After Hours: "An Interview with Rick McCammon"

1989 Interview

After Hours Winter 1989 cover

From the Archives:
"Coffee Shop: An Interview with Rick McCammon"
by William G. Raley

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the fanzine After Hours, Winter 1989. After Hours was published by William G. Raley, who conducted this interview. It is reprinted here with the permission of William G. Raley. Thank you, William!

ROBERT R. McCAMMON and I have a few things in common: we're both from the Heart of Dixie; we're both Cancers; and we both have an affinity for fiction that comes out after dark. He is the author of several novels, including They Thirst, Mystery Walk, and Usher's Passing. Swan Song tied with Stephen King's Misery for the inaugural Bram Stoker novel award for superior achievement, conferred by the Horror Writers of America (HWA). His latest novel is Stinger, from Pocket Books.

After Hours: Did you grow up in Birmingham?

Rick McCammon: Yes, I did.

AH: Where did you go to school?

RM: I went to the University of Alabama.

AH: Your first novel, Baal, was published when you were 26. Did you start writing full-time then?

RM: I began writing full-time when I finished Bethany's Sin, which was actually the third book I wrote but was published second after Baal, with The Night Boat being published third.

As a kid, I'd written short stories, poems and stuff, but I never imagined I'd ever be able to make a profession out of writing.

AH: Birmingham's a large city—do you spend time in rural Alabama when writing a story, or draw from experience?

RM: Birmingham's a great place because there's city here and then there's rolling farmland and forest not too far away. I live in a semi-rural area, I guess you might say, with forest, in my backyard. My area is very quiet, though a huge shopping center isn't far. Just ask Joe Lansdale; he knows all about it. Anyway, Birmingham's a good mix of city and country.

AH: How has being from the South affected your work? How prevalent do you feel regionality is within the rest of the horror genre?

RM: I began writing by consciously not including Southern characters and locales in my work. I didn't want to be a "Southern writer," so much as I wanted to be a writer who lives in the South. But I'm finding I am writing more and more about the South, simply because it's in me. Charles Grant said something interesting about Swan Song. He said he thought all the characters in it were Southern, whether they were described as being from the South or not. I think that's probably true, simply because all the characters in a book—good or bad—are extensions of their creator. I don't consciously hear myself speaking in a Southern accent, but I guess that's my voice.

AH: What does the South offer in the way of settings and atmosphere that other regions cannot provide?

RM: That's difficult to answer, because I haven't lived in other regions. I think all regions of the country have their power and charm, but when I think of the South I always think of green. Green fields, green forest; a primeval bursting forth of life. Emotions are high and raw in the South, there's probably more violence here than in other parts of the country. But it's a beautiful place, with much forest that comes right up to your backdoor. I think the South has an untamed spirit—a private, secretive spirit—and I like that very much.

AH: Can you offer any explanation why you're the only major horror author from Alabama?

RM: I've killed all the other ones,

AH: What advice do you have for writers in small-town America who want to add local flavor to their work?

RM: Go out and eat a locale.

I'm serious about that. Mental consumption. It's important to absorb as much of any locale as you can, including local people. That means attention to details: accents, what people wear, the kind of cars they drive, whatever. Writing is a process of gathering information, refining it, and making a story out of it. I think learning the history and folklore of your area is also very important.

AH: Do you have any advice for successfully published authors of dark fantasy and horror short stories having difficulty selling novels? Do you think most writers try novel-writing too soon?

RM: My advice is to stick with it. Get feedback from people you trust. Keep working. Work everyday. Don't believe that anything having to do with writing is easy, but do believe that everything having to do with writing is worth the effort.

AH: Do you have any opinion why so few good horror novels and stories are made into films?

RM: I think many good horror novels and stories are made into films, Unfortunately, they aren't good films. Writing a novel or a story is a solitary craft, where the writer is in total control of his or her efforts. Writing a screenplay, on the contrary, may be done by a roomful of people who have been assigned to do the job. So it's no longer a labor of love—or even an item of particular interest—but instead a means to earn a paycheck at the end of the week. There's also the LCD factor—the "lowest common denominator" factor—at work in Hollywood. I don't think most screenwriters and unfortunately very few directors seem to feel the motion picture audience has much intelligence. So: crap in, crap out.

