Sunday, April 22, 2012
Author Bill Dicksion On Telling True Stories of the West
[David Weir] I want to get to your novels, but first, you've had such an interesting life, can you tell us about your childhood and where you grew up?
[William Dicksion] I was born in Wewoka, Oklahoma, on August 25th 1925, the fourth child in a family of ten children. I went on to obtain a degree in science and worked as an industrial chemist for two major manufacturing companies, assisted in doing pioneering work in purifying rare earth metals, and did post-graduate training in marketing. I obtained licenses to market real estate, stocks and bonds, and operated a successful landscape contracting company on the island of Maui, Hawaii.
I’ve held a commercial pilot’s license with a flight instructor’s rating, taught many people to fly, and then became an air traffic controller and worked at six different facilities. I helped train many air traffic controllers, some of whom are now ranking members of the Department of Transportation. I’ve traveled in almost every state, including the territory of Guam. I’ve traveled in Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Asia, and returned many times to Oklahoma, where I have two surviving brothers and numerous nieces and nephews. I have three children, six grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. My wife and I now live in Honolulu.
I’ve published seven novels and a memoir, with a collection of poems, musings, and essays. Some of my stories have been included in anthologies published by the Honolulu Chapter of the National Writers Association. With the assistance of Smashwords, my books are being read throughout Polynesia and in locations in Asia and Europe. I remain interested in science, history, geography, and philosophy, and my writing expresses these interests.
I grew up in central, and western Oklahoma. My father was a farmer/rancher. Farmer/rancher more accurately describes what most people call ranching. Cows have to eat even when the grass is covered with snow, so somebody has to grow feed for both animals and people. I learned about farming and ranching by helping my father. I had lots of help because my father raised children as well as cattle. I had seven brothers, and two sisters. My father was a loving man, but he was a stern disciplinarian; when he gave us a job to do, we’d better do it right. Excuses were not accepted. If we didn’t know how to do a job, he’d say, “Don’t you think now would be a good time to learn?” If we said, “But I don’t have the tools,” he would say, “You have a hammer and an ax. Make your own tools.”
[DW] You mentioned that your father and grandfather were great storytellers; how did they influence you and your deep interest in the West?
[WD] Winter nights in Oklahoma are long and cold. We followed a tradition set down by our ancestors. Even primitive people sat around their campfires and told stories. We didn’t have TV or even radios, so we sat around our fire listening to stories told by our parents and grandparents. My grandparents were true frontiersmen, and the hardships they faced make the worst of mine seem mild in comparison. I grew up steeped in the lore of the West, and I try to share those stories because they are real, and they are history. When I tell stories, I don’t pull any punches. I tell it like it is. I don’t like innuendos, hints, and sly references-- if it’s worth telling, tell it as it is.
[DW] I know you fell in love with science when you were young. How did this help to shape your outlook, your career and your writing?
[WD] Science and scientists are, I believe, misunderstood words. You don’t have to wear a long white coat and work in a laboratory to be a scientist, although I have done both. Real science is done by people looking for answers. Growing up poor forced me to look for answers, and science showed me the way. I truly believe there are no unanswerable questions, and no unsolvable problems. Like most people, I encountered some real doozies, but like my father told me, “If you don’t now how to solve the problem, now is a good time to learn.” I carry that philosophy into my writing. I started writing professionally at age 77. I had written reports, and letters, of course, but nothing creative. I didn’t know an adverb from an aardvark, so I read everything I could find that would help me learn.
“A Button in the Fabric of Time,” about an American engineer being selected by an advanced civilization from a planet in another galaxy, to represent them in negotiating with Earthlings one thousand years into the future. The future is not glum, my friends, it is bright beyond compare.
[DW] I heard you had some exciting adventures moving west to make your way in the world?
[WD] Indeed I did. I hesitate to tell this story because it seems implausible today. I was 13 in the spring of 1938 when, due to droughts and dust storms, my father lost everything--the ranch, the animals, everything. There was no welfare in those days, and we were going hungry. I had to try to earn money to help. I was told that California was my best bet, so I hitchhiked west. I had six dollars in my wallet, the clothes on my back, and 1,500 miles to go. I slept on the prairie, ate whatever food I could find, and my ceiling was the sky. I was a child completely alone, but I wasn’t afraid. . . . I tell that story in my memoir, “A Brief Moment in Time.”
[DW] Did you try and enlist in World War II as a teen?
[WD] I worked in California all summer and sent money home, and then returned to western Oklahoma to finish high school. Western Oklahoma grows wheat and lots of it. I drove a combine to harvest the wheat, and then drove a truck to haul it to the railroad to be shipped overseas to feed American and British soldiers who were fighting Germans. It was World War II. I had dreamed of being a fighter pilot, but it wasn’t to be. The recruiting officer saw the scar tissue on my lung X-ray and turned me down flat. I had inhaled too much dust, and it left scar tissue on my lungs. That was the lowest moment in my life and probably the luckiest. Many men who enlisted as fighter pilots didn’t make it home. Since I couldn’t serve my country in the military, I went back to California, enrolled in college, and paid my way by working in defense plants. . . .I could write a novel on that experience. Hmm, maybe I will.
[DW] What about your other career as a pilot and air traffic controller?
