Robert R. McCammon Interview: January 1997

January 6, 1997

Exclusive Interview With
Robert R. McCammon
Conducted by Hunter Goatley
January 6, 1997

Editor's note: The Robert R. McCammon interview below was conducted on January 6, 1997. As of that date, McCammon had completed his novel Speaks the Nightbird and had begun work on a new, as-yet-untitled novel.

Though not covered in the interview, Rick McCammon has not yet signed with a publisher for Speaks the Nightbird, though he hopes to do so soon. It is unknown at this time if Speaks the Nightbird will see publication in 1997.

Goatley: Well, the big question is, What happened to you? You pretty much dropped out of sight after Gone South was published, and people have been asking what happened?

McCammon: Well, of course, you know this already, but I decided to take some time off to be a full-time father. We have a little girl named Skye, and I wanted to take some time to find out what fatherhood was like and to enjoy it.

I also wanted to put some thought into the next book, and I thought I'd reached the point where I needed to make a change. I'd been on kind of a treadmill of one book a year, and I reached the point where I wanted to do something other than horror. I needed some time to think about what I wanted to do.

Goatley: Have you missed not having books coming out like that, or has it been a relief to just kind of kick back and not worry about it?

McCammon: I didn't realize how much stress is there. In my case, once I start a book, I'm gone for a period of time, and I really wanted to be with my family. Once you start a book, once I start a book, I'm gone for eight, nine months or something like that. You're just somewhere else. And the more you get into it, the more you're away from real life, away from reality. But if you don't do that, the book's not going to be any good. You must sacrifice something for the creation of this project, and you must go away from reality, because you're creating an alternate reality. It's a necessity. I didn't realize how much stress there was from that.

When you step back from it, it's really kind of frightening, because you're creating this world, and it could fall apart at any minute. The worst thing in the world is to be working on something and have it not come together. You have to find out why it's not coming together, what's wrong, and that's terrible. So I didn't miss that part of it, but I did miss the creation part of it. Having something there, having something that spoke to other people. And having something with my name on it.

Goatley: Sure, the thrill of seeing your name....

McCammon: Exactly. I like to think that everything works out in its own time, and that may be philosophical or whatever, but I have to think that, you know? And I needed to wait and see where I wanted to go next.

Goatley: Has that path become more defined? Has fatherhood helped define that?

McCammon: It has become more defined, but I don't know if being a father has that much to do with it.... But reaching a certain point in what I'd done before, in the horror field.... I reached a point where everything that I wanted to do was done in that field. I didn't really feel like I could add much to it. I still have some stories I wish I'd done, but all in all, I reached a point where it's too late to go back and do that, because I've gone to somewhere else. I know that's hard to explain, at least if feels hard to explain, but I went past some of that. I went past some of the things that I really wanted to do, and I didn't care to go back and do them. I just wanted to do something else.

Also, I felt like there were other horror writers who were doing such excellent work and had such a following of fans, that I never really fit in that much to the horror field. I felt like what I was doing was not really considered "cutting-edge" horror, and cutting-edge horror seems to be very important to the hardcore horror fan.

Goatley: There certainly was a period of that.

McCammon: Yeah, cutting-edge horror was where it was, and that's what was the draw for the audience. I wasn't really interested in doing cutting-edge horror because I perceive that to be extremely violent and extremely brutal toward women. That's just my perception, but I didn't want to do the cutting-edge horror. That didn't appeal to me at all.

Goatley: In '91, you wrote an essay for Lights Out wherein you stated that you weren't going to be doing horror anymore. In that, you also predicted that the horror market was dying. Here in early '97, that seems to have all but expired.

McCammon: I think it's still there, but the audience has gotten a little younger. I think there's always going to be a core audience for horror, but a lot of the new audience is younger.

Goatley: Sure, with Goosebumps....

McCammon: The other thing that was happening when I was a horror writer, and some of the others were, is that real life began to get more and more horrifying. It began to get more and more strange, almost like we were asking questions that were unanswerable, that we were doing things that were too late because these things were already being seen on the news. We weren't very much ahead of the wave. And then we started lagging behind the wave.

