Sunday, September 27, 2009

Robert Hicks: "What Exactly Am I Talking About?"

Posted By on Sun, Sep 27, 2009 at 3:28 PM

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Facts: Robert Hicks wrote The Widow of the South, which is set on the Carnton plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, south of Nashville. That book, about the Civil War's bloody Battle of Franklin, Confederate general John Bell Hood, and the battle's aftermath, debuted at #6 in 2005 on The New York Times best-seller list. A year later, the trade paperback edition became a Times best-seller too. And on October 4th, the mass-market edition will make it to that list as well. All this as Hicks' new novel, A Separate Country (Grand Central Publishing) hits bookstores. Hicks is signing and discussing A Separate Country at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Memphis on Monday, September 28th, at 6 p.m.

More facts: Robert Hicks has been a music publisher, a musician manager, a partner in the B.B. King's blues clubs, a collector of Tennessee art and antiques, an exhibition organizer, and the driving force behind the preservation of the Franklin battlefield.

And more facts: Robert Hicks lives in an 18th-century log cabin near Franklin. It's called "Labor in Vain." Nothing about Hicks' writing career has been in vain. His second novel, A Separate Country: It's, in a word, great; its imaginative blending of historical and fictional characters, in a phrase: first-rate. And in more than a few words, the characters include John Bell Hood, his wife Anna Marie, a dwarf named Rintrah, a young man named Eli, an unlikely priest named Father Mike, and the city of New Orleans, which survived the Civil War, but can it survive yellow fever?

What's it like to be a (surprised) best-selling author the morning after your second, eagerly anticipated novel hits bookstores? Here:

You're set for a big book tour, and you just had your first booksigning for "A Separate Country." It went well?
Robert Hicks: Davis-Kidd in Nashville, last night: It was great. Great crowd.

But let me say: It takes a little time to get into the rhythm of explaining this book. A Separate Country deals with so many things on so many levels. What do I talk about at a signing? That's the difficult part. I'll get it down. But last night I was thinking: What exactly am I talking about?

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Well, A Separate Country is set in New Orleans. I was in New Orleans on The Widow of the South tour. My publisher sent me there two and a half months after Katrina hit. Nobody in New Orleans was buying books. It was chaos. I was trying to figure out what I was doing there. And there I was, in bed, in the hotel, and I decided to write about New Orleans and continue to write about General John Bell Hood.

I wanted to write about how New Orleans got to where it is — to write about race, about all the issues. So what do I say in 20 minutes at a booksigning?

With Widow, I knew exactly the direction to take, what I was trying to do. In A Separate Country, I'm trying to talk about memory, transformation, redemption; people who are never able to get past things, who can't escape who they are or what they've inherited, whether it's the character Rintrah and his dwarfism, or Eli and the manuscript he's found, or John Bell Hood and the Civil War. How do people transcend themselves? It's about, maybe, salvation.

You write about John Bell Hood and his bloodthirsty reputation in a way that is going to surprise historians.
I've read everything there is to read about Hood. I looked at the primary sources, and very little of it turned out to be true. What historians in the second half of the 20th century picture is a petty, mean-spirited, jealous, reckless, drugged, alcoholic general who slaughtered his men, possibly to punish them. None of that is even close to reality. The reality is that Hood's men ended up writing hymns about him.

How was Hood able to do almost the exact same things that Robert E. Lee had done during the war, and Lee emerged stainless while Hood emerged as a commander with immense poor judgment? I wanted to reassess who Hood was. What I hope will come out of this book, if the book goes well: force historians to reassess who Hood was.

You put readers in a very realistically portrayed, 19th-century New Orleans. How did you arrive at such a vivid picture of daily life there?
I walked the streets. I've been going to New Orleans since I was a kid. My family has been going there since before the Civil War. But I looked at the city as a writer does. That was the beginning.

But you haven't work as a writer for most of your adult life.
No, but I've lived near Franklin, Tennessee, for the last 20-something years. I know what happened there. I wanted to know more about it. I wanted to know more about Carrie McGavock, and that's what led me to the lead character in The Widow of the South.

I've never taken a creative-writing course. I'd been in the music business, and I'd been fairly successful at it. But, one time ... it was in Memphis. I know Memphis well. I was driving on Poplar heading west, with a friend. We were coming up on that intersection at East Parkway. You know that intersection? I said to my friend, "Two cars ahead of us is Shelby Foote with somebody else." My friend wanted to know which one was Shelby Foote. I said, "The one who's not, like, 18!"

"There's a long traffic light up here," I said to my friend. "And if Shelby Foote is in the same lane we are, I'm gonna jump out of the car and introduce myself."

I did that.

Mr. Foote was just sitting there — MORTIFIED. I told him who I am and how much I respect his Civil War trilogy. Finally, he turned and said to me, "Mr. Hicks, I'm not accustomed to being accosted when I'm sitting in my automobile." There wasn't even a glimpse of a smile.

So, I did what I do when things are going bad: I just kept talking! And Foote said, dead serious, dog-eyed: "Mr. Hicks, would you please PLEASE get back in your automobile? You can follow me to my house. We'll drink some whiskey."

