CJ Hatch is effectively a native Mobilian, and his first novel HURRICANE RON is a fantastic trip. From a sleepy southern city to locations farther afield, the titular character wreaks havoc in the lives of seemingly all who encounter him, well-meaning though he is. The fun is in watching him try to untie the knots in which he inadvertently snares himself, all as the dark clouds rumble in. Tightly-plotted and carefully-constructed, it’s a real page-turner in a way that precious few can manage on their first novel.
Mod Mobilian traded licks with Hatch about this Outlaw Intrigue, how it came to be, and what comes next…
The author and his Dad at Dauphin Island, circa 1970
I have to admit, the setting of the town of Pelican, AL rang very familiar! What is your personal history with the Mobile Bay area?
My father was a Coast Guard Master Chief who was assigned to Mobile Aviation Training Center in 1970, which made me about two and a half at the time. Our family of eight drove down from Massachusetts in a school bus converted into a camper, in which we lived for the first six months or so. Then, I was raised over the next decade near the intersections of Dawes and Cottage Hill roads, which at the time was still pretty wooded with a swamp right across the road. My folks moved into Alpine Hills subdivision, at which point I tried to spend as much time as possible with my best friend who lived on Alligator Bayou. I’ve attended Baker Elementary, Corpus Christi, McGill-Toolen and graduated from Shaw HS.
After a failed attempt at the University of South Alabama, I dropped out; did some odd jobs; and ended up signing up with the Air Force, which kept me away for eight years. When I returned I used my military training (broadcast specialist/journalist) to get a job with WPMI-TV as their NW Florida beat reporter. After that I went back to college, got my Bachelor in Communications at South, and worked for the City of Mobile until positions were being cut for the budget, and I accepted a job in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
I still visit Mobile regularly. My mother and two of my brothers live in Mobile, one brother is buried there, and my father’s and sister’s ashes were scattered off Dauphin Island. I try to bring my kayak with me when I drive down, as well as my fishing rod and a cooler to carry back as much Conecuh sausage and crawdads as will fit. I also host a Joe Cain Mardi Gras party every year at our home outside Philadelphia, to educate the Yankees about the true origin of American Mardi Gras. We average about 40-50 guests every year.
The story is pieced together very intricately. Who/What were your literary guideposts when you undertook writing this story? i.e. Both from your own experience and as literary/stylistic influences.
The novel owes much of its development for my love of reading in all genres with a hearty nod toward southern authors such as Winston Groom (Better Times than These), Robert McCammon (Boys Life) and of course the mandatory guys like Faulkner and Pat Conroy. You’ll also see the influence of some of the more commercial authors such as Clive Cussler with his cocksure-to-the-point-of-being-nearly-ridiculous protagonists to which Hurricane Ron’s Ron McKee is meant to be an almost Irving-esque counterbalance of insecurity and angst.
One thing I will say is that this novel really wrote itself and I was just along for the ride just like the readers. I would sit at my laptop and create a character and his/her backstory and say “Okay, Dean (or Zeus or Jimmy) what are you going to do now. Once the characters had their own stories and given motivation, they were just cut loose to do what they do.
The author on his “Orange Crush”, back in the day
If you were to suddenly find yourself back in Mobile with nothing to do for just one day, how would you spend the day/night?
Permit me a a sunny day, and allow me to pretend my Harley “Orange Crush” is road-worthy.
My day would start with a cup of coffee from Carpe Diem. After a jolt and muffin then it’s a easy putt down Old Shell toward downtown to peruse the stacks at the Ben May Main Library, stopping long enough to sock up on mudbugs at the Loop. If the weather is cool enough, I enjoy a stroll through Government Street Cemetery to pay my respects to Ol Slac and rest a bit under Boyington Oak. After that comes a ride down Michigan to DIP on my way to the River Shack at Dog River Bridge to meet family and friends for a beer, some oysters and fishing.
I like to ride long and alone, so once I’ve said farewell to my lunch guests Dauphin Island is always a great turn around point for a cruise. My favorites areas there (now that the West End is closed to traffic) are around Fort Gaines, and the stretch of beach by the old Coast Guard cabins where I spent a good part of my youth. When I’m there I always have a chat with my dad and sister who, as I mentioned, had their ashes scattered there.
My favorite thing to do in Mobile in the evening is a nice meal followed by some bar hopping to see some old faces – strangely people still recognize me after all these years. My ideal dinner is either soft shell crab at Cafe 615 or fried chicken at Kitchen on George. Capping out the evening requires a ramble from Callaghan’s to the Garage to Hayley’s. If old “Orange Crush” hasn’t turned into a pumpkin already, the last stop is Krystal for a sackful to smooth out the evening’s beer consumption. Anyone who knows me can see that food always plays a big part of my trips home.
Tell me about the last time you were in Mobile during a hurricane.
In 1998 I was working in WPMI’s Mobile newsroom. The news director had just fired the photographer I worked with and had decided I would be a “one-man band” (doing my own camera work and reporting) because he was trying to force me to quit. Georges was spinning its way toward us and one of my fellow reporters who’d not experienced a hurricane remarked, “I hope it hits Mobile. Storm stories are the easiest to cover.”
About two days later, I’m knee deep in swells videotaping the surf breaking over the erosion controls at Alabama Port when I get a call to head for Pascagoula where this same reporter was holed up in a hotel room refusing to go outside. The next thing I know, Georges is making landfall and I’m driving a decrepit Chevy Lumina van down Highway 90 toward Mississippi past trucks and cars up to their windows in water-filled ditches along the way. I even saw an alligator on the road at the Mississippi state line. I was so freaked out and in a hurry to get to Pascagoula, I didn’t stop for what would have been a classic shot.
I got the story. I made it back alive. I asked for a raise. I was demoted, and eventually fired.
So did you kind of fall out of journalism and into fiction-writing, or have you been Authoring for a long time?
Great question. I’ve always written, but nothing on the scale of a novel. I was pretty well known in middle school and among my family as a enthusiastic and creative writer. Despite that, I never had a great deal of encouragement to pursue writing as a career. I think the mindset of the day was to get a “real” degree like business, or engineering, and that literature degrees and careers were sketchy at best. After school I gave up on writing and just focused on trying to earn a living. Even as I went into broadcasting, I wanted to be a disc jockey, not a journalist. It wasn’t until I was put into a job producing my own TV shows, writing scripts and news stories, that I realized what I wanted to write as a career. Now, even when I’m not writing my next novel or the many short stories I’m putting together, I write for a living as a public relations professional. It’s a great outlet to be creative.
So what are your current and next creative projects?
After batting it around in my head for a while, and with encouragement from my new publisher, I am working on part two of the Hurricane Ron trilogy. I’ve also shopped a couple of short stories around to some literary publications without much success, so I will take another turn at those – even possibly filling them out as novels or novelettes. There is one non-fiction story I really want to tell about the sacrifice of some unusual heroes during the Vietnam War Tet Offensive, but agents and publishers have advised me the ending isn’t happy enough. I hope that isn’t where the publishing world is headed, the truth is okay as long as it has a happy ending.
HURRICANE RON is available for order through your local, independent book-monger (and chain stores.)