Professor publishes 21st book, reads passages ‘around an imaginary campfire’

Ethan Metcalf

The cover of Hoggard's latest book, The Devil's Fingers & Other Personal Essays, features a bicycle wheel because it tells of "travels and adventures nearby and all throughout the world," Hoggard said.
The cover of Hoggard’s latest book, The Devil’s Fingers & Other Personal Essays, features a bicycle wheel because it tells of “travels and adventures nearby and all throughout the world,” Hoggard said.

In celebration of the release of his 21st book, Perkins-Prothro Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus James Hoggard will read selected passages from The Devil’s Fingers & Other Personal Essays tonight at 7 in the Wichita Falls Museum of Art. Students, faculty and community members can gather “around an imaginary campfire, telling stories” as Hoggard said he hoped they will. Admission is free, but donations are welcomed, and copies of the book can be purchased at the event.

Hoggard said his newest book is a collection of short stories about his travels both at home and abroad.

“They’re stories that I’ve written over the last several years, and they involve memory pieces,” Hoggard said, “things that happened in Iraq when I was there giving lectures a number of years ago, things around here and a number of bicycle stories.”

Hoggard said he gave 15 lectures in 1990 at the University of Mosul in Iraq, but the corresponding story in The Devil’s Fingers explores the grief he experienced after being cut off from the friends he made while there.

“I couldn’t contact them without putting them in jeopardy because mail was read over there, phone conversations were listened to,” Hoggard said. “It’s what you’d expect from a totalitarian country.”

Hoggard said the title of his book refers to a tract of land in West Texas where he and some researchers were exploring canyons.

“These four canyons—we discovered the fourth one when we were flying over it—but these canyons were informally called the devil’s fingers,” Hoggard said. “The land is so rough and there aren’t any real pathways down so you gotta be careful.”

To make matters worse, Hoggard said he was suffering from a fractured femur that he wasn’t aware of because it didn’t show up on an X-ray.

“It was already broken before I went down there, which made me certainly slower than everybody else,” Hoggard said. “One of the people with me said, you sure have guts but I can’t say anything about your level of sanity. It was obvious how much pain I was in.”

Hoggard said he was captivated by the surprising amount of fertility in the canyons.

“You had all sorts of different colors, and then you also had some plant life that you weren’t expecting, like maidenhair fern,” Hoggard said, “right in the middle of this desert area, and there’s this fertile wall of fern growing across the rock face.”

Hoggard said there were even encounters with wildlife in addition to the flora.

“One of the people there in the group had pulled away and ran across a family of javelinas, and you could tell when he came back that he didn’t want to see those things again,” Hoggard said. “The young javelinas are little, and momma doesn’t want a bunch of strangers around her babies. It made you feel real careful.”

Hoggard said he has been writing since he was 16 years old when he wrote his first poem.

“I wrote a poem that I thought was wonderful, then I wrote a second poem, which I swear was the worst poem ever written in history,” Hoggard said. “It’s a matter of discipline. I mastered rhythm and sound and found different ways of telling stories.”

Twenty-one books later, Hoggard said his writing process hasn’t changed much over the years.

“It’s like getting up and going to work and finding time,” Hoggard said. “When you’re teaching school the way I’ve done for close to half a century, you don’t have a lot of time to do a lot of things you’d like to, so you make time.”

Hoggard said it’s not about writing as many books as he can, but he is still proud of the amount of work he has been able to publish.

“The numbers are symbolic of dedication and hard work that turned out to be something worthwhile,” Hoggard said. “It takes discipline, and it’s paid off. It feels good.”

Hoggard said one of the biggest challenges in writing The Devil’s Fingers was choosing which stories to include and the order to present them.

“Some of them were done pretty recently, some of them 10 years ago, and then I had to find a way to make them fit together so it wouldn’t just be a bunch of stuff from a grab bag,” Hoggard said, “It was a matter of finding shape for the whole work itself.”

Hoggard said it took him several years to write the book and then decide an order for the stories, and being his own worst critic certainly didn’t speed things up.

“I’m pretty severe on myself. I’ve been much easier on students than myself,” Hoggard said. “In the composition process and the editing process there’s this process of discovery. It’s as if you’re crawling along and all of a sudden you begin to realize you learned to walk again.”

Hoggard said that although the stories in The Devil’s Fingers are non-fiction, he feels as though he is giving up ownership of the experiences by putting them on paper.

“It’s almost like providing the reader ownership. That, I think, is due to the need to clarify things where you have to stand back and not just let your own perceptions gush forth,” Hoggard said. “You’ve got to have some sense of perspective and know that a detail, though it was actually said or observed, it just doesn’t really fit or help tell the story in an effective way.”

Hoggard said deciding on an order to tell the stories tonight was much like deciding which stories to include in the book itself.

“It wasn’t murderous at all, but it was trying to give a shape to the evening, and that’s always what I’ve tried to do when I do a reading,” Hoggard said. “In many ways, we’re going to travel to a bunch of different places. All the way from a running tour I gave myself of Paris, to the early morning when I went into the Dairy Queen in Electra and there were all these khaki-outfitted guys who were there to get away from the women.”

Hoggard said he hopes attendees of the reading will enjoy themselves and he hopes the stories will be well told.

“Everybody knows what a well-told story feels like,” Hoggard said. “Some of the stories will be, one hopes, good entertainment causing some laughter. Others are going to be probably turning more and more reflective than others. When you give a reading there are always points of surprise.”

Although he has published such a large number of books, Hoggard said he has another book, a collection of poems, due out in the spring.

“I’ve got at least three books lined up already,” Hoggard said, “and there will be some more.”