Interview with Robert Hicks. Grand prize winner of the 2009 Nashville Book Festival
Robert Hicks’s “A Separate Country” was the grand prize winner of the 2009 Nashville Book Festival. Festival managing director Bruce Haring talks with Hicks about his career, which includes time in music publishing, artist management and, incidentally, as a major novelist…..

BRUCE HARING: Tell me about your music industry background.

ROBERT HICKS: After college I ended up doing some graduate work in philosophy and realized that what I got out of that was that I didn’t want to read philosophy or write philosophy or teach philosophy. So I ended up in Nashville visiting a friend – I was 23 years old and was susceptible to anything – he was, I’ll say, a Moonie. I said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” And he said, “I think I know what you should do. He said, “You should be a music publisher.” And I said, “Really? What do they do?” And he goes, “I’m not sure. But isn’t it a great title?” He’s gone on and had a very serious career as a producer, a major producer. And so I thought about it and the next day I went to an independent bookstore – they don’t exist anymore –and I found a textbook, “This Business of Music.” I didn’t want to buy the textbook. But I read the chapter on music publishing and I thought I could do that. So I worked construction and in a bookstore and at night time, I was going to bars and people would ask what I do and I would say, “I’m a music publisher.” They’d ask me what (music publishers) do. And I knew because I read the chapter. And one night someone said, “Well, I need a publisher.” So they were a songwriter and I ended up publishing them.

And that led to other people, and eventually I entered up partnered at PolyGram Music and then eventually at Universal Music and had a pretty successful career in music publishing. Over the years there were several (publishing companies that he owned) – Veg-o-Music and one of them was called Poorhouse Hollow Music. I was fortunate to work with some talented people and along the way I ended up managing a rock band, a kind of alt-rock band, called Jump, Little Children.

I’ve been like Forrest Gump – I’ve had the good fortune to work with some amazingly talented people over the years. And then I decided, in my 50s, as part of my work in Franklin (Tennessee) as part of my community service, to write “The Widow of the South.” It was totally delusional to think in my 50s that I could write a book, let alone get it published, let alone have it go on the New York Times bestseller list.

BH: Quite a switch after a long career assisting other artists.

RH: The truth is it was totally delusional to even think about writing a book. I had a career and I was doing what is everyone’s dream I should have been doing. And the bottom line was that I just felt like I needed to do this. I had no idea of it going beyond that. But it did.

BH: Tell me a little about sitting down to do this. Here you are, you’ve had another career, and then you sit down and do this process. Did you draw on any music industry savvy or connection?

RH: Certainly in years later, in marketing. I think my publisher would tell you that I was always checked on my report card: works well with others, plays well with others. I was one of those people. I’ve had artists, over the years I’ve been working with in the music business, and they would be raging something about the Ritz Carlton suite and you would just sit there on the phone, is this serious? Am I really dealing with this kind of thing? So once I became the artist, I had an amazing, historic resource to work with as far as how to act and how not to act. And my publisher saw it and I ended up on Warner Books longest book tour.

The truth is that I wanted this story out there. That was the original idea. Most people approach being an author for other reasons. I approached it as a means to a particular story, the story of the “Widow of the South,” to get it out there. And so when I decided there needed to be a book and I wanted to control that book, I actually wrote an extensive outline. It ended up almost 60 pages. And I ran into a friend who had published a short story. Had not written in 25 years, but at one point in his youth had published a short story. And I asked him if he wanted this. I don’t mean as a ghostwriter. I meant to give it to him, to put his name on it, but I wanted to keep control of the story. And so we ended up trying to be in a very involved situation. I gave him my outline. He believed he could do it. He said he could have it done in two and a half months. This is so delusional. And six years later, he wasn’t to page 200. I mean, again, I wanted him to put his name on it. I wanted it to be something he would be proud of.

And so, at that point, I already had an agent. Now, think about that – I had an agent without a book. I had an agent – my agent kept saying the same thing to me – “I love this story of yours. I hate his writing.” And so eventually my agent got me to come to New York and sat me down and said, “You’ve got to write it.” And I couldn’t see it. I was in the music business. This wasn’t what I did. I had never been published. I said, “How do I do it?” I mean, and I meant it like, “That’s impossible.” It wasn’t like I was really asking how to do it. And lo and behold, he actually laid it out for me. He said, “First of all, you can’t use a sentence of his.” And he said, “But you’ve divided your original outline into three parts. I want you to try to write the first part.” Go back to that outline and write that first book, as we called, it, that first third of the book. And, you know, he was very wise. While I didn’t think it would ever be published, that at least seemed doable.

