January 28, 1989
The Robert R. McCammon Interview
by Hunter Goatley
Editor's note: This interview was conducted January 28, 1989, at Rick McCammon's home in Birmingham. Armed with a borrowed tape recorder (it belonged to the boyfriend of a friend of Sally's) that didn't pick up voices from very far away and my list of stupid questions, the following conversation took place.
Reference is made to several "future projects" that are no longer "future" because of my delays in publishing this newsletter. With that in mind, let's begin...
Q: Welcome, Rick!
Q: What are you currently working on? What's the title of your work-in-progress?
A: It's called The Address and it's set in Hollywood from 1919 to 1991. It's about a house in Hollywood and the people who lived there from 1919 to 1991.
Q: Sounds interesting.
A: I hope it'll be. [Shouts into the decrepit tape recorder] I HOPE IT'LL BE!
Q: Do you have any idea when it might be out?
A: In 1990, I guess. There's The Wolf's Hour in March, Blue World in October, so I guess this will be out the following May or June.
Q: I read about They Still Thirst in The Horror Show a couple of years ago. Has that been totally abandoned, or...
A: [laughs] No, I was really never planning on doing that; it was fun to just play around with. I played around with it mentally. At some point I may do it, but I've got other ideas, things I'd rather work on right now than go back to things from the past. They Thirst is pretty much in the past.
Q: It sounded great.
A: Well, you know, you could do a lot of things [with it]. As a matter of fact, there was a person who was working on a sequel, but it didn't work out. I thought about it, but... We'll see; it might be fun to do sometime.
Q: Let's talk about film adaptations. Do you have anything coming up? Of course, there was "Makeup" on Darkroom and "Nightcrawlers" on The Twilight Zone.
A: Well, it's not a film adaptation, but I've got a dramatic adaptation, or rather a dramatic reading of some stuff from Blue World. It's going to be coming out I guess next year some time. William Windom has read some stories from it. It's going to be on Simon and Schuster Audio. That's kind of a first for me; I've never had anything like that yet. I think there are two cassettes; each runs about 90 minutes. That should be pretty interesting.
As far as dramatic movies and stuff, I don't know. I guess there are some things working; I have some things optioned, but we'll just have to wait and see what's going to happen.
Q: Will the audio tapes for Blue World consist of all the stories or just some of them? [Editor's note: Nightcrawlers: Stories from Blue World consists of "Nightcrawlers," "Yellowjacket Summer, and "Night Calls the Green Falcon."]
A: I think there are some of them. I'm very excited about that book because there are some new stories that have never been published and also the novellette "Blue World" is one that's never been published. "Blue World" is different [from my other stuff] because it's more a psychological piece. It's about a Catholic priest in San Francisco who becomes obsessed with a porno star being stalked by someone. I'm excited about it, because it's different.
Q: Didn't you write "Blue World" in about a week?
A: Yeah, how did you know about that?
Q: Other interviews.
A: Really? Yeah, I wrote it in about a week. That's the fastest I've ever done anything and it's like 140 pages. I was very excited about it and it just went...
Q: How long does it usually take you to write a book?
A: It takes about 9 months; that's writing, research, the whole thing. You may have been thinking about a book, getting it together in your mind, for months, but it takes about 9 months when you start doing research. You can be thinking about a book years before you start writing it. You just have a sense, or you hope you have a sense, when you're ready to write a particular book. For instance, The Lady. I started that; I wasn't ready to do it because it's a different experience. It's really not that complicated, but it's told in first person viewpoint of a black woman who's like 120 years old. I just wasn't ready to do that yet. I think you know when it's time, when it's right to do things. I started Swan Song years ago and put it aside because I wasn't ready to do it. Things kind of happen in their own time.
Q: When you write, do you do complete rewrites of anything, or...
A: No, because of the [computer] system I work on. It is very helpful in terms of editing on screen as I go, so I can edit on the screen, and then have an edited page rather than a type-written page, so it makes it go a lot faster.
Q: You usually work from 11 PM to 4 AM, is that true?
A: Yeah. [But] I've found when I'm nearing the end of my writing, I work in the day, too, so I kind of go into a double shift.
Q: Let's talk about your books. Do you have a favorite among your own works?
