A Cool Home for “Homesteading”


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A year ago today, the inimitable Rick Houston sent me that picture of my book “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story” with a note: “Can’t tell you where I saw this yet … but when I do, it will be one of the most impressive places you’ve seen it. I promise.”

 

Rick, for those that don’t know, is the author of “Go, Flight: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control” and of “Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle 1986-2011,” which is the “sequel” to my “Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986,” picking up the story of the shuttle where my book leaves off.

 

Two months go by, and I hear nothing, so I ask Rick if I’ve missed the news. “Nope. Not yet. But I’ll tell you where I saw the book.” Yeeeeesssssss? “Chris Kraft’s house.” As in, like, NASA’s first flight director ever, the guy that basically invented mission control, and former director of Johnson Space Center. During a launch countdown, when you hear people say “Go, Flight,” Kraft was the original Flight. So, yeah, that’s more than a little bit cool. “Just don’t say anything yet,” Rick says. Awww, OK.

 

More months go by. I ping Rick again, asking if I can share the pic and offering to pitch his books in the process. He doesn’t even answer me this time. Sigh.

 

The big secret has now been revealed, however. The reason Rick was hanging out at Chris Kraft’s house was for “Mission Control: The Men Who Put A Man on the Moon,” a documentary about the flight controllers that put men on the moon. I’ve yet to see it, but the rave reviews that it got at Spacefest make me very eager to.

 

So, point being, Rick’s an awesome guy, not only because he sent me a picture of my book in what was, indeed, an impressive place, and not just because he writes great books on his own, but because he’s making actual documentaries about space. Check his stuff out.

All the World’s A Stage


Catching up from the trip a bit more — So one of the things we realized we just weren’t going to be able to squeeze into the trip was a foray up to Stratford-Upon-Avon, which this year is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare. But, in honor of the anniversary, we did take in a few other sites and exhibits related to the Bard.
 
We revisited the New Globe Theater, built several years back just meters from the site of Shakespeare’s Globe. We’d gone by last year but were in a hurry, so we only walked around the outside and into the gift shop. This year, we were excited that we actually had the time to do a tour, but, of course, when we got there, tours were closed for rehearsals for an upcoming performance. (I was a little disappointed, also, that they didn’t have anything in the gift shop marking the 400-year anniversary.)
 
At Windsor Castle, there was a Shakespeare exhibit, including an original first folio, and then at the British Library they had a special exhibit on Shakespeare, which included not only the only known script with his writing, but also two of the only known six remaining examples of his signature. (You had to pay to see the exhibit, and we were running short on time so were afraid we couldn’t do it justice, but then realized that, even if those things were all we saw, the odds that we’d come back to the States and say “I’m so glad we saved a few bucks not seeing Shakespeare’s original handwriting” were about nil. If you ply your living working with the words of the English language, you owe a debt to Shakespeare.)
 
From the Globe, we made a quick trip further into Southwark for another literary pilgrimage to find the original site of the Tabard. It’s a little bit deeper cut than Shakespeare, but the real English lit nerds recognize the name:
 
“Bifil that in that seson, on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout courage…”
 
The general prologue from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was burned into my brain a quarter-century ago in Tish Hammer‘s English class at Huntsville High School, and on a good day, I can still breeze through more than 30 lines in the original language (which isn’t bad, considering we only had to memorize the first 18). We’d had another Chaucer encounter earlier in the trip, seeing his crypt at Westminster Abbey.
 
It made me really grateful for Mrs. Hammer and the other great English teachers I had at HHS. It really says something about a teacher than can inspire such interest that decades later on the other side of the ocean I want to take the time to track down a small marker in a shady alley to find something we studied in her class. (Similar side trips were made in Oxford to find Lewis Carroll sites, inspired by a video project Jasons Smith and Hutchinson and I made for Mrs. Guerin’s AP English class.)
 
I’m very blessed that I enjoy what I do for a living. I love the subjects I get to write about at work, but I also love just the shear act and art of storytelling. And without a doubt, there that love of language and story owes a huge debt to teachers I had at Huntsville High.

