Why I Wrote Boy's Life
by Robert McCammon
I find it easier to write a book than to write about a book I've already written.
Does that make sense? It's because, I guess, for me a book I've already written is cast in stone. There's nothing more to be added or subtracted, everything is there where it needs to be. Or not. Because the writer, if he's lucky, is not yet cast in stone and keeps on going, which means learning more about how to write. So sometimes it's difficult to look back at earlier works, because inevitably you find something you'd like to subtract or you wish you could add, but stone cannot be moved.
Having said that, when I look back at Boy's Life I don't really find a lot I would have changed. I always believed that when you finished a book, if it was fifty percent of what you'd hoped it would be when it began, it would be good. I found to my amazement that when I finished Boy's Life it was about ninety percent of what I'd hoped it would be.
I don't, and never did, write with an outline. I have what I call "signpost scenes," something that happens at the beginning, the middle and toward the end, that hopefully keep me going in the right direction, but the only time I did try to use an outline I didn't finish the book. I already knew everything that was going to happen, so what was the point?
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I write, number one, for myself. I want to be the "first reader." I want to write books that I would read for fun, if I were not working so hard to write them. Huh? But it does make sense, at least to me, and approaching the writing in this way has always given me something to look forward to.
Well, if you have this new edition of Boy's Life in your hands now and are looking over this particular patch of rambling, you might either have already read the book or be thinking of reading it for the first time. I thought I'd fill you in on why I wrote the book, but first let me tell you the answer to a question I'm often asked concerning the book.
The question being: Is Boy's Life autobiographical?
The answer is: Yes, and I do consider myself a character in the book, but I'm not Cory, the lead character.
Who do I most identify with in Boy's Life? I'll let you know a little farther along.
About the book. It began as a murder mystery in a small Southern town and was going to involve a secret in a second town that had been flooded and was underneath the lake. The main character was going to be the sheriff, and ... oh gosh, I almost went to sleep right there!
So I took a long, hard look at the two hundred pages I'd already done and decided it just wasn't going to work. The painting never came to life. I'd had in mind for several years the story of a boy who wanted to be a writer, and the things happening in his hometown that influenced his life, but I'd kept putting that on the back burner. But now, here I was with a Southern town and a murder in mind, and I thought ... okay, let's try out the book about the boy.
I started writing Boy's Life with no outline, but a lot of ideas. And suddenly the painting came to life. Not only that, but the painting came to a fierce life that I had rarely felt before in my work. I flew through the writing. Now, not to say it wasn't hard and I didn't have to do a lot of thinking and work many hundreds of hours, but Boy's Life was really moving and I just sort of turned the steering wheel to direct it, or so it sometimes seemed to me.
This is the thing about writing. The thing. When the writing isn't going well, there's nobody on God's earth who can help you. Not spouse, not brother or sister, not best friend, not editor. Nobody. Because no one understands the work as you do. If there's a problem, you have to deal with it, and you alone.
Conversely, when the work is going well ... what can I say? That you hear angels singing? Or you hear the music of the spheres or something? That every fortune you get in your cookie says "Great Success Is Ahead, If You Don't Mess It Up"?
Something like that, I suppose. But when the work is going well, and you see the painting coming to life, and the people are real and you know them and see their faces and realize you are creating Life, in a way, then ... I don't think there's any better satisfaction in the world.
When I finished Boy's Life, I was very high on what I'd done. I sent it to my publisher thinking, Rick, they're going to call you, and they're going to be so excited, and they're going to say, Rick we didn't know you had it in you, and this is so different, and we're so excited, and you've done a very, very good job.
I waited. I waited. And then I did get the phone call.
Rick. Listen. Um ... you know ... about the book. We really like it and everything, but... you know ... the story is really about the murder, and you're going to confuse your readers by making them think this is autobiographical, and ... you know ... you probably should cut all that out about the town and the people and focus on the murder.
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I just ... I just ... something's wrong with the phone, I think. I'm sorry.
When I got myself together, I called back and said, Hold that thought. I'll be in your office tomorrow. And then I went to the airport, me a guy from Birmingham, Alabama, without really a great literary education but a love of reading and writing and the feeling that this time—this time—I had to stand up for what I believed, and I flew to New York to face the big dogs.
I said I couldn't change the book. I said I would have to break the contract I had with them if they insisted on these changes, and the ashes would have to fall from the merry bonfire that used to be my career.
They cited me some business facts and figures from the chart on the wall, about how bad things happen to writers who try to step out of their boxes, but then they said okay. Fine. Your book is your book. If you believe that strongly in it, then so do we.
That was great. Just great. But, still ... you know, when somebody looks at your child and says, Oh, very lovely, very good and strong. If you say so... a little bit of the joy of creation flies away. A little bit of what made you want to be a writer just gets up, very quietly, and goes out the door.
Boy's Life was not written for a young audience, but in the years since its first publication it has found a huge audience among younger readers. I don't know the exact figures, but it's taught in high schools across the country. I know, because I've been to many of them to speak to the English classes and the students in their gyms and auditoriums. On one day, I got a letter from a Scottish gentleman in his eighties and one from a boy in Seattle who was thirteen, both telling me how much they enjoyed the book. I think it's worldwide now. To see a Japanese cover with a rendition of Cory standing on the edge of the lake ... it's just amazing.
One letter I got, I just have to mention, because to me this one was ... well, how can I describe the feeling?
A woman wrote me several years ago to tell me that her elderly father had passed away, and that she wanted me to know he had asked that a copy of his favorite book be buried with him.
He had read it over and over, she said. So many times that it was no longer a book. It was a constant companion.
Not long ago I went into a chain bookstore—not, incidentally, in my hometown—and I walked over to what they called the "Classics Table." On that table were novels by Dickens, Hugo, Steinbeck, Twain, Verne, Updike, Vonnegut ... basically everybody teachers try to get students to read and that they ought to read, just for the sake of the world's future.
And right there. Right there amid all those books with all those names was Boy's Life.
I doubt if I'll ever write another book that is fit to be on that table. God knows I'm going to keep trying. But I do have one book there, and I think one is enough.
The character I most closely identify with in Boy's Life?
You probably already know. It's Vernon, whose dream ended because he was broken by the weight of a chart on the wall. Because he did not stand up, in that office in New York. Because he came home to Zephyr without a fight, and closed his eyes to the world beyond.
He woke up, and he was still alive.
I've always wanted to use that line somewhere. This seems the right place.
If you are reading Boy's Life for the first time, I hope you enjoy it. I hope it takes you to some places you never knew existed ... or to places that you may have forgotten ever did exist.
If this is your second or third reading, I welcome you back to Zephyr. To the life of Cory and his world. To summer days everlasting, to glorious secrets, to hidden places and the magic that is in all of us, but that sometimes just curls up and goes to sleep, waiting for its best friend to come home.
I thank you.
Robert "Rick" McCammon
January 29, 2008
Just after midnight
Copyright © 2008 by Robert McCammon. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the author.