Homer H. Hickam Jr. Interview

By Norman Julian
Columnist at large
"The Morgantown Dominion Post"
Copyright 1999

The writing career of Homer Hickam Jr. may be rocketing to the top of the charts, but the Coalwood native still clings to his earthbound values.

Hickam was the keynote speaker at West Virginia University's commencement in May and "The New York Times" called him "The most requested graduation speaker in the country." This spring in a ceremony at Charleston he was given the Distinguished West Virginian award.

"Rocket Boys," his memoir of growing up in West Virginia, led to the movie "October Sky." The book was reissued in paperback under that title and soared to No. 3 on "The New York Times" best sellers list.

How has the recent notice changed his life? "For one thing I am a lot more popular," he says, laughing. Self-deprecating humor is characteristic of the former Space Engineer, now a consultant to the National Aeronautical and Space Administration.

He indicated that if he had been as good looking as the actor (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the movie, he might have got more material and retitled his book "Rocket Boys and Girls." In his book, he indicates his bigger, older-football playing brother got most of the looks, and the girls.

The attention he is getting now, Hickam says, has not distracted him. "My wife and I realize that the popularity now is just a bubble we are passing through," he says. He indicated that it is good that it came now (he is 56) because he has the maturity not to be upset by it. Nor was he swayed by the Hollywood glamour and style when he was on hand for the making of the film in Tennessee.

The movie is marked by the noticeable lack of the swear words that characterize most movies today. "When the screenplay came back, it was full of it," Hickam says. "I went to war to get them out of there. For one thing, it was not historically accurate. There may have been swearing among the miners but we boys didn't talk that way. Using all the swearing is lazy writing."

In the main, he was pleased with the way the movie came out, but he would have preferred the title "Rocket Boys." And he didn't like that they named his father John in the movie, instead of Homer, as in real life, or that he was renamed Sonny. But he liked the way theHomer Hickam Jr. father-son conflict was handled.

"If Hollywood had followed the usual methodology, they would have made the father character evil and ugly to give something for the boy character to bounce off of. I'm grateful that they held back and gave reasonable characterization of the father."

Mine career 'mine nightmare'
The admiration of his father, now dead from black lung, was apparent in our talk. The son says of his father, "In mining circles, he was widely recognized for his mine ventilation innovations." A self- taught engineer and mine superintendent, the senior Hickam "went inside the mine everyday but he didn't have to.

He was constantly worrying about the miners and everyone else." That included his two talented sons. The dad wanted Homer Jr. to study mining engineering, follow him into the mines and eventually become superintendent. "He sincerely thought that would be best for me," says Hickam, who followed his own engineering bent and eventually became a NASA engineer who trained astronauts.

He says that among his friends in Coalwood, "having to make a career down in the mines was the mine nightmare." The difference between the father's wishes and the boy's dreams "wasn't such a huge issue for me," Hickam says now. "I didn't like it that he paid more attention to my older brother."

Jim, courted by WVU for his football skills, eventually became a "pulling guard for Virginia Tech," and is now a football coach. Homer followed Jim to Tech "because it was so much closer home than WVU." Another thing Hickam fought for, but didn't get, in the movie was a change in one of the scenes.

The film shows a WVU recruiter being referred to as coming from The University of West Virginia. "I knew it was suppose to be West Virginia University," Hickam says."The screenwriter was from Texas. I asked him 'How would you like a Southern Methodist University to be called University of Southern Methodist'?" He saw Hickam's point but the scene came off so well they decided not to reshoot it just to set the language straight.

Coming from a real place "The New York Times" called the movie "touching. Mr. Hickam builds a story of overcoming obstacles worthy of Frank Capra, especially in its sweetness and honest sentimentality." I characterized the movie and the book to Hickam as "wholesome" and told him it accurately portrayed the West Virginia we both grew up in at the same time.

He said he wanted to stress the positive because because he thought this was a positive place and, "the emphasis is to often upon the negative in West Virginia, and in America." "I invited Jake (the actor) to West Virginia. I told him he might hitchhike there like we did a lot of when we were kids. I told him he could stop at any house and they'd take him in and take care of him. West Virginians are really good people.

One of the messages he brought to WVU students is that "You are from a real place. When you go out into the world, you will be surprised at how many people will envy you for coming from a real place with a particular lifestyle."

One of the things we discussed was John F. Kennedy, who had a strong influence on Homer Jr. I thought I detected a dualism toward JFK in the book's epilogue, so asked him about that. "Kennedy was an inspiring leader," Hickam says. "I don't know what he thought in private, but I thought what he said in public would have led the country to greatness. "He espoused freedom around the world and was able to articulate his vision of America."

And what of Hickam's future now that his rocket has risen? He always intended to retire after he had 30 years of federal service in, and last year he did.

He began to write full time. "The rocketry and the writing always gave me different satisfaction," he says. "When I was in the third grade in McDowell County, my teachers thought I would be a writer not an engineer." He says his proudest title always will be "NASA engineer."

"I think NASA is still the best thing that ever happened to this country," and he plans to continue consulting on space projects.

New book due in June.  His new book "Back to the Moon" was published in June. It is a fictional account of "certain radical events that might take place" to propel humans again to interplanetary travel.

A sequel to "Rocket Boys" is due out in December. It is the outgrowth of a chapter that was removed from the original novel.

His duties these days include more public appearances. He spoke to several audiences to boost support for libraries in Kanawha, Cabell, Putnam and McDowell counties. Hickam has made a career of realizing dreams that to others might once have seemed far fetched.

As his career climbs, what of his childhood dream to one day go into space? "I haven't given up on that," he says. "It probably won't happen overnight, but in the next five years I hope to go there."

Norman JulianNorman Julian, a West Virginia University graduate, is the author of four books about West Virginia: "Mountains and Valleys" (essays); "Snake Hill," (portrait of a place); "Cheat" (novel); and "Legends," (history of WVU basketball).
Interview and Article By Norman Julian

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