Robert McCammon Interview: January 2005

January 27, 2005

Exclusive Interview With
Robert McCammon
Conducted by Hunter Goatley
January 27, 2005

Editor's note: The Robert McCammon interview below was conducted on January 27, 2005, at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, TN.

Goatley: So: what have you been up to? I know you're working on the new book....

McCammon: Working on the new book, yeah....

Goatley: And I know it's not called Queen of the Bedroom....

McCammon: (Laughs) No, it's called The Queen of Bedlam. It's set in 1702 in Manhattan, and it's another Matthew Corbett mystery. Working right along. I'm trying to finish it up by May, probably by July.

Goatley: You told me once before you spent last summer doing research for it. What kinds of things were you researching?

McCammon: Well, researching the city—I needed an old map of the city, so actually I got three or four different maps of the city, as close to the year 1702 as I could find them at the Manhattan library. Also researching just the city itself, the feel of the city, what it must have been like there, as a trading center, what types of people lived there.

Actually, it was a very pretty place, a beautiful place, a small place of between 5,000 and 7,000 people. You know, it was like little farms and stuff, and very pretty streets where Greenwich Village is now. It had a nightlife, a number of taverns. The first mayor was very unpopular, because he tried to close the taverns down and have a curfew. He was very unpopular, because people liked their taverns, and they did like to go out late at night, which is amazing. They had a thriving mercantile community going on there, so it wasn't just farming, and then the harbor.... So it was a very interesting place.

Goatley: Is there anything you want to reveal about the overall plot?

McCammon: Well, it begins with a series of murders going on there by somebody who's known as "The Masker," but that's just a small part of the plot, and it goes from there.

Goatley: Backtracking just a little bit, I assume you were pleased with the reception of Speaks the Nightbird?

McCammon: Well, you know, I thought that was going to be it, that that was going to be the last book, at least with Matthew Corbett. But the book has really done well, and people... What amazed me more than anything is that some people read the book in one night.

Goatley: I don't know how they did that; it's a big book!

McCammon: I went to a conference and somebody said they knew somebody who'd read the book in one night, and then had a heart attack the next day.

Goatley: Really?

McCammon: True. I said I understood why he had the heart attack—he shouldn't have read the book in one night. He survived, he didn't die, but.... It's like, it wasn't designed to be read in one night. You were supposed to take your time with it, and it might last you a month or more.

Anyway, I was amazed that some people read it overnight and really approached it excitedly like that, that they wanted to devour the whole thing as quickly as possible. So I got back a lot of good reviews, and a lot of good letters, and I thought, "You know, I've done the research, and I have some other ideas for mysteries and stories set in that timeframe..." I've always really enjoyed that timeframe, so I thought, "Well, why not?" You know, let's go ahead and see what happens.

Goatley: That's great. I know a lot of people, after they finished Nightbird, couldn't wait to find out what happens next.

McCammon: It picks up two years after he left Fount Royal, so he's been back in New York for a while. He's been working as a clerk. It's exciting. I'm taking him in a little bit different direction, too: he's going to leave the clerking profession and enter a new profession.

There's a lot of work to do, yet, but I'm pretty excited about it. And again, I'm amazed that people were as pleased with Nightbird as they were. It's somewhat of a difficult read.

Now what I'm planning is that the next Matthew books—I'm hoping that there are going to be four or five more—are going to be not as dense. I still want to keep the stately tone and keep the language, but they're probably not going to be as long and drawn-out [as Nightbird was]. I think I was kind of experimenting, too, because I wasn't sure I could really do a book set in that era, so I was really experimenting with it, just to see where it would go. And it got longer and longer and longer, because the plot got more convoluted as it went along. So I'm going to try to really hold it back a bit—I don't think it needs to be as long and sprawling as the first one was. But if it is, it is. I'm not going to artificially hold it back, but I would like to keep it moving more, as a more action-oriented story.

Goatley: Sounds great.

McCammon: I hope so. Nothing's great until it's finished. [Laughs] You know, the idea is great, but it's really great when it's finished.

Goatley: Do you have any idea how you'll go about publishing this one?

McCammon: No, I don't. I'm just going to give it to my agent and see what happens.

Goatley: I didn't know if you were going to try the River City route again, or....

