Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Novel Road Interview: Robert Hicks - Part 2


File:Franklin battlefield Battles and Leaders.jpg
Franklin battlefield

Part 2

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Photo courtesy of
OakRidger.com
Me: This question, courtesy of Jeff Hall : “I'm a shortstory-ist. Writing a novel is like a crazy long marathon, only harder. How do you maintain a clear sense of that first passion that inspired you throughout a 200K word journey?”
Robert: Excellent question. Well, Jeff, you don’t always. There are those times when you are fresh and inspired and full of it all – when it all makes sense and really nothing can stop you and nothing can get in your way.
   Then there are those days when you know that nothing you’re trying to say makes any sense whatsoever – that you need to give up and get a real job. But then you remember when you had a real job and that drives you back into the fight. Faulkner seemed to find alcohol a real help, but that doesn’t work for me.
   At times, it’s like being caught in some high school Hell with homework – trig – for eternity. Then there is a breakthrough and it all begins to work again.
   I wrote my first short story about three years ago and I have to tell you I found it a daunting task. You’re right; the good news was it didn’t take as long, but even then there was a bit of ‘Trigonometry-Hell’ getting there.
    Just like that short story, at least the unknowns of the process disappear with the second novel. But the struggle to keep focused, to not run away throughout the process is always there.
Me: Lunch with you and any author (except Tasha Alexander) you choose, from throughout history or today, and why.
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Herman Melville
Robert: Me being me, I have to wonder why the author I pick would ever want to eat with me? I’m supposed to pick someone to bother through lunch?
   Okay, if not Tasha and with the promise that they won’t make it obvious they’re suffering through it all, I would have individual lunches with Shakespeare, Melville, Twain and Faulkner (sober). I don’t want them all together because I will be low man on the totem pole and will be at best a fly on the wall. I really would like some attention.
   I chose Shakespeare because he has such a grasp of the entire gamut of the human condition. He lets us see into the strengths and weaknesses of the panoply of characters that make their way through his plays and in so doing to see both our own folly and ourselves.
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Mark Twain
   Melville and Twain, simply because one of them wrote the great American novel and Faulkner because I’m a Southerner. All of them because of the beauty and power of their words.
   If I can only choose one it will be Shakespeare. Beyond what I could learn from him, I guess I would like to show him how the world has moved forward with time. I have a hunch he would be fascinated by how much has changed, how much remains.
   I’m concerned that Melville would have little interest in our world and Twain would only see the darkness of humanity. Faulkner, well, like the other three, it’s a fan thing.
Me:  The reviews for “Widow of the South” and “A Separate Country” have been beyond excellent. When can we expect your next novel?
Robert: I had hoped to have it finished by the end of December, but, alas, the best made plans…
   So now I hope to have it finished by spring, then if that happens, we’ll most likely see it out March 2012. Don’t hold me to it, but that’s my best guess.
Me: A quote from your website: “Hicks is better at describing death and "the stink of war" than he is at life.”  You immerse yourself more deeply in your subject than any writer I have experienced of late. How hard is it to pull yourself back out of a character you’ve written about and move on?
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Battle of Franklin
Tennesee
Robert: With The Widow of the South it wasn’t that hard. I had lived with most of those folks in my head for so many years in my role and work at Carnton and with the battlefield at Franklin. I doubt Carrie will ever be too far from me. The fictional characters that populated her world in the story live comfortably with the real folks. They are all part of my world.
   A Separate Country was completely different. Because it came about so quickly (within two years) and was born out of so much on the spot research of New Orleans and the folks, real or fictional, that I had little or no knowledge of before, when it was over, it was over. When I didn’t have to figure out what they were saying, how they would respond to their circumstances, they were no longer with me.
   As much as I was happy to be finished, there was a real silence there. These men and women who I had lived with really were now gone.
   The only thing I can even relate it to is the loss of my parents. I know that sounds pretty shallow, but I had lived with these folks through so much. I had seen them come alive within the story and now they were gone.
   After a couple of weeks, I was too busy with the next steps in the process of editing and answering questions from my editor and agent to mourn over the loss of the characters. I had moved on.  Yet, I really love those characters, even now.
Me: Publishing is going through an evolution right now. Talk about how this has or will affect you.
Robert: Anyone’s guess is as good as mine. I was asked by the folks at Ingram Book in Nashville to speak to about a hundred small publishers at their annual publishers meeting about the future of publishing. I was at a loss as to what to tell them.
   We all know that these are precarious times for publishing and bookstores. That understood, I feel we will have to learn how to thrive within the world of social media and whatever other avenues are open to us with time.
   My publisher has shown remarkable belief in what I’m doing and remains behind me, but what is the future? I wish I had a better, clearer answer for you. Heck, I wish I had a better, clearer answer for myself.
B.B. King Nightclub
Me: Talk about life experience. How important it is to an author?
Robert: For me ‘life experience’ is at the heart of it all as a writer, but then, again, I will be sixty this year. So how do I explain all the young, first-time novelist throughout history? Clearly, imagination, coupled with whatever our life experience has been, plays a huge role in it all.
   As I’ve said, I am eaten up with issues of transformation and redemption and I think they are issues that come out of life experience. How these folks that populate my stories respond to each other comes out of my own experiences, even if I’ve never experienced what they’re going through.
Me: Tell us about your agent and why the match is perfect?
Robert: My agent is Jeff Kleinman with Folio Literary Agency in New York. Jeff has been there for me over the years. I could not have a better advocate with publishers, editors and all the rest. He works hard and is passionate about the books he works. He is insightful and has helped me in innumerable ways. I could not ask for more.
Me: History appears low on the priority list of today’s youth. What can we do to change this?
Robert: Simply write better historic fiction. It’s up to us and us alone to be sure that history, whether The American Civil War, The Revolution, WWII or whatever is relevant to this next generation. If we conclude it isn’t, it won’t be.

   But if history does have any value as to who we are, what this nation is, good or bad, we must connect the dots for another generation. If there are lessons to be learned from history as we move forward, then we are going to have to be the ones to pass those lessons on. 

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Shelby Foote
   In the end, the most important question to come out of all this is whether history is any longer relevant.

For if we don’t address it, here and now, and we continue to travel the same road then all we have been handed down will fade into the darkest crevasses of ancient history. That would be the greatest of shames.

   Shelby Foote spent many hours explaining to me why I should be a storyteller.
For storytellers are the ones that pass on history, who keep history alive. Oh, we desperately need historians, but we are lost without storytellers.

   That is why I write historic fiction.  While I didn’t understand this when it all began, I now find myself in that long line of those who once huddled around the fire in caves telling tales to those who would listen about the giants that once roamed this earth.

Robert Hicks

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I'd like to thank Robert Hicks for his generosity of spirit and keen insights. A truly remarkable man, an amazingly gifted author and a keeper of history.