Only These Bones


Driving down to the see the latest progress at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility outside of new Orleans, where welding takes place for the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion crew modules, I was struck by dichotomy.

The event was taking place two weeks before Mardi Gras, and already that spirit was in the air — visitors to the event I was going to were fed king’s cake and received beads as their group identifiers. But then, the spirit of Mardi Gras is never really gone from New Orleans, is it? You think of everything that the name New Orleans evokes, and that’s where we’re building the biggest rocket in history. Again.

I don’t write a lot of poetry (or, you know, for decades, any), but it seemed the best way to capture how appropriate that juxtaposition is.

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Only These Bones

Bones
in boxes
resting higher.
The ground too shallow for its dead.
Old bones, old stones;
History creates mystery.
The old world becomes ever new,
But here the new world remains ever old.

Bones
with beads
strewn all over.
Foreign streets of Bacchus’ own.
Magicks, carnal;
Emerald and amethyst and gold.
Here abide vampires and spirits,
In a quarter owned by flesh.

Bones
of buildings
sinking lower.
A city challenging the sea.
Winds tear, waters dare,
The buildings rise again.
The storms, looming, relentless,
The city’s heart more relentless still.

Bones
of metal
rising higher.
A tower taking shape.
Welding wonder;
Eyes toward unwalked ground.
A city’s history, magick, resolution
Come together in a rocket’s heart.

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the rocket plant…

If You Have To Choose Between History And Vampires…


Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

This past weekend, I went down to Tuscaloosa to interview my friend Jeff Weddle, whom I’d not seen in way too long, about his latest book, When Giraffes Flew.

We met up at a Barnes and Noble, and, out of curiosity, I went over to their search computer, and typed in some names.

Jeff, Jesse J. Holland, Claudia Gray and I were all at Ole Miss within a year or so of each other, and we all had our first books come out during a similar span back in 2007-2008. I, of course, with space history tome Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story; Jesse with Washington, D.C., African American history/tour guide Black Men Built the Capitol; Jeff with a non-fiction look at a unique chapter of publishing in Bohemian New Orleans; and Claudia with YA vampire romance Evernight.

Turns out, if you type all four of our names into the search computer at the Barnes & Noble in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, they currently only have books by one of us in stock. Guess who?

She’s outsold us, her books are in way more everyday venues, and, in an odd thing for me to be slightly jealous of, can be commonly found remaindered, which to me is the ultimate level of authorial success.

And, then, earlier this year, it was announced that she’d be writing one of the first new-continuity Star Wars books pre-The Force Awakens. Like, somebody who worked at my college newspaper is now writing actual, real, canon Star Wars stuff, which is kind of mind-blowing.

So the morals of this story, kids, are:

1) I know some pretty awesome people.

2) Ole Miss produces some pretty awesome alum.

3) The latest from these talented authors, in addition to Gray’s Star Wars book Lost Stars, are Weddle’s southern gothic short story collection When Giraffes Flew and Holland’s The Invisibles, available in early 2016. Collect them all.

4) If you want to be successful as an author, and are debating between history and vampires, always go with vampires.

5) I love Star Wars, and, yeah, the idea of actually getting to be part of the story is unfathomable.

But, then, so is the story I do get to be part of. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

My Bad Advice On Book Publishing


printed manuscript for Homesteading space

The original manuscript for “Homesteading Space.”

“How did you go about getting your books published?”

When I had two people ask me to tell this story in two weeks, I realized that maybe I should, you know, write it down. I get this question every so often, and I’m always glad to share my experiences, even if they’re not necessarily that helpful.

Because, really, my answer to that question, if I’m being honest is: “Be really lucky.”

My first book, “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story,” has its origins back in 2003. I was working for the NASAexplores education web site, coming up with story ideas for weekly articles, and happened to notice that it was the 30th anniversary of the Skylab program. I started working on an article about the history of Skylab, and, in the process of researching it, noticed that there was a Skylab astronaut, Owen Garriott, living here in Huntsville. Inspired by this fortuitous discovery, I contacted Dr. Garriott to see if he would talk to me for the article. He was so gracious and helpful that I decided to try my luck again and contact two more Skylab astronauts, Joe Kerwin and Jerry Carr, so I could include one from each crew.

