11 True Things about Writing

 (Originally Published in The Story Prize)

I enjoy shining a flashlight into the darkness. For me, the basic job of a writer is to bring the world into focus and cast some illumination. I particularly enjoy helping my students see what hides behind the doorway of the writing life. This doesn’t mean I have all the answers of course (no one can master the craft of writing in a single lifetime), but I’d like to think I’ve gathered enough useful ideas along the way. What follows isn’t a list of commandments that must be followed no matter what. Instead, I consider them “personal rules” that I keep in the front of my mind whenever I sit down at my desk. But like all rules, I sometimes break them. Such is life. And so, what follows are some observations that have worked for me. Perhaps you’ll find something beneficial for your own work? I sure hope that’s the case. Here we go:

 1. Have a word goal

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, it’s good to have a finish line for the day. For me, I sit down and won’t get up until I’ve written at least 750 words. Other writers shoot for 400. Some aim for 1,000. The important thing is to find a number that works for you and stick to it. Think in terms of words on the page rather than hours spent at the desk. However, this can be a colossal pain in butt because sometimes it takes me two hours to reach 750 and, on other days, when I’m beating my head against the keyboard, it can take five or six hours. I slog on and don’t stop until I reach 750. For me, writer’s block is a myth and it’s something only beginners say. After all, writing is my job. No one asks a plumber if he or she wants to go to work. No way. They get up, they get under that sink, and they stay there until the problem is solved. Writing is the same way. It’s a blue collar job, so get your rear in the chair and starting hitting them keys.

 2. Rewriting is more important than writing

Oh boy is this an important one. The first draft of anything is usually a big hot steaming mess, but at least the words are there and you’re ready to start tinkering with them. I’ve always enjoyed rewriting more than writing because I love the challenge of finding just the right word and just the right phrase. My first novel went through seven drafts before I sent it off to a publisher and most of my stories go through fifteen or twenty revisions. I keep on rewriting (and rewriting and rewriting) until it feels like someone else wrote the words. When the narrative feels like it doesn’t belong to me anymore, that’s usually a good sign to let it go.

 3. He said, She said

This is lower level stuff, and yet it’s still really important. For me, when it comes to taglines, I think you’re better off sticking with a simple “he said” or “she said”. Don’t get all flowery with adverbs and write things like “he roared aggressively” or “she bellowed pointedly”.  Think of taglines as signposts that direct traffic. Your dialogue should sparkle and shimmer so clearly that the reader can hear it in her head.

 4. Readers are smart

Stories work best when readers have to ask questions along the way, and it’s good to remember that uncertainty is the lifeblood of narrative. Think of it this way: Pages will only be turned if a reader wants to know what’s going to happen next, so let them wonder. Trust your reader and don’t over-explain the plot. They’re smart. They’ll figure it out. I believe we read fiction in order to put ourselves in a different moral universe and then we compare the actions of the main character against how we would react to those very same situations. It’s therefore necessary to open up unknowns in a story so that the reader is forced to fill in those gaps with their own imagination. We’re all curious about what will happen next. Speaking of which…

 5. It’s okay to fail

This runs in such total opposition to our cultural beliefs that it almost seems un-American to even mention it. In the United States, we love winners, and we don’t have much time for losers. But I’m here to tell you that if you want to be a writer, you’re going to have to fail a lot. I mean, you’re going to have to fail month after month, and year after year. Only writers that have made it really understand just how soul-crushingly hard it is to get published. And yet, it’s only by failing that you become better at your craft. So I’m here to tell you an important secret: failure is your friend. It won’t feel like this at first (you’ll hate failure so much you’ll want to punch him right in the face), but as you write more you’ll find your voice, and by finding your voice, you’ll discover what makes you tick as a literary artist. So keep on writing, no matter what.

 6. Good writers start off as extraordinary readers

This is more true than you’d ever believe, and if you’re serious about wanting to become a writer you’ll need to read with great promiscuity. Read everything that comes across your field of vision. Even the books you don’t like are educational because at least you know you don’t want to write like Author X or Author Y. Study cadence and voice and word choice and description and narrative perspective and pacing. Just as musicians listen to songs, and painters study shadow and form, you’ll have to bury your nose in a book. It’s what we do. Writers begin as readers, and this is an unshakeable absolutely true 100% for real rule here. Read, read, read, and read some more. Start to think of writers that you love as your “literary heroes”. I know who my literary heroes are. Who are yours? Why do you love them so much?


 7. Snow is white

Don’t tell the reader things they already know. By writing a line like, “the snow was white and on the ground” you’re not saying anything new. Tell the reader if the snow is yellow because there’s a story there, especially if a dog is sniffing around. Equally, don’t say the sky is blue—it usually is blue—but tell the reader if the sky is “green and boiling.” The same goes for green grass, and red blood, and wet water. In other words, don’t state the obvious.

 8. The element of surprise

If I’m not surprised by what happens in the story as I’m writing it, the reader will never be surprised by the story when they’re reading it. In other words, let’s say you’re motoring through the first draft and then—what the hell?—your main character does something totally unexpected. Follow behind your character and see what they do next. If you’re not surprised by your story, the reader never will be. This taps a little bit into Rule #4 because gaps and the unknown in a story should happen to you when you hammer out the first draft. Go with the flow. Be surprised. Let your characters control you rather than the other way around.


