Interview with: David Hicks
Interviewed by Nicole Hebdon, SR Fall 2014 Intern
1. About how many drafts did you write of “Higher Laws?”
About fifty! I’m not the kind of writer who crafts a story neatly, paragraph by paragraph. I’m the kind who gets the shitty first draft down and then revises for months. Or years.
2. When did you know that the piece was “done?”
When I read it through and (finally) didn’t make any changes. This was just after I added a passage in which Silverman turns inward and sees what a fraud he’s been. When I get to the (often embarrassing) truth about a character, and I cringe when I write it, that’s usually when I know the story is done, or close to done.
3. Silverman seems to believe that the literary discussions in college classes aren’t as sophisticated as they used to be. Have you seen this in your own classes? If so, what do you think caused it?
Well, I think he believes that to be true (to comfort himself), but the truth is (as his wife points out), he actually drank a lot in college, and he’s not being a very good teacher these days. What I’m trying to do there is set up the reversal that takes place at the end, where his students are “getting it,” but he’s the one who isn’t —until perhaps at the very end. It’s a “physician, heal thyself” moment: he’s preaching the gospel of Thoreau but his own life, his own attitude, is as far from that gospel as you can get.
As for my own experience as a professor, I find that my English majors are just as sophisticated (or just as unsophisticated) as English majors used to be, but it’s the other students, the students I teach in my core classes (that is, students who are majoring in Business, Biology, etc and have to take one English class as part of their General Education requirements), that seem worse off in terms of reading comprehension and the ability to discuss the “meanings” of texts. In those classes I hear more often than ever some version of “I read it, but I just don’t remember it.”
I think the causes are complex, but I would suggest (1) they simply aren’t reading as much when they’re young, so they’re not benefitting from the same kind of practice that I benefitted from when I was their age; (2) because of electronics, cell phones, and so on they all have some degree of ADHD, which makes it difficult to “settle in” for a sustained reading experience (it’s hard to “get into” a reading when your eyes are darting around the page, darting over to your smartphone screen, and darting over to your Instagram page); and (3) there’s been a tendency among some middle-school and high-school teachers (before the Common Core, that is) to assign fewer books (and show more videos) and to guide their students to read at their own pace, which, to me, eliminates the challenges and excitement inherent in reading something that’s a little “out of reach.”
All of this doesn’t mean they’re any less intelligent or lovable as they used to be; in fact, I find them very intelligent and very lovable. It just means they’re processing things differently. What the “sophisticated” students have in common is that they all read the Harry Potter books or Tolkien when they were young, and that addiction, that experience of being absorbed in their reading and being challenged by complex themes and language, seems to have helped them tremendously.
4. Several of the students in the piece seem disenchanted with college. Why did you decide to portray these character in this?
Because they are. Or at least many of them are. Tuition rates are sky-high; student loans have been privatized and thus their interest rates have increased; the job market sucks (or it did suck, at the time this story is set); so students are feeling tremendous pressure to “get this over with” and get a job. Granted, they’re still having fun, making friends, and learning how to be better, more ethical people; but there’s just much more pressure on them these days. I was able to pay my own way through college by working and taking out some loans (and I’m still paying them back); but even a full-time job couldn’t pay for a student’s annual tuition these days. Add to this the plain fact that it’s not “normal” to be in school for so long—for all the centuries before this, people their age were starting families, apprenticing, or going a-whaling—and it’s no wonder they’re itching to get college over with.
5. Are there any books that you believe every college students should read? If so, what are they?
I couldn’t possibly list them all. But I feel certain that if they actually read the books assigned to them in their core literature, philosophy, history, sociology, economics, math, science, language, and psychology classes, they’d be very well informed. The problem is that students rarely complete the reading they’re assigned. There are too many competing stimuli—XBox, Facebook, Netflix, Instagram, texting, face-timing, snap-chatting, and so on—in addition to the traditional college distractions (beer, TV, skateboarding, etc.).
6. There has been some debate as to if the modern college student reads more than ever before (because they’re always seeing text online) or if they read less. What do you think?
They’re reading much more, but comprehending less. The reading they’re doing doesn’t lead to complex, nuanced, critical thinking. They’re totally capable of it; they just need the opportunity and encouragement to practice it. But everything in their lives pushes them towards the opposite kind of reading.
7. What do you think of “genre” literature (science fiction, horror, romance etc.)?
When I was a kid, there were only a handful of books in my house, so I went to the public library and read everything I could get my hands on. I didn’t know about genres—they were all books to me, books I loved. I distinctly remember reading books by Philip Roth, Stephen King, and Sidney Sheldon in the same week. But now, I read only literary fiction, because it’s the genre I like best. And I don’t even attempt to write in those other genres—not because I dislike them, but because I don’t feel capable of doing them justice.
8. Do you have a writing routine or does it change with each piece you write? What is your routine?
Because I’m a college professor, my schedule is uneven, week by week, and over the course of a year I have very busy periods followed by not-so-busy periods. So I don’t have much of what you could call a routine. But I do have some great writing buddies (one of whom, Sophfronia Scott, was also published in SR), and my regular appointments with them (whether on-line or in person) keep me on task, no matter how busy I am. Otherwise, I try not to go to bed at night unless I’ve done at least a little writing, and three days a week I am sure to write for hours, always in the morning. The best thing I do for my writing practice is to schedule writing retreats or apply to artists’ residencies. Something great happens when I spend all day every day on my writing; I wake up with the story in my head, and go to bed thinking about it. A couple of months ago my wife gave me the gift of a three-day retreat in the mountains, and I composed the draft of a novel in that time.
9. What is the easiest part of writing for you? The hardest?
The easiest part is the writing itself—composing and revising. I never have “writer’s block.” I always find something to work on. (Which is a fun thing to say, since I used to think my life was pretty boring and I had no stories to tell.) The hardest part is getting at the truth of a particular story. It’s there, always, lurking behind the lines, and if I give up too soon, I never get to it. But if I persist and keep the faith, I’ll get to it.
10. What is something you think every aspiring author should know?
One of my favorite authors, Ron Carlson, has said that the writer is the person who stays in the chair. What I think he means by this is that writers aren’t necessarily brilliant people, but the ones that succeed are those who don’t get distracted, or make excuses, or abandon their story a third of the way through because it’s “hard.” The writer is the one who stays in the chair, who persists. I meet many people who talk a lot about their story, or want to submit it after one draft, or who endlessly self-promote, but what they’re not doing is staying in the chair, working at their craft, revising their work until it’s the best book it can be.
About David Hicks:
David has published twice in SR; his work has also appeared in Glimmer Train, Colorado Review, Specs, Trachodon, South Dakota Review, GSU Review (now New South), The Writing Disorder, and Whitefish Review. He recently completed a novel-in-stories, White Plains, about a down-and-out professor who runs his life into the ground before finding redemption as a gardener. He is represented by Victoria Skurnick of the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency.
David is a Colorado Council on the Arts Fiction Award winner, a Pushcart nominee, and a finalist in the New Letters Fiction Contest as well as the New Rivers, New American Press, and Engine Books novel contests. He has been a writer-in-residence at the Jentel Arts Foundation and Brush Creek Arts Foundation, both in Wyoming.
David lives with his wife Cynthia in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, and is a professor of English at Regis University in Denver.
You can follow David Hicks on twitter at @hickswriter or see more of his writing at david-hicks.com.
David Hicks’ short story, “Higher Laws,” is featured in Saranac Review’s 10th Anniversary Edition. You can purchase it here.