This book was my followup to Boy's Life, and was written
basically from a dark place of despair.
I've had difficulty writing this commentary, because it takes me back to
a point in time that was not very happy. In fact, it was just before I
started writing Speaks the Nightbird, and when I knew I had to do
something drastic to keep my career going. So: unfortunately, no
sunshine or smiley faces to be found in here. But since I've been asked
to do this—and paid to do it, as well—I am
fulfilling an obligation.
Bear in mind that I had thought Boy's Life was the best book
I'd written up to that point, and I was pretty much dashed down
upon the hard rocks when I realized Boy's Life was not going to
get much—if any—promotion. Gone South was the second book
in a two-book contract following Boy's Life. It was really tough
for me to get myself together and write it, thinking that a great
opportunity for success had been mishandled.
Now, I hate to get back into all this, because some will say I ought to
be glad I was ever published at all, and I certainly am. But let me
assure you that the road leading to Gone South is littered with a
lot of pain and disappointment, and it is impossible to say anything
about why I wrote this book without dredging up some of it.
Let me go back to the beginning of my career. I came into the
business with the book Baal, published as a paperback original by
Avon Books in 1978. At that time, Stephen King had just started
to take off, the supernatural was "hot," and publishers were looking
for writers to get on the bandwagon. I was stuck in a dead-end
job writing headlines at a local newspaper here in Birmingham,
but I'd always enjoyed reading supernatural or "horror" fiction,
and writing short stories in that particular genre, so I thought I'd
try to write a book. Looking back, I don't think Baal was a very
good book, but it was the best I could do at the time.
Baal was my first effort. I had no other "trunk novels," as
many writers do. So I basically learned how to write in public, for
better or for worse.
I went through the early eighties as a horror writer, with most
of my books being published as paperback originals. I was paid
very well for these and I was on the track of doing a book every
year. But in the late eighties I began to want more. I thought
my writing was getting better, I was building a fan base, and
I wanted to move away from doing strictly "horror" because I
simply had other ideas I wanted to try. I also wanted my books
to be published in hardback because I wanted them to remain on
the shelves and get more attention than the average paperback
But I started running into resistance. I was told repeatedly
that my fans expected a certain type of book from me, and that
was the bottom line. I suggested that I might try writing under a
pseudonym, but I was told that wouldn't work because then my
fans "couldn't find me."
The point being, I was beginning to understand that I had a particular
place in the publishing world—that place was "horror"
and I ought to be satisfied with where I was. At the same time, I drew
the wrath of hardcore horror readers who thought I wasn't bloody enough,
or that I was at best a Stephen King imitator, and I drew the scorn of
other writers (and booksellers) in my hometown because I wasn't writing
Southern fiction. Please understand that I'm not bashing
"horror," because I loved doing it and I reserve the right to
go in that direction again if I want to. I'm bashing the idea that once
you do a particular kind of writing, you're expected to do that over and
over until you die or—I guess—give up and stagger away.
I was in a book featuring Southern writers a few years ago.
The chapter that profiles me has the heading of "Frustration."
Now I'm getting to Gone South.
First, though, I want to put into your mind and imagination
the myth of Sisyphus, who was decreed by the gods to push
a giant rock up a steep hill, but could never quite reach the top
before the rock broke loose from his grasp and rolled back to the
bottom, where he had to start all over again and again and again
and again and again. Forever.
Much has been made of my retirement from publishing for ten years or so.
I tried to step out of the "horror" box, first with Speaks the
Nightbird and then with a World War II novel called The
Village. The latter novel got not a single offer. It was only by
sheer luck and happenstance that Speaks the Nightbird was
published by an Alabama publisher and in time I found my way back to the
bright lights of New York.
The really weird thing about my career is that I sometimes feel
everything would be okay if I went back to writing on the level of
Baal, and if in some fractured insane universe I could be
happy not wanting to grow or challenge myself or try to do
anything that hasn't already been done. For a writer—or anyone in
the arts, really—not doing something that involves risk is a path
to a slow death. Here, of course, is the classic confrontation between
business and the arts: one seeks to minimize risk, the other revels in
it. It's been true throughout history and is particularly true today, in
this time of corporate mergers, falling stocks, and all the
entertainments that are readily available to people who would rather not
take the time or effort to read, or who see a book as a chore instead of
Sisyphus. The giant rock. Again and again and again.
Gone South is a scream. It begins in fire and desolation and
follows the plight of a Vietnam veteran named Dan Lambert, whose bad
luck turns downright tragic when he gets in a fight with a bank's loan
manager, a gun goes off, and he finds himself on the run with a bounty
on his head. On his trail are two bounty hunters, one a seasoned
veteran with three arms and the second an addled Elvis Presley imitator.
Yes, there's humor in the book. Sometimes you have to laugh
while you're screaming.
See, this means something to me.
I am not and have never been a writer just for money. I can't
be. An agent looked at me in anger one time and said, "Rick, just
do the goddamned work!" But I can't, if I don't believe in it.
This means something to me. I am not a sell-out. I am not a
self-promoter or a celebrity wannabe. I am a writer, by God.
Yes, by God. Because I was born to do this. I care about
two things in this world: my family and my creations. I was born
to do this, and though I might have had to pull back for ten years to
figure out what I had to do next to keep creating, I am still here.
Still pushing that rock, again and again and again.
Gone South is a journey from Hell back to the Garden of Eden.
Back to a fresh start.
Back to being new again.
I told that once to a tableful of publishing executives. Blank
But even if no one gets what I'm trying to do, or no one cares,
this means something to me.
It means purity and hope, and struggle when you think you
can't go on another step, and laughing with bloody teeth in the
fucking face of failure, and lighting a candle against the dark,
and standing as firm as a human can against a howling wind, and
going deep into yourself to find out what makes you tick, and
what your limit of mental anguish is, and how long you can go
All to create a world and people who did not exist before I
gave them life and purpose. All to speak in my own voice about
the world we live in and the people we are, and I hope you get the
fact that my voice may be quiet under the voices of my people.
But in no way am I silent about the things I think are meaningful,
important, and valuable.
It does mean something to me. Almost everything.
It means enough to me to continue pushing that rock, again
and again, with hopes that this time—this time—I
may reach the top.
But it's who I am, and it's what I do. Sometimes I wouldn't
wish it on my worst enemy, but there you go. The good with the
As you struggle along with Dan Lambert into the Louisiana
swamp, with bounty hunters coming up behind you and your life
in shambles, with no friends to call for help and nowhere to go
but the deeper darkness that lies before you ... fear not.
I have already been there.
And I came through just fine.
July 2, 2008
Just after midnight