 9. Find the “moment of crisis”

In short stories and novels, the narrative should zero in on a specific event that will forever change the main character. I call this “the moment of crisis” and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the center of gravity around which the rest of the narrative orbits. This particular rule is so important to me that I often tell my students to rip off the first page of whatever story they are working on. I ask them to do this because the moment of crisis rarely reveals itself on the first page. Most of the time, it begins to appear on page two or three. Start there, I tell my students. Drop the reader into the crisis and they will start to ask questions immediately, which is exactly what you want to keep those pages turning.

 10. Be kind to other writers

There are many wonderful things about being a writer, but it’s a life full of rejection letters, frustration, and doubt. Other writers will understand what you’re going through better than anyone else. Plus, most of the writers I know are kind and thoughtful people who are deeply interested in the human condition. Be kind to your fellow wordsmiths. Support them. Don’t be a jerk.

 11. Get out of your office

You can only write about yourself for so long before you’ve exhausted your own stories. When this happens, get out into the world. Travel to a foreign country. Go interview a hospice nurse. Talk to a single mother. Meet someone from a faith group you don’t understand. Think of a weird job and ask someone who does that job about their hopes and dreams. Learn from strangers and widen your pool of stories. By doing this, you won’t make yourself the center of every narrative that you write and you’ll also find out new things that can spice up your work. In order to be a writer, you have to be curious about the world. Try new things. Be bold. Ask questions.

 12. Bonus true thing about writing

I’m in awe that black ink splashed onto a white page can conjure up an entire world in the head of a reader. I mean, here you are, reading this list, and it’s like I’m performing some kind of hypnosis on you. While you’ve been reading this, you have floated out of your body and existed somewhere else—it’s a space that you and I have created together in imagination. You don’t know me, and yet here we are having some kind of connection across space and time. There is something deeply magical about this for me. And it’s happening because I’m stringing words together and you’re patient enough to read them. We are connected because words are parading before your eyes right now, right this very second. Writing is such a glorious and mysterious part of the human experience and, at the end of the day, I believe that all we have are stories. Stories are what we pass on to the next generation. Make sure to tell your stories with care. You have to build them to last.

Patrick Hicks is the author of ten books, including The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard (Steerforth/Random House) and The Collector of Names (Schaffner Press). He is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana College and a member of faculty at the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.

What’s it Like to do a Radio Interview?

Originally Published on The Huffington Post


A friend recently asked me what it’s like to be on the radio, and my short answer was, “It’s fun.” It’s more complicated than this of course, so I thought I might use a few pixels here to explain what it’s like to speak into a microphone and know that hundreds of thousands of people are listening to you.

There are two basic ways your voice is sent shooting through the atmosphere for a radio interview: 1) you call in on a phone or 2) you step into a studio. My first radio gig happened in 2005 when I appeared on Minnesota Public Radio. We were talking about Tim O’Brien’s masterful novel, The Things They Carried, and since I’ve read that book I-don’t-know-how-many-times I wasn’t worried about the questions. I sat in my office with my door closed and held the phone to my ear with both hands. I knew I was going to be patched in any second. When it happened, I heard my name, then a question.

I paused.

A few words tumbled out of my mouth but when I thought about how many people were out there listening to me, my throat tightened. I thought of cars driving on long ribbons of highway, of farmers peeling back rich layers of earth with their tractors, of parents eating at a table — and they all waited for me to speak. I panicked at the thought of them leaning in, waiting for my tongue to work.

With closed eyes, I told myself to get it together.

I have no idea what I finally said, but it must have been decent enough because I stayed on air for another 30 minutes. And with each passing second, I felt more at ease.

Since then, I’ve been on the radio about 30 times. I like it. It’s fun. Doing a radio interview from your office feels like a normal conversation and it’s easy to forget that people are eavesdropping on what you and the host are saying. A good interviewer will make you feel like you’re talking over a tall cup of coffee.

Then there’s the other type of interview: the one that takes place in a studio. I actually prefer this one because you’ve got a fancy set of headphones on and the microphone is hanging before you like a weird metal fruit. I have to remind myself not to uncross my legs or shuffle paper because the mic picks up everything. Plus you’ve got all of these dials and blinking lights in front of you.

Best of all though, you’re sitting across from the host and you’re able to read her or his face. You pick up expressions you’d miss on the phone and the conversation is completely natural. It’s also helpful to have a large atomic clock next to you — it counts down how many seconds you’ve got left on the program. Have you ever wondered how radio guests always seem to talk for just the right length of time? Well, there’s your answer. All you have to do is glance at the wall and you see that you’ve got 40 seconds left . . . 39 . . . 38 . . . 37 . . .

I enjoy doing radio and whenever I’m contacted about being on a show I almost always say “yes.” It’s an honor to be piped into cars and homes and work spaces. You become a guest among strangers. And as these strangers listen, I hope they might nod their heads at something I’ve said.

