for no other reason, that
passionate, odd, peculiar, and somewhat scatological romantic scene in the barn already mentioned. And if that's not enough to get you to read The Dinosaur Hunter (or get it as a gift for that special reader), I guess I've missed my calling.

Oooooooooookay. I received a couple of book store gift cards and I'm pretty darned sure how I'm going to use them now. ;-)

Leave a comment and tell us where your heart leads you. One commenter will win a copy of The Dinosaur Hunter. Lucky you, whoever you are.


runner10 said...

My heart always leads me home to my family.

Smarty Pants said...

Welcome back, Homer!

I've always had a thing for religious history / archaeology but its such a detailed and complicated topic, I'd be afraid to tackle it as a subject in my books. I just watch a lot of the History Channel and dream about having the leisurely opportunity to go back to school for a degree in ancient religions.

I do keep notes, though, on things I see on TV that might be useful someday, like the 7 wonders of the ancient world, the Devil's Bible, Jack the Ripper... there's always something to spark an idea out there.

Angel said...

How totally cool! I love this idea and can't wait to read the book. And it is always good to have a book idea to gift the men in my family.

Hmmm.... interests I would pursue if given the chance??? Philosophy. I loved my one philosophy class in college and enjoy pondering various world views. Unfortunately, the hectic pace of my life doesn't allow for a lot of deep thinking, so it will probably have to wait until I'm retired. :)


Diana Layne said...

I love dinosaurs! How unique!

Lisa Alexander Griffin said...

Homer lived in and around my area of Alabama for a while. There is truly no place like home. lol.

Jeannie Lin said...

Mr. Homer Hickam? Is it really, really you?!

I used to show October Sky in my science classes before science fair. It was always so inspirational for them to see the larger scope and potential of what they were working on. Sure there were still plenty of the "measuring mold growth from your fridge" experiments, but your story provoked many of my students to aim higher in their inquiries. (This did result in several lab explosions and mishaps that had me biting my nails as a science teacher. Everyone was wearing safety goggles, thank goodness!)

Thank you for your wonderful stories and I'm so glad to see that you're continuing to tell new ones.

Homer Hickam said...

Jeannie, it's really me. There is a writing life for this author post the classic October Sky/Rocket Boys, I swan. Hope you take a look at the other books. I note your webpage and am thrilled you are writing and writing well. Thanks to all for welcoming me back to the Playground. Lisa, I still live in Huntsville although we have a place in St. John, USVI, we occasionally escape to. Our Holiday Newsletter can be found here:

Playground Monitor said...

Lately I've been intrigued by law and have looked into programs for becoming a paralegal. However, I'm just not sure I want to go back to school and graduate as a 62-year-old trying to compete in today's job market.

I'm like Smarty Pants in that I keep an idea file. Lots of those ideas have been turned into short stories.

And yes, Virginia... er... Jeannie, there really is a Homer Hickam. ;-)

Playground Monitor said...

Oops! I see Homer answered Jeannie directly while I was on hold (and hold and hold and hold and hold) with my bank.


My writing heart takes me all over the place. Although I understand author branding, I don't care for it. My writing might be contemporary, paranormal, mystery or historical, but it's always romantic and humorous.

Homer Hickam said...

Here's a review of The Dinosaur Hunter from a fellow blog writer who lives on an isolated farm and absolutely loves writing and reading.

It's nice to get good reviews from professional reviewers but nicer still to get one from a reader who loves to read and reads so much she knows what she's talking about.

On being branded as an author, it's been a struggle to put Rocket Boys/October Sky behind me in terms of how I am perceived. I am often introduced on radio or television shows as a NASA engineer. Period. After that, it's a struggle to get back to the topic, i.e., the last book I wrote which had zero to do with NASA or Rocket Boys/October Sky. Most authors would kill to have my problem, I know, because at least I get to talk about my books, anyway. But it is a misperception I have to deal with.

Jeannie Lin said...

Thank you Mr. Hickam! And I'll definitely take a look at The Dinosaur Hunter. The background you describe is so fascinating.

My heart leads me to the intersection of cultures. I'm always fascinated about comparing and contrasting Eastern and Western culture and where they connect.

Problem Child said...

Welcome back, Homer! We're always thrilled to have you here.

If I could go back to school and study without the tests and papers and things, I'd study Religion and Art. I think it would go nicely with all that literature I studied, and I just find those two things fascinating!

Vicki said...

I just want to say it is really cool you are blogging today. Just watched "October Sky" for the millionth time the other day. Love the movie and your story. Thanks!

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

Sounds like one of those books I'll be buying for my sweetie and stealing back later. Thanks!

Linda Henderson said...

For many years I lived away from my family so when I divorced my husband I came back home. There is no place like home. As far as dinosaurs go, my grandson is crazy about dinosaurs. He likes to draw them and he can spell their names too, he's seven now, but when he started drawing and spelling them he was 6. He has said at different times that he wants to be a palentologist.

catslady said...

Well I've always enjoyed variety and it sounds like you do too. It also sounds like you write about what you know. I think dinosaurs are always a fascinating subject for most people. Congrats on finding two Tyrannosaurs - that's quite a feat! And I'm sure your passions show through in your books. Your books sound like great reads.

Homer Hickam said...

I've loved all the comments here. That's why I like to write for the Playground. I learn things! Jeannie, the intersection of cultures is always intriguing to me, too. That's one of the reasons I had Song, a Chinese-American, as one of the main characters in Red Helmet which is set in, wait for it, West Virginia! I was pleased that Vietnam brought out Rocket Boys last year. Linda and I went there to celebrate that. I'm a Vietnam vet so it was a special thing and I may write about that. I spent some years in Japan training their first astronauts so someday, after a few more people go to that great space station in the sky, I'll write a memoir about that. The folks in eastern Montana are a culture unto themselves and learning about them and writing about them was a real treat for me.