Dallas Hudgens is familiar with the ol’ parental warnings about excessive TV consumption. “‘It’s gonna stunt your imagination,’” the 41-year-old Falls Church resident recounts with a laugh.
But in Hudgens’ case, familiarity with the idiot box only served to enhance his biggest completed creative endeavor to date: his debut novel, Drive Like Hell, published last month by Scribner. The bittersweet bildungsroman, set in the late ’70s in the fictitious Green Lake, Ga., was written from the point of view of a 16-year-old boy whose passions include—natch—television, so it helped to know when to drop the right reference to, say, Emergency! or The Price Is Right.
The roots of Drive narrator Luke Fulmer’s other principal passion—cars—lie in part in the professional work Hudgens was doing around the time he started on the book.
Hudgens, himself a Georgia native, had earned an MFA in creative writing from Virginia’s George Mason University in 1992. A few years out, though, family and professional obligations—he’s a longtime freelance contributor to the Washington Post—compelled him to set fiction aside for a while.
When he took it up again, in the late ’90s, he had recently read a Lewis Nordan short story about a late-night father-and-son drive. Around the same time, he was writing Post pieces about NASCAR and the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “It just seemed like I was reading and writing about cars at the time,” Hudgens says, “and that’s how it sort of worked its way into the book.”
Not that writing about stock-car-fantasy-camp participants and creating a young speed demon out of whole cloth are quite the same thing. “If you’re interviewing somebody for an article, you’re hoping that they’ll say something to reveal a little bit about themselves,” Hudgens says. But fiction goes deeper: “It’s sort of like you live with a character instead of…talk to them for a half-hour.”
Hudgens established Luke’s voice through a series of 10 short stories, which he then reworked into a novel—a process that involved reimagining things he’d written earlier rather than just stitching them together. Still, it was easier than starting from scratch. “I didn’t do any [plot] mapping,” he says. “I just kind of discovered from chapter to chapter what would happen.”
He discovered quite a bit in the first two chapters alone: Luke turns 16, gets his license, takes his elderly neighbor’s white Maverick for a joy ride, steals a television set, sustains a concussion in a failed attempt to outrace the police, is placed on probation by a county judge, forfeits his television privileges—and, worst of all, loses his driver’s license for six months. As the spring and summer unfold, Luke navigates adolescent rites of passage both commonplace (busing tables at the Holiday Inn, falling in love, discovering the Ramones) and outlandish (meeting golf legend Jack Nicklaus in the parking lot of a Waffle House, helping a bail bondsman chase a fugitive). All the while a return to court, a wide-ranging drug-ring investigation, and his family’s past all hang over his head. Through much of the story, Luke and his brother both seek to move beyond Green Lake: “[T]hey were looking to go somewhere else themselves and start new lives.”
Hudgens is already looking closer to his current home for his next novel. Set in the D.C. area, the book will explore “how people end up in certain places and what they have to leave behind,” he says, “and whether they regret that or see it as a good thing.”
Not that Hudgens is bound by locale—when approaching Drive, he says, he didn’t think of it as a Southern novel so much as a novel whose characters “just happened to live in the South. And I always thought if I just did a good enough job with the characters and with the story, it shouldn’t matter where it’s set.”—Joe Dempsey