The truly weird part about doing radio though? I mean, the truly mind-blowing part of it all? It’s the realization that nothing else I’ve ever done (or will ever do in the future) will last longer. This isn’t arrogance on my part; it’s physics. At this very moment, all of the interviews I’ve done are speeding across our little solar system and at some point in time they will cross the distant edge of the sun’s gravity. My voice will pulse out into the void and keep on going. Like a message in a bottle, my voice is corked inside radio waves, which will keep riding through space long after I’m gone. A hundred thousand years from now all you need to do is tune in and I’ll still be there, whispering in the dark.


Patrick Hicks is the author of ten books, including The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard (Steerforth/Random House) and The Collector of Names (Schaffner Press). He is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana College and a faculty member at the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College. His website is www.patrickhicks.org

The Things They Carried

(Originally Published in The Lit Pub)
The First Gulf War began in 1990, and I was worried about being drafted. Thinking about such a thing in reference to this war seems ridiculous now but, at the time, with the ghosts of Vietnam swirling around us, I was worried. I watched the news and wondered if Iraq would be Generation X’s war. I wondered if I would experience waves of heat or if I would feel sand beneath my boots. Would the government push an M16 into my hands?

As the Allies mobilized against Saddam Hussein, my friends and I drank cases of beer and asked each other if we’d go. This wasn’t an academic exercise, you understand. We thought about the 5,000 Kurds that had been murdered by chemical attacks in Halabja. And didn’t Hussein say this would be the “Mother of All Wars”? Let’s not forget that Iran and Iraq had just finished a very bloody war with each other, a war that had snuffed out the lives of over 500,000 men.

So, yeah, I was worried.

Amid this jumble of fear and unstoppable world events I picked up a copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. He was from Minnesota like me and his latest book was getting rave reviews all across the nation. I’d read a lot of war literature before (All Quiet on the Western Front, Slaughterhouse Five, Catch-22) but nothing prepared me for how inviting, how visceral, and how immediate O’Brien was. Here was a writer from my neck of the woods and he said things I’d always felt deep in my ribcage, but I just didn’t know how to articulate them. I read The Things They Carried in one sitting. It mesmerized me. It captivated me. And when I closed the book, I sat back and looked out the window for a long time. A very long time.



This book shifts between war and peace so effortlessly, so brutally, that we quickly learn what it might be like to go to war and, perhaps more importantly, what it means to come home from war. I was especially hooked when I read a chapter called “On the Rainy River”. In these pages, a fictional Tim O’Brien is drafted by the government and he spends his remaining days over the summer working in an abattoir. That metaphor is perfect enough, but as the date for his induction into the US Army draws closer and closer, he drives north to the Canadian border. In beautiful prose, this fictional O’Brien sits in a boat and decides if he will flee his country (Canada is so close, just twenty yards away) or if he will turn back and go to Vietnam.

Rarely does a book speak so directly to your life. I mean, here I’m reading about a fellow Minnesotan sitting in a boat and he’s trying to decide if he will fight for his country. All of these societal expectations are swirling around him and, as I read about a fictional Tim O’Brien making up his mind, suddenly Vietnam and Iraq and American manhood and growing up in a small town all get collapsed together. As I continued to read, that was me sitting in that boat. That was me looking out at Canada. Would I go? Should I go?

O’Brien finally decides to go to Vietnam but not for any heroic or noble reason. He allows himself to be drafted because he couldn’t stand the idea of disappointing anyone in his small farming town. As he says towards the end of this chapter, “I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to.”

I’d never thought of it this way before. I’d never considered how embarrassment and shame can factor into what appears to be a selfless act.

“Hey Hicks,” one of my friends asked after I finished the novel. “If our asses get drafted, what’re you going to do?”

A good question. I had visions of driving an ambulance like in M*A*S*H or maybe becoming a medic that ran from one wounded soldier to another. Carrying a gun though? I just couldn’t see myself doing that.

Flash forward a bit. The First Gulf War ended quickly and with limited loss of life, at least as far as America was concerned. My friends and I laughed at how frothed up we got about the whole thing.

“To think we were worried! Jesus, what a bunch of wimps. What on earth were we thinking?”

It’s true The Things They Carried made me re-examine my understanding of individualism, community, patriotism, and the nature of truth, but let me tell you something I’ve never told anyone else before: To my growing astonishment, I began to resent that my government could draft me into a war that I might find morally reprehensible. The more I thought about this, the more I wanted an escape clause, so I became an Irish citizen. When my purple passport arrived in the mail it felt like a magic door to elsewhere had opened up. It allowed me to live in Europe for six years and it allowed me to meet people I’d never meet otherwise.

Looking back on it now, becoming an Irish citizen fundamentally knocked me on a different road. Would I have become a dual-citizen without the hard questions that Tim O’Brien raised in his slender book? Who knows, but his book did spark my imagination to think of myself beyond the shores of America. Since my mother was born in Northern Ireland, I also started to care more about her national history around this time of my life. Some people might have a problem with my decision to become a dual-citizen but, as I’ve said elsewhere in my writing, I hold the treasonous belief that we can love more than one country. Just because I was born in the U.S. is no reason to set up a border patrol around my heart. As a rule though, countries don’t like such split allegiances. I can call myself Irish-American but it’s the American part that matters most…at least as far as Uncle Sam is concerned.