A: I've been asked that before and I've said, "Well, the book I've just finished is my favorite." I really did enjoy working on The Wolf's Hour. That was the most fun. Stinger was the most difficult. [The books] have personalities in a way. Swan Song was the most satisfying, but the one I enjoyed doing the most—there's a lot in the book, and I'm very proud of it—is Mystery Walk. And maybe because it's set in the South. It seems to me to be real; the people seemed real and remain real, and I'm very satisfied with how they turned out.
Q: I discovered you from They Thirst, but Mystery Walk was the one that made me want to find everything else you had done.
A: I'm very pleased with how it turned out. I know, like we were saying, there are things in it that I look back on and kind of cringe and think, "Why did I do that?" But basically, I'm very pleased how that turned out.
Q: Was there any kind of inspiration for Mystery Walk? Anything from your experiences that you drew upon when writing it?
A: I used to go into that area as a kid with a boyhood friend of mine whose grandparents had a farm there. It just seemed kind of a bleak and atmospheric area. I don't know exactly how I developed the plot. I don't really know where that came from, and I don't exactly know how he became an Indian, but I know the atmosphere—the background—is authentic. Particularly in that book, because those are all places that I saw and bits of people here and there that I knew as a kid. That seems to be a very authentic book, from my experience.
Q: Obviously, there is a part of you in all of your characters.
Q: Are there any characters that come to mind as being very autobiographical? For instance, I was re-reading just this morning Usher's Passing where Rix Usher worked at all of these jobs that you did, writing ad copy, working at a B. Dalton.
A: Yes, that's right. Rix is a very autobiographical person. I was raised by my grandparents, who are very wealthy. You know, there's a price that you have to pay—no matter who you are—there's a price that you have to pay for growing up. You're expected to be perfect, you're expected to do this, that, and the other. My grandfather wanted me to go into the furniture business; he owned a furniture company. They wanted me to have their house; they have a big house that is kind of dilapidated now, kind of fallen to pieces, but they don't see it that way. They still see it as being huge. It was built in the 1930s. My grandfather had one of the first department stores in Alabama; he owned Dauphin Island, down near Mobile. He kind of had a plan for me. He wanted me to go into the furniture business; he wanted me to keep the house as it was, as it is. And there comes a point when you have all of these things that you want, and still you've got to determine to make your own way. I had everything I could possibly want as a kid. I wanted a bike, I got a bike -- whatever I wanted, that was fine. But, yet, you have all of these things and the time comes where it's like, "We've given you all of these things, and now we want you to be this person." And there comes a point where you have to say to yourself, "I don't want to be that person." You want to be somebody that you envisioned yourself.
Q: You were expected to pay them back.
A: Yeah, you were in a situation where you were expected to pay them back and you didn't realize that you were paid to do something that was in the future. So when I first started writing, my grandfather said that that was nothing but a hobby, I shouldn't ever expect to make a living as a writer. I should basically do what he wanted me to do.
Q: Was there a time after Baal was published that you wondered the same thing? Or, after making that sale, did you feel pretty confident that you could keep it up?
A: Well, there was a time when I almost tried to do something else, while I was trying to finish Usher's Passing, because I didn't feel my career was going anywhere. I'd been working for a long time, and the work does get harder. It really does get harder. Because the craft of it gets easier, you know what you do, you know how to do it, but the stories get more complicated. The stories get more real and the characters get more real, so it's more difficult in that regard. After Usher's Passing, my career was not going very well. I felt I was doing good work, but my work didn't sell very well. So I was thinking, "What else can I do?" and I determined that there was nothing else that I could do. That was kind of a turning point when I realized there was nothing else I could do. I said, "Well, I'm in this for better or worse..."
Q: Could you tell me a little more about what it was like to write Swan Song? Did it come easily to you?
