Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Novel Road Interview: Robert Hicks - Part 1

Part 1
   Only the very best authors can make history come alive. It takes more than sets of facts, dates or settings. It takes a style and voice that carries the reader to that time and place.

  The author that writes about history revels in learning about the past. The author that writes historic fiction reveals it. They must, to give a character life as an individual, whether hero or common.

  A special class of these authors don’t just use history as a setting, they take historical events and bring them alive. Through this uncommon breed of author, we are able feel both time and circumstance. My guest today and tomorrow is author Robert Hicks. He can transport you back in time like only a few historical fiction authors can. He is of that special class…

First a bit about my guest from his website:

Go to fullsize image       “I was born and raised in South Florida. My parents filled our home with books. When I was sick and stayed home from school, my dad would give me volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica or Bartlett's Familiar Quotations to cuddle up in bed with, instead of a diet of TV. Books were held to be sacred and precious. Christmases and birthdays were always times of book-giving and book-receiving. One of the first books to have a lasting impact on me (beyond the Bible, which seems to have anchored every Southern home of my generation) was Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels. I still attribute my passion for travel and adventure to the nights I fell asleep reading of Halliburton's world-wide adventures.
      Many of my lifelong favorites can be found on any seventh or eighth grade reading list of my time: C. S. Lewis' SPACE TRILOGY, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and ALL THE KING'S MEN taught me about the value of goodness and truth. MOBY DICK and LORD OF THE FLIES, taught me to read. Ayn Rand's ANTHEM made me think about what it meant to be an individual. All these were to impact my life forever.
      In high school I discovered biography, reading books about Robert E. Lee, NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDER and the CONFESSIONS by St. Augustine to name a few. This passion for biography has continued through the years with books like Peter Guralnick's two-volume biography of Elvis; to a recent read, SURVIVING THE CONFEDERACY, about Roger and Sarah Pryor.
    James Webb's FIELDS OF FIRE had a profound impact on me, since it brought me closer to the idea that I might be a writer someday myself. His most recent book, BORN FIGHTING, has taught me a bit more about myself through my cultural heritage. I struggled through William Faulkner's THE SOUND AND THE FURY in college, but once I was done, I was hooked on Faulkner forever.
    While my taste ranges from Smith's VITRUVIUS ON ARCHITECTURE to John Ruskin's THE STONES OF VENICE, I can get hooked on poplar culture like anyone else and was absorbed enough after reading John Berendt's MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL to make the mandatory pilgrimage to Savannah.
    Point is, my reading interests remain as encyclopedic as the books my dad left on bedside table so many years ago.
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Cleburne at the
battle of Franklin
    In 1974 I moved to Williamson County, Tennessee []. Then in 1979 I moved to 'Labor in Vain,' a late-eighteenth-century log cabin on the edge of the woods, in a hollow near Leiper's Fork, Tennessee.

    Working as a music publisher and in artist management in both country and rock music, my interests remain broad and varied. A partner in the B. B. King's Blues Clubs [] in Nashville, Memphis and Los Angeles, I serve as 'Curator of Vibe' of the corporation.
    Born out of my passion for this life – throughout all the ages, I'm a collector, by nature. I've collected since I was a kid. It began with fossilized shells from our driveway to rocks and leaves and baseball cards to books, 18th century maps of Tennessee, Tennesseana in general, Southern decorative arts and material culture, to Outsider Art. I am surrounded by collections. A friend says the next thing I bring home must come with a crow bar to get it into my cabin. My older brother once said that I'd "inherited more of the 'hunter-gatherer' genes than most other kids."
    In the field of historic preservation, I have served on the Boards of Historic Carnton Plantation [], the Tennessee State Museum, The Williamson County Historical Society, and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. []”

I’m very pleased to welcome Robert Hicks to The Novel Road…

Go to fullsize imageMe: I think you are a master of walking the line between fact and fiction. How hard is it to keep the story balanced with Historical fact? Where do you draw the line?

Robert: I guess I draw the line where the facts end. When I decided to write The Widow of the South, even though I probably know more about Carrie McGavock than any other person on earth, all I know about her could fill several pages. She never wrote about herself or her motivations. I could tell you every known detail about her life, but the real substance of her being was lost. 

   When I started out, all I really wanted to do was to tell the story about this forgotten battle and this forgotten woman. Despite the many books that "covered" the facts of the battle, historians had doomed the battle into the 'forgotten file.'

   I believed Franklin and Carrie were worthy of becoming fiction. I wanted to tell a story about how ordinary people, caught up in this extraordinary event, were forever changed, transformed, damaged, made-whole and all the rest. 

