WORDS AND IMAGES BY TYLER HICKS
Sporting dark sunglasses and sipping black coffee, Dan Hammond’s demeanor calls to mind Tom Robbins– a suggestion that the Denton-based writer would certainly deflect. Stationed at the edge of the bar at West Oak Coffee, the humble Hammond thumbs away at a cell phone that he admits to not fully understanding. “My boys have had to teach me a lot about stuff like this.” He beams whenever we come to the subject of his two sons, and it’s clear that his passion for fatherhood is only matched by his love of writing.
Thus far, Hammond has written two novels and a host of short stories. His upcoming book, The Smoking Pew, is, like Delbert Judd and The Solomon Twist before it, set in the fictional town of Solomon, Texas. “Solomon is Denton…with a twist,” Hammond admits with a smile. Characters in Delbert Judd frequent a bar called SilverLeaf, and part of the plot finds a neighborhood dealing with the incursion of a Christian fraternity. Furthermore, the people of Solomon are diverse, quirky and filled with stories. Looking out on the square, Hammond notes that he could walk up to “anyone out there” and hear a fascinating tale. It’s his job – and goal – to tell those meaningful, human stories. They are often tragic, sometimes funny, and frequently political, but, with Hammond, they are always truthful.
“We all live multiple lives.”
Dan’s lives began in Louisa, Kentucky, where one of his grandfathers was a coal miner and the other was a railroad worker. “My grandfather got black lung, and my other grandfather lost part of five toes in three separate accidents.” The writer speaks about his working class family with pride, but other parts of his Southern upbringing give him pause. In school sports, his teammates would often berate the players from black schools, a memory that he shares in the short story Good Game. Racism became even more apparent in college, when, at Transylvania University, he witnessed a yearly routine of Greek pledges guarding, while shirtless, a nearby statue of a Confederate soldier. Memories like this continue to fuel Hammond’s writing, which he admits is consciously political. A subplot in the forthcoming Smoking Pew deals with the fallout of a character accidentally destroying a Confederate monument, and he swears he wrote it well before this summer’s flag controversy. It’s easy to believe him, as he’s never been one to shy away from hot button issues.
Hammond was an active member of Denton’s recent anti-fracking movement, and even travelled to Austin to witness the ruling on House Bill 40. As a self-identified member of the political left, he laments the retirement of Jon Stewart, and criticizes MSNBC for “retreating” from the real stories. “To quote Jon Stewart, bullshit is everywhere.” Hammond navigates the treacherous fields of bullshit through political involvement, but his activism differs drastically from his role as a writer. Politics is “more of a hobby.” Whether working from his two desks at home – “when I need to work at a different desk, I just move to my right” – or attending a writing group every Tuesday night, his writing “has to be taken as seriously as my full-time job.”
After a stint in Austin, Hammond returned to live and work in Kentucky. He wrote for various newspapers in the Bluegrass state, but found himself drawn in to the world of sales with the advent of cable television in the 80’s. After the school busses dropped off droves of students each afternoon, Hammond would have parents literally lining up to hear his pitch. The power of a persistent primary school student and the dazzle of cable made it the “easiest job in the world,” he says. Soon he was one of the top salesmen in his area, and the Dallas Morning News took notice. An old friend from the paper flew him to Arlington, where they attended a Texas Rangers game and talked about a job in the DFW. He joined the distribution team soon after, and he works there till this day. He’s “not sure,” however, if they even know that he writes.
“I like to put a positive spin on things, but that’s not the truth. You have to do terrible things to your characters.”
Mr. Hammond is no stranger to loss. He’s been through “a couple divorces,” and lost his father and best friend in the same week. In the 20 years that he has been a writer, he’s seen plenty of “terrible things,” many of which have found their way in to his novels. To keep his stories as close to reality as possible, he imbues his work with the strife he knows all too well. However, readers should not expect pure gloom and doom from Hammond’s canon: “I strive for humor balanced with a good deal of adversity in character-driven stories backed by a solid narrative.” Delbert Judd and The Solomon Twist pack the punch lines to accompany the emotional weight, a combination he ensures will continue with The Smoking Pew. Unfortunately, the “genrefication” of the publishing world has led to Hammond, and countless others, being left out in the cold. “Everyone wants to put something in a specific genre. It’s either science fiction or comedy, it can’t be both.”
Hammond had a literary agent based in New York, and the man, who he still keeps in touch with, really liked Delbert Judd. He was unable to convince his partners of its marketability, though, and Hammond has gone the self-publishing route ever since. Many writers would speak about such an incident with bitterness and anger, but Hammond doesn’t seem to carry that with him. The powers that be told him that his book didn’t fit in, but, then again, fitting in was never the point. At the end of the day, Hammond “just wants my books in as many hands as possible.” Witnessing the sincerity and romanticism with which he talks about writing reveals that its not money he’s after, though. When he began putting pen to paper in his 40’s, he started searching for something much more interesting and powerful. If writing is a way to seek truth, then maybe the characters of Solomon, Texas are Mr. Hammond’s way of finding truth here in Denton.
“Wait, is that Jason Lee?”
The My Name is Earl star just strolled in to West Oak, and Hammond spots him right away. “Should we go get a picture?” I ask. Hammond smiles wide and says, “Yeah, let’s do it.” He snaps the photo on his phone, and promises to send it to me “if I can figure it out.” I start in on an apology for interrupting our conversation but Hammond stops me, laughing. “No man, I love that show. Those are my people,” he says, referring to the fictional characters in Earl’s rural town. “Now, where were we?” He’ll never admit it, but Dan Hammond, local author, father, and husband, is the epitome of cool.
Tyler Hicks is a writer and journalist from Dallas, TX. He enjoys Hitchcock movies, iced coffee, spending time with his four dogs, and following politics when it doesn't make him too sad (which is rare). He loves to interview and profile fascinating characters in Denton and all over. Check him out here.