Q&A: Ninie Hammon
From journalist to newspaper founder to novelist, Ninie Hammon's writing career has been quite a journey. Her latest novel tells the story of Kentucky miner Will Givens, one of only two survivors of a horrific explosion at the Harlan #7 coal mine as he struggles to put the pieces back together... even some pieces that he'd rather sweep under the carpet.
Q. What led you to write Black Sunshine?
A coal miner is a guy who rides an elevator down into the bowels of the earth, then slings a pick over his shoulder and walks down a long, dark tunnel—right? Wrong. In Eastern Kentucky, the coal isn’t under the ground beneath your feet; it’s under the mountain you’re standing next to. Miners ride straight into the tunnel on shuttles that take them ten to fifteen miles into the base of the mountain. If there’s a problem, they’re not a couple of hundred feet underground, they’re buried alive miles from help. And forget the walking down a tunnel part, too. Forget standing up at all. The tunnels are only 48 inches tall because that’s how thick the coal seam is. Miners work ten-hour shifts bent over or duck walking, inhaling deadly coal dust in the wet darkness.
That’s what led me to write Black Sunshine. The hardship and danger miners face every day seemed the perfect backdrop for a heart-pounding story about revenge that destroys and forgiveness that heals. A story about the prodigal son and the older brother, about Judas and Peter. A story that hinges on the magic of a handicapped boy.
I wrote Black Sunshine because once you get to know a coal mining family, witness their sacrifices and understand their simple dignity, you are compelled to tell their story.
Q. Starting out, who were the authors who inspired you? Who inspires you now?
Well, let’s see, there was J.R.R. Tolkien. And then there was J.R.R. Tolkien. Oh yes, and there was J.R.R… you get the idea. When I was a college English major, I read The Lord of the Rings 16 times. I know that because I put a mark on the back cover of Return of the King every time I finished the trilogy and I had three sets of five marks and one single—before the back cover of the book fell off. And I’ve read it many more times since then. That epic story of the struggle between good and evil had a profound affect on me and on my writing.
Who inspires me now? Are your seatbelts fastened and your tray tables in their upright and locked positions? Ok, I’m a huge fan of the King of Horror—Stephen King. I’ve read just about every word he’s ever committed to paper. If he wrote a grocery list, I’d read it. His characters are real and his plots are as taut as the wires for the high notes on a piano. His mastery of the craft of story-telling inspires and humbles me.
Q. How does your faith influence your writing?
Actually, it sneaked up on me in the beginning. I wrote Sudan from the screenplay by Art Ayris. After that, The Memory Closet and Home Grown, which were good, suspense-filled stories made up of experiences from my own life. Five Days in May was the first book that came totally from my imagination—but the spiritual theme in the book did NOT come from me. It just showed up one day unannounced, uninvited, moved into the story and made itself at home. (The Holy Spirit can be so bossy sometimes!) And after that, the next two books, Black Sunshine and my work-in-progress, The Cleft, have intentional spiritual themes—I started with the themes and built stories around them. The review of Five Days in May by Publisher’s Weekly said that “Ninie Hammon isn’t afraid to beat her readers over the head” with spiritual allegory, but—and this is a huge but—“it is a fine story of love and sacrifice that will hook readers to the end.” In other words, a secular reviewer recognized the spiritual themes in Five Days in May but he was so caught up in the story that he didn’t care. That’s what I am called to do, that’s my assignment—to wrap God’s truth in such gripping stories that secular readers can’t put them down.
Q. How long have you known you wanted to be an author?
My first book—which I wrote and illustrated, too—was called Chocolate Bees, the suspense-filled saga of two bees who got up one morning and decided to make chocolate instead of honey. I was seven years old. I still have that book. Pencil and crayon on fragile, yellowed paper. I get it out and look at it now and then when I’m discouraged. It reminds me that there has never been a time in my life when I didn’t want to be a writer. It is the rare, fortunate person who knows exactly what they were designed by God to do. If He made me choose between telling stories and eating, I’d starve to death.
Q. What do you most hope that readers get from reading your work?
I want to grab readers by the collar and drag them into a nail-biting tale about ordinary people with real-life problems who are suddenly forced to fight for survival. I want readers to watch spellbound as the characters encounter the unexplainable smack in the middle of the everyday world, something supernatural that’s the key to open all the locks. I want readers to watch believable characters struggle, change and heal, and I want them to close the book after the last page with tears in their eyes and God’s hope in their hearts.