Rick Hodges

Rick Hodges is a writer and author whose written works are as diverse as his life experiences. Rick has enjoyed a 30-year professional writing career that includes his novel, numerous non-fiction magazine features, short stories, speeches, fundraising copy, a stage play and a non-fiction educational book.

Stormbird Press books

An Interview with Rick Hodges, author of To Follow Elephants

Rick Hodges enjoys a deep appreciation for the natural world on a simple, introspective level, informed as much by digging in the dirt as a child or beekeeping as a teenager as by travels to great landscapes. A voyage to East Africa, and the experience of seeing how people lived in tandem with wildlife, inspired his novel, To Follow Elephants.

Rick drew on his experience as a working writer and journalist in Washington, DC, to craft his novel. Aside from his 9-to-5 writing, Rick has produced works including short stories, a nonfiction instructional book for high school students about the Muslim world and a stage play. He wrote his play, Three Generations of Imbeciles, based on a 1927 court case from his home state of Virginia that cleared the way for involuntary sterilization of people with disabilities.

Rick’s wife Elenor is executive director of a local environmental organization and inspired him to work for a time as a grant writer for The Wilderness Society. He now writes magazine copy for a national labor union.

Q: Your biography says you appreciate the natural world on a “simple, introspective level.” What does that mean?

A: It means that I look down as well as up, and see the value and beauty in small things. It’s a skill I developed in childhood, as most children do, but I held onto it as an adult. A child can imagine a whole world in a pile of sand. I am blessed by the ability to sense the spirit of even small things that others may think are unimpressive. I’ve been to a few big, awe-inspiring landscapes like Colorado, Alaska and the Serengeti, but I can get similar fulfillment from my back yard, too. I watch the little things and how they change over time. I’ve always been highly observant. I’m the first one to see a woodpecker, hawk or bear on a nature walk even if my companions walk right by them. I have a way of sensing the vibrations of those small things too, as if they were as big as a mountain range. It’s a sensory ability I used in writing my novel.

I grew up on the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on the Atlantic Ocean, though, so I did have a big, impressive landscape—or should I say “waterscape?—of my own to appreciate.

Q: Beekeeping?

A: Yeah. I did it for a few years. It was fun. Bees are absolutely fascinating and have incredibly complex societies. They also make honey. I had to stop when I got stung and had an allergic reaction. Apparently, I developed a sensitivity to the stings.

Q: Do you literally mean your backyard?

A: Yes, literally. My family and I are blessed to have a great location for our home on a park next to a wooded area, yet still within walking distance of the subway to downtown. I’ve planted many native plants and trees and built decks to enjoy it from, and to write, of course. We’ve been there so long that I know the history of the wildlife that comes through, such as white-tailed deer, foxes, box turtles, raccoons opossums and many, many birds, and have seen the trees go up and sometimes come down. Amazing things happen at the small, detailed level of life just as on the larger scale. They’re just harder to see sometimes.

Q: How closely does your novel track your travel in Africa?

A: Very closely. I couldn’t have written this novel without going there, of course, though I did plenty of research afterward. The movement of the plot in physical space—riding a bus, going on a safari, walking the streets of Nairobi, a train ride to Mombasa—roughly follows my trip, as do many of the simple observations of people, animals and landscape. I just imagined characters and a plot to drape over my itinerary. And I relied on memories of that trip to add details that make the descriptions vivid. It allowed me to write Owen’s observations as someone who was seeing all these amazing, and sometimes disturbing, things for the first time.

I want to add that many of the elements of the book are based on reality. For instance, the origin story that Wanjeri, the elephant biologist, tells is real. The elephant behaviors are all based on real observations. Even the elephant caves are a real thing. The river crossing story, where the whole herd goes back over so as not to leave the baby behind, is something I saw on a TV nature program.

Q: So you’ve written about many different things in different styles. How does that translate to writing a novel?

A: I know how to sit down and pound out words on a keyboard until something is done. That was a big head start. It also helps me to edit my own work and then handle editing from others.

I started my career as a journalist, and that gave me a leg up on dialogue. A journalist who uses quotes has to fit them into the story to make them contribute to it, without distracting the reader. I recently won a prize in a short-story contest where the entire piece had to be dialogue—not even a “she said,” in there.