The thing that struck me working on the article, though, was how little information there was about Skylab. Really, I thought, someone should write a book about it. With that thought was the idea that writing said book would be a fun thing to do, but that such undertakings are the bailiwick of professional writers, not people like me.

Fast forward a few months later, and there was a reunion event in Huntsville marking the 30th anniversary of Skylab. The book idea popped into my head again, and I pushed it aside just as successfully on this occasion as the first.

Fast forward another couple of months, and I’m at Space Center Houston for the International Space Station Educator’s Conference. (It would later become the Space Exploration Educators Conference, but at this point the idea that human exploration beyond Earth orbit might actually happen again was only about three weeks old.) In the museum, they have the best Skylab exhibit anywhere. Walking through it, the book idea pushed its way into my head again. I dismissed it again with the same logic — that’s something for professional writers to do — but this time it pushed harder. “You know, David, you write for a living. That’s kind of what ‘professional writer’ means.”

I decided that when I got home, I would contact Dr. Garriott with the idea, which I was then picturing as offering to ghost-write his memoir, including Skylab and his Spacelab mission on the shuttle. I sent him a note asking him if he’d let me buy him lunch to discuss the idea. Honestly, at the time, I figured there was a very high likelihood he would say no to the book, but that I would get to have lunch with someone who spent two months in space, which still would have counted as a huge win to me.

Instead he said yes, let’s do it.

Well, um, OK.

david hitt, owen garriott, and joe kerwin

The three ‘Homesteading Space’ co-authors, hard at work on the book

Again, honestly, I’d now gotten a bit ahead of myself, I had no idea how to go about writing a book with an astronaut, but I figured, not completely incorrectly, that it was a lot like writing other things, but much longer. I also had no idea how to go about getting a book co-written with an astronaut published, and that was perhaps a little more daunting.

I called a friend of mine who worked for a major publishing house in New York at the time, and he gave me the one bit of good advice this story contains: Go to a bookstore. Find books similar to the one you’re writing. Look through the acknowledgements of those books. Find ones where the author thanks his agent. You now know agents who will work with this type of book, and do well enough that the author thanks them for it. Send proposals to those agents.

As it happens, I never even actually used the one bit of good advice in this story. Owen had the time had been helping another author, Colin Burgess, with a book on NASA’s Scientist-Astronauts, and mentioned to Colin that he and I were going to be working on a memoir. Colin, whom I knew through the online collectSPACE community, said that he was editing a series for the University of Nebraska Press on the history of spaceflight, and the author who had originally signed up to write the Skylab volume had just dropped out. Maybe we would be willing to turn the memoir into a Skylab history?

If we were interested, Colin said, we would have to submit a proposal, which he said he would be happy to help us write. They would then review the proposal they helped us write, and, assuming it was acceptable, we’d be given a contract. The offer had appeal. Everything I had started trying to figure out about how to get published just got resolved. We decided to do it. We even wrote the proposal all by ourselves, figuring if we couldn’t write a proposal without help, we probably didn’t need to be undertaking to write a book. It was accepted; we had a contract.

Joe Kerwin joined us later; when we went to interview him for the book he mentioned that he had also been interested in writing one, so we decided to form a super-team-up for “Homesteading.” I’ll note that Owen and Joe did an incredible amount of work on the book; people have assumed that in a partnership like this the writer does the writing and the astronauts lend their names and stories, but they both actually wrote large portions of the book. And a huge amount of credit also goes to Ed Gibson from the third crew of Skylab, who, through not listed as an author, also made incredible contributions to the finished product, both in the coverage of his mission and in the science chapter.

