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Thursday, March 24, 2011

James Hornfischer Interview

   Think of the momentous events in the history of humankind and how they changed the course of civilization. Then consider that one of these events happened less than eight decades ago and many of the people who lived through this time of world upheaval, transformation and tragedy are still living.  Now consider that the chance to talk and learn from these amazing people is slipping away with each passing moment.
  My guest today on The Novel Road has written a number of bestselling books chronicling moments from this incredible time. He plucks a star from the long, dark night sky that was World War II and reveals it to us, as few authors have ever been able to do. James D. Hornfischer brings us to pivotal events through interviews with those who lived through them. The reader can feel the heave of a Navy ship’s deck and smell the smoke following the shattering din of her guns. It’s as if you are standing at a ship’s rail looking from the Pacific blue sky, down to the small green island erupting in flame and carnage, then off to the ocean’s horizon to an unseen foe. Then to the night, and the flashes and booms of great ships seeking each other’s end.
  What I know about reading his books, is that at the turn of the last page of each, I seem to quietly utter the word…Damn
  Now a bit about my guest from his website:
  “James D. Hornfischer is the author of three books, most recently Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal."

   "Hornfischer is the author of two other acclaimed works of World War II naval history: The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour and Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors, both published by Bantam."

   "Hornfischer’s writing career has grown out of a lifelong interest in the Pacific war. He has appeared on television on The History Channel, Fox News Channel’s “War Stories with Oliver North” and C-SPAN’s “BookTV.” A frequent speaker on the subject of the war in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy, and the experience of America’s sailors in World War II, he frequently addresses veterans organizations, youth and civic groups, and professional naval organizations on the inspiring stories found in his books."

   "A native of Massachusetts, and a graduate of Colgate University and the University of Texas School of Law, Hornfischer is a member of the Naval Order of the United States, the Navy League, and was appointed by Texas Governor Rick Perry as an “Admiral in the Texas Navy.” A former New York book editor, Hornfischer is president of the literary agency Hornfischer Literary Management, located in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and their three children.”

   I am pleased to welcome bestselling author James Hornfischer to The Novel Road…

James Hornfischer
Me: Your book, “Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S Navy at Guadalcanal”, is an incredible look at the time and circumstances of the six month battle for a spit of land. How much did we learn about fighting the Pacific war from this battle?
Jim: How much the U.S. Navy learned about warfare at Guadalcanal is encompassed in a single statistic: Three sailors died in the seas around the island for every Marine who died ashore. Most World War II readers I talk to, even the well-informed ones, don’t know this. The greater the expertise of the reader, the greater the surprise. NEPTUNE’S INFERNO narrates the story of the road the Navy followed to master the ancient art of the ship-on-ship fistfight in the age of steam.
   The book drives home the fact that Guadalcanal, not Midway, was the Pacific War’s turning point. In the seven sea battles that make up the campaign, America broke Japan’s will to fight. Midway was an important victory, delivered in a single day. But only at Guadalcanal—a sustained, bloody contest of wills—did the U.S. prove could match the Imperial war machine blow for violent blow.

Me: In doing your research, were you affected by the knowledge that the veterans you were able to speak to, are a part of our living history that is about to vanish?
 Jim: I was. The window is closing on the age when historians can draw on the living experiences of veterans, meeting with them at reunions, hearing their stories, and watching them interact with each other. All three of my books have been informed by the living textures of their eyewitness. NEPTUNE’S INFERNO draws freshness and immediacy from its reliance on forty-six interviews with well-situated Navy men from the lowest to highest ranks, and dozens of unpublished or privately published personal accounts. Many of these interviews I conducted myself. Others are transcripts of interviews that writers haven’t seen or drawn from before. They’re the essence of my narratives.
Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of her Survivors

Me: You get to go back in time to a place or event of your choosing. What would it be and why?
 Jim: I’d use that time machine to transport myself back to early 1945 and have dinner with Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. A courtly Texan with fine manners and a ferocious sense of will, he was the Pacific War’s essential man, as I write in the book. I’d ask him for his reflections on the tough decisions he made in the war’s early going, and ask him to project how the war would end. I would ask him his views on General Douglas MacArthur, and Admirals King, Halsey, and Fletcher. But I’d wait till he’d finished his third gin and tonic first.
Me: Admiral Hornfischer? Talk about your speedy rise through the ranks of the Texas Navy.
Jim: Thank you, sailor, that will be all. Interesting things tend to happen to you when you know your governor.

