Exclusive Interview: Robert R. McCammon


August 31, 1991 (for the last issue of Lights Out!)

Exclusive Interview: Robert R. McCammon

Conducted by Hunter Goatley

Editor's Note: This final Lights Out! interview with Rick McCammon was conducted in his home in Birmingham, Alabama, on August 31, 1991, a little over two and a half years after my first interview with him.


Goatley: Let's start with your new book, Boy's Life. I've heard you describe it in other places as a "fictography." You also told me once before that you had written some stories featuring Cory when you were in college. Did any of those stories end up in Boy's Life?

McCammon: No, they didn't. There was one about a strip show, one about a carnival he sneaked into with his friends, and there was another one about a fiery, energetic travelling evangelist who Cory discovered got his energy from a bottle of whiskey. He was the only one who knew the preacher could not go on unless he was drunk.

There were a couple of others I did, but they really weren't tied together. I think I have had for years the idea of doing something like this book. I'm really pleased because it came together easily, but I've been working on it for a long time. I think the idea started back in college, maybe, and it took a long time before I was ready to do it. And when I was ready, it came together pretty quickly.

Goatley: It read like quite a departure from your earlier stuff—it's a grown-up novel about being a kid....

McCammon: I think it's also a kind of wishful, and wistful, novel. It's a looking-back, but it also says you have to go on. You can't live in that time, but you can always remember what it was like. You can always carry some of what you felt—what you understood life to be then—with you, but you can't go back and live there; you have to go on. So it's nostalgic, of course, but I think it also says you should, hopefully, keep these feelings you had as a child. Rediscover these feelings and carry them with you as you grow older.

Goatley: Do you anticipate ever trying to visit Zephyr again in the future?

McCammon: No.

Goatley: What about the Lady? Do you think you'll ever go back and do her story?

McCammon: I thought about that, because I did almost 300 pages in first-person of The Lady. That really was a pretty good book, but I wasn't ready to write it.

Goatley: In the first interview we did, you mentioned that you weren't ready to write it. But after reading Boy's Life, I wondered if you thought now that it might be doable, whether you do it or not.

McCammon: That's an interesting situation with the movie rights. You know that we just sold the movie rights outright to Universal. They bought all the characters. So that would preclude me from going back and doing anything. That was a sticking point—they needed all the characters, so that would preclude me from going back to do anything.

The book was about how she grew up and how she became almost like a Marie Louveau-type character. She went all through this magic life, full of majesty and power, and in New Orleans, when she was an older woman, it was like, "You go and sit in the back of the bus." Things like, "real life" was that she was less of a person, but she knew who she was. She knew who she was and the black community—the Dark Society, as they called it—knew who she was. She was queen of the Dark Society, yet through white eyes, she was an old nigger lady who needs to sit at the back of the bus. So it was gonna be: we don't really know what people are like.

The reason that The Lady derailed is the more I read about voodoo, the more I realized it was a way to control blacks. Apart from the sentimentalized and speculative, supernatural aspects of voodoo, it was a way to control the minds of black people. And I'm saying, well, you can believe in voodoo, and you can write a book that involves zombies and talking snakes, but then I came to a wall. The reality—the truth—is that voodoo was used—and is still used somewhat—to control black minds. So I thought, "This may not be good to do this book, because wouldn't the Lady realize that this is a way to control people?" So it came to a point where I wasn't sure this was a good thing to do. Her story would have been excellent, but I had a choice of paths there and I didn't know which one to take.

Goatley: Was she always planned as a character in Boy's Life, or did she just show up?

McCammon: No, she wasn't. She just showed up. The opening of The Lady involved me going to visit her in New Orleans, and it was quite a process to get in to see her; you had to go through a lot of people to finally get to see her. The opening sequence was: I'm talking to her in her house; we're in this room where the fans are turning and the walls were green with a leafy motif. I'm looking at the old Lady, and as she's talking, the room begins to change, and her face begins to change. Her face begins to get younger and younger and younger. And I used part of that in Boy's Life, when Cory is talking to her and she says, "What do you see?" and he begins to see her as a younger woman.