I followed Foote, and we had this amazing talk. During the evening, I said I wanted to write a fictional account of the Battle of Franklin ... what would become The Widow of the South. Then he became very animated. Foote had always thought Franklin worthy of a great novel. So he said to me, "Write it." That's what inspired me to become a writer.

Then Foote got out a book and quoted from Douglas Southall Freeman, the revisionist historian. By this point there was the haze of alcohol. You'd have to hear Foote reading, but Freeman wrote that, contrary to popular opinion, the Civil War wasn't won or lost on the battlefields and it didn't end at Appomattox.

The Civil War ended on a cold December night in New Hampshire in 1936 or '37, when the spinsterish scion of a great abolitionist family sat alone by the fire reading Gone with the Wind. The power of Margaret Mitchell's words ... that woman in New Hampshire was so moved by what she was reading that she screamed, "Damn Yankees. Damn Yankees!" And at that moment, the war was over. The South had won. History may belong to the victors. But it's the vanquished who care.

I went home. I toyed with this idea of writing a novel for another year. Then I found a friend and asked him why don't you write this story. Not as a ghost writer. I'll GIVE you this story, but I want to control it. My friend read my outline, and he thought he could finish the book in four months.

I went about my business. And six years later, there was still no novel. There were 190 pages of a non-novel.

By now I had an agent, but I didn't have a book. But I still had a story. And my agent loved the story. For three of those six years, my agent said I needed to dump the 190 pages and try to write the book myself. I couldn't see how I could. But eventually I had to. And my agent gave me some tips: Go back to your original outline and write the first third of the story.

I wrote the first third, and it took a year and a half. I sent that to my agent, and I went off to the Billboard music awards in Las Vegas. That's when my agent called and said, "You're a writer."

I said, "What does that mean?"

My agent said, "I want to pitch this as a 'partial.'"

I didn't know what that meant. I thought a partial was something my elderly relatives put in their mouths.

My agent said, "I'm gonna pitch the manuscript the way it is now. But you need to clean it up a bit."

So I did. And six weeks later, I was in line at a taco stand in California. My agent called, it was on a Monday, and he said, "It's sold. We pitched it Friday." And I said, "Which Friday?" He said, "Three days ago." I said, "How did this happen?" He said, "I don't know."

That's a long story, but that's how I became a novelist.

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A debut novelist who lands on best-seller lists nationwide.
Three days after The Widow of the South came out, I'm about to go to an event at a bookstore in Cincinnati, and my editor, Amy Einhorn, calls and says I'm on the Times best-seller list. And for about 15 seconds, it was the happiest moment in my life. And then I thought this is terrible. I'll be off the list next week.

"Robert," Amy said, "I have to tell you: That is the strangest reaction to getting on the Times best-seller list I ever heard."

But she said she thought I'd be off the list the following week. And even if I am, she said, I'd still made it to the Times. Then she asked, "How long do you want on?" I said five weeks. She said, "That wins. That is the strangest reaction I ever heard."

The bottom line: I was happy. I learned to be happy. I wasn't prepared for any of this. And I'm being honest.

You mind me saying this whole story of you becoming a successful novelist ... it's ass-backward?
Listen. The problem is ... I was on my publisher's longest book tour — a 17-city pre-tour, a 49-city hardback tour, another paperback book tour for Widow. What were the two groups I attracted to these events? People who had a distant relative who fought in the Battle of Franklin or somewhere in the Civil War. And the other group was the group every author attracts: people who want to be writers.

Think about this: How do I explain to people that everything I've done has NOTHING to do with what writers do. I've learned I can talk about method, process. But the other side of it: I'm telling you, I don't have the kind of story that I once heard: where a writer said he'd gotten 493 rejection letters. That's what he said. I can't believe there are 493 opportunities in publishing to get rejected. I'd've thought that at some point they'd send this guy a cease-and-desist order.

I got a publishing deal in three days. And now I'm doing writer workshops.

Maybe you're what's called a born storyteller.
Maybe I am.

Plus, you're a collector — of outsider art and of Southern cultural material in general.
I am. But calling me a collector is giving it some legitimacy, when what it is is a deep-seated psychosis. I'll drag in anything.

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Looking forward to this latest signing of yours in Memphis?
With Widow, I was in Memphis — twice. The first time, there were four people at the signing, on a Monday night — or was it a Tuesday? I understand how it is: You're an author who shows up one night, and it's amazing. The same city, on another night: You can't get arrested.

Your characters in "A Separate Country": They're beautifully, memorably drawn, not only Hood [pictured left], all of them.
They're in my life. I've spent the last couple of years with these guys and gals, and now that A Separate Country is in bookstores, they're gone. I don't know what to do. I'd be even sicker than I already am if I tried to keep them alive in my mind.

I had a week of great relief when I finished A Separate Country, and then I had a couple weeks where I asked, Where are they, these characters? It was a huge loss. I guess I hope they can live on. It's important to me that they do live on.

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