This is the English version of an interview originally published in the Bulgarian magazine Егоист. You can read it on their site here.
Hidden in the depths
By Diana Georgieva
November 19, 2015
Robert McCammon writes horror stories. And he does it horribly well. Diana Georgieva talks to the author about his fears, the borders and the submarines
Robert McCammon is one of those quietly enchanting authors who manage—by stepping on their toes—to go deep under your skin, and after you close the last page of their novel, tend to leave you with a need of some time to think and feel…just a little bit more, before you move on.
Robert McCammon was born on 17 July 1952 in Birmingham, Alabama, and had to struggle throughout his whole life. Raised by his grandparents, the future author was a shy kid, who grew up close to the magic of books and the thrill of writing, but once an adult, he has had to fight for his career as an author—with an admirable persistence and strength. For his right to write, to be important and to be here. He became famous with his horror novels, but later went through writing historical books, kicked his “peak” with his most different than all of his other works—Boy’s Life—and after a series of personal fights, he is now back with a brand new novel, The Border. With this book, Mr. McCammon proves that 1) he’s good and 2) fuck the haters. While everybody is trying to put him in the box of their own expectations, he still refuses to obey. We talked with him about the past, his writing, the publishing industry, and the books, and he told us some important truths about himself, his childhood and the world h(w)e lives in:
Hello, Mr. McCammon, people tend to compare you with Stephen King – how do you feel about that?
I think it’s a huge compliment. I think also it makes some people (usually King’s hardcore fans) very angry at me, which I can’t understand.
You did a creative pause – for almost 10 years, which ended with Speaks the Nightbird. What was the cause for that break and more importantly, what made you go back to writing again?
The cause for the break is that I was feeling that King’s fans disliked me because I was being favorably compared to him, and I felt I needed to do something outside what was considered the normal boundaries of the horror genre. I’ve always enjoyed history, so I wrote Speaks the Nightbird, but I had a hellacious time with an editor at a major publishing house in New York who didn’t understand the book or the time period at all, and she wanted to change it so drastically I couldn’t have lived with the changes. Anyway, we just didn’t see eye-to-eye and it was a disaster, so I took Nightbird away from New York and went home. I was unable to try to sell Nightbird anywhere else because my agent at the time told me no one else wanted it.
What happened next?
I then gave it a shot at writing a straight historical novel titled The Village about a group of Russian actors and actresses who were sent out to entertain the troops during World War 2. At that time I was going to start doing history work altogether, and I had several ideas ready to go…but no publisher wanted to buy The Village because my name was known as a horror writer and that’s what I was supposed to be.
How did all these expectations make you feel?
I felt I was locked in a trap…if I stayed in horror I would continue to get those negative feelings from what has turned out to be a vocal but small percentage of King’s fans, but I was unable to get anything else published but horror.Bear in mind that everything I wrote at the time was being compared to King’s work, and the final straw was that I stumbled upon a chatroom where King’s fans were talking about how my book Mine was a ripoff of a book King had said he wanted to do, so I must’ve read that or heard it somewhere and stolen the idea. That just was too much.
I realized I was never going to be thought of as an original no matter what I did.
I figured my career was over, so I stopped writing…I was burned out by the fighting and the anger and the feeling that I was just spinning my wheels. Well…in a few years a local publisher made an offer for Nightbird, Pocket Books bought the paperback rights, and I was back in publishing again.
It’s funny that I’ve tried to walk away from publishing a couple of times because I was burned out by the business end of it, but something has always happened to pull me back in again. Whether that has been good or bad for my mental health is still in question.
Let’s go back in time – you say that you grew up lonely and the typewriter and the books were your escape and the way to find peace – has anything changed since then in that matter?
Let’s move forward then – you had a career as a copyeditor – did it help you in any way for your writing?
I was a copy editor for a local newspaper, and wrote headlines and checked stories. I recall wanting to do some writing for the paper and I put together a list of feature story ideas and showed it to the city editor. He told me very forcefully that as long as he was the city editor on that paper I would never write a feature story because I was a copy editor, not a writer. In answer to your question,
I learned at an early age that outsized egos can destroy whatever they touch, and often stupid people stand in the way of any kind of creativity.