   Recently, my editor told me that transformation and redemption are at the core of everything I write. I wanted to take offense, but, the more I thought about it, the more I realized she is right. 

   As much as I wanted folks to know about the Battle of Franklin, somewhere through the process of writing, I realized I wanted to do more, that I wanted to tell a story about how it transformed those caught up in it all -- How ordinary folks were redeemed -- How we can be redeemed.

   I believe you can tell far more truth with fiction than you can with 'just the facts.' Isn't that what Shakespeare does? Historic Fiction can draw us into history as it weaves its story. But, more than that, unlike non-fiction, fiction is about us – the reader. It calls us, by example, to be better men and women, or, in the case of someone like Richard III, it gives us an example of who not to be. 

Go to fullsize image   Maybe the historians have it right. Maybe Richard III loved children – Maybe Macbeth had a good soul and Lady Macbeth loved to needlepoint. But the truth is Richard III, Macbeth – each and everyone one of them – are so lucky they had Shakespeare. With his pen, Shakespeare has breathed life into them down through the ages. Let the historians weed through it all, but they live on because of fiction. 

   Point of all this is to say, I am far less afraid, two novels later, about the issue of facts -vs- fiction than I am in failing to tell a good tale about transformation and redemption. I'll leave it to the historians to get it straight. 

Me: John Bell Hood was emblematic, if not a metaphor, for the earnest will of the South during the Civil War. He, along with General John Buford of the North (who I’d love to see given his due one day) are mostly over looked. Who else would you like to see have their contributions brought to light?
Robert: There are a host of men and women who have slipped through the cracks of Civil War history. As much as Civil War historians seem obsessed to count generals on the heads of pins, they seem to have created a very selective history. 
   No one has ever asked me this and I’ve never given any thought to whom else. I guess I would begin with a fairer look at Longstreet. Maybe Arthur MacArthur?
   I wrote about Hood because I was still eaten up with the Battle of Franklin and in the aftermath of Katrina, I wanted to write about New Orleans. 
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Carrie McGavock
Me: When writing about the Civil War, an author is almost putting their hand in a flame. I’m constantly amazed at the fervor of feeling generated by those still passionate of a war long gone from present relevance. What keeps these feeling so alive?
Robert: It is understandable that John Bell Hood would carry the scars of the Civil War with him for the rest of his life. After all, he had been there. He had lost men for whom he had great affection and respect. He bore the physical scars of battle – the loss of his right leg and the use of his left arm and, by 20th Century legend; never-ending phantom pains tormented him for the rest of his days.

   Like most who survived that war or any war, all he had lived through haunted him.  Whether we have seen combat or only read about it, it is easy to understand why Hood and all those who served, on either side, were forever changed by the Civil War. 

   It’s our great national patricide. I am one of those who believe that the American Civil War remains the single most important defining event in our history. The truth is the Civil War not only redefined who we were, black and white, as a people, but also gave us the opportunity to do good and great things. I am not saying that we have arrived at our final destination as a nation or as a people. There is much that has been worked out, but there is still much to come.

   I say all this to help explain why it all still matters to so many. I’m a Southerner. That means that my ancestors’ side lost. “We” lost. My family was not only played their roles in the war, but also afterwards, in rewriting history. I grew up, surrounded by folks who wanted to be sure that we got history “right.” We are told that history belongs to the victors, but truth is, it’s the vanquished that care.

   Even 150 years after the war, I seem to be surrounded by folks trying to rewrite it all to make sense of what happened. Though I don’t agree with all they believe, I understand their passion. They go after me at times, as if they alone have the corner on history, but, again, that’s to be understood.

Me: Is it difficult to write dialogue for a historical character? How hard is it to prevent your own personality from seeping into the character.
Robert: You make every effort, but it’s pretty dang hard. It happens all the time. Some are more ‘me’ than others, but I am in a lot of them and would be lying to say otherwise. I should add that they are made up of others, too. Novel 3 is about Mariah, an African-American woman, who is made up of all I can know about the real Mariah and a lot of Minnie Nichols, the beloved maid of my grandmother when I was growing up. Mariah has very little of me in her, but others within the story are chocked full of my own struggles and fears, hopes and dreams. 
   Eli Griffin, the protagonist in A Separate Country has a lot of me within his makeup. Like I said, it’s pretty dang hard to not write parts of yourself into the story. I really should have taken that creative writing class when I had the chance.


Part 2 tomorrow!

Downtown Franklin, TN