A: It really did. In every book I have signpost scenes. I have a scene in the beginning, middle, and end, and other parts along the way. By the signpost scenes, I know where I'm going, which direction I'm going. But it was pretty easy to write. It wasn't like I was struggling to get characters together; it moved by itself. I guess that sounds ghostly or mysterious, but I don't mean it that way. The hardest one was Stinger. That one almost drove me crazy, it was tough. It was set in 24 hours, and I had to have all the characters at a particular place at the end. The first time I wrote through it, I didn't have Sarge where he needed to be. I had to go back 160 pages or so to start him moving in the direction he needed to be. It's the kind of thing where you write and write and write and you realize that you've screwed up, you haven't gotten the character where he needs to be, something is messed up and you can't figure it out. You just kind of lay your head on the typewriter and you sit there (I don't know how long I sat there), and the awful thing is that nobody is going to do it for you, you know? Your mother is not going to come and do it for you [laughs]. You've got to eventually get up and put in another piece of paper, and start back 160, 200 pages back where you screwed up and start again. Such is life! [laughs]
Q: I understand They Thirst started out set in Chicago.
A: It did.
Q: And you got about 200 pages into it and it just...
A: It didn't. I wanted a place with a larger sense of motion. It was set in Chicago in the winter, when it was cold and frozen, you know, there was no motion. Everything was frozen solid, so I needed a place where there were a lot of characters and a lot of movement and interaction.
Q: I said earlier, They Thirst was the first book of yours I read (I was attracted by the cover art; you know, a vampire novel!). It has the distinction of being the only horror novel I've read that spawned a nightmare for me. It was another of those "everybody's a vampire but me."
A: Oh, yeah. Somebody called me after reading that and said, in hushed tones, "Are there... are there really vampires?" He was serious! So evidently it sparked it in his mind that there might really be vampires.
Q: The way it was presented, it was very believable in how quickly they could take over.
A: There was something that somebody pointed out about that book, that these things could be going on in Los Angeles and Hollywood and you would not know it; you would not know that it was going on. There was a story that stuck with me. This runaway girl was talking about where she went in Hollywood. She lived in one of these old, dilapidated hotels in Hollywood. It was a rent hotel and she lived with other runaways on the second floor. She said that they got along OK, they were fine, they had plenty to eat and everything, but she said there were some men who lived in the basement, who lived down there in the dark. She said she didn't want to go down to the basement, because they were real strange. I read that, or heard that somewhere, before I started the book, and it stuck with me. Things go on there that you probably wouldn't know about. So much could go on there that could go unnoticed. I think that's probably true of The Address, too... Things go on that go unnoticed.
Q: Did you ever have any problem getting into some of the characters that are so radically different from you, like Kobra or Roach or Stinger?
A: No, not really. I don't know why, but it's not hard to get nasty. It's not hard to think nasty, I guess.
Q: It has that effect when reading it. You're always able to put yourself in the hero's place, but with your stuff, more than most people's, it's easy to feel like the bad guy, too.
A: It's never that hard to put myself in that position. You mentioned a while ago that there's a part of me in all characters, that a part of the writer is in all characters. That's certainly true, whether the character is vicious, or the good guy; you're really part of them. I do believe it's true that a horror writer is able to live out his... his... I won't say compulsions... his... wonderments... you know, how would you kill someone? A horror writer, better than most, is able to act that out, think it out, fantasize it out on paper. Everybody says, "Boy, you sure did a good job," and they pay you for it. You did a good job, and you were wondering what it would be like...
Q: Well, it's good you can get it out that way...
Q: What can you tell me about the limited edition of Swan Song?
A: I hear that it's going to be out this summer. It's an illustrated version. I'm very excited about it. It should be a real quality production. I don't know what the art is going to look like or anything. It sounds good.
Q: I was a little bit disappointed that Swan Song was a paperback original. It was so good, I wanted something a bit more permanent.
A: I'm glad it's working out this way. It's going to look good, and it's going to last awhile.
Q: Does it bother you that your books come out in paperback first?
A: A book like Swan Song would be so expensive that people couldn't afford it. Also, unless you're a big name, it's very hard to sell hardbacks. I want my books to be read by the largest number of people. In that regard, I'm glad that they're paperbacks and people can afford them.
Q: Let's talk a little bit about short stories. Was it hard for you to do short stories in the beginning?