McCammon: Well, my hope is that I have four or five Matthew Corbett books to make a box set. Who publishes the next book, I don't know. I'm not going to try to cross the river before I build a bridge, so I have to do the next book before I get a box set. But that's my hope: to have four or five books in the set, because I certainly have four or five more ideas for stories, over about a 10-year period.

Goatley: Speaking of box sets, people keep asking about limited editions of your work, and wanting to publish new limited editions of your books. I know you've been reluctant to do that....

McCammon: Yeah. And reluctant to do it simply because.... You know, I appreciate that people write and ask me about doing limited editions, but I always felt like I never wanted to live in the past, as far as my work was concerned. I never wanted it to be like, well, we keep putting out the same book over and over again in different covers and elaborate productions and elaborate editions. I understand that that's for a collector's market, and collectors might really like that, but it's like, you know, let the past be what it was. Let the book be what it was. A person may not like a particular limited edition that was already published, but that's what happened. Let's go from here, and I'm excited about the future. That's all I can say.

Goatley: OK.

McCammon: I guess the bottom line is that I'd really rather not do any limited editions of any older books, I'd rather just go from here.

Goatley: Which pretty much covers The Village, too, then....

McCammon: Yeah. The Village was also an experiment, I think. Though I do think it is an excellent book—I think The Village has some of the best writing that I've done, but it's just so different, because it's about the band of actors and actresses in Russia in World War II. At one point, my game plan was that I wanted to visit different historical eras. It was going to be for myself, too, because I wanted to educate myself in different historical eras. So I was going to do Nightbird, and then I was going to do The Village, and then I was going to do one set in ancient Rome, and then there was going to be one set in the coal mines in England, and.... It would have been a tremendous amount of work, but beyond that, I think it would have scared publishers to death. Because publishers like for you to kind of do the—I won't say "the one-note thing"—but it's difficult for publishers to get a handle on how they should promote you, or how they should market you.

Goatley: Well, there were other problems with that, too. Publishers were scared of the subject matter, the cultural thing: European publishers thought European audiences wouldn't read a book set in Europe during World War II that was written by an American....

McCammon: Yeah, right. Yeah. And there was some question about should it be marketed to men or women or.... Even though it had a woman as the lead, it was like, "Well, it's set in war time, so shouldn't it be marketed to men?" You know, I'm trying to avoid that kind of, uh—I'll use the word—I'm trying to avoid that kind of crap. I want to make things simple, and it's simpler for me to do the Matthew Corbett books set in 1700s. It's simpler, and I'm trying to keep things simple. I want to enjoy what I'm doing. I'm trying to remove this unnecessary complexity from the writing and publishing process.

Goatley: It makes it easier for you, and for you to spend time with your family and just live life.

McCammon: Yeah. And it makes it easier for me to do the research in that one era—and I really like that era, as I've said—and devise the plots based around Matthew and based on his experiences around the Colonies. So that's where I am.

Goatley: It's a very interesting time period. There aren't many books written about that time....

McCammon: As I said when we were talking [earlier], I went to a book store and was looking through their mystery section and fiction section, and I just couldn't find anything set in that era. There may be something out there that I don't know about, that I haven't seen, but I had a hunger to read something—fiction—based in that era, and you just can't find it. Is there a reason for that? I don't know. [Laughs] Maybe there's a reason for it, and maybe some publisher will let me know quickly the reason for it.

But it's an interesting era because it was such a stately, courtly era that masked savagery.

Goatley: That's what came through in Speaks the Nightbird.

McCammon: Well, I'm glad. London was a savage, tremendously hideous place. These were people who came to New York and the Colonies fresh from the British and London experience, people who had lived in a savage city. So they brought that savagery with them, in a way, to the new land. But it hadn't yet taken root. Because, like I said, Manhattan was a beautiful, young, virgin town, but it was about to take root. A fascinating era.

Goatley: I think I'm probably typical of most people who read Speaks the Nightbird: I didn't know anything about that time period. If you know anything about American history, it's probably centered around the American Revolution or the Civil War, not 1700.

McCammon: Yeah.

Goatley: So that was one of the things that intrigued me about Nightbird: it was a place I had never been before.

McCammon: Yeah, see, that's exciting, but I want to create that, I want you to be there. I want you to really feel like you're there. And I think that's what's exciting for me, because I feel like I really am there. It's a fascinating and very interesting place to look at, and kind of visit and explore for a little while.

