FACETIME- Hickam's tales: Working in a coalmine
It sometimes seems that Homer Hickam is West Virginia's favorite son– or in this case, the state's favorite miner's son.
With wit and pluck, he rose from the West Virginia coal country to a career in rocket science and writing Rocket Boys, a New York Times #1 Best-seller– a classically American, Horatio Alger-like success story that was made into the movie October Sky. Without sermonizing, Hickam has steadfastly worked on his father's fellow miners' behalf, his latest coup being the Homer Hickam Sr. Scholarship Fund for miners' children. His direct and indirect charitable work gratifies Hickam as much as his literary notoriety.
"Certainly," Hickam recently told the Hook, "people around the world came to understand and respect the people of the Appalachian coalfields as a result of my previous Coalwood series of memoirs that began with Rocket Boys. I'm proud of that."
And it is to his home terrain that Hickam most often returns. What is it about the coal country that makes it such a compelling backdrop?
"I think coal mining is ultimately a noble profession," says Hickam, 65. "I also believe the men and women who mine coal are underappreciated by the rest of the country. So naturally I want to write stories about them. Also, since I grew up there, I know the coalfields so well that I find it easy to capture the characteristics of the territory and the people who inhabit it."
With Red Helmet, Hickam's latest novel, he again descends into those subterranean tunnels, blasting and drilling out a new tale. The author's father did pioneering work with mine rescue teams, and his newest yarn centers on the modern equivalent.
"The mine rescue teams I describe in Red Helmet are the professionals of today," he says. "In my father's era, they were not so well trained, although certainly Dad and the others of that time did their best."
Hickam also points out that the novel isn't a soapbox to depict the hardships of miners' lives. "I'm just trying to tell a good story set in a unique place," he says. "If readers learn a little about mining and miners, all the better."
And no doubt they will. Book fest organizer Nancy Damon calls Hickam "one of the most interesting speakers I have heard."
Since Hickam has expressed a desire to write no further Coalwood books, the Hook wondered if he plans, upon exiting the mines, to dabble in previously untried genres.
"Let's see," Hickam muses. "I've done nonfiction military history [Torpedo Junction], memoirs [Rocket Boys, etc.], techno-thrillers [Back to the Moon], mystery [Sky of Stone], inspirational [We Are Not Afraid], military fiction [The Keeper's Son, etc.], and now romantic fiction [Red Helmet]. I think I've pretty much covered the genres I'm interested in, but who knows?
"I like to keep my options open."
See Hickam at 8pm Thursday, March 27 at Culbreth Theatre, reading and discussing "Fiction Favorites" with Adriana Trigiani and Jill A. Davis.