Buried somewhere in the archives of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is an awesome display of a flown cover image of

Buried somewhere in the archives of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is an awesome display of a flown cover image of “Homesteading Space”

Bold They Rise” came about similarly. Toward the end of “Homesteading,” Colin asked me if I knew anyone who might want to write one of the series’ two shuttle books. The conversation took place at just the right moment — I was far enough out of doing the real heavy lifting for Homesteading that the intimidation of the work was a little removed, but publication was imminent enough that there was a lot of excitement. So, yes, I know someone — me. The proposal process got extended when an astronaut co-author was briefly attached, and then unattached, from the project, but other than that, it worked in much the same way.

“Homesteading” took about four years from inception through publication; “Bold They Rise” about twice that long, though much more sporadically with more stops and starts. “Homesteading,” co-authored with a couple of astronauts who opened some amazing doors for me, was much more fun to work on. I’m proud of being able to tell the undertold story of Skylab and preserving it for history; but I’ve had a more personal relationship with the shuttle and so I was honored to be able to write that love letter to the program. I think the shorter “Bold They Rise” is a little more accessible, but I also think that “Homesteading” has some really great nuggets that make it worth the read.

In both cases, we completed the manuscript and sent it to the publisher. It goes through a peer review, in which other authors tell the publisher whether they think the manuscript should be published, would be publishable with some work, or shouldn’t be published. “Homesteading” was the former; “Bold They Rise” came back as the second, and, honestly, is a much better book for it. I was perhaps too humble in undertaking BTR; I wanted it to be a whole lot of the voices of the astronauts and very little of mine. Which sounds noble, but the book suffered from the lack of a stronger narrative. The current draft goes much further in fixing that than what we originally submitted. In the case of “Homesteading,” which received a stronger Go from the peer review, there were still some recommended changes, and those were made.

The manuscripts were resubmitted, and went through an edit from a proof-reader hired by the publisher. The manuscript comes back, you make the edits, and send it back. This is the last time your book is yours to do with as you please. It comes back to you one final time, in the form of page proofs, in which it’s laid out the way it will look in print. You make one final look through, just to make sure there are no glaring errors, but unless there is something huge (and at this point there shouldn’t be), you can’t make minor tweaks but you can’t make any changes that would move even one word from one page to another. It was one of the most painful experiences I’ve had as a writer, having to reread my work but not being able to change it. Reading from this vantage point of having my hands tied, I kept second-guessing myself. The same sentences which I’d loved the last time I read the book now seemed like they could be oh so much better if only I were allowed to change them. (Now that the book is published, they’ve gone back to being just fine again, thankfully.) This was particularly true of the beginning of “Homesteading,” which during that reading felt like I had been trying way too hard to ‘write a book.’ ‘Oh, look at me, I’m such a serious writer,’ 11-years-ago me apparently thought, according to 7-years-ago me. (Me today suspects 11-year-ago me probably really was trying too hard, but that 7-year-ago me may have been a little high on his horse in judging him.)

A big envelope full of

A big envelope full of “Bold They Rise”

The manuscript was mailed back one final time, and the next time I saw it was in the form of a box of printed books on my doorstep. Which, for the record, is a very nice feeling. Someone gave me the advice, which I followed, of signing your first copy for yourself; those two volumes sit in my living room. (I also have “yearbook copies” of each book, in which I get signatures from the people who helped me work on them or who are discussed in the book.)

People ask about royalties, and I’ll just say this is not something you do for the money. For a while, I probably spent more working on “Homesteading” than I made out of it, though that may no longer be true. Part of that comes from working with an academic press, which has its pros and cons. A commercial publisher might have provided more marketing assistance and helped us have more mainstream success, but part of that help most likely would have been in the form of a loss of control. In writing “Homesteading,” a huge motivator for us was preserving the story for history, and so we were grateful for a publisher that gave us the freedom to tell as much of the story as we wanted.

So that’s my story. Like I said, I think the best piece of advice in there is one I didn’t use, so take it all for what it’s worth.

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Beyond that:

• Connections are good. Make them. Use them.

• The best way to write a book is to write a book. It will never be easy. You’ll never have time. The way you do it is this: You type one word. And then you type another word after that. And another word after that. Until there are no more words your story needs. The more time passes between the words, the longer the process will take, but as long as you keep doing it, it will get done. If you wait for the day you have all the time to write all the words, odds are it won’t.