But, back to the book. Although The Things They Carried raised thorny questions of patriotism and community for me, it is, at its heart, a novel about writing. It’s very easy to miss this on your first reading. Yet O’Brien reminds us that words connect us across time, words can raise the dead, and words can help explain the incomprehensible. Sometimes it feels as if Tim O’Brien is deliberately frustrating us. In a chapter called “Good Form” he forces us to grapple with the differences between “story truth” and “happening truth”. In one of the more famous sentences in the book, O’Brien says, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story truth is truer sometimes than happening truth.” Telling a war story or, for that matter, any story, means bumping up against the problems of perception and memory.

We may get annoyed with The Things They Carried because we don’t know what the truth is but we also get carried away by his prose. Even today, it’s hard for me to read just one sentence and put this book down. Forget about “story truth” and “happening truth” for a minute. I’m going to tell you the god’s truth: writing this review took much longer than it really should have because whenever I stopped to consult the book, whenever I flipped through my battered beloved copy, I got lost in his prose and read pages beyond what I needed to.

So here’s another truth for you: To read Tim O’Brien is to realize that you’re in the hands of a master. Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s read a few passages from “How to Tell a True War Story”:

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”

Or this:

“In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.”

Or lastly:

“You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it. And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.”

Even though I’ve read this chapter many times, I want to re-read it again. And again. And again. But that’s not the half of it because there are also chapters like “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”, “The Man I Killed”, “Speaking of Courage”, “The Ghost Soldiers” and the final chapter, “The Lives of the Dead.” This ending gently reminds us that stories can save us. Stories allow us to commune with the dead. Stories give us a place to be with our loved ones even when they are no longer among the living. As O’Brien so beautifully states, “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.”

Spirits in the head. That of course is the essence of good writing.

This book is almost 25 years old but it hangs in my imagination and haunts my understanding of war, returning from war, and the passage of time. When I first read this book as a young man it made me question my relationship to my country and my own sense of bravery. Now, as I creep into middle-age, this book challenges me to become a better writer and it asks some hard questions about the nature of storytelling. More and more, I realize this is an excellent book on the craft of writing. I’m confident it will be read one hundred years from now. Why? Because it’s not just about war. It’s about how we tell stories to each other. It’s about reaching out. It’s about understanding the vital power of words.

Patrick Hicks is the author of ten books, including The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard (Steerforth/Random House) and The Collector of Names (Schaffner Press). He is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana College and a faculty member at the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College. His website is www.patrickhicks.org

Ripley Bogle

(Originally Published in The Lit Pub)
Several years ago I challenged a friend to read the first 10 pages of Ripley Bogle and then put it down: “I dare you to walk away after ten pages. I bet you can’t do it.”

I should come clean about something before you (wise reader that you are) go much further than this sentence. Here it is: I’m an evangelist for Ripley Bogle. It’s one of those books I’d take to a desert island because it’s on my top ten list, usually floating around the #4 or #5 slot. Here is an example of excellent writing and every time I pick it up I find something new, something brilliant. Whenever I get asked to recommend a “good read” this is the novel I mention and I do this because so few Americans have heard of Robert McLiam Wilson. Yet the voice he creates in Ripley Bogle is memorable, hilarious, and fearsomely intelligent. I like to say that Ripley Bogle is a collision between Charles Dickens, the punk movement, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. And, if I’m being totally honest, I’m also jealous that he wrote this sparkling gem of a novel when he was only 25 years old. That’s just unfair.

Some background perhaps. Yes, you deserve this.

I moved to Belfast in the early 1990s when the Troubles were still going on. Car bombs popped around the city and headlines announced that yet another person had been shot. Men roamed the night with machine guns and baseball bats. This little spot of earth went about the business of tearing itself apart between 1969 and 1998. It was a civil war fought in slow motion. It was mean and vicious and terrible. Hearts were broken. Blood was spilled.

Belfast, you’ll understand, was not exactly a city for tourists. Catholics were shooting Protestants. Protestants were shooting Catholics. The British Army roved the street in massive armored trucks while, high above the city, there was the constant thud of military helicopters. They were always up there, spying. At night they turned off their running lights so you couldn’t see them. You’d hear them though, and they shook the glass in windowpanes. They became a weird kind of white noise as you drifted off to sleep.

This was the world I entered. My mother was born and raised in Northern Ireland, but since I grew up in America I didn’t know the place very well. And I really wanted to know it well. So I packed my bags and became a citizen of my ancestral city. It was important for me to talk with Protestants and Catholics, Irish and British, Unionists and Republicans. I wanted to understand why the violence was happening and I wanted to listen to the voices beyond the headlines.

This is how I stumbled across Ripley Bogle. By the time I arrived in the early 1990s it had already won a pile of prestigious awards and it was in all of the bookstores. I picked up a copy and sat down to read about this character — this young man named Ripley Bogle — and I was mesmerized by his use of language, his dark humor, and how he challenges the very notion of Irishness itself. This is not a book for the shamrocks-and-Guinness crowd because Ripley Bogle is a direct assault on nationalism and cultural nostalgia in general. The main character is more interested in poverty and what it means to remember the past.


