Writing the Books He Wants To Read: Robert R. McCammon

Robert R. McCammon is the award-winning author of 14 novels and numerous short stories. His works are often set in the Deep South and in the 1980s, McCammon’s horror novels were among the most popular published, including such best sellers as “Swan Song,” “They Thirst,” and “Stinger.” In the 1990s, McCammon’s work turned toward the mainstream, with such novels as the phenomenal “Boy’s Life,” “MINE,” and “Gone South.”

Robert, Rick to his friends, also had two of his short stories adapted for television episodes of The Twilight Zone and Darkroom. He has won five Bram Stoker awards from the Horror Writers Association and one World Fantasy Award. He also earned along the way the Alabama Library Association Author Award, the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire, and the Independent Publisher Book Award. His latest works have morphed beyond the horror genre with the release of two well-received novels set in Colonial America.

McCammon was raised in East Lake, Alabama where he enjoyed reading Poe and Lovecraft and watching horror movies as a child at Roebuck’s College Theater. He graduated from Banks High School and even back then felt he could be a writer, pursuing a University of Alabama degree in journalism.

He left university in ’75, and started taking odd jobs. Being gung-ho about journalism and his desire to write, he unsuccessfully tried to crash the set of “Stay Hungry” when he made himself out to be a Rolling Stone reporter. Eventually, after working as a clerk at Brookwood Village and having a hand at Loveman’s Department Store advertising, he landed a job as copy editor for the Birmingham Post-Herald. He was editing an article headline when he got a telephone call informing him that his first novel, “Baal,” would be published. His demon-possession story was favorably mass marketed as a paperback novel following the renown hit film “The Exorcist.”

Robert lives in Birmingham with his wife Sally and daughter Skye. He was born July 17, 1952 and has lived in Alabama all his life. Today we have the honor of presenting the man, his writing, and his insights into the world of writing and publishing.

IN: Without pigeonholing your writing style into just horror—your writing is far more versatile than that—how and when did you become interested in professionally writing thriller, suspense, horror, and supernatural-type novels?

RM: I was raised by my grandparents, and my grandfather used to tell me ghost stories that he’d made up. These were more fascinating than fearsome, and I think my interest probably started with those. I was always a voracious reader. Bear in mind I was small for my age, no good at sports and pretty much socially inept, and you have the classic creator personality: someone who possesses no power in real life who must create a fantasy world in which to have power. It wasn’t long before I realized that putting into stories all the names of kids at school made me, in a way, the master of their fictional destinies. It also was cool when I wrote war stories and the hoods wanted to know if they got killed or made it to the end. It was then I figured out that I could do something very few others (at least in my neighborhood) could do.

IN: Who have been the most influential people during your writing career?

RM: Do you mean family or other writers? Certainly not family. I had a very conflicted relationship with my grandfather, in that though he planted the seed of my interests, he also tried to whack the tree down before it could grow very tall. I was told again and again that I’d never amount to anything as a writer, and I was expected to go into my grandfather’s furniture business. I remember when I grew a beard he told me no publisher would ever buy any of my stories because I looked so bad.

So I suppose I actually became a writer through a certain measure of anger. Of wanting to prove myself to someone who seemed to me to have no comprehension of what the world was like. By that I mean the larger world far beyond Alabama. In terms of other writers, I read Poe and Bradbury at an early age. I read those creepy true crime magazines. I read an encyclopedia. I read a lot of Hammer movie tie-in paperbacks. I remember how the copy of “The Brides of Dracula” I ordered from Captain Company in New York City smelled like a strange perfume. I read a lot of science-fiction as well, and in fact many of my first stories (unpublished) were science-fiction. At the same time, though, I was reading short stories and articles in old Esquire and New Yorker magazines that I got at a magnificent, dusty, and much-missed used bookstore that once existed in downtown Birmingham.

IN: You have been writing novels professionally since 1978. What industry changes have you seen transpire that have negatively and positively affected writers in general, and how did you overcome any negative issues?

