David Hicks’s novel White Plains is an accomplished and engrossing debut that spans more than fifteen years in the life of main character, Flynn Hawkins. We meet Flynn on the first day of his graduate studies and follow him through graduate school, 9/11, marriage, fatherhood, divorce, a cross-country move, and his return east, as he settles in a rural community outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Hicks is especially good at exploring the moral questions facing his protagonist in relation to his two children, had with his ex-wife Rachel, who is embittered about their divorce and goes to maddening extremes to keep Flynn away from their son and daughter.
Over the summer, Hicks talked with The Rumpus via email about his debut novel, White Plains, along with the reasons why he thinks readers are frequently fascinated by how much truth resides in a work of fiction, and what it’s been like to make the transition from a “professor who occasionally writes fiction to a fiction writer who occasionally professes.”
The Rumpus: You’re both a fiction writer and a college literature professor. Did you have any formal training as a writer?
David Hicks: Yes, I certainly did, and it was thrilling to do so. As I evolved from a professor who occasionally writes fiction to a fiction writer who occasionally professes, I knew I needed to learn the craft of creative writing, as it is vastly different from the kind of analytical writing I was doing as a literature professor. So I took some writing workshops, several from Ron Carlson (who, in addition to being a marvelous writer, may be the best instructor who ever lived), and was planning/hoping to pursue an MFA, but then found that I was publishing stories and developing as a writer without it. I still crave the intensity and intellectual immersion of an MFA program, but since I now co-direct one, the Mile-High MFA at Regis University in Denver, I am able to learn so much for free, by attending every craft seminar and swapping book drafts with some of the core faculty mentors.
Rumpus: I’m guessing some readers are comparing White Plains to Richard Russo’s Straight Man or David Lodge’s Small World, as both are academic novels featuring literature professors. What were some of your influences?
Hicks: While the opening chapter of White Plains has reminded some readers of a Russo, Lodge, or an Amis novel, only one other chapter in the novel is actually about academic life. The rest are about Flynn the human being, repeatedly screwing up and trying to remake himself, own up to his mistakes, and face his fears in the wake of all his screw-ups. So I really can’t say that any of the books you’ve named are influences, but I can say that many of the writers I teach (Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, Joyce, Hurston, Morrison) and many of the contemporary writers I read (D’Ambrosio, Zumas, Ostlund, Gautier, Sneed) have influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, largely by way of their attentive depictions of their main characters.
Rumpus: You wrote and published the chapter “Diamond Dash” as an essay a number of years ago in Colorado Review. How much did you change or fictionalize the events and characters in the essay in order to include it in your novel?
Hicks: I submitted “Diamond Dash” to the Colorado Review as fiction, even though it was mostly true-to-life, with just the names changed, and after the Fiction Editor rejected it, the Nonfiction Editor (now the Editor-in-Chief), Stephanie G’Schwind, asked me if it was possible that it could be an essay. “Of course!” said desperate-to-be-published I, and a few revisions later (cutting one made-up scene and changing the characters’ names back to their actual names), et voila! It was an essay. So when it came time to include it in the novel, I quickly “re-fictionalized” it.
Rumpus: White Plains is a coming-of-age story in many ways—we see Flynn grow up, become a father, marry and divorce, and change careers near the end of the book. It’s probably an understatement to say he’s nothing like Holden Caulfield or Alex Portnoy, but were those characters in your head at all when you were writing?
Hicks: While it’s not a typical coming-of-age novel, since Flynn is in his twenties and thirties, I agree with you that it is that kind of novel. But I didn’t have those iconic young characters in mind when I wrote it. In fact, it’s safe to say that no character at all was in my head when I was writing this book, and at the same time all such beloved characters are in there, somewhere, as I write.
Rumpus: Among its many pertinent subjects, your novel dives into issues of rights for divorced dads. What kind of research did you do to develop this part of your story?
Hicks: I just based that aspect of White Plains on my own experience. There’s a really good reason why the courts are slanted toward moms: there are a lot of deadbeat dads out there. But there are also many, many fathers like me who do an equal amount, if not most, of the parenting. And in general, the courts have simply not caught up with that.
But my job as a novelist is not to take up causes. My job is to depict, as best as I can, what it’s like to love your children, and then to lose them. What it’s like for a gentle and loving 24/7 parent who suddenly becomes “the evil man who left us” and then a “treat dad.” We are justifiably sympathetic to the single mom in this situation, because she’s the one doing all the hard work of parenting while Dad shows up on weekends for fun and games, but it’s also odd and difficult for a loving father to shift over to this strange role. It changes your whole identity. You suddenly feel superfluous—an instant stereotype. But what happens? It forces the dad to see himself differently. In the absence of a 24/7 preoccupation with his children, he now needs to get to know himself, to forge a new life, with himself and not the kids at the center of it. And in a way, that’s the question of the book: Who is Flynn going to be, now that he’s no longer a full-time father?
Rumpus: The setting of White Plains is divided between New York, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. When you were writing chapters that took place in each new location, what were the challenges of bringing each region’s different topography and atmosphere to life?