And remembering the past is what Ripley Bogle is all about. Set in the mid-1980s, the main character is currently homeless in London. As he wanders around the streets and tries to stay warm, he remembers his violent childhood in Belfast. We move back and forth between the violence of Northern Ireland and the rough streets of London. Bogle moves around London like a modern-day Dickens even as he recalls what it was like to grow up in the warzone of Belfast. We read about a tar-and-feathering he witnessed when he was a boy, we learn about the executions and punishment beatings he saw, and then we return to London where he is freezing. He sits outside the Queen’s palace and imagines her looking at him.

The subject matter is dark and grim to be sure, but Bogle’s voice tugs us forward and we want to hear more. He has a wicked sense of humor and the entire narrative is sprinkled with imaginary conversations with Dickens, Orwell, and a host of other literary giants. We also run across frequent songs that Bogle makes up, like:

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
Don’t give a toss to what you are,
Up above the world so high,
Like shiny acne in the sky”

Or this:

“Our Ireland is a lovely place,
A supergroovy nation
Bigotry is her pastime
Death her occupation.”

And because Bogle smokes cigarettes the way the rest of us breathe oxygen, he frequently thinks about getting cancer, as in this song:

“We’re the boys from Deathsville
The lads from Cancer Alley
We dogfight with the cellular
And add them to our tally


So look out for Melanoma,
Watch out for Dermoid Cyst
If you meet Carcinoma,
You’ll quickly not exist.”

Ripley Bogle is hugely entertaining — yes — but its greatest triumph is allowing us to peek into the Troubles of Northern Ireland as well as homelessness in London. We’re used to narratives where the Irish speaker is good-hearted, folksy, he loves Ireland, he cares about the countryside more than the city, and he never lies. Ripley Bogle turns all of this on its head. Here is a narrator who isn’t good-hearted, he plays magic tricks with the English language, he is an urban pacifist who hates Ireland, and we’re never entirely sure if he’s telling us the truth or not.

For my money, Robert McLiam Wilson has written the best novel to come out of Northern Ireland in the last 30 years. It’s hugely readable and it’s unfairly good. Ripley Bogle is the kind of novel you’ll appreciate having read and, I dare say, you may became an evangelist for it yourself one day: “Wait, wait,” you’ll say. “You’ve got to read this book. I dare you to read the first 10 pages and walk away. I triple-dog-dare you.”

PS. I should also mention his other critically acclaimed novel, Eureka Street, which was published in 1996 and also takes place in Belfast. Since then, Robert McLiam Wilson has been working on a novel called Extremists but, year after year, it has been delayed. He seems to be like JD Salinger in both his cult following and his endless work on a new but continually postponed novel. (If you ever read this Robert, I’d love to interview you. You’re a writer that makes other writers very jealous. Email me. I’ll fly to Paris and pay for all the coffee).

Patrick Hicks is the author of ten books, including The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard (Steerforth/Random House) and The Collector of Names (Schaffner Press). He is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana College and a faculty member at the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College. His website is www.patrickhicks.org

Rush and Me

(Originally Published on The Huffington Post)

My favorite rock band is celebrating their 40th anniversary this summer and I can’t wait to see them on stage again. The tour, known simply as R40, will find Rush digging deep into their musical vault and performing songs both new and old. Fans like me can’t wait. In fact, over the last few decades I’ve seen them 28 times. There aren’t too many things this durable in anyone’s life, so, as the band assesses what it means to be around for 40 years, it has nudged me to do the same. Why do I like them so much? How have they influenced me?

Rush have been in the media a lot lately–movie appearances, a gig on The Colbert Report (R.I.P.), and they were recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For a fan like me, it’s kind of mind-boggling to see them get any media attention. To be a Rush fan is to feel like you listen to the most popular unpopular band around. Rush has never been cool. They are a nerd band. They write long complex songs, they take their music seriously, and they’ve never lived the rock-n-roll lifestyle.

For millions of fans, we are now faced with the growing reality that their touring days are over. Ray Danniels, the group’s manager, says the chances of the upcoming tour being their last are “somewhere between possible and probable.” He also suggested that R40 might be the “last major tour of this magnitude.” I’d like to think smaller tours with limited dates might still happen in the future, but who knows? They’re in their 60s and it’s hard to play the music they do, especially for a three hour set.

I also totally get that some people don’t like Rush. That’s fine. We all like different things. But why do I like them so much? I could point to their music of course, or their quiet example of staying true to artistic vision no matter what, or their simple faith in perseverance, or their obvious belief in kindness and philanthropy. All of these things are good and honorable; however, what I find myself gravitating towards the most are their lyrics. Even as a boy, I knew I wanted to be a writer, so it was with a sense of wonderment that I found a rock group in love with words and books. Rush gave me a reading list and they allowed me to feel that books were cool. Damn cool.

It started when a friend loaned her copy of Moving Pictures to me. I’d heard “Tom Sawyer” on the radio many times before (who hasn’t?) but when I started to read the lyrics on this, their most commercially successful album, I began to realize these guys had a lot more going on than killer riffs and amazing drum fills. Here were songs that made allusions to Mark Twain and Shakespeare while nodding to writers I’d never heard of before.

