Hampton Sides: Freelance Novelist offers advice to U of M students
Striding into a classroom in the Meeman journalism building at the University of Memphis, not many would suspect Hampton Sides of having the elite professional life. His wispy, dark and just slightly thinning hair paired with his crisp blazer and slightly frayed blue jeans, tell nothing of his more than 20 years in freelance journalism and of the five successful books he has authored.
Originally from Memphis, the 52-year-old Sides has worked for magazines, television, radio, documentaries and various other journalism mediums before finally
starting a journey in writing historical narratives, a venture he credits to the late Memphis author Shelby Foote. "Shelby planted some deep seeds in me as far as how I wanted history to be perceived," Sides said.
Sides was the U of M on April 3 as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities along with the River City Writer’s series, the English department and the journalism department.
Sides talked with students before his presentation and said that he does not like how some historians write history. He said to write his books he had to lose the academic mindset and become more of a narrative writer, a technique that novelists use far more often than do historians.
"A lot of academic historians have a jaundiced view of narrative history," Sides said. "They view it as going up in the stacks and communing with dead people. I had never heard the word pleasure associated with history."
Sides most recent book was “Hellhound on the Tail,” which was about the manhunt for James Earl Ray. His next book called “In the Kindgom of Ice” comes out this summer, and it is a book about an expedition in the late 1800s to the North Pole.
Sides graduated from Yale University with a history degree, but his first jobs were all in journalism as a magazine writer and reporter. Transferring over from journalism to novel writing was a slow and arduous task. Fortunately, some of the skills he learned from his career in journalism assisted in the process.
"Deadlines helped me a lot. I would use that fear, energy, and adrenaline to fuel my chapters. I would just look at each one as a mini deadline that I had to get done by the end of the day."
Interviewing is also really important. I'm just someone who learned to ask nosy questions and even like it a little bit."
It has paid off in the long run. Sides credits luck and his children when it comes to finding inspiration for his novels. With an average of three years of research done before writing each book, Sides admits, "Writing is really hard. There's a certain amount of pain there, and it doesn't get any easier. There are a million decisions to make with each sentence."
April 3, 2014
Author Spices up Nonfiction with Good Storytelling
Born and raised in Memphis, 52-year-old Hampton Sides is a popular narrative history writer who has written five books in total and will release his sixth book in August.
Sides was the featured speaker at the University of Memphis’ Marcus Orr Center for Humanities presentation on April 3 called “Telling Stories: The Art and Craft of Narrative History.” At the presentation, Sides discussed his next book titled “In the Kingdom of Ice,” a story about America’s first attempt to discover the dangerous, unexplored land of the North Pole. “They went north but everything went south” Sides said.
Sides was a history major at Yale University who later tried his hand in journalism after college. He has worked at the Memphis Flyer and free-lanced at The Washington Post, and most recently he was an editor at Outside Magazine. “I wanted to be a writer since I was 6, 7 or 8,” Sides said. Sides said he remembers getting his start as a writer and having to type stories on his old Smith Corona Typewriter. He had to use whiteout and endure the terrible fumes that were produced.
He began writing narrative history books, his first being “Ghost Soldiers,” which tells the story of a World War 2 rescue mission. “Narrative history is sometimes treated as the red-headed stepchild,” said Sides. “It takes dramatic techniques and applies them to nonfiction material.”
Sides estimates that it takes him about three years to finish each book he writes. One year of extensive research, one year for structuring the story and a final year for writing in what he calls “the pain cave.” The pain cave is all the exhausting time he spends buried in his work and writing the book. “I emerge from the pain cave with my book,” Sides said.
He said that writing is always a challenging endeavor. Writing requires patience and determination. Through the writing process he’ll go though many rewrites and long months of research. His stories deal with history, requiring him to travel to new places and meet new people.
“I kind of view it as history morphing into journalism and journalism morphing into history,” said Sides. “If people get to the end (book), I’ve done my job.”
Sides’ presentation was at the University Center Theater. Afterwards, he spent time signing copies of his books.
April 3, 2014