A: I started out doing short stories in college, but I couldn't get anything published. I'd send my short stories out and they'd all come back rejected, so I never thought I was a very good short story writer because the first novel I wrote was published. "Makeup" was my first published short story. Somebody asked me to do a short story for this book and I did it. Now I try to write short stories in between books. I try to get a stockpile of them, but if somebody has a theme book or something, and they ask me to do something, and I think it's interesting... Sometimes you just don't have a good idea for a short story. Then I've got two short stories upstairs that I haven't finished. One's called "Dark Eye," the other's called "The Night I Killed the King," about a guy who finds the real Elvis Presley and tries to kill him, because he's an Elvis Presley impersonator (I'll never finish the story, that's why I'm telling you about it). He's an Elvis Presley impersonator and he's found that Elvis is alive, so he decides to go kill him, because he knows that when people find that Elvis is still alive, all Elvis impersonators are out of jobs! [laughs] I'll never finish the story! I say that because it's not that easy. Sometimes you're writing a story and, smack!, you hit the wall! It's like, "Where do I go from here?!?" You don't know where to go... But I do tie short stories into books.
Q: What do you have new that's coming out?
A: I have a story in a book called The Book of the Dead; it's called "Eat Me." I've done other short stories over the past few months, but I've forgotten what books they're in. I did one called "Lizard Man" and I've done a couple of others, but... [laughs] Like I said, I have some short stories in the Blue World book: "Something Passed By," "Pin" is different, "Chico" is another one that's different. I have one called "Haunted World" in a book called Post Mortem. It's about a world, our world, in which all the people who ever died start coming back to life. All the years, all the generations and ages, come back to life at the same time. It's total chaos. [laughs] It's funny, but then again, hopefully it's kind of serious, too. I don't know when either book is coming out. I enjoy short stories, but they can be tough to do.
Q: I know you don't read a whole lot in the genre, but who, or what, do you read?
A: Well, I read Joe [Lansdale's] stuff, Peter Straub, Thomas Harris... What can you say, really? It's hard to just pick authors out of the air. I like Clive [Barker's] work. Mostly I read biographies and histories. I get a lot of manuscripts to read. I have one now that looks pretty interesting; it's a vampire novel. These are just manuscripts that the publishers send.
Q: To get quotes from you?
A: Yeah. I don't know how much that helps. It helped me! Thank God Dean [Koontz] and John Saul read Swan Song! It really helped me! Thank God they didn't say, "I really hate to do this and I'm not going to do this!" So I better not say anything...
Q: What about the cover art for your novels, from the old Avon covers to the new reissues to the British editions. Have you been happy with the cover art? And do you have much say in what's done?
A: I have more say now than I did. Again, that's one of those things where you're never going to be totally satisfied. I've never been satisfied, though some of the British covers come close.
Q: Let's talk about hope at the end of your novels. They Thirst is one that has almost no hope until the very end and I've found that it's too powerful for some people. When I read Cujo by Stephen King, I felt ripped off that the kid died. I'm sure that that was realistic, but I felt ripped off that I struggled with them through 300 or 400 pages and the kid died...
A: I like to have somebody to root for. That may be old-fashioned, it may be unrealistic, but, man, I'm tired of dark all the time. I don't think something has to be dark all the time. I can get hot about that! [laughs]
Q: That's a problem I have reading some of the older stuff, Poe and Lovecraft; I like Poe, I don't care for Lovecraft, but both are very dark, gloomy... I feel like crap after reading them.
A: Yeah. I'm trying to work more humor in. I think there's more humor in The Wolf's Hour.
Q: Stinger was full of it.
A: I hope so. It's kind of difficult to put humor in sometimes. I just do not like dark, dark upon dark, and more dark, without hope. I don't see the point of traveling with people if you feel there's no destination.
Q: It's not fun.
A: No, it's not fun. It doesn't take you anywhere. And there are some who will say, "Yes, it does take you somewhere: it shows you how decrepit and how cruel, cruel this world is!" And I'm sure that's true, it is a cruel, cruel world, but I don't want to be a part of saying, "Yes, it is a cruel, cruel world." They'll say, "That's fine. That's the way it ought to be." I don't think that's the way it ought to be at all. And I want to say that's not the way it ought to be.
Q: I think Swan Song got the message across well: even after a nuclear war, there's still hope...
A: There is hope if you can somehow get rid of a person's greed for power, which really doesn't mean anything. Everybody wants more of what they have more of. It seems to me that if you get rid of that and you get people working together, maybe that sounds corny, maybe it is corny, but if you get people working together, things get done.
Q: We were talking earlier today about comic books. [Your story] "Night Calls the Green Falcon," which blew me away: was that influenced any by the comic series The Watchmen? Did you read The Watchmen?
