An Interview with Will Hobbs: How His Novels Come into Being
[What follows are excerpts from a longer interview that was conducted on April 30, 1994, during the West Virginia English Language Arts Council conference held at Morgantown, West Virginia. Will Hobbs was the luncheon speaker.]
Herb: I have heard you say that your books start with an image. You also talk about the audience and finding the right voice to be able to tell the story. So it's not just image, but it's also voice and audience -- all those things working together.
Will: That's right. An image often propels the novel, gets it started. For me, it's an image that has a lot of emotion connected to it. It's something I have to have a strong feeling about. Changes in Latitudes began when I was looking at a photograph of a sea turtle swimming underwater. I had such a strong feeling for the beauty of this ancient creature, at home in the sea. On the spot, I wanted to swim with that turtle. I began to imagine a character who would do just that.
I often read nonfiction, and some of my ideas begin there. Years ago I had come across the letters of Everett Ruess, a young man who'd disappeared in 1934 in the canyons of the Escalante river in Utah, after four years of wandering in many of the most rugged and beautiful places in the Southwest. Years later, the image of boy, burro, and dog adventuring in that canyon country still stuck in my mind. I thought of writing a novel set in a different era (1962), with a different sort of boy exploring the same country along with a burro and a little dog. It became The Big Wander.
For The Big Wander I probably had ten different outlines before I made myself start writing. I would sleep on each one, thinking it was wonderful, but I would always awake perceiving some flaw. Finally I sat down and started writing a scene. Two brothers were on the road, in an old Studebaker truck on old Route 66, in 1962. They were making a stop at a tourist trap. Things started happening, as they always do once the subconscious is engaged, that I never could have foreseen in an outline. Once you're imagining being that main character, and you're having the conversations and actually being there, the magic in fiction writing takes over. Some of the best things that have happened in my stories have happened seemingly of their own accord. The writer becomes a listener, just writing things down as they come.
The comic tone of the first conversation between the two brothers flowed from my choice of those two former students of mine as my audience.
Herb: Do you start out with an outline for every book?
Will: I have, but only with Changes in Latitudes did I stick close to it. The ideas I jot down during my reading, in the research phase prior to writing, often provide possibilities for the story, but I don't know at what point in the story they'll be useful. When I was reading for The Big Wander, for example, I found two books on burros. One had a photo of a burro inside of a house, and the other had a photo of a baby burro in a backpack. I stuck two notes on my bulletin board: GET A BURRO INSIDE A HOUSE, and GET A BABY BURRO INSIDE A BACKPACK. I began the story not knowing how to make those things happen, but I kept my eye out for the time and place to make them happen, and in both cases the story steered in their direction.
Before I start writing, I do character sketches as well. For those kids in Downriver, I wrote pages and pages on each one before I ever started writing that story.
Herb: Just descriptions of the characters, or do you include dialogue?
Will: Both -- the way they would talk, what they would wear, the kind of music they would listen to, the kind of friends they would have, what sorts of trouble they would have gotten into -- just kind of jamming on ideas about everything on that kid. One character started from a newspaper clipping. More often I start with a kid I've taught, or a personality characteristic in a person I know, perhaps an adult. Then I'll take characteristics from other people, mixing and matching.
Choosing the narrator for a first-person story like Downriver is a crucial decision, because the voice has to be one the reader wants to listen to, and the voice has to be a match for the emotion you want the story to carry. With Changes in Latitudes, I picked the right horse right away; I knew Travis completely from the first line in the story; that had quite a bit to do with Changes in Latitudes being the novel I revised the least. With Downriver, three different narrators told my three different drafts of that novel. The first two didn't even make it into the final story. Jessie, the girl from Colorado who told the story in the published version, didn't appear in the story in the first two drafts.
Herb: It seems as if intuitively you are able to follow your instincts, and it just kind of goes eventually in the right direction.
Will: Usually with quite a lot of trial and error. Sometimes I do make major plot changes from manuscript to manuscript. One of the biggest was in Downriver. In the first draft, the adult leader was with these kids on their entire trip down through the Grand Canyon. The premise of this story -- the kids ditching the adult leader and doing the trip on their own -- only occurred to me after I was all the way through that first draft.
Herb: One of the things that really interests me is that where you first think a book will start isn't necessarily where it will end up starting. Would you comment on that?
Will: Bearstone and Beardance are both examples of my revising the starting point. Bearstone had six drafts; the first five all began with Cloyd, the Ute boy, opening the gate to the old man's farm as the housemother from the group home brought him there for the summer. Cloyd opens the gate, then runs away up the mountainside. With the final draft, on a hunch, I wrote a new opening chapter with Cloyd tracking down his natural father in a hospital in Window Rock, Arizona. This new opening was a case of me wanting to strengthen the theme of the story. It established his need for a father in his life.