But she was a very powerful character in The Lady. Her face came from a poster that I found in New Orleans. The picture was a drawing of a black woman with a snake around her neck, and she had these emerald-green eyes. I thought it was a very stunning and stirring poster—and that's really where the entire idea came from.

The Lady had a snake she could talk to. This was before Swan Song: the snake had no name, but she called the snake Sister, so then I used Sister Creep—I just thought that worked out well. But I thought, if the snake has a name, it's got to be Sssissster, you know.

The Lady was known by no other name in the book than the Lady—when she was a little girl, people called her the Little Lady, and all through the book she was called the Lady. In the supernatural version of the book I was doing, her mother was murdered by LaRouge, who was a woman who always wore red and carried a monkey with her. She was one of the pretenders to the queenship of the voodoo society in New Orleans. So she murdered the Lady's mother, and the Lady escaped into the swamp and met this snake, Sister.

Sister finds herself—and this kind of keeps recurring in my books—Sister has the attitude that she can never love anybody, because loving is too painful. Sister tells the Lady that she had a mate and children, but she watched these white, pale-skinned beasts come into the swamp, and they killed her mate and her children. She would never love anything again because loving was too painful. Through the book, Sister goes with the Lady back to New Orleans to find LaRouge as the Lady grows up. It's kind of like The Jungle Book, in a way. So the story was kind of about sisters. It was really weird writing about the world from the aspect of a snake.

This was during the Civil War, and the Lady, who was just a teenaged girl, worked as a maid in a bordello. Sister would leave the house at night and kind of prowl around—she acted as the eyes of the Lady, out in the city. It would have been pretty interesting. More of a fantasy story, actually.

Goatley: At what point were you working on The Lady? You said it was before Swan Song....

McCammon: It was probably between Mystery Walk and Usher's Passing.

Goatley: It sounds like that period.

McCammon: Yeah. And then that kind of segued into the history of the Ushers.

Goatley: You said before that Boy's Life was a fictography, so a natural question is: how much of it is true?

McCammon: Well, as I said this afternoon, I think it's really about my feelings about life, about people, and kind of my attitudes. I'm not really sure that there are any actual scenes in the book that I lived through. Though I grew up near a house that was supposedly haunted by the ghost of a Nazi in the basement. He had this scarred face. I was over there with some friends, and we thought the house was empty—I was prowling around the house. There was a curtain over a window in the basement where this ghost was supposed to be, and as I'm looking in, the curtain in front of my face shook! And, really, my hair stood up! What we found out was that somebody had just moved into the house, and they were in the basement sweeping, and evidently the end of the broom hit the curtain.

Goatley: Bet that scared you!

McCammon: Boy! You know.... But I was so excited, because I had real evidence that the ghost of the scar-faced Nazi was in this basement!

Goatley: That's funny. Of course, everybody knew somebody like the Demon....

McCammon: Yeah. I remember the girl, and she always looked like she had "mess" in her nose, and she always had little beads of sweat on her upper lip. There was always something kind of nasty about her.

And I had a bike certainly like Rocket, or at least I felt like it was like Rocket. This was during the time when I had gone to see The Great Escape, and I sat through that movie I don't know how many times. I loved the scene with Steve McQueen on the motorcycle, and when I'd get home from school, I'd get my jacket and I'd get on my bike and ride like...you know. So I had a great bike.

Goatley: One of the scenes that worked so well for me was also one of the book's few true fantasy sequences. It best captured those feelings of being twelve—when school was out and they went out in the field with their dogs, and the wings sprouted from their backs.... That was neat.

McCammon: That was probably one of my favorite parts of the book. But it's funny: you either get that part or you don't get it. I was talking to somebody who said, "I don't understand. Didn't their mothers notice that their shirts were torn?" So either you get it or you don't.

