Robert McCammon’s sixth book in the Matthew Corbett series, titled Freedom of the Mask, has just been published by Subterranean Press, so we sat down to find out more about the book, the series, and other future projects.
Q: Hello, Rick. What’s Matthew up to at the moment?
A: At the moment he is caught in time, travelling with Julian Devane to the lair of Cardinal Black to retrieve Professor Fell’s book of poisons and antidotes in order to save Berry Grigsby. I say ‘caught in time’ because that’s where he’ll be until I start working on the next Matthew book after the first of the year. Right now I’m finishing up a book called The Listener, set in the 1930s, about the kidnapping of two children in New Orleans.
Q: Is The Listener a supernatural novel?
A: Well, let’s say it has ‘strange’ elements. Not necessarily supernatural, but there’s a bizarre hook to the story. I also think I may have created one of the most hideous and cunning women villains ever…she’s the one who comes up with the kidnapping plot. Then my ‘hero’ is a young black man who’s a redcap at the train station in New Orleans. He’s basically the only one who can get the two children to safety, and it’s going to be a long hard road for him.
Q: About Freedom of the Mask…what’s the freedom and who wears the mask?
A: The freedom is the ability to hide your actions, either for good or for evil, behind a disguise and the mask is worn by a character known in London as ‘Albion’, who has taken it upon himself to destroy Professor Fell. So through a series of circumstances Matthew is thrown into Newgate Prison in London and Albion helps him escape to enlist him in the quest to bring down Professor Fell.
Of course, in these books nothing ever quite works out like the characters hope, and in due time both Matthew and Albionand Hudson Greathouse and Berry as wellare in big trouble.
Q: It’s interesting how you’ve drawn Matthew as primarily cerebral and Hudson Greathouse as mostly a physical brawler. But they go together well.
A: Yes, they do. They compliment each other. Matthew can get pretty physical also, as he had to be in Mister Slaughter, but Hudson’s the guy who starts throwing chairs and tearing a tavern up. He’s definitely the kind of guy I would want either at my side or backing me up, and I’m sure Matthew appreciates him.
Q: These characters and this era really seem to come alive for you.
A: Absolutely they do. I’d always heard writers talk about characters coming to life and deciding their own fates and purposes in the writing, and I have to say it’s true. All these people have really come to life for me. Minx Cutter, for example, from The Providence Rider. She was such a strong character that she just had to live beyond the book.
Q: Do you think she’ll reappear?
A: I don’t know, but I hope so. We’ll see. Another example is the character of Julian Devane from the new book. He just jumped out and fairly announced that I was not going to send him to the limbo of minor characters. So in Cardinal Black, the next book in the series, he’s going to have a major role. At the end of Freedom of the Mask, he announced to Matthew that he’s “the bad man”, but we’ll see about that. I think Julian Devane will wind up being a very important part of the story arc.
Q: But you don’t know that yet?
A: I know Julian is going to question his past and make a decision about whether he wants to keep going that way. You know, I don’t work from an outline. I have several signpost scenes in each book to give me a direction, but I write as the plot unfolds.
Q: You don’t keep notes at all?
A: I have notes on names and I have voluminous research notebooks, but as far as actually knowing how the signpost scenes are going to connect, I leave that up to the “mystic powers”.
Q: Have the “mystic powers” ever let you down? Have you ever lost your way in a book?
A: I’ve started a couple of books that I didn’t finish. One was about a haunted house in Hollywood, called The Address, that was just too grim for me at the time. It was going to be a series of novellas tracing the history of the movie business with a story arc that concerned the reappearance of a deranged director who had a penchant for murder…just too dark and grim for me at the time. Let’s just say that his private films were the ones he thought were his most accomplished work. The other was The Lady, but I couldn’t decide whether to “glamorize” voodoo or write about it as what it was, a way to manipulate the black population in New Orleans at that time, so I wound it leaving it alone.
Q: But The Lady herself came back?
A: Yeah, she’s “The Lady” in Boy’s Life.
Q: You wrote a book called The Village that was set in World War II and has never been published. Can you say something about that?