In a lot of cases writers discover that the novel needs to begin later in the action than they'd first thought. This was the case with Beardance. I had known from the beginning where my story was headed: a real-life 1990 sighting of a mother grizzly and three cubs here in southwestern Colorado had inspired the premise, that Cloyd would return to the mountains and meet the mate and the cubs of the bear from the first book. In my first attempt at the new novel, I wrote seven chapters that took place down on the farm. I think, subconsciously, I was imitating the structure of Bearstone while I was trying to establish why the boy and the old man were returning to the mountains. Usually I keep pushing all the way through a draft, but this time I kept rewriting the seven chapters, knowing something was wrong but unable to put my finger on it.
We were taking a walk along the road one day when Jean suggested I take a break away from the manuscript. So we did a hike up to the Window, the spectacular notch in the back country of the Weminuche Wilderness, up on the Continental Divide. I had foreseen the Window as the geographical focus of the novel.
We had an incredibly beautiful day up there, like the day Cloyd had in Bearstone when he rode his horse through, with the blue skies and all. I was standing in the Window, and I could practically squint and see the boy and the old man down on East Ute Creek far below. On the ridge behind the creek, I could see where the lost Spanish gold mine was supposed to be according to the old stories.
Herb: You mean you didn't search for the mine?
Will: I'm not telling! I got fired up about the writing, I'll tell you that. I went back home, and I threw away the seven original chapters, and I began with the boy and the old man riding into the mountains. In the first line of the book, Cloyd asks, "Do you think there could still be any grizzlies in the mountains?" When I started with that line, it was a magic key for this novel. The story took off at a gallop, and I had to hang onto my hat because I was writing all day long, just trying to keep up. I was in a sort of trance; I'd never experienced anything like it before. In less than a month the story was done. I had to revise one section of this new draft, where I had kind of pushed through it, knowing I would have to go back. Once Cloyd met those bears, very little touch-up was required. I think it's because I was living fully in the senses of Cloyd's character.
There are, incidentally, little indications of those seven original chapters I discarded. For example, late in the novel, Cloyd is up in the mountains and he is starving and he's having visions induced by the hunger. He's dreaming that the old man down on the farm is battling a huge flood that is tearing up the farm. That little paragraph from late in the story is a vestige of an extra chapter in present action that was originally meant to be the second chapter of the book.
Herb: What can you tell us about your new novel?
Will: The working title is Kokopelli's Flute. It's my first fantasy novel. I've always loved reading fantasy, so I decided to give it a try. At first I simply wanted to write about ancient seeds. My interest in ancient seeds came from learning about a couple of farms in the Southwest that have been collecting seeds from the ancient Americas, growing them, and making them available to home gardeners. I learned that three-quarters of the food crops from the ancient Americas at the time of Columbus have disappeared. I wanted to write a story that would let kids know about this amazing world of seeds. So how was I going to do that? Well, ancient seeds automatically brought Kokopelli to mind, the ancient humpbacked flute player on my belt buckle. He's pictured on ancient rock art from Peru to the American Southwest.
According to tradition, it was Kokopelli who brought the seeds in prehistoric times from village to village. So right away I was thinking fantasy, with this visitor from the past. He comes into the life of a boy who lives on the seed farm, after the boy has accidentally gotten involved with some ancient magic. By day Tep is a 13-year-old boy; by night he's a bushy-tailed wood rat. (Tep is short for Tepary; his parents have named him after a hardy dryland bean.) There are a lot of animal characters in this story, and definitely a lot of adventure. It will be out in Fall of '95 with Atheneum.
Herb: What else would you like to say to bring what we've been talking about to a close?
Will: So much of writing is discovery. Sometimes I feel like a rat in a maze, trying to discover the way out. My little heart is beating, and I'm racing down a path thinking, this is the route, it will get me there, as I turn this way and then that. But whoa, here's a dead end! Then I'll back up and chase off in a new direction. One day I get to that spot where I've discovered the secret to the maze, and then I've got free running the rest of the way. It's a great feeling. But the rat-analogy will only take us so far. I like the flying analogy too. Ray Bradbury once said something like, "Writing is a lot of jumping off cliffs and building wings on the way down." I like that. It's a lot of work, but the work becomes your fun. I stay in contact with kids, and that is a lot of fun for me, not only to get their letters but to meet them in schools and see that the books really have engaged their hearts and imaginations. That's what makes it so worthwhile.
Herb Thompson teaches teachers of English and the English Language Arts at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia.