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Full-time novelist

Cowboys, guns, engineering, and Hickam’s “The Dinosaur Hunter”

Twelve years ago, in the days before Amazon, my dad came home from the grocery store with a book he had spotted on a rack near the cash registers: a paperback copy of Homer Hickam’s memoir Rocket Boys, with a “Now a Major Motion Picture” medallion on the cover, and the title changed to reflect that of the movie adaption, October Sky.

The now-yellow front pages of that copy overflow with praise from newspapers. The story has been used in middle school classrooms across America to teach new generations about the boy who built rockets and left his life in small-town 1950s West Virginia – along with his imminent future as a coal miner – to grow up and study aerospace engineering. The book, and Hickam’s two sequel memoirs, The Coalwood Way, and Sky of Stone, made their way through my bedtime reading circuit as a child.

Hickam has long since left his job as a NASA engineer, and is now a full-time writer. For a few weeks every summer, he’s also an amateur paleontologist: eleven years ago the director of October Sky movie, Joe Johnston, was going on a dig with paleontologist John R. “Jack” Horner, to do research for Jurassic Park 3. Hickam asked to come along.

“It’s like an easter egg hunt every day, you’re out there looking for something that nobody’s seen for 65 million or more years,” said Hickam of hunting for dinosaurs.

Hickam’s latest book, a novel titled The Dinosaur Hunter, will be released on November 9.

Hickam’s PR person emailed me a PDF file of the advance copy. For a week in October, I escaped to the fictional Square C in Filmore, Montana, between classes, and in breaks from working on problem sets. The story is told from the perspective of Mike, a vegetarian detective-turned-cowboy looking back a year later on events that took place on the ranch: the arrival of a paleontologist named Pick, and the drama over bones found on the ranch.

Tensions between science and money run high. At the beginning of the book, Pick insists on using any discovered bones for finding “truth through science.” Ranch owner Jeanette replies, “Does truth through science pay your bills?” and then asks how much dinosaur bones might be worth.

As bones are meticulously uncovered by Pick and his two female assistants with help from Mike and a few other ranchers, their value – both monetary and scientific – becomes more apparent. One of the ranch’s cows is found murdered, and then another. Machine guns make a short appearance in the final act.

When Hickam was an undergrad at Virginia Tech, he wrote a column for the newspaper about the cadet corp. He’s written a series of historical fiction novels, and magazine articles about scuba diving. Other claims to fame include a cannon named Skipper that he built when he was at university (Skipper 3 is still fired at Virginia Tech football games today), and going on CNN to comment on the Chilean miners. According to his Facebook page, these days he is in “full Dinosaur-Hunter-marketing mode” (“A special gift idea!” says a button on his website that links to instructions on pre-ordering an autographed copy). Hickam wrote on his blog that this might be a breakout novel for him.

“But, you’re already famous,” I said, during a phone interview to his home in Alabama.

He laughed, and I was certain that I had outed myself as a stranger to the commercial fiction publishing world. He explained that he’s exploring two new genres: the book is both a Western and a mystery – both huge markets for selling books.

“Publishers actually hate what I do,” said Hickam, and added that if it were up to the publishers, he would just be writing different versions of the Rocket Boys story.

He hopes that the book will be a breakout in the market for mystery books, and then sell and be optioned for a movie. He’d like to write a series following the protagonist, Mike.

There are a handful of little details in The Dinosaur Hunter that are lovely. To tell if a tan pebble is a bone, Pick conducts a “field test” by placing it on his tongue to feel the texture – something that I was taught to do while interning at an archaeology lab in high school. The characters muse about what Pick refers to as “deep time,” 65 to 300 million years ago, when dinosaurs walked the land and Square C was a figment of the distant future. There’s question of whether or not animals have feelings; the paleontologists tell campfire-side stories about a mother T-Rex fighting for her children in the name of love. A teenage girl on the ranch, Amelia, sees paleontology as a way out of Filmore – the same way that a young Hickam felt that rockets were a way out of Coalwood.

But Mike lacks a deeper curiosity for bones beyond what he’s directly exposed to. He quotes the facts he learned directly from the sources – like explanations of the occipital condyle of an adult Triceratops, and radiogenic dating methods – instead of working them into the narrative. It’s a clumsy way to offer exposition, and poor science writing.

The Dinosaur Hunter lacks the meticulous embroidery of interesting ideas that was present in Rocket Boys such as the opening paragraph of which mentions heartbreak, thermodynamics, and the future of the children living in a small mining town. It was hailed as one of the best openings to a memoir. The rest of the book follows in a similar suit: every page is interesting in and of itself, and the book as a whole is enough to alter a pre-teen’s path in life, or at least, my pre-teen self: after closing the final chapter of Hickam’s memoir series, a set of Estes model rockets wound up under the Christmas tree, I dreamt of, then abandoned the idea of becoming an astronaut and started studying physics.

One review of The Dinosaur Hunter, from Kirkus Book Reviews is especially positive. Hickam has copy-pasted the review to his blog, and dubbed the folks at Kirkus “true dino boys and girls.” Hickam seems eager to share his dreams – toward the end of our interview he asked me, “Are you going to go out and hunt dinosaurs?”

Hickam asked me what I thought of the book, and I explained that I thought it is a good story, and it is – the whole novel goes down easily, like a good bedtime story – but a little light on the science for my liking.

“For a popular writer – and I fall into that category – to write a book primarily about science, you’re running a rather huge risk,” he explained.

He said he hopes that readers might gain an appreciation for paleontology, and even learn a bit about the work that goes into digging up a dinosaur. The book gives the reader a beginner’s perspective of fossils. Mike’s perspective is in many ways Hickam’s perspective when he goes on digs with Horner – ears open, and eyes wide.

Hickam explained that, especially after watching October Sky, people often view him as a scientist – which of course, as a former engineer, has never been an accurate descriptor. This isn’t a bad thing when one is releasing a book with science themes. “It’s all a matter of marketing,” he explained
Hickam does not consider himself to be a science writer. My vision of picking his brain for tricks of the science writing trade, commiserating about the specific twinges of loneliness that come with balancing an existence between the likes of the physics lounge and the Daily office, fell through at this point in our interview. I suppose I should have known: aside from the Rocket Boys trilogy, outer space has shown up in just two of his other works.

Hickam stresses that, despite what the October Sky movie might indicate, he’s a writer for a living.

He chuckled, “I am the most misunderstood writer in the world.”