One gets tired just listening to John Hockenberry describe his writing schedule and inspired reading a list of his accomplishments. The father of two-and-a-half-year-old twin daughters is expecting another set of twins in July of 2001. Hockenberry's work as a correspondent for Dateline NBC since 1996 has brought him two Emmy Awards, a National Headliner Award and a National Press Club Honorable Mention. His work with National Public Radio and ABC News saw him win two Peabody Awards and a great deal of recognition. Hockenberry has spent much of his career as a foreign correspondent, covering everything from war to business, the arts and the death of prominent princesses. He's written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, I.D., Details and other well-known journals. In his spare time (ahem) he's written two books and performed in the one-man, off-Broadway show Spokeman based on his first book, Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence. The fact that he's accomplished all of this from the wheelchair he's been confined to since he was 19 only seems heroic until you meet him. In conversation with John Hockenberry you're swept away by the strength of his personality, the force of his convictions, the depth of his talent and the warmth of his laugh.
Hockenberry's second book, the recently published A River Out of Eden, is a novel set in the Pacific Northwest, a region he first got to know as a junior reporter in the early 1980s. Hockenberry was scurrying around the state in the wake of the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1981, gathering fodder for stories on the aftermath of the volcano's roar, when he made an amazing discovery on the banks of the Columbia River. "Over time -- over a year -- the river itself emerged as the main theme, tying the whole region together. That was an amazing revelation."
The journalist had known for many years he wanted to tell the story of the Columbia River as he'd seen it. He had thought for a time that the story might take the form of a documentary but decided ultimately that "fiction was the best way to bring alive the various contradictions that exist along the Columbia River."
A River Out of Eden opens on a government fish farm where marine biologist and Native American Francine Smohalla finds an oddly mutilated corpse floating in one of her tanks. This body is only the first of several with identical mutilations that will be found. Though these murders are central to the plot, there are many elements at play in A River Out of Eden. Almost all of them relate somehow to the uneasy balancing act between the way the river was and how it will be.
John Hockenberry, 44, lives in New York City with his wife the television producer Alison Craiglow Hockenberry, and their twin daughters, Zoe and Olivia.
Linda Richards: A River Out of Eden is a complete departure for you.
John Hockenberry: It is a departure in the sense that it's my first novel. But I think that journalism is brought to bear in creating the setting and the book is set in a place where I was a reporter years ago. And I think all the creation of the details of the setting are not terribly dissimilar from journalism, but creating plausible characters that come alive, that's a very difficult thing. A very different thing.
In journalism you sort of hope to find fabulous characters, but if you don't, that's the way it goes. In a novel you can't have characters that don't matter. You can often imagine great characters, but the kinds of great characters you imagine in journalism are really simplistic. You know, they're passionate about one thing, but we don't know what they do the rest of the time. In a novel, you have to create their whole world and that's a little bit different.
Did you find that easy or difficult or just real different?
I found it different and difficult. I think the great thing about doing something new after having done journalism for 20 years is it's a chance to start fresh. That freshness is exciting and interesting. And so, even though it was difficult to make the novel work, I don't think it was any more difficult than any other writing because these are new, interesting skills.
For me, fiction was the best way to bring alive the various contradictions that exist along the Columbia River. I would have made that case as a journalist or as a novelist. Fiction is really how the river is lived for the people who live along it. The Indians see a river that isn't there because they imagine the pre-dam river. The dam builders imagined a river they didn't see before they put up the dam: they imagined a river that could be totally controlled in every input and output. And they created it. Fiction, it seems to me, is the best way to portray these passionate powers of the imagination that reshape the world.
It gave you the opportunity to have some fun with it, too.
Yeah, although I think it's an illusion. A lot of my journalist colleagues will say: Boy it must be great to have the freedom to make things up. I didn't sense a lot of freedom. The story defines you. You start to come up with things, but the characters determine where you go, in a way. You're free to a certain extent, but you don't have total freedom. A lot of things that I imagined in this book didn't come to pass because the story just didn't work out. The character wasn't going to go there. So that was interesting. It was a very interesting process.
In a non-fiction book you always kind of know where everything is going to hang, because you can have a structure. In a novel, you have to keep the plot in your mind. All the time when you're writing there will be little issues that come up that you have to attach to the plot. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's a little blip that you fix: Oh, that means I have to change something 20 pages back. But sometimes it's a fatal error. Sometimes it just says: Oh my God, I have to really think about it, this whole thing's got to go. To do a novel you have to be willing to throw out 100 pages if that's where you get to and I had to do that.
