In Dallas Hudgens’ first novel, Drive Like Hell, 16-year-old Luke Fulmer gets his license, steals the neighbor’s car, and almost immediately runs into trouble with the law — leading his mother to send him off to live with his older brother, an ex-con. In the summer that follows, Luke is led into the world of stock-car racing, drugs, theft, and more, and the book earned Hudgens a round of accolades, perhaps the most interesting of which came from Kirkus (in a starred review): “Hudgens’s first is so much fun that it’s easy to forget how difficult it is to portray decent people acting like morons with an artfulness sufficient to transform it into boneheaded genius.”
For his second novel, Season of Gene, Hudgens turned to baseball — and specifically the world of thirtysomething men playing for the Whip Spa Yankees, named for the car-detailing business owned by Joe Rice, the book’s narrator. When his friend and fellow player Gene suffers a heart attack sliding into home, Joe discovers that Gene has been harboring a secret: a bat once used by Babe Ruth and now worth millions. Upping the ante? The mob is after the bat to, and they’re willing to go through Joe to get it. On its release, Season of Gene became a Book Sense notable, with the recommendation that the novel “has more action than a Hollywood blockbuster and more heart than a bloodhound. A super book.”
While many aspiring writers are struggling with their first books — thinking “If I can just get this one finished and published, I’ll be on my way” — Hudgens recently reflected on the process of writing and marketing a second novel.
Did publishing a first novel open the way to future contracts or were there different, unanticipated struggles with selling that second manuscript?
I felt like there might be a window of opportunity after the first book, but I also had a feeling the window might not stay open for very long. I didn’t want my publisher to forget about me, so I worked hard to finish the second book in a reasonable amount of time. I knew there was no guarantee my publisher would be interested in the second book. But my editor was very supportive. When I realized the second novel was going to be published, I felt just as happy as when my first book was published.
Did you explicitly try to do something different with the second book in terms of content or structure or style? Or conversely — in this world of branding and marketing — how do you think the second book fit with the first in terms of consistency of style or theme, construction or concerns?
I know that plot and structure are a weakness in my writing, so I tried to work on those things with the second novel. Looking at the finished book, I have to admit that plot and structure are still weaknesses of mine. But I hopefully made a little progress. In terms of similarities between the two books, I think they both have main characters who are sometimes generous and heroic and sometimes stupid and selfish. The characters were also similar in that they had felt powerless to save or help people they cared about. I didn’t do this consciously. So, I guess it was a theme that I didn’t quite get out of my system in the first book.
As with Drive Like Hell, some fine reviews have come in for Season of Gene. What steps did you take to avoid the sophomore slump?
I had been writing and re-writing the first novel for about five years, so I was excited about having a chance to work with new characters and a new story. But I also had plenty of doubts. I didn’t know if I was capable of writing another novel. I’d never really felt like I knew what I was doing when I was writing the first novel. My process with the first one had been to simply write a scene, try to think of what might happen next, and then write the following scene. I didn’t change that approach too much with the second novel.
I also tried to keep in mind something my agent told me: “Just have fun.” That advice helped a lot. It gave me the feeling that it was okay to simply write a story that kept me entertained as I worked on it. So, I wrote the kind of story I felt drawn to at the moment.
Did you see a difference in the marketing of the second book versus the first?The publisher taking a great interest in Season of Gene perhaps, now that you have a proven track record?
I think my publisher showed a lot of support simply by publishing the second book. I was also grateful that they released my first book in paperback just before the second book was released.
I had begun to understand that I had a responsibility to work harder in terms of telling people about the book, so I also worked with an independent publicist. She set up readings and appearances: sitting on a panel at a book festival, reading with another writer at a bar. She helped a lot and never placed me in a situation where I felt uncomfortable.
Finally, an inevitable question: Are you working on a third novel now?
I’ve been working on short stories for the past year. Going back to my experience with the second novel, the stories are what I’ve felt drawn to write. So, I’ve followed that. I really enjoy reading short stories, too. So, this has also given me an opportunity to read a lot of short stories and learn from other writers.
— Interviewed by Art Taylor