Hicks: When it comes to setting, writing the truth usually ends up resonating on a metaphorical level. So all I did in White Plains is depict the truth of each locale, both the attractive and unattractive aspects (all are modeled after places where I have lived), and trust that it would feed our understanding of Flynn’s situations and social/psychological states. White Plains, New York, is a very crowded part of the country, and this is where Flynn feels stressed and confined, whereas he feels at once liberated, awed, and terrified by the isolated beauty of the tiny mountain town of Sanctuary, Colorado. And the woods of Pennsylvania, where Flynn remakes his life with his children, are lush and fecund, full of potential for growth, mirroring—even forming and inspiring, on an unconscious level—Flynn’s condition. So whenever I felt the need to depict tension or mood without telegraphing it to the reader, I turned to setting, and that usually did the trick.
Rumpus: You have a son and a daughter and were a young divorced father for a while, as is Flynn. Inevitably readers will wonder how much of this novel is autobiographical. Why do you think readers are often preoccupied by the question of whether or not a work of fiction is in fact based on actual events and people?
Hicks: Yes, we’re all quite preoccupied with this! I’ve been asked about it at many readings, and the book clubs I have visited are obsessed with the issue, often saying “you” instead of “Flynn” when referring to the main character. And you’re right—my book lends itself to this because the arc of it is obviously autobiographical, and even though I know I invented (or more accurately appropriated or enhanced) many of the details and characters, the reader doesn’t.
We all seem to crave an identity with the author of a book. We look at the photograph in the back, we are curious about her life story and the authenticity, the true-to-life-ness, of the story. It has always been so, judging from the literary criticism I’ve read and the kind of analysis we college professors engage in all the time. (My students are certainly fascinated by the delicate negotiations—in literary fiction, anyway—of that blurry line between fact and fiction.) And we intuitively sense it when something is inauthentic, or “doesn’t feel true”—when, for example, an author has obviously invented a scene that doesn’t jibe with our understanding of her character or situation, leading us to believe they sacrificed authenticity for plot, or were unwilling to let go of their control over the narrative.
So how do we achieve that authenticity? One obvious way is to write about our own experiences while still crafting them into a story (i.e., not simply vomiting onto the page), but the other way is to body-snatch our characters and let go of our control over the narrative, enough to allow our characters to do what’s true for them. And when that happens, and if we are moved (or angered, or captivated) by the character’s experiences, then quite naturally we’re enamored of the author of this well-wrought story; so when we ask, “How much of this is you?,” perhaps what we’re really saying is, “I like your story and therefore I like you. So is this you? Is this your story? Do I now know you? Are we friends?” Because—remember?—that’s how we have always come to know one another, through our stories, especially our stories of our failings and foibles, of the stuff that makes us human, flawed, and thereby lovable.
So the truth about my story and its relationship to my life is that it’s been simultaneously autobiographical and invented, at once told and crafted, from the very onset—as soon as I put pen to paper, I was trying to tell the truth in the most authentic way, and that meant, for me and for this book in particular, basing the characters and events on what I know, mining my life for moments of hardship, tension, and beauty while at the same time crafting it all into a story worth telling and hopefully worth reading.
Rumpus: White Plains can be described as a postmodern novel: you change points of view throughout the narrative, with some characters portrayed in both first-person and third-person; some of your narrators are colloquial, others more formal. One chapter is a letter from Flynn to his son. Did this form evolve as you wrote? Or did you know when you first envisioned White Plains that it would be so formally ambitious (and fun)?
Hicks: It was indeed fun! But it wasn’t quite as deliberate as one might think. Many of the chapters were first published as short stories, and when it came time to turn them into a novel, I briefly considered rewriting them all to make the narrative voice consistent throughout the book, but I decided that I liked the jarring effect the different voices and points of view had on the book—especially since I had by then composed many new stories from different characters’ points of view. There is much to be said for maintaining the rhythm of a single speaker, that consistent voice in your ear, but since this was already a discordant, unsettling narrative, I decided to keep the individual narrative voices mostly as they were. That aspect of the book, coupled with the spaces between chapters that skip over some important life events, made sense to me, because the book is somewhat upsetting, and in that sense the reader shouldn’t have a smooth, pleasant experience while reading it.
Rumpus: Did you enjoy writing in first-person, for example, more than in third?
Hicks: I enjoy them both, and I also enjoyed writing one chapter (“Once Upon a Time at the Kiev”) in second person, although my editor sensibly advised me to switch it to third during our final edits. The most enjoyable point of view for me is first person when I’m writing the point of view of a character unlike me; an example of this is the chapter, “Us and Mom in a Fancy-Schmancy Restaurant, If You Can Believe That,” which I wrote from the point of view of Flynn’s charmingly obnoxious big sister, and in the voice of one of my real-life sister’s high-school friends.
Rumpus: What are you working on now, if you don’t mind sharing a few details?
Hicks: I feel about my work-in-progress as Melville felt when he finished Moby-Dick: “I have written a wicked book,” he wrote to Hawthorne, “and feel spotless as the lamb.” It’s a 21st-Century Shakespearean tragedy about the demise of the American empire from the point of view a dead waiter from Yonkers—how’s that for a pitch? (I know, I’ll work on it.) I’ve just written the ending and I can’t even talk about it, it’s so upsetting. But it feels right, and I’m proud of the book so far.
Author photograph © William Sutton.