RM: I came in on the heels of Stephen King, as many other writers did. Without King’s massive talent and huge sales, the door would never have opened for me. So that was a positive thing. The negative side of that is you realize you were brought in to be the imitator, the book on the paperback rack that goes ’round and ’round. And when you want to do something else, something that would be beyond the blueprint of what you were expected to do, you can find it’s almost as if you don’t exist anymore. I realize I was granted entry into the publishing world to write horror at a time when horror was big and growing ever larger, but what happens when you also realize that though your name is definitely linked to a particular genre, you feel you want to do something else? The publisher wants you to stay where you are, because you’re making money. You know the cliché. “Write something the same, but different.” Well, I decided to write something different and I learned a very hard lesson. But I’ll answer that more in depth below.

IN: In February 1991 your letter titled “The State of Where” was published in Lights Out! Issue #5. Do you still feel that horror has lost its way?

“The field of horror writing has changed dramatically since the mid- to late-’70s. At that time, horror writing was still influenced by the classics of the literature. I don’t find that to be true anymore.” [Read the full letter.]

RM: I only barely recall that letter, and I haven’t gone back to look at it, but I’d say that yes, I certainly do feel the same. Bear in mind that when I was in my heyday, I was both grateful to be where I was and conflicted to the point of near nutzoid. As publishers were stroking my books by saying I was a “new Stephen King” and that kind of nonsense, I was getting hate mail from King’s fans who told me what a joke I was and that everything I’d done had been stolen from King. Then I got a major review in a magazine or somewhere and it showed my picture with the headline “The Man Who Would Be King.”

I thought, “Oh my God, here it comes.”

The deal is, some of the more rabid fans I think really wished that King would come after me or destroy me or something. At the same time, I was sneered at in my hometown because I wasn’t writing Southern fiction. There was a set of fans who hated me because they thought I didn’t write hard enough horror. Some of these fans—and a few of the writers in the field—had set themselves up to be the watchdogs of the universe, and everything that wasn’t cutting-edge enough was no good. This is where I think horror ran off the rails and was the reason for my letter.

I got very tired of the idea—a very conservative, backward-assed idea, I still believe—that horror had to be harder edged and more bloody to reflect the modern era. It was like an inside joke put together by high school kids who thought wearing long black coats and having images of Satan on their t-shirts really conveyed some important message. “Well, let’s gross out the mundanes and therefore we’re cool, because we’re not like them.” But they were constructing a box. A coffin for horror, as it were. All it did was try to make everyone in the field walk in lockstep, and congratulate ourselves because we were so much better than those mundanes who didn’t get it. I wanted out, and I wouldn’t go back to horror for any amount of money. All I learned from being around some of those writers in that era is that my grandfather was not so dead as I thought.

IN: Circa 1992 you began somewhat of a 10-year hiatus. What prompted you to return to the writing scene with “Speaks the Nightbird”?

RM: I actually wrote “Speaks the Nightbird” 10 years ago. I had a master plan to do historical novels, and I thought I’d start with a mystery set in 1699. I thought also that the witchcraft angle would ease my sidestep into another field, though it’s by no means a supernatural novel. As I mentioned above, I wanted to do something very different. I’d done the canons of horror: vampire, ghost, werewolf, alien monster, maniac . . . the whole magic show. I knew how the tricks worked. I was bored with those particular magic acts. I think I was becoming a better writer, and I don’t mean that to sound as if I believe horror writing is poor, because there have been some really great books written in the genre, certainly by King and equally certainly not only by King. But as I said, I wanted out, and I wanted to do something that I’d never done before.

I left my publishing house at that time, with “Speaks the Nightbird” in hand, because I just wanted to start over somewhere. I didn’t want to be thought of as the imitator anymore, and I thought I needed a new publishing house to be taken more seriously.

So then began the saga of my hard lesson. Even at the publishing house that did show interest in “Speaks the Nightbird,” I was given to the horror genre editor. This person and I, bless the person’s soul, collided over just about everything in the book. I was floored.

I recall one instance of the editor asking me why I’d used the term “gittern” when I was talking about a “guitar.” I said that the guitar was called a “gittern” in that era. This person looked at me and said, “Do you really think anybody’s going to care about that?” To this day, I don’t know why that particular publisher wanted to buy “Speaks the Nightbird,” because the disdain for it was, to me, devastating.

