Plato would have recognized Brian Hicks straightaway as a “gadfly,” the philosopher’s term for someone who provokes the power structure and lampoons foolishness.
Hicks, long-time metro columnist of The Post and Courier and the author of eight books, often is a lightning rod for controversy. He invites it. Yet he is not easily pigeonholed, as likely to toss a curve ball to his fans as disarm his detractors. Arch conservatives tend to think of him as a liberal “agitator,” but he works at a newspaper whose opinion pages are staunchly conservative.
The reality behind the perception is that Hicks, author of The Mayor: Joe Riley and the Rise of Charleston, is an easy-going, genial Tennessean who approaches each issue on its own merits, or lack thereof, and somehow finds the time to write excellent books on a variety of intriguing subjects.
Among them are City of Ruin: Charleston at War, 1860–1865; Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees and the Trail of Tears; Ghost Ship; and Raising the Hunley (co-written with Schuyler Kropf).
Recipient of more than two dozen awards for his reportage, Hicks was named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in 1998 and best humor columnist in the Southeast by the Society of Professional Journalists in 2008. He resides in Charleston with his wife, Beth, and their sons, Cole and Nate.
As a columnist, it’s tempting to refer to you, only partly in jest, as a chronicler of the march of human folly. How do you view yourself?
I think the role of a columnist is to be part-analyst and part-court jester. You explain things that are, on the surface, quite murky, and you poke fun at the more ridiculous things. After 25 years in this business, you’ve pretty much heard it all, and it’s wonderful to just be able to say, ‘This is what this guy is up to here.’ But there is a lot of variety in the column. Some of them are very serious, others pure farce. On any given day my job is to cheer on good deeds or expose evil ones, although it’s rarely that black and white. My goal is to say things that need to be said.
You address issues seriously in your column, but also wield comic tools, yes?
The more ludicrous the subject, the more likely I am to go over the top in response. Sometimes, as I have found out the hard way, sarcasm doesn’t always come through in print. I’m still working on that. Sometimes [restraint] can be more powerful. My tendencies often steer me toward the sledgehammer when I should use the scalpel. The scalpel is much harder and, just as sarcasm can be misinterpreted, so too can understatement.
Where are you on the political spectrum?
I may be left of center on some things, but I can also be fairly conservative (at least by national standards) on others. I like to keep people guessing. But I don’t trick them. I’ll admit that I often ratchet up the rhetoric to stir the pot—that’s my job—but I never write anything I don’t believe. I don’t pretend to support one side of an issue if I really feel differently. A lot of columnists are “conservative” or “liberal,” and I am happily unaffiliated.
The ideal as a columnist is to either have both sides love you or hate you. I don’t really have a goal, though, and I’m sometimes amazed to see who gets their feathers ruffled by any particular column. Of course, it’s not hard to get anyone mad at you these days. People are too angry; they take themselves, their politics and politicians way too seriously.
How does your approach as a columnist differ from your strategy with books?
The column [involves] an entirely different set of writing muscles, so much so that I occasionally have trouble switching gears. If a book is a portrait, then a column is a snapshot. It’s so much more immediate. I tell stories in the column, but mostly it’s a running commentary on what’s happening around Charleston. And there’s not much opportunity to be choosy when you write three a week. Usually, it’s a gut reaction to the news. After 15 years of objectively regurgitating the outlandish pronouncements of politicians in three states, I really wanted to be able to call them out on some of the pandering, the crazy talk and the outright lies.
Your books are unusually diverse in subject matter. By design?
I think it’s both a reflection of my interests and the nature of the business. While we were finishing Raising the Hunley, which involved working with Clive Cussler, he found the remains of the Mary Celeste—a ship I loved reading about as a kid. So I pitched Ghost Ship to Random House and, next thing you know, I’m branded a maritime historian. Toward the Setting Sun was a complete departure by design. I had come to the point I wanted to tell a story that was more personal to me. Much of Ross’ life was spent within miles of where I grew up, and I have some Cherokee ancestry. Since then, I’ve been able to branch out and write whatever catches my interest.
What are the principal features that draw you to a subject for a book?
There are really only two criteria: It has to be a great story, and it has to hold my interest for the year, or years, it takes to do it. I consider myself a storyteller first and foremost, not an author of history texts. I try to write everything, even a biography of Joe Riley, with a little dash of those old Saturday serials. You just have to find an interesting way to tell the story.
Bill Thompson is the author of Art and Craft: 30 Years on the Literary Beat.