It was also supposed to indicate that Cory had the imagination—and these guys listened to him—that he could talk them up. If they listened to him, he could tell them the story, "Now we're getting ready! Now our wings are...." So his imagination was developing to the point where his friends were willing to believe that he could take them flying. Which is, of course, what a storyteller does. A storyteller does take his audience flying.

Goatley: The book was a very Southern book, which also had a lot of appeal to me. Growing up in Kentucky, I used to deny that I was from the South. Fortunately, I don't have much of an accent. But when I went to Utah, and spent time out West where things are really different, I started really missing the South. I was back in Kentucky when I read Boy's Life, and I thought, "Yeah, this is the South that I remember that is different from every place else."

McCammon: Yeah, it's different. When I first began writing, I didn't want to be a Southern writer, and I didn't want my first book to be a Southern book. That seemed to be expected, that if you were born in the South and you wanted to be a writer, you did a Southern book. You know, all the characters were Southern, and everything was Southern, and you had this society of women on the front porch, and the men were in watching the football game or whatever, and that sort of Southern cliché. And I didn't want to do that. I think it took me a while to feel that I could do it and not be typecast as a Southern writer who could now only do Southern things. I consciously didn't want to do a Southern book for a while, and I guess the first Southern book I did was Mystery Walk.

Goatley: That's still one of my favorites, and I think that's why: because it's a Southern book.

McCammon: There's just something about the thick green wilderness that's just outside your door.

Goatley: We did not have that in Utah! It was carved out of the desert. I didn't appreciate the green and the overpowering humidity until I got out there and didn't have it. And I actually began to miss it.

McCammon: I'm sure there's a great heritage of folklore in every part of the country, but it seems to me that, in the South, it's just part of everyday life. I'm really glad that I could do a Southern novel and feel that I've done a good job.

Goatley: I think there was a lot of truth to the characters—the characters were more realistic in Boy's Life and in Mystery Walk than the others, because, I assume, you're able to draw them better.

McCammon: I also wanted Boy's Life to be not just about the murder—I wanted the murder to be the framework—but I wanted it to be about anything and everything. I didn't work with an outline, so it was about whatever came to mind. Whatever I could put in that would make sense in terms of how the story was developing. It was a lot of fun because I didn't know where I was going, basically. And it was a great trip.

Goatley: I liked the triceratops. That was neat. I remember the trailers that would pull up to the shopping centers with the large snakes....

McCammon: Right. It just appeals to me that this guy in the carnival wouldn't care what he had. His attitude is: life is just crap—everything is bad. And here he has this wonderful creature that's been entrusted to him, and all he sees is the mess. That was pretty fun.

Goatley: Is there anything you wanted to say about Boy's Life that you haven't? How's that for an open-ended question?

McCammon: That is an open-ended question! Uh, I am amazed that it came together as it did. See, I was working on another book that didn't come together. This happens to me quite a lot—if you don't work with an outline, you can be working and suddenly it's like.... I started on a book in January, and it was strictly a mystery about a series of murders in a small country town. And it just wasn't going very well, though it would have been a good mystery. But it was like, "This is not...." Then I began to hear this "Cory.... Cory...." and I thought, "This may be the time to do it."

One of the worst things in the world is deciding when to let something go, and when to stick with it just a little longer and it'll come to life. This book was called Fear the Headsman—it was not trite, it just wasn't what I wanted it to be. So it got to be April and it was like, I've got to put this to the side; this is just not what I want to do. So I started the first line of Boy's Life on April 14 and finished it on September 23. It was ready; it was almost miraculous.

Goatley: I mentioned earlier today that it read like "Blue World," which you wrote in about a week. I think it shows in a book that the author enjoyed writing it, because... it went!

