Homer Hickam: 2014 Writer-in-Residence
Homer Hickam was born February 19, 1943, in Coalwood, West Virginia, a company coal-town where his father, Homer, Sr., worked as a mining engineer and administrator, and his mother Elsie struggled to keep the coal dust out and her family in tune with the values she held dear. Like the mountains that offered both sublime vistas and claustrophobic spaces that could smother one, the company town was both comfortingly close-knit and fraught with the perils of everyone knowing everybody else’s business. Sonny (Homer, Jr.) Hickam was the second son of Elsie and Homer Hickam, and his eventful young life growing up in the company town is detailed in the three remarkable bildungsroman, or coming-of-age stories, that constitute the Coalwood Trilogy.
Growing up in a company town in the late 1950s, in the era directly after Sputnik had rocked American education, was like growing up anywhere else and at the same time very different. The sense of belonging as well as alienation, from both neighbors and at times his own family, inspired young Hickam and his fellow Big Creek High School science nerds, who called themselves the “Big Creek Missile Agency” or BCMA, to quest the perfect rocket propulsion fuel, a mission that would win the support of the football-absorbed Coalwood community and eventually a National Science Fair award in 1960. That particular story is the subject of Rocket Boys.
After graduating from Virginia Tech in 1964, Hickam entered the army as First Lieutenant in the Fourth Infantry Division, serving in Vietnam from 1967-68, during which time he won both an Army Commendation and a Bronze Star. When he left the army six years later, he had risen to the rank of captain. It was after his return from Vietnam that Hickam began to develop his passion for prose, writing for a variety of science magazines, mostly about his scuba-diving adventures. His first novel, Torpedo Junction (1989), was a military history piece published by the Naval Institute Press. That book was followed almost a decade later by his phenomenal best seller Rocket Boys, turned into the film October Sky, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, and Laura Dern. The book put Hickam into the literary spotlight, receiving a National Book Critics Circle nomination for Best Biography, a NY Times Great Books award, and Book-of-the-Month honors. Rocket Boys was followed by Back to the Moon (1999), The Coalwood Way (2000) and Sky of Stone. Mr. Hickam has written a score of other books, including non-fiction books, his Helium-3 series, his Josh Thurlow series, and others.