It didn’t take long before I drove to our local mall and picked up Power Windows, which was their latest album at the time. I unwrapped it in the parking lot and read the lyrics on the sleeve. I’ve always been interested in World War II, and I couldn’t believe they had a song about the Manhattan Project. Who sings about the development of the atomic bomb? (Answer: Rush does.)

And so it went for the better part of six months. I bought their albums and read the lyrics before listening to the music. Along the way, I found songs that were inspired by JRR Tolkien (“Rivendell”), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“Xanadu”), and they also sang about the final days of Ernst Hemingway (“Losing It”). Walt Whitman even made a brief appearance in the title of “The Body Electric.” I wanted to read the books that had inspired these songs, and that’s how I found myself reading John Dos Passos’s brilliant and underrated novels in the U.S.A Trilogy. Suddenly I understood one of my favorite songs–“The Camera Eye”–a little better and I also came to realize that it was Dos Passos who influenced the titles of such familiar Rush songs as “The Big Money” and “Grand Designs.” Best of all, I learned more about American and British fiction. But that’s just the beginning because Greco-Roman mythology is stitched throughout Rush’s album Hemispheres and the spaceship in “Cygnus X-1″ is named Rocinante, after the horse in Don Quixote.

Whoever this Neil Peart guy was, he did far more than bash drums and twirl sticks, that’s for sure. The man knew a few things about literature and he had a voracious appetite for words. In interviews, I loved how he talked about books as if they were old friends. I took notes. I went to my local library.

Even Rush songs that don’t allude to literature have some deep questions embedded into them. Consider “Freewill,” which prompts us to think about predestination, evolution, and how much we control our own fates. Here’s the last stanza: “Each of us/ a cell of awareness/ imperfect and incomplete/ Genetic blends/ with uncertain ends/ on a fortune hunt that’s far too fleet.” There’s a ton of thought packed into those tight economical lines, and whenever they play this song in a stadium I’m screaming along because they’re as true for me today as they were when I was a teenager. Not many songs can resonate down through the decades of our lives as we grow and change.


I guess it’s no surprise that Rush’s lyricist has become an author himself. His best and most powerful book is Ghost Rider. Peart had the double tragedy of losing his daughter in a car accident and his wife to breast cancer. This happened in 1997 and he was suddenly rudderless. Peart hopped on a motorcycle and drove 55,000 miles in an effort to tame and understand his grief. For fans, it was uncertain if the band would ever get back together again. He wrote Ghost Rider as he charted his way through a dense fog of pain.

I believe there are certain wounds we can never heal from, and yet, in spite of such crippling loss, the band reformed and they have since created some of their best work to date. Along the way, Peart started “Bubba’s Book Club” where he offers informal book reviews on his website. Recent recommendations include, Dave Eggers, Jennifer Egan, Barbara Kingsolver, Kevin Powers, and Michael Chabon (also a Rush fan).

But I can’t write about Rush and books without mentioning Ayn Rand. One of her novels, Anthem, is set in a dystopian future and it influenced one of their most beloved albums: 2112. Her presence in the early days of Rush is undeniable, and because of this I read most of her phonebook-sized novels. She’s not a good writer but her ideas are seductive for teenagers and college students who are trying to figure out their way in the world. Hearing about independence, self-reliance at any cost (even at the expense of those around you), and how it’s okay to be selfish are intoxicating messages when you’re starting off. It didn’t take me long to realize how bankrupt her ideas are though. Happiness is generally found in bringing joy to others, in building community, and in helping those around you.

Given Rush’s lyrics over the past few decades it would seem the guys have turned from her too. Certainly their belief in philanthropy suggests that we have a responsibility to each other. In March of this year, Rush received the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award in Canada to honor their decades of service to others. Being Rush, however, they never trumpeted the substantial gifts they gave out to food banks, the United Way, various human rights organizations, Doctors Without Borders, AIDS organizations, and flood relief agencies.

The song that really gets me though? That will require a little explanation.


“Red Sector A” was always powerful for me, but this song about futuristic concentration camps has lately taken on a significance it didn’t used to have. While I was working on my first novel, I spent a lot of time in Poland researching the Nazi death camps. I spent over thirty hours in Auschwitz, and I also spent time at Treblinka, Sobibór, Bełżec, and Majdanek. I went to these places because I wanted to get the story of the Holocaust right. While I was walking around abandoned synagogues and ruined cemeteries, I remembered that Geddy Lee is Jewish.

I hadn’t thought about this at all while I was crafting the novel–I was far more interested in trying to frame my narrative in a believable and sensitive way–but it occurred to me that Lee’s parents were survivors of the Holocaust. I wondered where they had come from. What was their story?

It didn’t take long to discover that his parents came from a village just south of Warsaw called Staracohwice. Unbelievably, I had taken a train a few days earlier that passed near this tiny spot on the map. As I did more research, I discovered that his parents met in Auschwitz. They managed to survive the industrialized genocide and immigrate to Toronto where they had a little Canadian boy who would go on to become…

It was a strange moment for me to realize that this band, which had helped form my early tastes in literature, was directly tied to the very place I was trying to understand and write about. I remember sitting in my hotel room and thinking about Operation Reinhard, as well as what happened to the Jews of Poland. For the first time, Geddy Lee’s background meant something far more to me than how he was raised.

