One of the founders of the Horror Writers Association, Robert R. McCammon (b. 1952) is one of the country’s most accomplished authors of modern horror and historical fiction. Raised by his grandparents in Birmingham, Alabama, McCammon published his first novel, the Revelations-inspired BAAL, when he was only twenty-six. His writings continued in a supernatural vein throughout the 1980s, producing such bestselling titles as SWAN SONG, THE WOLF’S HOUR, and STINGER.
In 1991, Boy’s Life won the World Fantasy Award for best novel. After his next novel, GONE SOUTH, McCammon took a break from writing to spend more time with his family. He did not publish another novel until 2002’s SPEAKS THE NIGHTBIRD. Since then he has followed “problem-solver” Matthew Corbett in two sequels, THE QUEEN OF BEDLAM and MISTER SLAUGHTER. A new contemporary novel, THE FIVE, was published in May 2011 by Subterranean Press. THE HUNTER FROM THE WOODS, a collection of novellas and stories featuring Michael Gallatin, the main character from The Wolf’s Hour, was published in December 2011 by Subterranean Press. The fourth book in the Matthew Corbett historical fiction series is THE PROVIDENCE RIDER. It will be published in May 2012 by SUBTERRANEAN PRESS.
The Interview with Robert R. McCammon
Lou Pendergrast: Hello and welcome Robert McCammon it is a real honour to be able to chat with you today. Ever since reading your novel Boy’s Life I have loved your writing.
Robert McCammon: Thank you very much, and I’m glad to be able to answer your questions.
Lou Pendergrast: When did you first start writing? What was your first story, short or long about?
Robert McCammon: I was writing when I was…oh…in the first grade or so. Cowboys and Indians, soldiers, spacemen…whatever. I remember writing a war story and putting my classmates’ names in as the different soldiers. The first story that I remember that I thought was any good was a Viet Nam story when I was a freshman in high school, and I won a writing award for it…ten dollars. It was about a dying soldier with a leech on his leg, and he has a conversation about his life and his “fate” with the leech. I remember a teacher’s note on the first page of the story…”A freshman wrote this?”
Lou Pendergrast: Which writers have inspired you to write?
Robert McCammon: Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury are the first to come to mind. As a kid I read a lot of science fiction, the pulp magazines of that time. Also read all the Tarzans and the Doc Savages. I sneaked and read the “Men’s Life”-type magazines of that era, with all the lurid and bloody adventure stories. I enjoyed the style of Ian Fleming. Harper Lee, of course. I was also a big reader of comic books, and I think those are in the mix too.
Lou Pendergrast: As well as being a prolific writer you have been involved in the past in the formation of the Horror Writers of America (H.W.A.). If i take you back to memories of The meeting on November 3rd 1985 at the Fantasy Convention lead by you, Joe and Karen Lansdale, what was decided and what was it about ?
Robert McCammon: Ah, memories! Well, as a matter of fact I don’t remember too much about this! Probably that I had advanced the idea for HWA somewhere and I was getting tons of letters and I needed help
Lou Pendergrast: How has this helped writers, readers and the genre?
Robert McCammon: I had hoped it would create a community for horror writers. I didn’t intend for it to be mostly about awards. I hope it’s helped the genre by giving horror writers a place they felt they “belonged” among their peers.
Lou Pendergrast: The south has produced many great writers through time why is that? What is it about the south that produces great writers?
Robert McCammon: Superstition, isolation…the feeling of timelessness, in a way. Family secrets. Long-held grudges and grievances. Blood feuds and blood oaths. Strong passions, for sure. The sense of tradition banging against changes in the modern world. A struggle for survival in a Gothic world…and much of Southern literature does, I think, have a gothic “feel”.
Lou Pendergrast: Southern literature is loved the word over. The content of the stories from theses regions do deal with problems in the south, Just like anyway else in the world. Alabama and Texas is seems create feelings of Love and hate amongst those that live there. What characteristics would you say you love the most and to someone like me who has not visited Alabama and only had exposure to the region through film and books for example the movie Forest Gump and Bubba and his shrimping business, what would you say are the best things to expect and see?
Robert McCammon: That the South is much more forward-thinking than most people believe. That there are many great thinkers and people with open minds in the South. Unfortunately there is a tribal component in the South that looks down on individual thinking, I believe. If you’re not part of what everybody else does, you’re strange and you should get out. It’s no secret that the first thing many successful authors in Alabama do is get out. What do I love the most, though? The landscape. It has so many variations. It’s really very beautiful here. The woods, the grasslands, the rolling hills, the swamps…yes, even those. Very beautiful.
