BookFilter: Homer Hickam, The Author Whose Story Inspired “October Sky,” Soars Again – by Michael Giltz (Huffington Post – October 14, 2015)

 

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Best-selling author Homer Hickam has enjoyed a varied and acclaimed career, ranging from decorated Vietnam veteran to scuba instructor to working as an aerospace engineer at NASA where he contributed to spacecraft design and crew training. Hickam even had a satisfying creative outlet in a stream of magazine articles capped by an honest-to-goodness military history hit about U-boats attacking the US coast during World War II. Called Torpedo Junction, it was published by the Naval Institute Press (the first home of Tom Clancy), got great reviews and is still in print today.

But all that is dwarfed by the Cinderella story of his first memoir. It began as an article commissioned by the relatively obscure Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine in 1995. Hickam talked about growing up as a kid in coal mining country and how Sputnik inspired he and his friends to start shooting off rockets with gleeful abandon and scientific rigor, scoring a top prize at the national science fair when kids from coal mining towns never even went to science fairs.

It was sweet, nostalgic with a “Rocky” flair and people went nuts. Hickam was besieged almost immediately by both publishers and Hollywood. Interest was so intense the movie based on his book was being filmed even before the book was finished! (Final galleys actually inspired changes to the film on the set as they incorporated more and more of the actual memoir the movie was supposedly based on.)

Starring a young Jake Gyllenhaal (not to mention Chris Cooper and Laura Dern), the film October Sky was critically acclaimed and a modest box office success that has become a genuine classic family film. It wasn’t exactly the book (How could it be? The book hadn’t even been finished when the script was written) but it was darn good. But before it came out, the book (which came out as Rocket Boys) was an even bigger hit.

It enjoyed massive critical acclaim, sold a ton and has become a staple on reading lists for high schools, colleges, libraries, community read-alongs and book clubs ever since. Hickam published two more memoirs in his Coalwood trilogy, both also enjoying strong reviews if not the same eye-popping sales. (And why they haven’t been adapted into movies or a TV show remains a mystery.) You’ll even find two competing musical versions of his memoir in various stages of development.

That success allowed Hickam to retire and devote himself to writing, his first passion. He’s published about 18 books, everything from nonfiction to young adult novels set on the moon, memoirs like The Coalwood Way, science-based thrillers, archeology themed mysteries and three very good novels about the exploits of heroic Coast Guard veteran Josh Thurlow during World War II.

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