So, anyway, I couldn’t do the editing and I pulled the book. The next book I wrote, called “The Village,” was set in Russia in World War II and involved a theatrical group that goes out to perform for soldiers behind the lines—the Soviet version of the USO—and a young Russian girl who joins the group hoping it will lead to her being an actress in America after the war. The “village” in this case meaning the “community of actors.” That book didn’t get one offer.

I took my manuscripts, went home, and figured my career was over. A couple of years later, I was reading a chapter from “Speaks the Nightbird” to a college audience, and in attendance there was an editor from River City (based in Montgomery). She asked me what was happening with the book, I said it was just sitting on the shelf, and things went from there.

IN: Once an author becomes established and recognized by peers and readers alike, is it necessary to constantly evaluate their product positioning and writing style to keep the content fresh and interesting? If so, how do you do that? If not, why not?

RM: I just do what I do. If I thought about stuff like that, I’d have panic attacks. Writing is still a mystery to me. All I know is, I have an idea and I work it out and sooner or later there’s a book. But it always starts with the fact that I want to read the book and if I don’t write it, it won’t be there.

IN: Your books have been translated to many languages, including Russian and Japanese. How important are tours, conferences, and book signings to help ensure success and book sales?

RM: Yeah, that’s important if only to meet your readers. I do enjoy book signings and also public readings. But the deal is, I like working in what I consider splendid isolation. You can go only so far to sell a book. At some point it has to sell itself.

IN: When researching for your novels, to what depth and degree do you delve to find what’s needed to create the enormously detailed settings, characters, and scenes?

RM: Well, I’m doing big-time research for my historical-mystery series. The plus here is that it helps to go visit the places you write about. There’s an American Indian character in my next book and I’m probably going to go up to the Seneca reservation in western New York and talk to some people there. You have to understand that no matter how much research you do, you can never be an expert yet there are experts on everything under the sun, and you will be told where you’ve made mistakes. You just have to do it in good faith and understanding that no book will ever be perfect, though of course you have to try to make it perfect.

I have a binder of over 500 pages of notes and research materials for “The Queen of Bedlam.” Clothes, food, architecture, the gaits of horses, the ferryboat system, actual names of people who lived in New York in 1702, everything and anything. By the way, you haven’t lived until you’ve read a Bible-sized seventeenth-century manual on rapier combat and had to condense the moves and footwork to make a three or four-page action scene.

IN: What helps to keep you motivated and directed in your writing career?

RM: Time, now. I’m 54, and I want to finish this series I’m doing, starring this young man—Matthew Corbett—who’s a detective (or a problem solver, to be more literal) in the colonies. Again, my motivation is that I want to read the books. Ever go to a bookstore and you know the kind of book you want but you can’t find it? Well, this series is it for me.

IN: You have your own, dedicated website. How important is it for authors to have a website presence?

RM: I think it’s important, so you can get feedback from your readers. I do enjoy reading about what my books have meant to people, but a website can also kind of make you a little self-conscious. I just don’t think of myself as any big deal. I like to write and I’m fortunate that I can do this. When I read things such as once a man had been buried with his much-loved copy of “Boy’s Life” in the casket, I think I owe my readers a tremendous amount, because they’ve been just as tremendously loyal over many years. Things like that can get to you, when you just consider yourself lucky to be writing at all.

IN: What would you tell new writers that might help them to establish their own successful writing careers? Are there any special insights you can pass along about how to write horror and get published?

RM: I’d say read. Many different types of books. Hone the ability to map out a story. Note, I didn’t say “outline.” I mean map it out in your mind. Write every day, if possible. Nourish honesty in your own view of your work. Be prepared to pay dues, because success will cost you somewhere along the line. Be open to ideas. Examine people. Examine motives and ask “why?” and “why not?” Come up with a book that you want to read, more than anything in the world, and realize you have to write it. Work on a unique voice, and this can be a very difficult thing. Believe in yourself, but be honest about your abilities.

IN: Do you think it advantageous for a writer to be part of a writer’s union, guild, or genre-specific organization?

RM: Hmmm. I don’t know. On the one hand, it’s good to get the opinions of other writers, but on the other hand an organization could be a waste of time. I recall something Peter Straub once said: “Writers are like emperors of small countries.” If you’ve ever been in a roomful of writers, you’ll understand what he means by that. But, if an organization builds confidence and companionship instead of undermining confidence and enforcing a pecking order, I’m all for it.

