That was it. Three words from a Ted Talk by the director of Wall-E and Finding Nemo that began my metamorphosis as a writer. I’ve always been a writer. That is, I always enjoyed writing. I wrote essays in school, I wrote letters to newspaper editors, business letters. But mostly, during my years as an electrical engineer, I wrote technical articles. And they were good letters, good articles. Many people complimented me on my writing.
I’ve also always been a reader. And I read lots of books, lots of articles, lots of newspapers. But I also read lots of fiction, by very gifted writers: Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Le Carre, Sharra, and many others. One day, while sitting in a park on a bright, sunny day in Paris (Texas, not the other one), I got the idea of wanting to change my nature, to try writing fiction. I was weary of writing about radars, and such. I wanted to write about make-believe people doing make-believe things.
And so I started. My story of my first discouraging attempts to evolve from years of technical writing to writing fiction—telling stories—is related in detail on my website. Suffice it to say, my efforts were not rewarding. Why, I would wonder, is what I read in one of Steinbeck’s novels so compelling, and mine so…not?
Fast forward through quite some time, and many frustrations. I would write some section, some element of a story, and it was all well written. Verbs, nouns, all okay, no distracting adverbs. Yet…there was no story. What am I missing? I kept wondering. Then, my son, Clint, put me onto a TED Talk by Pixar director Andrew Stanton.
And there, in that talk, I heard those three words: “Make me care!” And the mystery evaporated. That was it. I was writing fiction the way I had always written non-fiction; factual, but without feeling. My story about my protagonist felt so empty because I didn’t know the guy. Why would I care what was happening to him? That was it, I realized. It’s hard to care about someone you don’t know, and that had to change.
Coming out of that epiphany were my two novels, The Old Man and Ad Astra. My guiding light in bringing to life Ben and Abby, and Gene and Mattie—along with the friends and families in their lives—was my dedication to letting the reader come to know, and care as much about, those two couples as I did. They became my friends, and I cared very much for them.
But of course I would. I created them. How could I not care for them? But what about my readers? Would they come to care as much about my friends, as they turned the pages and came to know them better, as did I? I received compliments from my friends, but what about the others, I had to wonder. Did I make them care?
One answer to that concern came from a most unexpected, but much appreciated, source. While working to create the digital version of Ad Astra, and adding some additional material to the front matter of the print version, Clint asked a gentleman by the name of Mr. Doug Walker if he would agree to read Ad Astra, and offer a review. He most graciously agreed to do so. And to say I was grateful is an understatement.
Mr. Walker is the son of Brigadier General Kenneth N. Walker, a driving force behind the creation of the Air Force as a separate branch of our military, one of the authors of the strategic bombing campaign against Germany, Army Air Force pilot, Medal of Honor recipient, and, at the time of his death, Commanding General of V Bomber Command, 5th Air Force, Southwest Pacific. A B-17 on which General Walker was an observer was lost on a raid over the Japanese Base at Rabaul, New Britain, in January, 1943.
Why is all that so meaningful to me, so relevant to this story? Because the air war in the Southwest Pacific is central to the story of Ad Astra. Gene, my protagonist, is a B-17 pilot, flying those same missions. Much of the context for Ad Astra was derived from a book published by General Kenney, who was commander of the 5th Air Force at that time. General Walker was very much a part of all I read about, while doing research for my book. To receive a review by the son of General Walker was no small thing, to me.
Mr. Walker was very kind, very generous in his review. But it was the last sentences of his review that meant the most:
“Hayes also brings that skill to bear in dealing with the human element in the story. We become closely involved with Gene and Mattie, and share an anxiety for their future that can only come from knowing them both so well.”
Nothing Mr. Walker could have said in his review could have pleased me more. “Make me care” had guided me throughout that story. I wanted the reader to care about Gene, as he struggled to overcome the obstacles that life was throwing in his path. I wanted the reader to come to love Mattie, as Gene did, and to experience their joy, and challenges in their young lives. “…that can only come from knowing them both so well.” What better reward could a writer hope for?
“Make me care!” Best advice, as a writer, I ever received.