A: Well, The Village is about a young idealistic girl from a small town in Russia who wants to be an actress, so she goes by train to Moscow and joins a theatrical troupe. She doesn’t know the troupe’s job is to go out to the front lines and perform propaganda plays to fire the soldiers up to go get slaughtered on the battlefield. There’s more to it than that…I remember the book was about 600 pages or so.
Q: Why didn’t that get published?
A: This was after I was—and I’m going to use the right word, I think—crushed by Pocket Book’s reception to Boy’s Life. They wanted me to change it all back to the simple and simplistic murder mystery it had started out to be. They didn’t get it at all, and I was really knocked down by that. I had to fight to get Boy’s Life published as it is now. So then I did Gone South, and after that I wanted to do something entirely different, which turned out to be Speaks the Nightbird.
Q: There was a problem with Speaks the Nightbird?
A: Yes. Same as with Boy’s Life, it was such a different book for me that the publishers didn’t understand it. We’re getting back to The Village in a minute, I promise. But after going around and around with Speaks the Nightbird, I decided I was going to stop doing “horror” or “suspense” altogether and do historical fiction. Nightbird sat on a shelf at home for years. When I finished The Village, my agent at the time told me no one of my fans would want it because it was not horror. I asked my agent if we couldn’t put it out there under a pseudonym, and he answered to the effect—I swear this is true—that then my fans couldn’t find me. I felt like a mouse trying to find my way through a maze that kept changing and had no way out. Anyway, my agent was right…no publisher wanted The Village because I was a “horror” writer.
Q: That must have been a fun time.
A: Oh, yeah! The hell of it was—and is—that you can see from the Corbett series that I would have been a good writer of historical fiction. I was planning a book about a murder in the ranks of the gladiators called The Scorpion Jar, and a book called The Good Land about a little girl trying to get her younger brother and sister across hostile territory to safety after an Indian uprising. Oh, I just remembered I was going to do a book about Napoleon’s army building three bridges across a frozen river in Russia as the Russian army bore down on them, and they had less that twenty-four hours to do it…that would have been called Three Bridges. But…none of those happened. Oh hell, I was going to do a book about a baseball game between the North and the South in a contested town during the Civil War…sort of a black comedy…I just remembered that too.
Q: Couldn’t you write them now, if you wanted to?
A: The deal is, my plate is full. I turn sixty-four in July. I have six more books I want to write, including the final three Matthew books, but not including the I Travel by Night series, which will be two more novellas, and I don’t count them because they’re shorter works. After I finish the last book on my plate—which is something that I’ve been planning for many years—I am done. I’m going to travel, and not just by night, and I’m going to consider my work finished.
Q: I imagine you could write an interesting book about your experiences in the publishing business.
A: Yeah, but people wouldn’t believe it. Here the truth is stranger than fiction.
Q: Any examples come to mind?
A: Oh yeah. One was particularly horrific, when a very powerful editor at Viking who had made an offer for Speaks the Nightbird said I couldn’t make her believe that religion was so strong in that era as I was making it out to be. Then she asked me what the word ‘leviathan’ meant. That was the name of a popular religious pamphlet of the time, and, of course, a ‘leviathan’ is a sea beast. I sat there realizing I was in the presence of a powerful woman who was throwing her ignorance all around the office. I just couldn’t work with her, it was awful. Another was that five years after the small press River City in Montgomery, Alabama, published the first edition of Speaks the Nightbird, I found out from a bookseller in Birmingham that Nightbird had won the award for Best Small Press Book of the year that year it was published. I think they didn’t want to tell me because they thought I might want the award. What was it, a golden bird? I’ve never even seen it.
A: Yep. Well, that situation with the Viking editor and the ‘leviathan’ marked me so badly that I use the word ‘leviathan’ somewhere in every Matthew book, and the last book of the series will be titled Leviathan.
Q: The least you can do.
Q: Do you have a favorite in the Matthew series?
A: No, but I have some favorite scenes. One is the discovery of what happened to the odious Shawcombe in Nightbird. Another is the scene where the two Thacker brothers tie Matthew to a stone seahorse and throw him into the sea in The Providence Rider. A third would be, in that same book, the fight in Fell’s castle when the floor has tilted and the whole place is about to slide off the cliff. And I will tell you that I think the scene in Mister Slaughter where Slaughter kills the family in the kitchen stands out to me. I was reading that scene in an event at the Birmingham public library and several people got up and left as I was reading it. I could tell by the expressions on their faces that this particular colonial tale was not their cup of tea. But it wasn’t enough to just talk about how vicious Slaughter was…you had to show it, and to him murder was simply a recreation. He was a homicidal maniac and came to his just end.