I must say, really, now that I'm doing more historically-based fiction, it's very hard to do. The horror work was much easier to do. And I really had come to the point where I wanted to do something that was hard to do. I know that sounds strange, but I really wanted to challenge myself to do something that I'd not done before. I must say, it's very difficult to do.

It's much more difficult to do work that's rooted in history, and rooted in facts, than to wholly create a fantasy world, or horror world, based in reality but where you've built the horror dimension.

Goatley: Having read Speaks the Nightbird.... Well, before I go on, would you mind giving a brief description of the novel?

McCammon: It's set in 1699 in the Carolina Colony, and it involves a magistrate and his young clerk who come to a town to hear and judge a witchcraft trial in which a woman is accused of being a witch and killing her husband. The magistrate is of the old school, who really believes in such things as witches and demonic possession, and the younger man is beginning to question the entire process. The younger man is beginning to wonder, is there something else going on that no one understands involving the murder of this woman's husband?

I'm real excited about it. It's a long book, and it's a difficult book, I think.

Goatley: From my reading, I could tell there was massive work in background and history checks....

McCammon: Oh yeah, there was, and of the language, because the language was different then, the cadence and the whole feel of it.

Goatley: How did you research that stuff?

McCammon: I went to Williamsburg. They have a vault full of old documents and diaries and stuff; I was able to find there some books about language in that era.

The problem that I face with a book like that is that it's very detailed and very accurate. We enter an era now where a lot of people don't necessarily like to read books that require something of the reader. And I think Speaks the Nightbird requires something of the reader.

Goatley: Oh, I agree.

McCammon: I think it does. We've entered the era of even more fast entertainment than we had, say, twenty years ago. So it's questionable: do people really want something that requires something of a reader?

My feeling is that when you lose the potential of something that requires work from a reader, to meet it halfway, I think you really lose something of human intelligence, of human imagination. That was kind of a thing I thought about when I finished the book, that it does require the work of the reader.

Goatley: The payoff is there. Having read it....

McCammon: You're a reader, though. You're a reader, and you have an imagination.

Goatley: These days, many of the bestsellers have an even more popcorn quality to them....

McCammon: Some of those authors have a very distinct style, and some of them are perfect for films. The thing in Hollywood is, no producer wants to film a book that they have to take anything from, that they have to make less of what's already there. I know that sounds funny, but bear with me and I'll get to my point.

In many books today, the authors basically write screenplays. They leave out as much as they put in. They leave out a lot of character development; that's for the movie people to do. They leave something for the producers, directors, and actors and actresses to do.

Goatley: I've read some lately where the characters were pretty much just names; there was nothing else to them.

McCammon: From what I understand, no producer or director wants to do a book that they would wind up detracting from; they want to be able to add, and that makes perfect sense.

Goatley: Speaking of movies, this is a common question I get: is any of your stuff going to be made into movies?

McCammon: I have no idea. You know, some things are floating around, but I don't know. It's something I don't really think about or give any kind of thought too. There was one point where I really thought a lot about it, I thought, "I hope this is made into a movie." Now I don't give any of that a second thought.

Goatley: The last interview we did back in '91, we talked about how stupid Hollywood is, moaning about how there are no good roles for women, while MINE had three great women's roles....

McCammon: Right. Well, a project must have a champion. Everything that's made has a champion: somebody gets behind a book or screenplay and really pushes it through. It's just the luck of the draw whether you get a champion or not. Even someone who is very well connected in Hollywood and pushes something through, it can still fall through. Everything in Hollywood is a crap-shoot, with a capital C. I don't know how they get anything done.

The bottom line is that I don't care. The bottom line is that I am trying to do the best I can do with what I can do, with where I am. I used to think that it would be great to have a movie and everything, but it would be such a pain in the ass too.

I don't lose any sleep over it. I don't lose any sleep over anything other than, "Can I make the book I'm working on work."

Goatley: Speaking of that, can you say anything about what you're working on right now?

McCammon: I'm working on a book now that's set in World War II. It involves a Russian theatrical troupe, much like the USO shows that Bob Hope used to do, except that it's set on the other side. These Russian troupes used to go out behind the lines and entertain the troops who were fighting the Germans. There's more to the story than that, but more I can't say right now.

Goatley: OK. Well, thank you very much for the interview!

McCammon: OK!

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