There was really a lot going on in the downtown. There was a Broadway, houses had little gardens, and little streets were set out by the Dutch in what's now Greenwich Village, a pretty place, but you might see Indians walking the streets of Broadway and looking into the store windows. As a matter of fact, Indians were welcome to trade with the Colonists in New Jersey; the Colonists in New Jersey and the Indians got along very well. But you would see Indians in downtown New York; it was no surprise to see them there. It's so different from what we know, of course.

Goatley: One person recently posted that they were surprised to find that they didn't want to leave that time period when the book ended.

McCammon: Good. It's so amazing to think that—you know, you look around, and you see all the buildings and what we have in America now, and everything then was just built out of the forest. It's just incredible.

I've been doing some research also for a future book in this series set in the Carolinas—in what's now North Carolina—where they started growing rice. They had to drain all the swamps to grow rice. They had this elaborate system for draining the swamps that came from the African slaves. These African slaves who knew how to drain swamps were highly valuable—highly prized. They came up with this intricate way to drain the swamps so they could grow rice. There were huge rice-growing plantations, and then that faded and died away and is no longer. But how these things became, grew, burgeoned, and then kind of disappeared.... The effort, the human effort; it's mind-boggling. To build a road was mind-boggling. To travel any distance was mind-boggling. To trust yourself on a voyage of several months across the Atlantic—you don't know where you're going, you don't know how you're going to live when you get there, but you're going to try—was mind-boggling.

Goatley: That's something that's so hard to imagine and relate to, from our perspective, when you can fly across the Atlantic in a few hours.

McCammon: Yeah. Or if you have a toothache, you go to the dentist and get medicine or whatever; or any kind of ache and pain—any kind of discomfort—is easily taken care of; we have entertainments aplenty, like when we were talking about cable television with 500 channels.... And here we are. We came from nothing, really, just from the desire and will to build and create.

And this polished apple that you began with.... But the thing is, there's always a worm in the apple, and that's what these stories are about. You have this polished apple that's the promise of things to come, but there's always a worm in it. And that's what's true of Queen of Bedlam, also.

In The Queen of Bedlam, there's this series of murders in Manhattan in 1702 done by somebody who's known as "The Masker" because when he's killing men—he's killed two or three men—with a knife, he does the outline of a mask on their face, for some reason. And there's an older woman in the nearby, newly-built asylum who has reacted very strongly to news of one of the murders, but otherwise, she's silent and never speaks. So she knows something about what's going on. Again, that's just part of the story, but it all ties together; it links to a larger thing that's going on.

Goatley: Sounds neat.

McCammon: It is neat. I've been doing research on New York, but also, you have to really do research on London to understand New York in that time. In that era, London was so savage, and had been around for a long, long time—London is one of the oldest of all the cities of the world. This sensibility of New York and other cities in America came from London; you have this stately exterior, and underneath, there is a seething something. London was a beautiful place, but a very difficult place to live in, very rough and tough, as New York evolved into being, but not nearly as bad as London.

Some of the feeling I'm trying to get into—not just in Queen of Bedlam, but in the whole series of books—is that these people brought that—whatever it was—with them. They couldn't not bring it with them. I think some of that was in Speaks the Nightbird, where it was brought into this new town that was going to be the hopeful town of the future, but no, something was brought in from London with this man who had spent time in Newgate Prison. And the same is true, in a sense, in the new book.

Goatley: To change topics a little a bit into the actual process of writing, have you had a hard time getting back into the writing?

McCammon: I have, even though I really, really enjoy writing. I've said before that when writing is going really well, it's great, there's nothing better, but when it's going bad, there's nothing worse. When you run into a plot difficulty or a character difficulty, nobody can help you, you just have to figure it out for yourself. I think because I've been "retired"—and I would use that word in quotes—for such a long time, my life has been family-centered, and I'm having to divide my time more between my family and work, and I've really found it difficult. As we said before, just finding the space to work, I guess mentally and physically, has been a challenge.

Goatley: You're obviously into the book, now, so once you found the space and the time, was it like riding a bike, again, or...?

McCammon: Yeah, yeah, because it's like a natural thing. It's corny, but this is like what you're supposed to be doing, you feel like it's what you're supposed to be doing.

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