January 23, 2002
Exclusive Interview With
Editor's note: The Robert McCammon interview below was conducted on January 23, 2002, at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, TN.
Note that the text below does include a mild spoiler for a plot point in Speaks the Nightbird.
McCammon: Thank you.
Goatley: Naturally, the first question is: what happened to you? It's been almost 10 years since Gone South.
McCammon: It's hard to answer. It's a tough question, because it requires that I cover a lot of time in a short space. Well, the bottom line, basically—and of course, you know this already—is that basically I wrote a couple of books that were historically-based, and they just didn't work out. You know, I wanted to go in a different direction from horror, because... I was not bored with horror, but I kind of knew how the tricks were done with horror, and I wanted to do something different. And it just didn't happen. The books are there, the two books that are historically-based are done, but they just didn't get published. It just didn't happen.
Goatley: Since most people haven't heard of Speaks the Nightbird before, can you give....
McCammon: It's about a witch trial in the year 1699 in the Carolina Colony, and it involves a magistrate who has come to try the case, and his assistant, a young man who is beginning to question the whole witch-trial process, and is also beginning to question if there are really witches or not. I wanted it to be more of a realistic book than one with, per se, a horror payoff at the end. I did pretty thorough research—or as thorough as I could do at the time....
Goatley: Did that involve going to....?
McCammon: I went to Williamsburg, to their library, to do the research. I went to a lot of libraries, but the majority of the research was done in the Williamsburg library. Which is an interesting place, because it's where the Williamsburg character actors come to do their research. They have a vault there, with diaries, and wills, and all sorts of old papers and books stored there. Oftentimes, these actors would come in dressed as the characters, and I'd be sitting there doing my research. I'd look up, and there'd be all these people dressed in character sitting in the library doing their research on whomever they were presupposing to be. Which is kind of interesting—they really take it very seriously up there, getting prepared for the character roles.
Goatley: That had to help put you in that frame of mind.
McCammon: It did. They certainly take it seriously. I usually listen to music while I'm working, and for the two years I worked on Speaks the Nightbird, I listened to predominately Colonial music while I worked. I listened to mostly Williamsburg-type music and Colonial America music. That helped quite a lot.
Goatley: What is that kind of music like?
McCammon: Well, it's the fife and drum, and recorder, and some harpsichord pieces. Very stately.
But the book is realistic in that it's sort of a vicious book—I don't mean that it's a mean-spirited book, but it's a hard-spirited book. It's a hard book because most of the people were very—how should I put this? The music might be what we consider to be classical, but the people were very rough-edged, very rough people to have to deal with the living conditions at the time, of course, and the way they lived. I thought it was a pretty interesting paradox, that the music they listened to, the entertainments they had, we'd consider them to be classical, yet they were hard-scrabble people. Does that make sense?
Goatley: It does make sense. And having read the book, that comes across. It's Colonial America, it's a very tough life to live.
McCammon: Absolutely. A very tough life and very tough people—they had to be to survive it. I could not have survived the era.
Goatley: I count my blessings that I was born now instead of then....
McCammon: Yeah. The research I did on the medical practices, the dental practices—you know, excruciating stuff. Excruciating. They had a high threshold for pain. They just had to keep going.
Anyway, the book is about this young man who's beginning to question the whole process of the witchcraft trials, and he's also beginning to question whether this woman who has been accused of being a witch, and of murdering her husband and putting a curse on this fledgling town, is actually a witch, and that someone hasn't engineered the picture to make her appear to be a witch.
Goatley: Given that this was a different kind of novel—historical—was it hard for you to get into that?
McCammon: Well, I've always been interested in history, because I've always believed there's more than just the history book. There's the life, there's the character, there's the music, there's the food. There's so much more than what you just read in the history book. And I've always felt that if you could get to that, there were many fascinating stories to be told, and many fascinating things to be learned, if you could get past the dry book, into the life of what the people were really like. And that's what I was trying to do.
Now the research that you do.... My theory about the research is that you can never get everything perfect, in terms of the research, unless you live through an era. So I know there's going to be an awful lot of things that I missed, but I think I've got most everything right. I think I've got the language right, and that was pretty daunting. That research was pretty daunting because there was so much to it. When I went into it, I didn't realize how much was going to be involved, but there was quite a lot involved. But even if you don't use 90% of what you learned, you still have to know it for yourself to be able to put it across accurately.
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Goatley: I'll probably edit this out, but for my own curiosity: the blacksmith and his, uh, equine harness. Was that something you actually encountered? I don't doubt the authenticity, but I wondered.... People think of that as being Puritanical times,
McCammon: I did. I found the records of a judge in the Carolina Colony, and in those records, there was that case. The man was put to death, and the animals—there was more than one animal—were put to death. And they were all buried together. That was something that happened—I don't know if it happened quite a lot, but it did happen, and it was something that was to be dealt with severely. Which is why you'd want to keep that as secret as possible.
Goatley: Well, yeah, even today.... That's one thing that's still frowned upon in society!
McCammon: Yeah, but then, you'd go into the grave pretty quickly.
Goatley: I ask because I can see people thinking that was just too far-fetched to be accurate....
McCammon: When I put that in there, I thought that was one of the things that— I figured in just about every book I did, there was one thing that was almost over the edge, almost too much, and I thought this is the scene in this book that's almost too much. But there were actual cases of that happening, and of the person being executed, and the animals being executed along with him.