Where with non-fiction, life presents the parameters. So you can check it against its reality.
Also, the bar is lower. I mean, you know, if people don't like your characters in a non-fiction piece, your response is: Tough. You want to go visit them? Here's their address. You want to call them up? In a novel it's totally different. And you realize as you finish a novel that the bar is really high. Because it's going to be people who have no stake in the outcome, and they're already out 25 bucks. Their predisposition to dismiss your characters is a little bit higher than in a non-fiction [book] where the reader trusts the journalist that this is meaningful in some way. They may get to the end of the book and go: This was awful. But they're basically in it until the end. whereas with a novel you've got to keep the ball in the air the whole time. If it falls ever, the whole thing falls. It's very difficult.
Where non-fiction has to enlighten but doesn't necessarily have to move the reader.
Most people have read more non-fiction than fiction because they went to school and read textbooks. People will read history and non-fiction in sort of that way. They'll take a certain amount of boring stuff to get to the good stuff later. Whereas in a novel, if there's one page that's boring people might fidget. I'm not saying that it's got to be so fast-moving and everybody has got to be wild, but it certainly is very different. There's a very difficult balance that you're trying to achieve. But if you work hard enough, you begin to feel it coalescing and that was a great part of this process.
It was a transition that you felt?
Yeah. It really was. I can recall when the characters came alive to me -- at least the three or four really main ones -- and there was one character who came alive who I had as a total walk on for the book. That character, Dwayne Madison, who is mostly in charge of hazardous waste at the Hanford site, becomes a kind of detective because things happen near where he works. He was kind of a walk on.
I liked him as soon as I encountered him in the book.
I'm so happy to hear that because he literally came to me and said: You know, I've got a bigger role in this book than you think. And I kept putting him in and kind of saying: OK, you can do this. And then you can do this. And pretty soon he was really a strong thread for a lot of the plot. It was he who told me that he liked Hendrix. But it came out of attempting to explain this African American experience in the Pacific Northwest and Hendrix has these great lines and this one that's really chilling: Castles in the sand fall into the sea eventually. Which is an interesting commentary on the dams and almost evokes the transitory nature of the river as well as some of the Indian legends do. So all of that I really liked.
You said you knew where in the book you were when the characters came alive for you. Where was it?
It's not a matter of where in the book. There was sort of a where in the process.
How long into the process?
I would say for the longest time Duke was a very difficult character for me to figure out. His dad was a very hateful person. His key struggle with what his dad and mom had given him was very hard to portray. And there's a particular scene between the two of them where they both kind of have made a decision and they don't really know what the other's decision is. There were a series of dialogs there and it really worked, I could really hear them and feel them and I knew that they were trying to reach each other and then I knew it was working. At that point I actually went back and did some revisions because I had a better sense of Duke's voice and it changed some things earlier in the book. From then on it was just: Proceed to the end. I knew exactly where things were going.
How long did that take? Before that happened?
I worked probably a good solid year before that happened. I knew I had the setting down, I knew I had certain things down. But it took a year before those characters -- really important, pivotal characters -- came together for me.
Are you still with Dateline NBC?
So you have, like, a job?
Yes. For both books I had a full-time job.
And you're the dad of little people. So when do you write?
Five am. Every morning at five. Get up, make the coffee at 4:30 so you're ready to work at five. Work until the kids get up. Get their breakfasts, set them down and then when my wife gets up, I go back and write for maybe two more hours and then go to work. If I'm on the road I do it on the plane. On the weekends I do a lot of work. Often you develop a lot of momentum on the weekends and that carries you through the week because some days you might not be able to do a full morning and you have to just be satisfied with an hour, but at least you're making progress from momentum you got on the weekend.
As nutty as that sounds, I know a lot of people who negotiate with their network bosses to get like eight months off to do a book. And they just go through absolute hell. As soon as they've got the time off, they're like: Great, see ya later, good bye. Good luck. Have fun. This is my last day, be back in eight months. You see on their face that the moment they leave the office there's this clock that starts ticking. Tick, tick, tick: only seven months and two weeks left. How's the book? It's like The Shining. I really feel like I would be that person. I would have a rough time. I really do. I feel like I would just freak myself out, and so the first month I'd go: A lot of time. The second month I'd go: Oh my God! The third month: I've got to get started. The fourth month: I'm really going to get started. The fifth month: Trying to do the whole thing. The sixth month: It's like a gigantic mess.