A: No, I haven't read The Watchmen, but it is influenced by all the comics I used to read as a kid. And it's influenced by all of the serials that I used to go to when I was a kid, the Batman serials, Zorro—those were great.
Q: I loved the story. The whole thing, the serial killer, the serial chapters, the serial star...
A: You know, it's funny. Somebody said, "This is interesting how McCammon did this. This guy used to be in the serials and then there was a serial killer." And I sat there and thought, "I didn't even think of that!"
A: Really. I didn't even think about the idea that there was a serial killer and this guy was in the serials. I didn't even think about it until someone pointed it out.
Q: We were talking about a favorite among your own works. Do you have a favorite short story that you've done? Or is that too hard to decide?
A: Well, there are two that I really like that I guess could be my favorite two. One is "Something Passed By." I'm excited about that, because it's got other horror writers' names in it. Everybody I could think of came together. And I'm also excited about "Haunted World." Neither of those are out yet, but...
Q: I liked "Makeup," although it was slaughtered on the TV show Darkroom. The story itself had a Robert Bloch ending, a Twilight Zone ending to it.
A: Well, the dramatization changed everything about the story, down to the minor characters' names, for some reason. I could just see a big table full of people saying, "I don't think this guy's name should be Joe; his name should be Red. Don't you think his name should be Red?" (laughs) "No, I think his name should be Mr. Green. And I'll fight to the death to see his name changed to Mr. Green!" I can just see that. I don't know why that should be so.
Q: Were you pleased with The Twilight Zone adaptation of "Nightcrawlers?"
A: Yeah, they did a good job, and I was excited about how it turned out. When I sat down to watch "Makeup," I was scared because this was my first thing on TV. And then after it was on a few minutes, I wasn't frightened anymore because it wasn't my work. It didn't have anything to do with me or what I had written. I was kind of waiting in trepidation to see what The Twilight Zone would do; I wasn't committing myself emotionally, whether I should be nervous or excited. But they did a good job.
Q: I liked your short story "Best Friends."
A: Well, that was different. I wrote that specifically to try my hand at more graphic horror. I wanted to do something more strictly horror because I figured people would enjoy reading that kind of horror—die-hard horror fans [would]. So I figured I'd go ahead and try something that was just outright horror.
Q: Horror Writers of America (HWA) is a relatively new organization. Didn't you start HWA?
A: The idea. Other people did the work, really put it together.
Q: Are you still active in it? Weren't you the editor for the first year's newsletter?
A: No, just the first two issues. I'm active in that I'm on the Board, whatever that means. I don't really have to be active in it anymore because it's gotten off to a good start. Dean [Koontz] and Charlie Grant... Dean worked so hard on it, he got such a good foundation, that it's going to run itself. It's strange to think that it's really happened. But it has happened. It was amazing to go to that convention in New York and see all of those people there, people who were happy in being part of the group.
I've heard it said that there were some politics involved, this, that, and the other. I hope that doesn't happen, I think that's a bunch of bullshit that doesn't need to be there. It may be that wherever people gather there's going to be politics and those kinds of things, but I hope that doesn't get into the organization. You know, who knows this person better, who likes this person better; that doesn't need to be there. There were a lot of very pleased and happy people there, happy to be part of a group or community, and that's very exciting. I'm very glad it's worked out so well.
I think there are great things ahead for it, too. I think there are a lot of things in the future, the bringing together of American and European horror writers and bringing the work of European horror writers to American readers, it's going to help with that. There are a lot of things left to be done... I hope there'll be an HWA anthology soon. We were hoping to do an HWA calendar, and some other stuff. I'm hoping that HWA gets tougher in terms of dealing with publishers, and dealing with agents, too. That's where the organization can be important—how does it deal with publishers? how does it deal with people who hold purse strings?—those things.
Q: Were you surprised that you won the Bram Stoker award for Best Novel for Swan Song?
A: I knew it was up (of course, I knew it was up!), I could see the voting, so I was excited about it and I hoped it worked out. I was extremely floored about "The Deep End," which won Best Short Story. I thought I had a pretty good chance to win with Swan Song because I could see how the voting was going in the newsletter, but I had no idea about "The Deep End." It took me by surprise.