I think journalism also helped in other ways, like setting up a logical plot and describing people and events. The difference is that with fiction, of course, you can make it all up.

The only drawback of being a paid writer by day and novelist by night is that sitting in front of a screen can become tedious.

Q: What kind of writing work do you do as part of your job?

A: I learned to write at my college daily newspaper. It was like an apprenticeship. I earned a degree in political science, so after graduating, I went to Washington, DC. I’ve written all kinds of things here for groups a presence in the capital, such as congressional testimony, grant proposals, magazine copy, that sort of thing. I’ve written a few things on a freelance basis as well, such as the instructional book on Islam and magazine articles. It’s not always as fun as fiction, but you know you’ll get paid.

Q: Do you consider your novel to be eco-literature?

A: When I sat down to write To Follow Elephants, I started with a plain old mainstream adult novel. I considered the plot elements involving elephants to be simply part of the story. On the other hand, I wanted my book to be about how the natural world isn’t as distinct from humanity as we may think. In the same sense, “nature books” aren’t so distinct from other literature as we may think.

I definitely meant to send a strong message about wildlife and nature in this novel. I just didn’t want it to feel like a book that only someone who likes wildlife and nature, or wildlife and nature books, would want to read.

My model was Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, which tells stories about people living not just in a natural setting, but as part of it, even if the characters don’t always realize it. I hope readers of To Follow Elephants absorb the human story and elephant story, working in parallel but influencing each other, and see that the artificial barrier we put up between ourselves and the planet is pointless and counterproductive.

Looking back, I see the genesis of these themes in my writing. The first time I thought about being a writer was when I wrote an essay in high school titled “Dragonflies and Lawnmowers” about the sights and sounds of summer and how human and natural activities intersect.

Q: What is it like to write about animals “talking?”

A: Easy! There is almost total freedom. The elephants in my book behave like elephants, but they communicate in detail with each other as if speaking like people do. That writing just flowed because there’s nothing in reality for a reader to compare it to, so I could make them “talk” however I wanted. They do closely reflect actual elephant behavior though.

As a kid, I was a big fan of Watership Down by Richard Adams, an epic story about rabbit society. The rabbits behave like rabbits, but they have a whole history and language all their own that Adams just dreamed up and layered onto how they really live. I had the same freedom.

I wanted to go further and explore a way to appreciate our humanity through what animals experienced as if they were human, alongside and intertwined with a human story. I don’t think many authors have done that specifically. The only one I can think of that came close was James Michener in Chesapeake—he has a chapter that tells the story of a group of geese nestled inside the human story.

I love that my elephants look at humans the way humans look at animals. My elephants believe they are the smartest animals in the world, just as we do. They have an origin story they think makes them special—which perfectly parallels Wanjeri’s human origin story. They assume that women run human society, since female elephants are in charge of elephant society, and they refer to humans as “women” for that reason.

Q: Three Generations of Imbeciles sounds dark.

A: It actually has a happy, triumphant ending. A young woman is sterilized, but she finds a way to have a child anyway, through adoption, and later, her adopted daughter faces the same challenge with a very different outcome. It’s defiant. The title is a play on words. It comes directly from the court case in which a judge wrote that the woman’s mother and grandmother had also been “feeble-minded” and so she should be sterilized because “three generations of imbeciles is enough.” In my play, they end up with three generations in the family despite the attempts of the state to stop them. You cheer at the end. I was inspired to write it when my daughter, Audrey, was born with Down syndrome. When it was staged in my hometown, we used actors with intellectual disability to play the characters who have it, as I intended. It was an amazing experience to see characters I created come alive.

Q: Are you working on anything else?

A: I have a few projects in the works. One is a novel set on the Southern Atlantic coast, based on a real ghost town right on the ocean in Virginia Beach. It’s set in the 1920s when racial segregation was the norm and interracial marriage was illegal. In this isolated town, blacks and whites have always lived together and intermarried peacefully, but someone from the outside comes to live there and causes a tragedy that rips the town apart. Part of the success of this idyllic community, which is not so far from historical reality in some isolated parts of Virginia, is due to the isolation and ease of living in and depending on the natural world around it.