Wednesday, December 15, 2010
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.