McCammon: Then again, some books I've done have been hard. Boy's Life was pretty easy. Some books have been very difficult, yet I'm satisfied when they come out. It just depends—each one is a little different, but Boy's Life really did flow; it was just ready. Really, it was like being on a train or something, and you're blind—you just had to trust that you were making the right track connections as you were going.

Goatley: What else can you tell me about Boy's Life and the movies? You told me it had been bought by Universal; can you tell me any more about it?

McCammon: No, I don't know any more. Of course, if that happens, it might be great and it might be horrible. So who knows....

Goatley: Switching gears to The Address, you've already described in the preface to the story what happened to it. Are there any stories you particularly were looking forward to doing and kind of regret not doing?

McCammon: Yeah. I looked forward to doing "The Midnight Express." That's actually what they called the black film community: the Midnight Express. It was like, "I'm on the Midnight Express," because they felt like they were on a fast train headed nowhere. I looked forward to talking about the black film community.

I looked forward to doing "Alone," which I mentioned was about the William Holden-type character who was in a situation where if he didn't do something, he was going to die. Yet he was all alone; very popular actor—where were his friends on Christmas Eve? So I looked forward to those two.

There are probably some others, but some of them were tough, particularly the one about Little Chubbs. That one was just wrenching, and then the whole thing got so dark. You know, as a writer, you have to live in what you're working—you have to live there. Do you really want to live in this place? Do you want to get this in your head and in your soul? It was very intense, and it was just too much.

Goatley: Did you actually finish the story about Chubbs?

McCammon: No, that's when I quit. It was dark and grim, and the things that happened to this boy were just.... And yet it's true; it certainly has happened that young actors and actresses—children—were, in a way, purchased from their parents. And that's what happened to this boy—these two people, a man and a woman, would scout the country looking for a star, for children with talent. They found this kid in a talent show in a small town in Virginia, and "purchased" him from his parents—the parents were farmers who needed the money. They were just horrible to him. When they found out the studio needed a fat boy, they fed him up so he was fat. And then suddenly the studio said he was too fat, he couldn't run, he couldn't perform, we're afraid. So they put him on a crash diet. But the woman was insane, and she'd leave things like jelly doughnuts out to tempt him. So the spirit of this cowboy star who had hanged himself began to communicate with him to help him out of this situation. But I didn't know whether this thing in the attic was going to be beneficial or evil. It was just too much dark for me.

Goatley: The piece that I'm printing is strange compared with other things you've written. When Dave goes to interview John Samson Wales, there are touches of Boy's Life in that part....

McCammon: The whole thing about this book was that you were enthralled with the beauty of what you saw. But it wasn't real.

Goatley: I read in Publishers Weekly that you have your next 10 books in-progress or outlined. Is that accurate?

McCammon: Well, there not physically outlined, but they are working in my head.

Goatley: Tell me a little bit about your next novel, Gone South.

McCammon: Gone South is more of a suspense novel than Boy's Life. I think it's also somewhat of a black comedy. It involves a Vietnam veteran who's lost his job and is dying of leukemia. His truck is repossessed, which is kind of the last thing he owns in the world. He goes berserk in the bank and accidentally shoots a loan officer, and goes on the run.

There are two bounty hunters after him. One of them grew up in a freak show—his brother Clint is inside him. There's a little head that hangs out on his right side and an arm that sticks out his chest. He's trained Clint to hold a pistol—he's trained him, and he feeds him Ritz crackers and stuff. The other one is a terrible Elvis impersonator. There's more to it than that, but that's kind of the framework to get the book going. But it's real different from Boy's Life. I should be finished with it pretty soon.

Goatley: Will that be published in May?

McCammon: Probably next August.

Goatley: I had asked subscribers for questions for you. Here's one from Dan McMillen: I've read that you have somewhat of a fascination with Nazism. I've also read that Dean Koontz shares this same fascination. What is the reason for your interests in that area?