Lou Pendergrast: I have come across a few short stories of yours in an edition of Night Visions, there are only so many published. Is there a large collection at home to be published?
Robert McCammon: No, not right now. Hopefully there will be at some point, though.
Lou Pendergrast: Swan Song a post apocalyptic tale, how long did that take you to write this story?
Robert McCammon: About nine months. That’s how long it takes me to write all my books. Nine months, like birthing a child.
Lou Pendergrast: What are you working on now? Is there some plans for any particular kind of story that you want to write about?
Robert McCammon: I’m working on the next Matthew Corbett book right now. I’m doing a “sorta, kinda” science-fiction book up next. Then another Matthew, and then a book set in New Orleans in the Depression that I’m really looking forward to getting to. I have a lot of work ahead.
Lou Pendergrast: All you’re wonderful stories are screaming to be adapted into movies. Is there any movies to come?
Robert McCammon: Thank you…but some of these are “secret” projects and I can’t really talk about them at the moment!
Lou Pendergrast: In the Swan Song there is one character that talks of his shadow solider and in The Five there is a main character, a veteran, who also talks of a mysterious presence. Are they similar? Are they two from the same source?
Robert McCammon: They are similar but also different. Colonel Macklin’s Shadow Soldier is the warlike, beastial element of himself that takes control of him and drives him forward. Jeremy Pett’s “Gunny” is a demonic presence that stops him from committing suicide so as to urge him to kill the band before the song can be finished, because the song is going to touch someone who has the power to create “good” in the world. And that “good” will go on and on, through many different people in the future. The Five is basically a story not only of a struggling band but of the continual struggle between “good” and “evil” in the unseen world to influence events and people in the world that we as humans understand.
Lou Pendergrast: What was the inspiration behind the two novels Boys life and Swan song?
Robert McCammon: Boy’s Life began as a murder mystery in a small town that just didn’t work. It felt flat to me. So I had in mind a more “fantastic” treatment of a boy growing up in a small town, and of course he wanted to be a writer in a turbulent era and there was a murder mystery in the background. It just took off from there. I was really ready to write that one.
Swan Song came about because of the nuclear tensions of that time between the United States and the Soviet Union. That tension went on and on and on, for many years. So I thought…what would happen if someone did push the buttons? What would the world be like? How would it “come back” from destruction? And…of course…a demonic figure might not want it to come back, and might start working to try to destroy the person who had the ability to recreate the world and bring it back from the ashes.
Lou Pendergrast: The Stand and Swan Song I don’t see any similarities in the two they are uniquely different and great stories. If only the Swan Song was released before The Stand. What do you feel about the whole Swan Song and Stand remarks readers have made?
Robert McCammon: It hurt me greatly when Swan Song came out and people slammed it so hard by saying it copied The Stand. I never fully understood that, except to say that King’s hardcore fans “stood by their man”. But it was very, very hurtful to me.
Lou Pendergrast: If you were in a similar scenario to that in the Swan Song but you had a 48hour notice before all the imminent war and destruction, what would you do in those 48hours? For example a magic genie gave you endless wishes (in those 48hours the future cannot be changed) what would you want to see and do?
Robert McCammon: Wow. Great question. Maybe I would want to read. While smoking a Cuban cigar and drinking a Coke Zero. Or a glass of Calvados. On the beach, under an umbrella. At Chankanaab Park in Cozumel, one of my favorite places in the world. With my loved ones around me. Ouch…I hate to think of an end-world scenario like that!
Lou Pendergrast: I have found reading via a ebook device very useful and books more accessible. You’re books have been reprinted via ebook format with open media publishers. So there are plenty of positive points to ebooks. Recently though my kindle screen has not worked and I can’t use it to read, i started to feel a love and hate relationship towards ebooks. They can also easily be stolen and spread amongst the Internet and the battery charge eventually runs out on ebook devices unlike books. The music industry has fallen to a similar fate where vinyl moved to limited editions and a then cd and finally mp3, we all know now how that has effected the industry. As libraries and books stores close and writers and publishers receive less money for their stories, it can’t help the publishing industry in the long run can it? Please tell me what you’re feelings are on this?
Robert McCammon: My feelings are as mixed-up as the industry is right now. I don’t think anyone knows quite what’s ahead for the publishing business. Digital is here to stay, of course. What that means to brick-and-mortar bookstores and New York publishers…I can’t say. I just know things have WAY changed since I first got into the business. I just wish the New York publishers would fight a little harder to get books and authors into high schools, for the readers of tomorrow…it seems to me that some have become paralyzed by these changes.