There was a point in this book where I knew enough of what was happening and it was work that I understood completely that if I'd taken a leave, it would have helped. So what I've learned in these two books is when to take the leave. It happens way towards the end, not anywhere close to the beginning.
Are you working on anything now?
Well, with twins due in July... I've got a lot of NBC work to do, but then when the new babies come we're going to have a lot going on. I have three stories -- all fiction -- that I would think about as the next book, the next project. I may get started on that next year. Probably at the earliest it would be next year.
You make the process that you've developed for yourself sound so magical that it sounds like something that would be hard to resist. Characters talking to you and stuff. It sounds like magic.
Well, if you'd told me before I started my novel that characters would do that... and I'd hear these interviews ... where these authors would say: The characters totally came alive and talked to me. [And I'd think] that is the biggest bunch of malarkey I've ever heard in my life. And then it happened. And I was very skeptical of the whole thing. I really saw why that works: I totally understood why that works. So the magical part for me though is not so much that, it's having the daily quiet time to think about, if it's a book, fine. If it's a magazine article, fine. But just having it to think through ideas. Because I think in this crazy world a lot of us have ideas but it's the method for executing them that's so hard. That so eludes people. In fact, the quality of a lot of our fiction and certainly our movies are determined by the fact that it's just an idea. It never got anywhere. It's just an idea: they didn't really want to do anything with it, so they sold the idea and the method of execution becomes this factory called Hollywood or this factory called mass market publishing that sort of translates it into a formula that we know is going to sell. And that's so sad. I think it's very sad.
I like having that time to give ideas real life. They can be non-fiction or fiction, but that's really the most valuable part of it for me. That's the magical part to me.
Has a lot of the media you've been doing for the book had an environmental focus?
Sort of. It's a mixed bag. It's a little bit hard because I'm a journalist that's known for being in the media, number one and, number two, being this wheelchair guy. And I think people like to categorize you in that box. So you do something really different and they sort of wonder: What am I supposed to ask? I would say it's a mix of people who are just fascinated by the idea of a novel at all and: Tell me more about this place where you were a reporter once. And the other stuff is environmentally based. Or not so much environment, but talking from the standpoint of the energy crisis and how the difficulties in California have raised the profile of all these bits of infrastructure like the dams on the Columbia that produce the power that everyone took for granted for so long. So that's been a focus. Particularly in California that was a focus. But in Eastern Washington it was amazing: hundreds of people would come and bring their pictures of Celilo Falls. This one woman told a story of being there the day it was flooded and what that was like. People had all kinds of memories and things to share about the falls and the pre-dam river and that was really wonderful.
Categorize A River Out of Eden.
I would say it's a historical novel with a crime as the basis of it. But you get immersed in a place and whether you're talking about the Indian lives or the dam builder's lives, that's I think is the best thing. To me it's a little bit like Cold Mountain where it takes the story and immerses you in a historical period. I really think that the Columbia River is like a civil war setting for the battles that took place for America as an industrial power. No place was more remade by the industrial prowess of America in the 20th century than the Northwest. Certainly the Indians lost that battle, but it was very much a battle. And I think we haven't really looked at the consequences historically. And part of what those signings said to me -- when those people showed up with their memories -- is that it's the power of literature to empower people to reexamine stories or empower them to tell stories that they would maybe just have kept inside of them. To remind them that it is, in fact, relevant. That's why I would say historical fiction rather than crime. And "thriller" is so overused. Though the story does sort of grab you. I do think that it will be of interest to anyone who is interested in a place and likes a good story to help them get into the place.
Your first reporting gig was in the Northwest, wasn't it?
That's right. One of the first stories I ever did was the Mount St. Helens eruption. Which was 21 years ago. And I followed the ash from that eruption all over the state. First doing stories on the aftermath of the eruption, but then, because I learned about what was going on in these places independent of the volcano, I went back to do other stories. Over time -- over a year -- the river itself emerged as the main theme, tying the whole region together. That was an amazing revelation.
