Why I Wrote Gone South

Why I Wrote Gone South

by Robert McCammon

Gone South cover

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 receives.

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 a door.

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 stares followed.

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 without sleep.

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.

Or not.

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 bad.

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.

Robert McCammon
July 2, 2008
Just after midnight

Copyright © 2008 by Robert McCammon. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the author.
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