Lou Pendergrast: I loved the special small press publishers like SUBTERRANEAN PRESS. They produce Limited editions, signed and finely made beautiful books. They have been valuable to readers and writers. How has you’re journey been with the small press?
Robert McCammon: Oh, great! I’ve always wanted the beautiful books that will last forever. I am pleased to be working with Sub Press and see my work result in such awesomely beautiful books. The quality of the paper, the covers, the artwork…all are just excellent, I think.
Lou Pendergrast: The Matthew Corbett series is featured in the 1700s era it is very well written, deeply plotted and researched. You have a new forthcoming novel The Providence Rider. If you could go back in time to a era what period of time would you like to live in and why? Is there any particular character in time you would like to be?
Robert McCammon: I don’t think I’d like to go back to any time. Researching the past shows me that I definitely could not live there! I’d be dead in a matter of days!
Lou Pendergrast: Who are you greatest characters, from literature?
Robert McCammon: As I mentioned, I’m a big Doc Savage fan. Literature? Not so much, but fun. I like Dickens’ Scrooge. Like a lot of the pulp fiction detectives, like Michael Shayne, Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen…all those guys. Like the Hardy Boys bigtime. Oh…The Hardy Boys! I have a whole set of those I’m planning to read through this summer.
Lou Pendergrast: Do you read on a regular basis? Which books do you read many times over and wouldn’t want to part with?
Robert McCammon: I love The Golden Apples Of The Sun, by Ray Bradbury. I read his short stories over and over. King’s The Shining is one of the greatest books ever. Also The Dead Zone. Continually am reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Also anything by John LeCarre, though I wish his books sometimes ended with the hero not being killed or thrown into a political prison! I now read a lot of history, also. Not just the Colonial era, but the Roman era, the Napoleonic era…I find all those very fascinating.
Lou Pendergrast: Any novels you recommended others to dip into?
Robert McCammon: Three by John LeCarre: The Mission Song, The Night Manager and The Constant Gardener. Also the Jonathan Strange book. So many vintage science fiction books to read…wow. I could fill up this interview with the names of great science fiction writers and their works.
Lou Pendergrast: Before I leave you, I have two ladies from Goodreads who would love to ask a couple of questions. Tressa from Alabama who is a moderator for a horror group, Horror Aficionados, on Goodreads and Jo Anne B a reviewer and a fan.
Jo Anne B: Your writing encompasses a variety of genres. Which character do you most identify with and why?
Robert McCammon: I identify most of course with Cory Mackenson in Boy’s Life…but also with Vernon Thaxter in that same book. Why? Because I can relate to some of his experiences in New York…the crushing feeling of people in high places not fully understanding your work, and trying to put it in a box. And where you go and what you do when someone “in authority” tells you your best effort at the time is not good enough, or that it doesn’t fit the rules of a particular genre and so has no value.
Jo Anne B: The Five spoke to me like no other book has. How much did your won personal experiences contribute to the message in that book?
Robert McCammon: Ha! Oh, my gosh! Well…that book is ALL about personal experiences. Also the feeling that your work goes out into the world and touches so many people, and you never know who it will touch and what someone will take with them from that work. You just hope you can speak clearly, and someone will hear what you’re trying to say…and maybe they, in turn, will pass it on.
Tressa: How much research went into Speaks the Nightbird, especially the medical part of it such as the bleeding of the patient for health?
Robert McCammon: A HUGE amount of research. Most I never used, because it would bog the story down. But you have to know very much more about a subject than you’re going to use, just to feel comfortable with it. Oh yeah…the doctors of that era bled patients all the time, to cure them of “bad blood”. Wound up killing a lot of people that way. There’s a theory that George Washington was basically killed by the bleeding method.
Tressa: Which book are you most proud of, is it Boys Life?
Robert McCammon: That book I am certainly proud of…but I have to say, I am always proudest of the newest book because I think I am still becoming a better writer. Or at least I hope I am. So it’s always the newest book that is the greatest challenge for me, because I’m pushing myself. I never want to think “Okay, I’m done because this is the best I can EVER do”. I always think the next book will be better. I know writing doesn’t get any easier. Maybe it’s not supposed to. That way you do know you’re pushing yourself, and pushing yourself is the only way to advance your craft.
Lou Pendergrast: Many thanks Robert McCammon for your time and agreeing to chat it has been an eventful occasion to remember.
Robert McCammon: You’re very welcome, and thank you for doing this.