And then when Joe, the fellow I allude to in the acknowledgments, tells me the story of Celilo Falls, this old Indian fellow that I found in a nursing home in Richland, Washington who sat and told me the story of first of all the projects that he had worked on at Hanford [Nuclear Reservation] that produced the plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb. And when I got to the end of all of that, he seemed perplexed that I would be terribly interested and he said: I'll tell you a real story if you want a real story and he told me the story of the waterfall and he told me where to go look for it.
I drove there and, of course, there was no waterfall. And that just haunted me. First of all that there would be this fantastic, fascinating place. That it would be vanished. And that Joe could speak about it as though it existed. It was that real to him. That's kind of the power of the imagination: To make history come alive. In many ways it's honoring that story that he told originally that this novel comes out of.
There's something really wonderful about that. Almost two decades germinating.
Well, for a long time I kind of said to myself: Celilo Falls, let's do a documentary about it or maybe there's some kind of non-fiction piece you could do about it. But, in many ways, none of those got at the real thing which was: How do you imagine the pre-dam river? Because all the interest in this came from people imagining a different river. So it seemed to me, ultimately, that fiction was the best way to portray these people living along the river seeing a different place. All of them. That, to me, was the most fascinating part.
There must have been a fair amount of research to do A River Out of Eden.
Yes. There was a lot of written material that I had to acquire. There were a lot of firsthand accounts of various historical periods. The geology of the region was something I had to research pretty extensively, because I talk about that in there. But that's good. That's the fun work. A lot of novelists will do research until like a month before the deadline until their publisher says: OK, we're done with the research and they go kicking and screaming into their studio to actually write the novel. It's fun to do the research and it helps you, but there's also a time when you have to cut it off and get going. But there was a lot of research, that's for sure.
Moving Violations was about...
It was a memoir about my accident and right after it and how I got into radio and sort of the discoveries I [made] along the way of how being physically different turned out to be an advantage in strange sorts of ways and the kinds of things that you're motivated to do when you feel like you're different and have to overcompensate and how ridiculous sometimes those things can be. And it was also about this idea of disability itself, which is a whole relationship with the body that I think is not terribly well understood. People really were interested in that part. And there are all these kinds of crazy stories -- adventures that I had with the wheelchair that no one should try at home, but that are pretty entertaining.
How long have you been in a wheelchair?
It was before Mount St. Helens?
Yeah. I've never been a reporter except in a wheelchair. I was just a hippy college student when I had my accident.
And you're a role model for many, many people.
Apparently, yes but it's a role that is sort of uncomfortable. I really feel that if people think of me as a model in the sense that they want to do what I do, I think that's a mistake. If people think of me as a role model [for when] it's not clear what you're supposed to do next [that] there is a way for you to kind of take authorship of your life and make a place for yourself regardless of what sort of physical characteristics you have, then that's a good model. Mostly people focus on the first rather than the second.
I think there are just way too many role models in American life: it's so obsessed with celebrity and I think that's kind of a played out thing. People need to find what's in themselves, the resources to move forward without necessarily having to look at somebody who's won it big, one way or another. People kind of want the path to already be there. But that comes out of, I think, patrician America where, you know, these people grow up and they go to business school and they inherit daddy's businesses and maybe they have challenges along the way, but the path is clear to them.
For most people, there is no path that's clear. So you never get to the point where your challenges make a difference because without the path you never get the sense that what you're doing is meaningful. You feel like you're sort of clawing your way forward. So, culturally I think it's hard for people to find, within their own struggles, the same kind of paths that are laid out for the doctors and the George Bushes of the world. And that's really unfortunate. I mean, that's sad. I don't think role models solve the problem. The problem is understanding that everybody has a path: a path can exist. And, in fact, if you are the author of your path -- unlike the George Bushes of the world who are kind of on this escalator to advancement -- you have something better. You have done something more heroic. And your legacy is more meaningful to the grander human story than anything George W. Bush is going to do. And that's a hard argument to make to Americans because they're like: celebrity, celebrity.
It may be true that, for some people, getting to where Jennifer Lopez is, is great. But if for other people, getting to where Jennifer Lopez is isn't great, you know, you are in for all kinds of hell. For me, for example, getting to where Jennifer Lopez is, that would be miserable. It would not work. I would not relate to the whole Puffy thing, the guns in the purses, I wouldn't go with that, the whole fashion business: I wouldn't understand that. I would be miserable. | June 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.