McCammon: I think that comes strictly from my interest in history. I think it's just kind of a coincidence that The Wolf's Hour and The Night Boat both dealt with Nazis. I've always been interested in history—military history too—and that's where that comes from. I can't envision any other characters in my books being Nazis. I think I've gotten all the Nazi plots and sub-plots out of my system! Unless I come up with an Elvis impersonator who's a Nazi, or something. A man with three arms, and one of them gives the "Sieg Heil!" I think we may have finished up the Nazi phase.

Goatley: As I look around, I see lots of World War II games....

McCammon: And books. I'm pretty much on my way to being either an expert or a bore on the subject!

Goatley: Speaking of World War II, your interest seems to be mostly European, instead of Japanese.

McCammon: Well, not really; there's some Asian and North African.... What interested me about that era is that it was the "white hats" versus the "black hats." And also the experience—the conflict—was so far-reaching and varied. It was a time when people were just discovering technology and the limits of technology. The arms race between Germany and Russia and the United States and Britain. And all these fascinating characters: Churchill, Roosevelt, and of course Hitler, and then all the Nazi trappings—this idea that "we are the master race," and the Nordic myths. There's just so much involved in that period that it's fascinating. It'll never be like that again. It'll never be "white hats" versus "black hats" again—it wasn't really like that in Desert Storm, because they didn't really want to fight.

Goatley: The black hats were gray.

McCammon: All hats were gray. It'll never be like that again. The Normandy Invasion, for example. Nobody had ever done anything on a scale like that before. They didn't really know if it was gonna work—it was an incredible operation, and it worked. It amazed them that it worked. I don't know if it could be duplicated now. And the American willpower to do that! The American machinery was just getting geared up, and then the German willpower, and Russia was just coming into its own, and the Japanese were a maritime nation. It is a fascinating era. See—I can be a bore very easily about that era!

Goatley: I've only recently started reading anything about it. For some reason, in history in high school, we just kind of skimmed over it.

McCammon: You know, they had the fliers in the Battle of Britain, and they were all very young men—they were the pipe-smokers, with scarves around their necks and the leather caps. They got into their Spitfires and they flew them up, mission after mission. You had the Finnish snipers in the swamps of Russia—down in the swamps with that one rifle and that one bullet, waiting for hours for someone to cross the path of that rifle.

The experience of that war was incredibly varied—and fascinating.

Goatley: Desert Storm only lasted a hundred days, but it seemed a lot longer. I can't imagine a war that lasts for years.

McCammon: Well, they actually started in '38, because that's when Russia invaded Finland—Russia and Finland fought from about 1938 to 1940. Then in 1940, Germany invaded Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, and finally Russia. Really fascinating. Anyway, that's where all of that comes from.

Goatley: Mark Turek wrote: Because of horror "splatter" cinema, I've noticed the trend toward "splatter" horror fiction. Originality is hard to find except in a few cases; your most recent novel [The Wolf's Hour] was a very refreshing read, as was Stinger. What do you see on the horizon for the genre, and do you think we'll rise above the blood-and-gore rubbish?

McCammon: My feeling—and I know this is gonna get a lot of people upset—is that the future of horror is in films. Horror literature may be non-existent soon. Books have tried to mirror films because it's perceived that films are popular—they make a lot of money, usually—so the books have become more like the films. I think fewer people are reading horror novels now. I think you'll see the trend continue in horror films, but I think horror novels are taking their last gasp. I wish that weren't so, but it seems to be so.

Goatley: Henry Gershman asked: Are there any plans for any major movie companies to make [films based on your work]?

McCammon: MINE has been optioned, "Night Calls the Green Falcon" has been optioned. These are both new options for television. I was always amazed that MINE wasn't optioned for film. You know, you read about some actress saying, "I can never find a strong part for a woman. Why won't anybody write a strong part for a woman?"

Goatley: And there are two of them there.

McCammon: Well, there are three of them! Then Thelma and Louise is hailed as the first woman road movie. Folks....