Goatley: It's been so long since I read Speaks the Nightbird, there's a whole lot that I don't remember that I feel I should be asking about.
McCammon: Yeah. There was a whole lot I didn't remember. It was amazing: when I went back to it, I'd read it and say, well that's not so good, or that's a good part, or I don't remember putting that together, and that came together well. It was good after that amount of time going back to it—it was almost like you could almost approach it in a fresh fashion.
Goatley: It's been edited some since the original manuscript, hasn't it?
McCammon: Yes, some things were tightened up, and I rewrote the first portion, because it just went on too long. Mostly just moving some things a little faster. But I still wanted to keep the pace of life, and the pace of the writing of that era, too. I wanted to at least make a stab at approximating that.
Goatley: I remember feeling like I was there when I read it.
McCammon: That's great.
Goatley: It was an interesting feeling, because it doesn't always happen. Of course, I think that's the sign of a good writer, to be able to put you where the action is. But so often, in stories that are set like that... It's just hard to do, that world is so different.
McCammon: Yeah. Since I've written that book, there have been several published, if not exactly that era.... I think there have been several published about England in that era, a couple of them that have done pretty well.
I thought it would be interesting to try to build the town and try to put you in the town as much as possible, and let you get an idea of what it was like. It was amazing to me that anything was ever built or constructed in that era, because everything was working against you to keep you from doing anything. It's amazing, how anything was ever built or constructed or put together. Even the foresight to do something, to create something, a town. Because everything was against you.
Goatley: Yeah, literally carving it out of the forest. Dealing with weather you've never dealt with before.....
McCammon: Sickness, and the insects, and of course, the rats that came over on the ships....
Goatley: The book is very obviously one of your novels. It has great characters—great characterization, you really get to know the characters—which I think is a hallmark of your work. But it has elements of everything. It's not a dry history book. There are elements of fantasy, elements of mystery, elements of horror, elements of romance, elements of life.
McCammon: There's some humor in it too. I wanted to put some humor in. Actually, there's some funny stuff going on—and you can take "funny" two ways—with the blacksmith. I think Matthew, the young man, has a dry wit, because he's able to twist things and make some things funny that wouldn't ordinarily be funny. I think he has a pretty good sense of humor.
I wanted to emphasize the relationship between Matthew and the magistrate—that the book is really about Matthew and his relationship with the magistrate. That Matthew is growing into being his own man, and the magistrate wants that to happen, of course, but he's sad for it to happen too, because he feels like a father to Matthew. I enjoyed doing the character of the magistrate, a man who at one time had so much and lost everything, found himself in the colonies, which is definitely a step down from being in England, and having to deal with the Colonial life, which is dirty and nasty. It really was, but they kept going anyway. And it's amazing to me how they kept going.
Goatley: That was common for that time period, wasn't it, where you'd take on an apprentice, who'd work with you all the time?
McCammon: Right. He starts out, of course, doing basic chores, sharpening quills and getting everything in order, getting the paper, to doing the notes, then beginning to question things the magistrate may have missed. In the beginning of the book, when they stop at the tavern, Matthew is the one who is alert to something being wrong. The magistrate is kind of a burnt-out case, where he just wants to get this over with and get back to Charlestown, but Matthew is beginning to think that something is wrong in the tavern.
Goatley: You're reminding me of how much of the book I've forgotten.
McCammon: The whole era was a combination of the heights and the depths. I was amazed to discover in my research how well-educated the people were in that era, too. People were well-educated, and you don't think of that. There were some great thinkers in that era, and there were people who were thinking without a roadmap like we have today. We're following their roadmap. Anyway, it was quite a combination of the heights and depths in human beings.
Goatley: Was writing it a pleasurable experience?
McCammon: Well, it was a time-consuming work, and I wanted everything to be right. You know, once you get into the story, it starts propelling itself, and because I don't work with an outline, I was not exactly sure what was going to happen when. It intrigued me to see what was going to happen when. And it does come to life. It sounds like a cliche—that the characters in your story come to life—but it is true. It does happen, I think. And when it happens, you just kind of guide things. It sounds silly, I know, but it does happen. You direct things.
You know, writing has always been one of the most wonderful things in the world when it's going right. When it's going badly, it's that thing were nobody can help you, because it's locked in your head. Nobody can help you. But when it's all right—when everything is clicking and working as it should—there's nothing in the world any better, and conversely, there's nothing any worse when nobody can help you unlock something. Or untangle something.
Addressing the point of where I've been, and what happened, it wasn't that I had no offers for Speaks the Nightbird. I did have offers. But things happen, and there was a problem with an editor, and ... a lot of things happened. It just didn't work out. I think some of that was because I was in what was to me untravelled territory. Because I hadn't done anything like this before. I had done a little bit of it, I guess, with Usher's Passing, because there's an historical background in that, but....
Goatley: The Wolf's Hour, too....
McCammon: Yeah, that's right, The Wolf's Hour, too.
Goatley: There was the whole intro to Usher's Passing, which ended up being cut from the final book. From what you've told me about it, it sounds like that was historical work.
McCammon: Yeah. I'd even forgotten about that. But I think because there was not a supernatural payoff, we weren't in the supernatural horror area, I think maybe that had something to do with it. Maybe. I don't know.
At this point, the conversation evolved into discussions about all of McCammon's books. Click here to read Part 2.