[WD] I guess watching birds fly made me want to fly. In my spare time—which I had damn little of—I went to the local airport and washed airplanes, or did anything I could do, to get an hour of flying time. I finally got a license to fly, but I couldn’t afford to rent an airplane; so I got an instructor’s rating, taught students to fly, and got paid instead. I got my degree in science and wanted to use what I had learned, so I got a job as a chemist. Most young men and women were away somewhere fighting a war, so I advanced quickly to a supervisory position. One thing led to another, and I ended up doing research in rare earth metals. Most people didn’t even know what rare earth metals were. I wasn’t paid much, so I applied for and was accepted as an air traffic controller. I liked the work and did it well enough to train other air traffic controllers. I transferred to Hawaii, where I met my wife, who was a secretary to the facility chief. We married and transferred to the island of Guam, where I controlled the aircraft flying missions over Vietnam. Yep, I could tell a story about that, too.
[DW] So, on to your writing -- when did you start, and who were those who influenced you along the way?
[WD] I got into writing through the backdoor. Like the troubadours of old, I was always a storyteller, but I did it orally. I reiterated the stories I had been told, to my children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. They sat spellbound as I opened doors long closed. My niece suggested I write the stories for others to read, but how could I, my penmanship is illegible, my spelling atrocious, my typing skills limited, and I had a business to run. But fate found a way. I suffered a heart attack and had bypass surgery. Recovery takes time, and I was bored. My wife and my children bought me a computer. Mystery of mysteries, how do I use the thing? As my father taught me, if you don’t know, now is a good time to learn. I had stories to tell, and the computer had spell-and-grammar check. The computer made it possible to write legibly. That computer released a monster.
[WD] I’m not a genre writer, but I grew up in the West, I love the West, and the true stories of the West are as interesting as any fiction ever told. That is why I am so disappointed by the stories being told about the West. When I write western, the history is right, the geography is right, and my stories are valid. The stories of Frank and Jessie James have been told so many different ways, that who knows what really happened? A few historians have recorded the true story, but it never saw the light of print, because publishers print what they believe will sell.
[DW] Did you publish through traditional publishers first or start with ebooks?
[WD] Did I publish through traditional publishers? No, emphatically No.
I am an unknown writer; therefore, I have no name recognition to draw readers. Publishing is a business, and publishers want to make money. They don’t give a damn about good writing, and for sure they don’t give a damn about writers. They butcher the writing, pay the writer a miniscule, and then throw them away. Nope, I don’t need traditional publishers; they need me, and if my guess is right, ebook distributors like Smashwords will show them that.
[DW] What do you like about independent ebook publishing?
[WD] When writers publish their writing, they own it, and no one has the right to alter it to suit their purpose. If it doesn’t sell, then the author can alter it until it does. People love to read good books, and the best and cheapest way is as ebooks. Ebooks save time, paper, storage, shipping and handling, so they cost less. I give some of my books away. It costs me almost nothing and for every book I give away, I sell a few.
The best thing that ever happened to me as a writer was meeting Mark Coker and his lovely wife Lesleyann. They are writers; they understand writers. They have opened the door, and now writers can be true to their art. I believe it will produce some good writing, and who better to distribute it than Smashwords.
[DW] I understand your wife, Millie, helps you in your work; can you tell us about that?
[WD] Millie sparkles like a jewel among the rocks. Praise embarrasses her, so I will limit mine by saying, “I couldn’t write without her help.”
[WD] That’s a three-phase question. I’ll try to answer them one at a time. I write something every day, and I spend about eight hours in front of my computer. I don’t time myself; I write until I’ve completed whatever I started. I have a thousand stories to tell, and each day more come to mind. I don’t plan a story. I don’t outline a story, I just write the story as I would if I told it orally. The advantage of writing is, if I need to verify, I can search for what is real. Being real is important to me. I never plan an ending. I just tell the story until it’s told, and I like happy endings. I don’t want my readers to walk away feeling glum; I want them to feel uplifted and wanting more.
[DW] What's your favorite part about writing these novels?
[WD] Finishing them and then reading them aloud. I improve my writing by reading it. When I read it aloud, the mistakes slam me in the ear. I have to be patient with myself – there’s always rewriting and rewriting. And if after finishing it, I can say, yeah! that’s what I was trying to say. And that makes me walk away feeling good.
[WD] My vanity is enormous, but I don’t feel qualified to give advice to accomplished writers. I will, however, share some things I’ve learned. If you write journalistically, you must write with honesty, sincerity, and brevity. The same is true if your intent is to inform or educate, but if you write fiction, you are writing creatively, so create characters that never were, and put them in places that never will be, doing things no sane person would do, and make both so real that they seem more real than that which is real. Make those characters so real that when they cry, the reader cries with them. Robin Hood is a case in point. Everybody knows who Robin Hood was, yet in reality he never existed. I could cite more, but you get the point.
Don’t ever give up. Ask yourself, “Why do I write?” and there are probably as many answers as there are writers, but whatever your reason, continue writing, the world needs good writers, and with Smashwords, every writer can be published. Who knows, you might write something that will resonate throughout all time. And that’s your legacy.
[DW] Finally, do you have other books in the pipeline?
[WD] Only three. One will be published in a month or so. The other two are only half done. I have dozens more just waiting to be written.
[WD] Thank you, David, and to all who labored through this, Millie and I bid you a fond Aloha.
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