Ever since this realization, whenever I hear “Red Sector A” I don’t rock out like I used to. Instead, I stand there and see Auschwitz in my head. I see the other camps too. I see the ghettos emptying.

And so, as R40 begins, I’ll be on the floor, yelling out lyrics like I always have, and I’ll be thankful to these men who had such a huge impact on my understanding of words. I’m sure “Red Sector A” will be played and, when it is, I’ll take a moment to consider how my youth as an aspiring writer, and my adulthood as a professional writer, intersect in the words that Geddy Lee will sing.

Patrick Hicks is the author of ten books, including The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard (Steerforth/Random House) and The Collector of Names (Schaffner Press). He is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana College and a faculty member at the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College. His website is www.patrickhicks.org

The Second Death of Brian Moore

(Originally published on The Huffington Post)

I’ve been thinking about the Irish novelist, Brian Moore, a lot lately. Maybe it’s because I’m teaching one of his novels right now and that has nudged me to think about the huge impact he had on my own understanding of story. Plus, my mother was born in Northern Ireland, and because of this I was drawn to his earlier novels, which take place in Belfast. Moore abandoned Northern Ireland after World War II and moved to North America where he went on to write 20 novels and win a slew of awards. Before his death in 1999 he was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. The guy was prolific–he produced a novel every other year–and he was totally devoted to his art. But as I look on the internet, he’s almost nowhere to be found. It’s like Brian Moore has suffered a second death.

To be fair, I didn’t really notice his absence on the internet until I was prepping for class the other day. I thought it might be nice for my students to see a TV interview with him. But I found nothing. Radio interview? Nothing. How about a webpage devoted to his life and his powerful novels? Again, almost nothing.

Even though he did plenty of radio and television interviews, I’m beginning to realize that his death in 1999 meant that no one thought to digitize these interviews and put them on the web. He died before the internet took off and became the warehouse of information and entertainment that we know it to be. Not being on the web nowadays means that you don’t quite exist, and as I thought about this electronic absence, I began to feel like he was dying all over again.

Go on. Check the internet for TV or radio interviews with him. Aside from a short 46 second clip from a documentary (this one), you won’t find anything.

Go on. Check. I’ll wait for you…


Brian Moore (pronounced the Irish way, Bree-an) was a writer’s writer. He led a monkish existence that orbited around the written word, he crafted books that challenged convention, and he is generally lauded as one of the best male writers of female characters in the twentieth-century (if don’t believe me, read The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne or I am Mary Dunne or The Doctor’s Wife). He also put Belfast on the literary map and it’s arguable that he captures the city, pre-Troubles and violence, in a way that no one else ever did. His relationship to Ireland, Catholicism, and nationalism was testy at best, but it helped him produce some incredible novels. For me, I return to his work again and again because I see a master storyteller at work. Alfred Hitchcock thought he could spin a good yarn too, and commissioned him to write Torn Curtain.

My favorite novels? In no particular order I’d have to say Judith Hearne, Fergus, The Great Victorian Collection, The Magician’s Wife, Catholics, and The Emperor of Ice-Cream. Man I love that last one. It’s not his best, but he writes about the Blitz on Belfast in 1941 in a way that’s totally mesmerizing. I read that novel in one sitting. And when I finished it, I reached for another novel.

I plowed through all of his work in under two months.

While living in Belfast in the early-1990s, I heard that his childhood home was all but destroyed. Apparently the IRA was using it as a sniper’s nest to pick off British soldiers, so it was torn down. When I arrived, it was surrounded by a metal fence–only the kitchen floor remained. I’d heard that everything was going to be smothered under a thick layer of asphalt to make way for a parking lot, so I decided to take a chunk of the floor. Why not? Why not preserve something of literary history?

That’s when I heard the click-click of a round being put into the chamber of a machine gun. I looked up and saw a British soldier aiming his weapon at me. My chest was in his crosshairs.

“What’re you doing here?” he barked.

I raised my hands with part of Moore’s childhood in my fist and explained. The soldier shook his head and told me to bugger off. “This is a restricted area. See that fence? Get out of here.”

And I did get out. Quickly, I might add.

To the best of my knowledge, the only part of Moore’s childhood home in Belfast is now in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s a paperweight on my desk. As a matter of fact, it’s sitting under the monitor as I type this very sentence.

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Sadly, I never got a chance to meet Moore face-to-face, but we chatted on the phone once. I was the last person to interview him before he died, and I remember saying that I hoped we could meet up one day, perhaps in Belfast. But he passed away, unexpectedly, on January 10, 1999.

I’m delighted that my current students seem to be captivated by Judith Hearne (I’m teaching it right now) and some of them have already searched out his other novels. This tells me the legacy of Brian Moore will be just fine. I just wish that his presence on the internet was stronger–a web page, links to radio interviews, TV interviews, maybe a list of the movies that have been made of his books.

It’s also a good reminder for me that the internet doesn’t house everything. We’d like to think it does, but it has plenty of gaps, holes, and missing pieces. One of these sizable holes, at least  for me, happens whenever I search for “Brian Moore novelist” and I don’t see any videos or radio links. His obituaries pop up, but that’s about all.