Q: There’s an interesting thing about the boy Tom Bond in Mister Slaughter, isn’t there?
A: Oh yeah. Tom Bond is the great-great-great, give or take a few greats, grandfather of James Bond. I described him facially just as Ian Fleming described Bond in the books. Also, Tom leaves New York on the ship Goldeneye, which was the name of Fleming’s estate in Jamaica, and Tom mentions to Matthew that he hopes to make a career at sea. James Bond was an officer of the Royal Navy and I think I recall from the Bond books that he came from a family of naval officers.
Q: Any other surprises hiding in the Corbett books?
A: I try to use the names of fictional detectives in each one, some more hidden than others. So far I’ve used Nero Wolfe, Michael Shayne, Sam Spade, Shell Scott, and I think a few others. Also, in Freedom of the Mask, there’s a sequence where Daniel DeFoe tells Matthew the names of some of the other prisoners in the adjoining cells, and those are all the names of writers who were pretty well-known in their time, but now people hardly remember them, which is a shame. One name I put in there probably only Harlan Ellison would know, and I put that in there for him, so I hope he reads the book, or at least sees this interview.
Q: Any thoughts on the current state of the publishing business?
A: Sure. It’s a creature eating its tail. With the death of the midlist, you can either be a powerhouse writer with a huge machine behind you, or you get one shot. The trouble with getting one shot is, if you’re a new writer, you’re probably going to be given a young editor fresh out of school who doesn’t make a lot of money. In the year or so it takes to produce the book, that editor may be lured away to another house and will likely be looking for a move to make more money. That leaves your book an orphan, and it—and your chances of success—are dead. I’ve seen this happen in a couple of instances and heard of many more. Without a healthy midlist, the publishing business cannot be healthy in the long run. But people don’t think in the long run anymore, because stockholders want quick profits, and the parent companies of these publishing houses demand the same, or you are out. It is an ill wind that blows no good, but it’s the way it is.
Q: Do you think you’ll ever be published in New York again? Subterranean is a small press, so you and I both know the books are not going to get a lot of exposure, and they’re not going to be in Barnes & Noble.
A: Yeah, Barnes & Noble won’t stock small press books. They have the feeling that if a book is not published by a New York house, it’s of subpar quality. Then again, there are so many small presses now…B&N would be overwhelmed, and where would you draw the line? And also, bear in mind…business people who run everything now are not exactly the best in determining the quality of a book. However, they’re not so good at running the business either! What’s particularly brutal about the publishing business—and I’m sure it’s true of TV, movies, and what’s left of the music business—is that the artist is always blamed for the miscalculations and mistakes of the business people. It wasn’t as bad as this when I started out, but the realities of a poor economy and declining readership have really done a number on the publishing houses and, as I say, have destroyed the vital midlist that publishers relied on when big name books died on the shelves.
Q: The question was, do you think you’ll ever be published in New York again?
Q: Would you want to be?
A: I’m fine as I am. It takes some work and effort to find my books, sure, but the upside is that I don’t have to deal with nonsense and—I’m just going to say this outright—people trying to be stumbling blocks to my creativity and my work.
Q: What do you for fun?
A: Well, writing has always been fun. But I do enjoy music, playing my keyboards. I have a double-tiered organ that can make any sound or variation of a B3, a Vox or a Farfisa…love that thing. I just bought an electric drum kit that I’m enjoying playing. I like my cigars and my bourbon and my single malt scotch. I’m looking forward to travelling more, as I said. Six more books to write…good things ahead. I do really think I’ve gotten better as a writer as time goes on. I hope that continues.
Q: Good luck to Matthew in the future!
A: Oh yeah, he’s going to need it. Then again, he’s pretty much of a charmed type of guy.
Q: Thank you, Rick, and congratulations on the publication of Freedom of the Mask.
A: My pleasure.