• Write a book because it’s a book you want to write. If you have enough passion to pursue it, do it. If you don’t, don’t.

• I work best with accountability. It’s why I had co-authors on both books; it’s much easier for me to get things done when there’s someone I’m responsible to working with me. I’m not saying you’re the same, I’m saying that we all have strengths and weaknesses. Know both, play to your strengths, compensate for your weaknesses.

The other common question: It’s entirely possible I’ll write another one, but not today. Work keeps me very busy, and my free time goes to improv and history work and freelance writing and Huntsville blogging and being a newlywed husband. Those aren’t an excuse — if I were passionate about writing a book, I would type words around those things. But right, those things are where my passion lies, and a book today would detract from those things. There is an idea I want to write eventually that’s different from my first two, but it’s still boiling in the back of my head. I’d like to write fiction, but I’m not going to start typing until I have an idea that compels me. I’ve had a couple of conversations about collaborating on a project, and for the right project and person, I’m alway open to that.

And, of course, someday the rocket I’m helping to build will need its story told. Part of me would be content letting someone else tell it. But part of me would like to at least be involved in the telling…

Interviewing The Man Who Taught Me To Interview


Joe Atkins at his Lafayette County, Mississippi home.

Joe Atkins at his Lafayette County, Mississippi home. Photo by Lauren Wood, Mud & Magnolias

Twenty years later, there aren’t a whole lot of my former professors I still keep up with. And there’s a case to be made that Joe Atkins​ might have been an unlikely candidate to be one of the few, since I failed one or two of his classes, depending on how you count.

But Joe, as much as anyone, is the person who taught me to be a reporter. Not just the technical aspects of how to be a reporter, but what it means to be one. He was tough but fair, and played a huge role in the foundation of the arc my career would follow.

So it was very interesting to get to write an article about Joe for the most recent issue of Mud & Magnolias about his first published novel, Casey’s Last Chance.

Most of my stories for Mud & Magnolias​ are assigned to me, but this is one I asked to be allowed to write. I thought it would be an interesting subject, which is was, and I wanted to be able to help promote his book, which you should read. What surprised me, however, was how interesting the interview prep was. I’ve known the man for over 20 years now, but I’d never actually researched him before. He’s even more fascinating than I realized.

The experience of the interview itself was also interesting. I was a pretty decent reporter back in my day, and even if I’m not in the newspaper business anymore, I do get opportunities to keep those skills from becoming too rusty. It’s been a long time since I’ve been nervous about conducting an interview. But I’ve also never before interviewed the person who taught me to interview someone. Going into it, I almost expected to be corrected on my technique. In reality, we had a really great conversation about the differences between journalism and fiction, the creative process, the future of the newspaper industry, and a lot more. The hardest part of the process was how much I had to leave out of the article.

Ole Miss historically has a great journalism department and produces great student journalists (I read Tuesday that The Daily Mississippian​ just won another regional best daily student paper award), and professors like Joe Atkins are a bit part of why. I was blessed to be one of his students 20 years ago, and am honored to call him a friend today.

And, in conclusion, buy his book.

#iHeartHsv: There’s No Place Like Home


OK, so I’m finally allowed to talk about this! The Huntsville-Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau has launched a new website for visitors to our awesome city, iHeartHsv.com, and Rebecca and I are regular bloggers for the site! Even if you’re local, it’s well worth checking out — an incredible resource of things to do in the Rocket City (Huge kudos to Jessica Carlton Kumbroch!), and I am SO very honored to get to be a part of it. I was born in Huntsville and have spent almost three quarters of my life here, but over the last three years, my relationship with “my own little postage stamp of native soil” has deepened in very cool ways. I’m extremely proud to have been picked as part of the voice of me hometown, and very proud to call Huntsville home. ‪#‎iHeartHsv‬, indeed!

Related Link: Can’t get enough #iHeartHsv? CVB launches new website for all things Huntsville-Madison County (from al.com)