IN: You’ve gained the reputation as a private, somewhat remote, almost infamous writer as far as the media is concerned, a lifestyle that will be quite foreign to many writers’ understanding of current day success. How did this develop, and do you think it has had any adverse effects on your career?

RM: I think it developed slowly, after realizing my joy is writing rather than partying or getting acclaim. I was never meant to be a businessman, a politician, or a prize-fighter, and sometimes those roles are forced upon you. I’m fortunate now that I can pay people to fill the roles to which I am ill-suited.

IN: Your soon-to-be-released novel, “The Queen of Bedlam,” is set in 1702 and is a sequel to your 2002 award-winning “Speaks the Nightbird.” How would you describe the story to an audience interested in reading your work?

RM: “The Queen of Bedlam” stars my young colonial problem solver, Matthew Corbett, and involves a killer in New York called The Masker and a regal elderly woman in a New Jersey lunatic asylum who may have the answer to the murders. But there’s so much else going on in it. I’m very excited about this book, and the others to come, because this truly belongs to me. And, I have to say, no one can do this like I can. I’ve had a long interest in colonial history, and that coupled with my other interests makes this series my own invention. The “something different” I have long been hoping to create.

I’ve tried to make it, of course, historically accurate and exciting as well, but there’s also a lot of humor in it. If you consider that my influences also are things like the Ian Fleming James Bond books, the TV show The Wild Wild West and also the old Mission: Impossible series, then you can get an idea of all the fun stuff that’s in “The Queen of Bedlam.”

IN: What’s next for you?

RM: The third book in the series, in which I get to use as a model—one of my favorite old-time English actors. Little known, but I can say that once you’ve seen him in a grainy old movie from the ’30s, he is unforgettable. I’m thrilled to be using him in the next book. I’m planning on doing nine or ten Matthew Corbett novels. The trick is that, while “Speaks the Nightbird” was set in May of 1699, “The Queen of Bedlam” is set in July of 1702 and the next book will be set in October of 1702, with the following one to be set in December of 1702. So each book will be set a season apart, and even though each book can stand alone there’s a main story that will lead to a conclusion.

Of course, if “The Queen of Bedlam” doesn’t sell, all this will just be pipe smoke and I’ll probably return to retirement. So here’s the last of the requirements to be a writer: hope must spring eternal.

Bibliography as of May 2007:

“The Queen of Bedlam” – Simon & Schuster, October 2007
“Speaks the Nightbird” – River City Publishing, September 2002
“Gone South” – Pocket Books, October 1992
“Boy’s Life” – Pocket Books, August 1991
“MINE “ – Pocket Books, May 1990
“Blue World” – Grafton, April 1989
“The Wolf’s Hour” – Pocket Books, March 1989
“Stinger” – Pocket Books, April 1988
“Swan Song” – Pocket Books, June 1987
“Usher’s Passing” – Holt, Rhinehart, & Winston, October 1984
“Mystery Walk” – Holt, Rhinehart, & Winston, May 1983
“They Thirst” – Avon Books, May 1981
“The Night Boat” – Avon Books, August 1980
“Bethany’s Sin” – Avon Books, January 1980
Baal Avon Books, August 1978

“Tales of the Batman” (1995)
“The Giant Book of Terror” (1994)
“The Giant Book of Best New Horror” (1993)
“Under the Fang” (1991)
“The Further Adventures of The Joker” (1990)
“The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror: Third Annual Collection” (1990)
“The SeaHarp Hotel” (1990)
“Best New Horror” (1990)
“The Roots of Fantasy: Myth, Folklore, & Archetype” (1989)
“Razored Saddles” (1989)
“Book of the Dead” (1989)
“Stalkers” (1989)
“Modern Masters of Horror” (1988)
“Silver Scream” (1988)
“The Best of Masques” (1988)
“Doom City” (1987)
“Best of the Horror Show, An Adventure in Terror” (1987)
“Halloween Horrors” (1986)
“Greystone Bay” (1985)
“Masques” (1984)

First published by Inkwell Newswatch (IN)

© Julie Pierce and Julie’s Writing Portfolio, 2005-2011.

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