Q: What other awards have you gotten?
A: Usher's Passing won an award here for Best Book of the Year for 1984 from the Library Association, which was neat, because it was the first time a horror novel had won.
Q: Things have been nominated for World Fantasy Awards, Swan Song...
A: Swan Song was [nominated], "Best Friends" was [nominated], "Nightcrawlers" was nominated. Awards don't... [struggles with how to say this] If you're proud and pleased with what you've done, if you feel you've done a good job and the best job you can do, that's, you know, that's it. You can't do any better. So whether somebody... And, gee, there are so many good books out there, really, really good books, and people doing the very best they can do, only one can win an award.
Of all the things that people in HWA seem to get fired up about, it's the awards. I hope it doesn't turn into just an awards ceremony. To me, awards are fine, they're fine for ego. But you know whether you've done a good job or not; nobody has to tell you whether you've done a good job or not. You don't have to tell somebody else that they've done a good job. And again, there are so many good books out every year, that just saying, "Well, this person did a good job and he did a better job than this person here..." How can you do that? But I guess it's just a measure of our society; we need to have some sort of criteria.
What was really neat, though, about HWA is that some people earned awards who I don't think had ever won anything, in terms of the World Fantasy context. And they were so thrilled at being recognized that it would break your heart. They worked long and hard and were so thrilled to be recognized, it just meant everything to them.
Q: A little more personal history. How did you meet your wife, Sally?
A: I met her at a B. Dalton bookstore where she was working. She was teaching first grade and working there at night. I was working at a B. Dalton bookstore, not the same one, but one of my first jobs was working there. So we met and I asked her out. Our second date was to see, on Halloween, "The Innocents" or something like that, and an old movie, silent film, where everybody looks like they used to sit in a flour factory, everybody's walking around with flour all over their faces... Strange movie. That was our second date. [Calls for Sally] Sally, how long have we been married?
Sally: 7 1/2 years.
Rick: 1981. [Calls] Thank you. [laughs]
Sally: I'll remind you in August about it again. Our anniversary?
A: Right, right. Sally taught third grade for three years and first grade for seven years, and I worked at a newspaper as a copy editor, I worked at a department store in their advertising department, and I worked at B. Dalton bookstore.
Q: And became a writer.
A: And became a writer. Again, that was a period of feeling kind of caged or trapped, because I wanted to be a reporter and I was working at the newspaper with this guy. I asked him, "What are my chances of becoming a reporter?" I was working at the copy desk, copy editing stuff, and he said (he didn't like me for some reason) that they didn't work like that, they didn't promote people from the copy desk. If they needed reporters, they hired reporters from outside. And he said as long as he worked in that place, I would never be a reporter. I don't know why he said that; he just did not like me for some reason. But really, he said as long as he worked in that building, I would not be a reporter.
Q: I'll bet that made you feel good.
A: Oh. I'd done some work (this was the Birmingham Post-Herald, the Birmingham News is the afternoon paper), so I'd done some work for the Birmingham News as a freelance reporter and I went to do stories like a rumored sighting of a Bigfoot-like creature. I spent time at the homeless missions, freelance stuff like that. But, anyway, this guy at the Post-Herald said that as long as he was at the paper, I'd never be a reporter, and it felt like, again, that I was trapped, because I would be at that copy editing desk if I didn't do something to get myself out of there. So I started working on Baal and it worked out.
Q: Were you able to quit working and become a full-time writer immediately after Baal was published?
A: No, it was a couple of years later.
Q: So after The Night Boat and Bethany's Sin were out.
A: Yeah. About that same time—1980. I had never dreamed of being able to make a living writing. What got me: there was a bookstore near the newspaper. I would go to this bookstore. They had all of these books, hardback books. And you know when you open up a book, you smell... I don't know what that smell is, but that's the most wonderful smell in the world. To smell that smell of ideas on paper. And I wanted to be part of that world, if I could possibly be. And the perfect pages. Of course, nothing is perfect, it's certainly not a perfect world, but it is a free world. You can construct your own world every nine months or so. One of the problems that I had working for other people is that I got bored silly after about 9 or 10 months. So now I can change it, I can shake it up. When I finish a book, I don't have to do the same exact thing; I can shake it up and do whatever I want to do. That to me is priceless.