AH: Are there plans to turn any of your novels into movies?

RM: A few of my works are optioned. Whether anything becomes a movie or not is anyone's guess. Actually, a movie based on one of my books could be a horrible disaster; in fact, the odds are greater that it would be a disaster rather than being successful or true to the book. So, my feeling is: nice if it happens—maybe—but if it doesn't happen, so what?

AH: Are you like other well-known horror authors in that you have a highly developed sense of humor? Why do humor and horror coexist so well?

RM: Sure, I have a highly developed sense of humor! For instance, do you know why the moron threw his clock out the window? Because he wanted to see time fall!

See? Isn't that funny? I've got a million of 'em!

I think horror and humor are flip sides of the same coin. It's more of a shock to flip back and forth between them, and I think humor strengthens horror while at the same time making a book more plausible. I mean, nothing is ever all horrifying, just as nothing is ever all humorous.

AH: What do you think is the scariest location in Alabama for a story to take place?

RM: Two locations: my file-cabinet and closet. Both are terrifying.

AH: You're on the board of trustees of the HWA. What benefits do you feel organizations such as this offer to writers?

RM: A sense of belonging, of being part of a larger fabric. I think writers—people who basically work in a mental, solitary coalmine—need that sense of belonging to a group of like-minded souls. I know I certainly do, and over and above the professional implications of what HWA can do for writers in the marketplace, HWA is a great gathering point for writers in the genre.

AH: Do you use a PC to type your manuscripts?

RM: I work on a Xerox 645S Memorywriter, which is a combination typewriter and computer. I just love to pop those ribbon cartridges in and out and not get my fingers all black like I used to. Also, I don't have to use that white correction gunk anymore. A real pro, huh?

AH: What's the best source of reading material for new writers wanting to avoid overdone plots?

RM: Don't focus on reading primarily horror fiction. Read histories, biographies, books on art, music, astronomy, or fiction in other genres. In other words, broaden your reading interests beyond horror fiction and let your mind roam in new territories.

AH: Do you plan to continue writing short stories in addition to novels?

RM: I hope so. I enjoy doing short stories as a break from longer works.

AH: How many rewrites do your short stories typically go through?

RM: Three or four.

AH: Your current novel, Stinger, is about a duel of wits and force between two alien creatures, set in West Texas. How did the idea for the plot come about?

RM: I had always wanted to do an elemental, action work. I loved The Magnificent Seven as a kid, and wanted to do kind of a punk version of it. I'd had it in mind for a long time, and needed to find a time when I could fit it into my schedule.

AH: Did you go to Presidio County, Texas, for the background for Stinger?

RM: No, I didn't. I did a lot of research on the area. I wanted it to be kind of an outer space western. I'd seen the movie Rio Bravo set in that county, and realized that was the type of setting I wanted.

AH: On what projects are you currently working?

RM: I've recently finished a novel called The Wolf's Hour, set during World War II. It'll be out in March. I have a book of short stories and novellas coming out in October called Blue World, and I'm working on a new book set in Hollywood.

AH: Do you think the South is being portrayed fairly within the horror genre?

RM: I think people seem to be afraid of the South, particularly if they've never visited the South before. It's amazing how many people think we either raise pit bulls down here and chew the heads off chickens or we sit on Tobacco Road and scratch our chigger bites. Ain't so, y'all.

AH: Describe your work environment. Are you still writing between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.?

RM: Yes, I do write on the graveyard shift. It's a lot quieter, no phones to deal with. I have an office with a view of the sky and the forest. I listen to music as I work, and I try to do five to seven pages a day. Finished pages, that is, which is why working on a Memorywriter with a display screen really cuts the time. I can do all my editing an the screen, press a button, and out emerges—if all goes well—a finished page. I work every night and also try to get in some work during the day too. I think it's important to have regular working hours, and a place where your typewriter is permanently set up so you know when you sit down at that place that you're there to work.

AH: Do you have any pets?

RM: No, but my cousin Rex lives in the attic. He has been known to get loose sometimes. Often he makes his way to my typewriter and mangles works in progress. He has an affinity for power tools, and he likes midget wrestling. Chet Williamson knows all about him, poor Chet.

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