Goatley: Mary Thornton sent: are you thinking about writing again about Michael Gallatin?

McCammon: I left it open so in case I did want to go back and do a sequel. If I do a sequel, it might be through a small press.

Goatley: Richard Kaapke of Las Vegas asked: at the World Fantasy Convention in Seattle, you mentioned that the eleventh hour being the wolf's hour came out of legend or folklore. Could you expand on that some, perhaps giving a pointer to those curious about the origins of that expression?

McCammon: I think that is Nordic. There was a name for every hour, and I think the eleventh hour is the wolf's hour in Nordic-Germanic mythology. Also, I wanted to use the idea of the eleventh hour—you always hear about the eleventh hour as being the last hour, the dangerous hour.

It's amazing to me how many people think. I get letters that say, "I really enjoyed The Hour of the Wolf." And when we first did the book, Pocket said, "Wouldn't you rather call it The Hour of the Wolf?" Well, it's not the hour of the wolf. In Nordic mythology, eleven o'clock is the wolf's hour—it's not the hour of the wolf.

Goatley: When Ballantine reprinted Mystery Walk and Usher's Passing, the original covers stated, "By the author of The Hour of the Wolf."

McCammon: Now why did they do that? I think it sounds much better as The Wolf's Hour. It is the wolf's hour.

Goatley: Well, "the hour of the wolf" sounds like....

McCammon: It sounds like, "Let us now go to the drive-in and watch it on the B-movie drive-in screen." It's not that.

Goatley: Richard also wrote: knowing your distaste for screenplay writing, does this extend to collaborative writing too? Is there a writer that you would like to collaborate with on a new novel?

McCammon: I wouldn't say I'm distasteful of collaborative writing, because I think there are good books that have been written by collaborators. Personally, I'm much more comfortable writing as a separate entity in solitude.

Goatley: Do you write in silence?

McCammon: No, I listen to all kinds of music—whatever interests me at the time. I have all sorts of things—rap, ancient Scottish music, sound effects—I've got a train trip sound effects [album]—just whatever.

Goatley: People are surprised that I can listen to Kiss at loud volumes while I am writing programs.

McCammon: It takes care of one side of the brain. It really does, because a lot of times I'll put on the music and I'll start working—and I don't hear it anymore, but I'm working. I think the music is taking care of one side of the brain, and the other half has just gone to work.

Goatley: I have noticed that I can put a CD on while programming or writing an article, and it'll go off and I won't even remember having heard the songs.

McCammon: I think it entertains the side of the brain that tries to distract you. It tries to say, "Oh, let's get up and do something." And that side likes to listen to music.

Goatley: Finally, Richard asked if there was anything particularly memorable about the 1989 World Fantasy Convention in Seattle? You can see how long I've had these questions!

McCammon: Well, it was my first trip to Seattle. I really like Seattle; it's the place I would live if the sun shone more. I have to have the sun. I was Guest of Honor there too—that was memorable. And I got such a good response from the fans.

Goatley: Ron Alfano wanted to ask about MINE: the storyline that you wrote, I felt, can be considered something out of today's newspaper headlines. Did you, [while] writing MINE, think along such lines, and have you received any strong reaction letters from (women) readers about the novel's contents?

McCammon: A lot of women readers have trouble particularly with the opening—they think the baby's being hurt. A few years ago, one of the members of the Weathermen resurfaced up in New York and robbed an armored car or something. She had been living as a fugitive for years and years. I kind of kept that in my mind for years, and finally I found the story that I needed. I think that's probably where it began. Kathy Boudin was her name, I think.

Goatley: To wrap things up, he also asked if you used an outline for MINE, since it was so contemporary?

McCammon: I never use an outline, I just let the story flow. And however the story develops is how it develops, because I want to approach it as a reader. I want to be reading it as the first time—I don't really want to know what's gonna happen.

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