I certainly have run into that kind of person again and again in the publishing business. I’ve had a pretty rough time of it in my career…if I was to do it all over again, I might contemplate running as fast as I could into some other profession…but then again, this is what I do and what I’m good at, and it’s very true that the actual writing is for me a time and place of great peace…so I guess it’s what I was meant to do in this life.
There is a lot of violence and naturalism in your books, but the human element stays strong – it feels like this method of writing enhances the inner struggle of your characters and is the outer manifestation of it. If you have to be your own character, what kind of metaphorical situation would you put yourself into?
Locked away in what appears to be a hopeless situation, but finding the fortitude to keep fighting even though I would realize I might not—probably would not—win in the end.
The main character of Boy’s Life wins at the end. I personally love it, because – it somehow makes us remember all the simple, but strong and important joys of being young and how it felt to keep your heart opened for everything we meet – something we seem to forget, once adults and the story is also wise in the way life is. And it is rather different from your other works – do you plan on writing something in the same style?
I don’t think I could ever repeat “the voice” and style I used in Boy’s Life and I don’t think it would be wise for me to try. I decided to do something so different simply because I wanted to stretch my abilities, and what started out as rather a mundane murder mystery set in a small town became my ode to the magic of childhood.
How did you decide to try something so different back then in 1991 and what was the reaction to it?
It seemed to take everyone by surprise, not least of all my publisher at the time, who wanted me to change it back to the straightforward murder mystery. The reasoning they gave me is that my fans wouldn’t understand the book. Which crushed me, in a way, because I had always believed that you have to keep pushing yourself and doing something different to be successful, or true to yourself and your talent, whatever that might be. I found out very quickly that the Corporate World had a different view of creativity that I did, and I had to fight for Boy’s Life to be the book it is now.
Well, it’s really not. I’ve done a semi-sequel to The Wolf’s Hour titled The Hunter From The Woods and a book titled The Five about a rock band that has very much a paranormal theme, but for some reason many readers don’t know about these books.
We know that time changes people and this reflects on everything they do – If you have to compare your last book with the previous ones – how did you feel about the process of writing The Border – did you feel in any way different as a person, or as a writer and if so – in what way?
I think I’m different in that I’m a better writer than I used to be, which is simply due to my experience at the craft. But The Border is a political book too, with the alien creatures standing in for elements of political extremism with the “middle class” left to basically fend for themselves. So in that way I suppose I was trying to make a political statement with The Border.
Except for The Border, of course, what would you recommend us to read – something you recently have read and loved?
You know, I’d love to say I’ve been reading some awesome books but I haven’t…I read mostly history and non-fiction, but then again I have a huge collection of science-fiction paperbacks and pulp magazines from the ’50s and ’60s that I really enjoy reading and re-reading. The book that last made me sit up and take notice was Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which I thought and still think of as an amazing accomplishment. I’m currently reading a book on submarines in the Pacific War, because I’ve always thought submarines were very cool. I realized why: in the third grade I was pretty shy, but I was elected class vice-president, which for me was the greatest thing because it meant I had become “popular”. That very day my grandfather came to the school and took me out of class, saying he’d gotten a letter from the city telling him I was in the wrong district and was supposed to be going to another school, and he panicked because every day I was going to the wrong school cost him a dollar in fines.
I hardly spoke to anyone for a year after that, but to console me my grandparents (who raised me) bought me a toy submarine, which was about ten dollars then but now on Ebay goes for nearly two hundred if you can find it. I guess I can relate to submarines because I know what it’s like to go down deep and wait in silence. As a matter of fact, I’ve been told my personality sometimes “submerges” under pressure, and I shut everyone and everything out. It’s true.
What’s important for you in order to like a fiction novel?
As far as books are concerned, I’ve picked up several (not necessarily horror novels) to read and been disappointed because they don’t end well. That to me is the most important thing in a book, that it end well and that the reader feels the journey has been worth the effort. I just haven’t found that lately, and I guess I’ve been burned because I haven’t felt the journey was worth it. That’s what I really intend to do with my work…that the story might take you through a torturous journey, but that it ends well and leaves you in a better place (for whatever reason) than when you began.