Me: World War II is a passion for you, and countless others. How hard is it to pull yourself back out of a subject you’ve written about and move on?
Jim: The process of researching a subject to death and then distilling that research into a readable narrative requires total immersion. I want my books to bring readers into their historical moments. That requires that I go there myself. That said, once my editor and I have finished beating those pages into submission, I’m very relieved to be done with it. It’s usually not until a book has been published in paperback that I’m willing to read it again.

Me: History appears low on the priority list of today’s youth. What can we do to change this?
Jim: Actually I’m not discouraged at all. My son and many of his 8th grade peers are utterly consumed with the history of World War II. That’s right where I was when I was that age. There’s never been more good documentary history shown on television. The caliber of new books seeing print remains high, and of course the old ones never go away.

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest HourMe: Publishing is going through an evolution right now. Talk about how this has or will affect you.
 Jim: Aside from writing three works of World War II naval history, I’ve spent my whole career in book publishing, working as an editor in New York and representing authors as a literary agent, so I’ve seen this evolution from several sides. Publishers are under pressure not only from stagnant growth in the market for books, but technological innovations such as e-books too, which is changing the economics of the business. As a result, it’s getting harder for an author to get a contract with a major publisher today, and harder still for him to get a second contract if his first book doesn’t sell well. However, it’s also true that publishing is becoming “democratized” by the Internet and e-book publishing. It’s never been easier for an author with something to say to find people willing to hear it. Publishing without the support of a major house requires an author to be very entrepreneurial and audience-focused after the book has been released.
A review of "Ship of Ghosts":
“Vivid and visceral…. Hornfischer masterfully shapes the narrative…. breathing life into an unforgettable epic of human endurance.” — USA Today
Me: The way you pieced together your research, taking information gleaned from interview and official and private records, is remarkable. I’m curious how much you left out of your books? There had to be vast amounts of data and stories told to you that must have been wrenching to leave out?
Jim: Every interview I’ve ever done with a veteran yields nuggets that are interesting and publishable, but the discipline of building a readable book from a large trove of research always requires me to send a lot of good material to the proverbial cutting room floor. The process of revision is one of constant whittling and shaping so that the final product is as tight and compelling as possible. There is never room for everything.
Praise for "Neptune's Inferno":
“Extremely readable, comprehensive and thoroughly researched.... In the end what one takes away from Mr. Hornfischer’s vivid and engaging account is a feeling for the uncertainty, complexity and extreme physical and psychological demands of war at sea in 1942.” —Ronald Spector, The Wall Street Journal

 Me: “Neptune’s Inferno”, “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” and “Ship of Ghosts” have great reviews and vaulted you into the ranks of authors Ambrose and Foote. When can we expect your next book?
 Jim: My next project will be a departure from World War II and bring me closer to the modern era, but I’m not ready to announce it just yet.

Me: Your “day job”, as founder of Hornfischer Literary Agency, must make for an interesting personal tug of war. You have an impressive list of non-fiction clients and an impressive sales record. How do you balance your time between Bestselling author and agent?
 Jim: A lot of literary agents I know go to Vegas in their spare time or spend a lot of time at bars. I write books. There are a lot of hours in the day. The time I spend writing sharpens the editorial reflex that I turn to the benefit of my clients, as I help them develop their book proposals.
I'd like to thank James Hornfischer for doing this interview. He reminds us of our chance to learn first hand. All we have to do is ask questions and listen.
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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Robert Hicks Interview - 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

Robert Hicks Interview - Part 2

File:Franklin battlefield Battles and Leaders.jpg
Franklin battlefield

Part 2

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Photo courtesy of
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
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


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.