And so I went back and I took a year and basically wrote that third of the book. I thought I would hand it to him and he would say, “You know what? You’re right. You can’t.” And I sent it to him and I was out at the Billboard Awards, and he left a message, and he said, “You’re a writer.” I called him up and I said, “What’s that mean?” And he said, “Are you fishing?” And I said, “No. If you said it’s full of crap, I’d understand that. But I don’t understand what you mean.” And he said, “I mean I want to pitch this as a partial.” Well, the only partials I’d ever heard of were in elderly relatives’ mouths. So he explained it to me. “I want to pitch this unfinished piece of manuscript and your outline.” I’m at a Taco Bell stand about a month later on a Monday and I get a call in Santa Barbara, CA and he says, “It’s sold.” I went, “Have we pitched it?” And he said, “Yeah, Friday.” And I said “Which Friday?” And he said, “Three days ago.” How’d this happen? “He said I pitched it and Warner Books came back and they want to buy it.” And so if it hadn’t happened that way, if it had taken another six years, it wouldn’t happen. But I was given the opportunity and then I had a fantastic editor in Amy Einhorn and the other two thirds took about a year and a half. And with a lot of guidance and a lot of wisdom. I probably will tell you way more than you need today. She really was an editor.

BH: Your sentences are very well crafted. I was curious as to your creative process. Do you write a draft and then go back? Or do you labor over each sentence?

RH: Editing is something I can become completely addicted to. And you have to be careful, because it’s like plastic surgery. You can edit too much and pretty soon you’re Michael Jackson. I do have to be careful. But on the early end, “The Widow of the South” was half again bigger than it is today. And (my editor) just had to come through and say, “This is too many voices and you have to get back to your subject.” But as far as crafting a sentence, I do exactly that. I’ll do minimal editing as you’re writing, and then I’ll come back and see how it flows. I do believe that there’s been some serious growth between “Widow of the South” and “A Separate County.” I think I’m learning as a wordsmith and hopefully I believe the story is a bit more complicated and developed than it was in the “Widow of the South.”

BH: Tell me how New Orleans fits into your life and work.

RH: I gave a pre-Katrina bachelor party and my book came out September 1, and that’s really when Katrina came out. And I was down there the week before, and it was really going to be the last thing I was going to do before I went on this extensive book tour. And I had already been on a 17-city pre-tour and so I come home, I have a breather, I have a bunch of friends meeting down in New Orleans. My family’s been associated with New Orleans since before the Civil War. I’ve never lived there, but huge associations with the city. My association with the city goes back to near birth. And so I’m on my way on this book tour and Katrina happens. And I end up back in New Orleans about three months after Katrina. And at that point, I’m supposed to be on a book tour. But people aren’t buying books – they’re worried about buying groceries. And I remember flying in to New Orleans, which always was a very bright city when you flew in or out of it, and it was so dark. It was like my images of cities in Europe during World War II. And then on the way in from the airport, everything was abandoned on the Metairie side of New Orleans. And then I got into the city and I was struck by the literarally tens of thousands of abandoned automobiles. And the way I’ve described it before is that it was like the descriptions of Phenom Penh after the Khmer Rouge had driven people into the jungles. So we’re staying at the Monteleone Hotel, it’s a very different Monteleone Hotel in that most of the hotel is being occupied by service people who work at the hotel and their families. Food is just being put out for everybody. It was really there that I decided – I was still eaten up by the battle of Franklin, I still feel that there’s things to say about it, but I wanted passionately to write about New Orleans. The more I made my way through the city, the more I was determined. I owed it to the city and I owed it to my passion for New Orleans to write about it. And of course I had the perfect candidate to write about it in Franklin and John Bell Hood.

BH: How did Hood come on to your radar?

RH: “The Widow of the South” is about the battle of Franklin. He is the author and architect of the battle. He is the Confederate general that leads those 17 charges into Franklin that are known as the battle of Franklin. So I knew about John Bell Hood ever since I moved to Franklin. But the reality is that the Hood I knew that has emerged from the mid-20th century turned out to have very little to do with the Hood I encountered in history. When I started getting into the record, all these things about Hood - that he was drugged on laundanum, that he was trying to murder his own generals - was just absurd. But we’ve all kind of grown to accept it. His story ends without being held accountable as to where the information came from. Historians have comfortably added to the story so much that most of what I understood about Hood before I started doing research turned out to be better fiction than I write. The 20th century historians that decided to revise the story – the difference between their books and mine is I say “novel” on mine.

BH: What’s next?

RH: First of all, I just finished a 38-city book tour. I’m just trying to regroup right now. I’m going to try and get a book out sooner than I did with “Widow of the South.” My publisher was fantastic with me. They never, ever said, “Are you writing? I finally sat them down and said, “When would you like a book out in an ideal world?” I’m still doing events involving this one and we will be doing events on this one.