Maybe that’s why I wrote this. Maybe I wanted to do something that would bring new readers towards him.

He’s worth your time. I promise.

Pan Am 103 and “57 Gatwick”

On December 21, 1988, a commercial airliner exploded over Scotland, killing 259 people. Burning luggage, seats, and bodies rained down through the night onto the little town of Lockerbie. It wasn’t until the sun came up the following morning that the full scope of the horror became clear to those on the ground—as well as the world.

This was Pan Am 103, and it shocked everyone because, at the time, it was the worst act of aviation terrorism the world had ever seen. Nothing would surpass it until a fateful day in September 2001. Even now, whenever I’m on a 747, I sometimes imagine my long fall to the ground. Maybe everyone secretly thinks about this as we buckle ourselves into a plane. Maybe you do this? I suspect this is a common fear that crawls around inside our skulls, and although the name “Pan Am 103” might not mean anything to someone under the age of twenty-five, it really should mean something. I worry that this moment in history is being forgotten about. I worry that those 259 lives—and the families who continue to love them—are slipping from our collective memory.

I guess that’s one reason I wrote “57 Gatwick.” It’s the first story in my latest book, The Collector of Names but, of that, more in a minute. Let’s get back to Pan Am 103, which is far more important.

120522083234-pan-am-103-horizontal-galleryOn the night of the bombing, Colin Patterson was a member of the Dumfries/Galloway District Council for Mapping and Zoning. It was his job to map where the bodies had fallen as well as pinpoint the final resting place of the engines, the wheels, the nosecone, and anything else that might prove helpful to the investigation. Colin worked in the debris field and, by default, he became the liaison for the grieving families. He got to know them all by name, especially when they wanted to know where their loved ones had landed after their long fall through the night. He even helped design the memorial, which stands in Lockerbie today.

Colin is a member of my family and it’s for this reason that I’m not using his real name—I want to protect his privacy. He’s talked to my parents and sisters about what he saw that night and, years after the wreckage was cleaned up, he continued to usher families around Lockerbie with gentle reverence. So it seemed natural on the 20th anniversary of Pan Am 103 to write an essay about his experiences. Back in 2008, I wanted to fly over to Scotland and spend a few days with him to get the story right. I wanted to pay homage to these lost souls.

Colin, however, found it all too painful and politely said no. He apologized, but he just didn’t want to revisit that time of his life. And who can blame him? It would be like asking a firefighter to walk around Ground Zero and talk about what he saw on September 11. Veterans are like this too. Many of them simply don’t want to talk about what they saw in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I respected his decision but, as the weeks went by, the story of Pan Am 103 kept gnawing at me.

Rather than shelve the idea, I decided to transform this real life story into a work of fiction that eventually became “57 Gatwick.” My main character is loosely based upon Colin, but I knew he had to become his own person. I didn’t want “57 Gatwick” to be just a fictionalized retelling of Pan Am 103. I wanted the reader to relate to the protagonist, to feel the fear that filled up his whole body, and more than anything, I wanted to honor the dead that inspired the story.

My short fiction is usually rooted in my native Minnesota, so when I decided to move ahead with the project I began to consider flight paths out of Minneapolis/Saint Paul. I began to see a Boeing 747 exploding at 30,000 feet and, if I closed my eyes, I could almost see it. I imagined it falling to earth and I saw the lights of Duluth far down below. At such a great height, how long would it take for a person to hit the ground? (Answer: about seven minutes).

The explosion would have blown people a part, and passengers who survived the initial blast would be strapped into their seats when they hit the ground at 120 miles per hour. All of this made “57 Gatwick” very difficult to write because the people on that plane, they felt—there’s no other way to describe this—they felt real to me. Mothers and husbands and sisters and friends and grandsons, they all disappeared and I felt a strong sense of responsibility to get their stories right.

The issue of what historical details to use and which to shelve was also crucial. I talked to my family about things they remembered Colin saying when he showed them around. They squinted into the distance and told me things that I’d never come up with on my own. The stink of jet fuel was everywhere in Lockerbie. Cadaver dogs were used to locate bodies and, one after another, these animals died of cancer due to the petrochemicals that soaked the ground. These details make “57 Gatwick” feel authentic. Maybe it’s a good example of how nonfiction can make fiction feel more real.

My family also helped me to understand how seriously Colin took his job. The respect he had for the dead, how he never forgot that families were grieving, and how he conducted his job as though it were an act of love—that, that, was important for me to write about. And it’s true. My protagonist in “57 Gatwick” cares deeply about the grieving families and he acts this way because that’s exactly what happened in Lockerbie.

Garden_of_Remembrance_-_Pan_Am_103_-_geograph.org.uk_-_672473Writing “57 Gatwick” was a powerful experience for me, and in many ways it helped to shape the writer that I’ve become. I’m so pleased it’s the lead story in The Collector of Names, and if Colin Patterson or anyone else who is intimately tied to Pan Am 103 ever reads it, I hope I got the story right. I hope that “57 Gatwick” feels correct, and whole, and respectful. More than anything, I hope I’ve written something beautiful that might rise out of the wreckage of that plane.

Note: Some of this blog post was published, in a different form, in The Writer magazine.