McCammon Interview: Footsteps, November 1987

By Rodney Labbe, 1987

An Interview with
Robert McCammon
by Rodney Labbe

Editor's note: This article appeared in the November 1987 issue of Footsteps, issue number 8. It is reprinted here with the permission of its author, Rodney Labbe. Thank you!

The first Robert R. McCammon book I ever read was They Thirst—and although I was more attracted by the gruesome cover than by author recognition, it didn't take long for me to realize that McCammon possessed a definite flair for the supernatural. Plainly put, this Southern Gentleman can conjure up horrifying images better than any storyteller I know. And yes, that includes the infamous "Triumvirate of Terror," King, Straub, and Koontz.

Since 1978, Robert McCammon has written over five best-selling horror novels, most of them paperback originals. But it wasn't until 1981—and the publication of They Thirst—that he began to emerge as a critical and commercial sensation. The hardcover market soon beckoned, and McCammon set about producing what many consider to be his crowning achievement, Mystery Walk.

He followed that masterpiece with Usher's Passing, perhaps his most daring project to date. A modern-day chronicle of Edgar Allan Poe's tragically flawed Usher clan, it was faithful to its source while showcasing McCammon's own unique brand of horror. His newest book, Swan Song, is about to be released—and advance word is that this work will finally elevate him to superstar status. Well, it's about time! The man's capacity to frighten seems almost it any wonder that he has the distinction of having sold the first novel he'd ever written? Not even Steve King can lay claim to that!

I spoke with Rick as he was researching his seventh novel, Stinger. Outward appearances can be deceiving—his Southern gentility gave little clue to the nightmares that lurked within. Still, the conversation was revealing and, above all, fun.

Labbe: Lately more and more critics have been hailing you as a new master of horror—and the comparisons to King and Straub are inevitable. What do you see as the fundamental differences between your work and theirs?

McCammon: First off, I'm very pleased and honored to be included in the same company as Stephen King and Peter Straub. Both men are tremendous writers! As for differences, King is an All-American, gusty, gritty stylist, and Straub is more influenced by classical British authors. My style is more Southern—though I do sometimes drift afield from my point of origin. I didn't start out to be a Southern novelist ... it just sort of happened that way.

Labbe: Have you always been a big fan of horror?

McCammon: Oh yeah, though as I kid I didn't like to watch horror movies. Instead, I would cut pictures out of Famous Monsters of Filmland and tape them up all over my room. For some reason, I identified more with the monsters than with the heroes; maybe because I was never much of a "joiner." I was a skinny little nerd who didn't know the first thing about playing football, and, in the South, if you don't play football, you might as well forget about being popular.

Labbe: Did you ever tune into any of the old TV classics, like Twilight Zone?

McCammon: I really enjoyed the Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Thriller, and some weird thing called Tales of the Whistler. I especially liked the opening of Tales of the Unknown—where a woman closed her eyes, then slowly opened them to let out a bloodcurdling scream right into the camera. That was guaranteed to make me jump under the bed!

Labbe: When did you make the crossover from horror fan to horror writer?

McCammon: I've been writing short stories and poems and stuff like that ever since my childhood days, but I never once thought I could become a writer. I mean ... that somebody might actually pay me for my stories was just too crazy to believe! Anyway, I was a Journalism major at the University of Alabama, and I couldn't find a job at a newspaper after graduation. So I wound up working in the advertising department of a local store, running proofs of ads up and down escalators all day. It was truly a dead-end job, and I knew that if I didn't do something fast, I'd be stuck in it for the rest of my life. That was when I started on my first novel, Baal, and I worked on it every night. My folks flipped out! I can still recall my grandfather saying, "Now son, writing books is a fine hobby, but don't let it distract you from your job at the department store."

Labbe: You must have been doing something right! Not every novelist succeeds in selling that first book.

McCammon: Yes, I did sell my first book. Lucky for me! If I hadn't I might still be running at somebody's heels in a department store! I guess Baal sold around three hundred thousand copies, which is pretty good for a first novel. I found an agent through Writer's Marketplace and sent him the finished manuscript. From there, it went to Avon.

Labbe: Was there anyone in particular who motivated you?

McCammon: No one, I'm afraid. I've always wanted to say that I had a mentor, but unfortunately, I didn't. There was one fiction professor in college who liked my work, but he'd only praise you if your stories were about trains. If he read my stuff today, his skull would probably blow open.

Labbe: It is true that you had difficulty breaking into the short story market?

McCammon: Difficulty is not the word for it. I had absolutely no luck at all with my short stories ... mainly because they were terrible! At the time, I thought they were stunning examples of fiction, and that someday I was going to break into a major magazine. I wrote a lot of stories in college—and some of them I actually did write by candlelight, after the electric company had cut off the power to my apartment. Those were the days when I lived on Krystals and Cokes—suffering artist and all that crap, ya see. Well, I'm now writing more and more short stories, and I think—I hope—I'm getting better at them.

Labbe: The "new" Twilight Zone recently adapted your short story "Nightcrawlers." Was it faithful to its source?

McCammon: "Nightcrawlers" was on last fall, and I missed it because I was speaking before a Friends of the Library group in Tennessee. I saw it later on a VCR, and I thought it was pretty good. It's strange to hear lines you wrote coming out of the mouths of real-life human beings. There were a couple of things the TZ people didn't translate from my story to the screen, but overall they did a very, very fine job. The thing was intense!

Labbe: How much of your day is devoted to writing? Do you ever have a problem with discipline?

McCammon: I write every day, from ten at night until four in the morning. If the book is going smoothly, discipline isn't a problem. There is a point where a book will either take off on its own, or just sit there like a stubborn toadfrog.

Labbe: Do you make any sort of outline before starting a project?

McCammon: No, I don't work from an outline. I write a book word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page. Sometimes I have no idea what's going to happen ... but I'd much rather operate that way—it's a lot more fun.

Labbe: Aren't there just so many ways in which a writer can present a horrifying situation or premise?

McCammon: Yes, there are only so many ways to present a particular premise—but the challenge is to take that premise or situation, skew it, turn it upside down and inside out and let fly. For example, right now I'm doing a book called Stinger, and if I gave you a synopsis, you might say that the plot was old-hat. Yet I don't think Stinger will be like any horror novel you've ever read. That's because I've put my own personal style into it—I've taken a time-honored situation and brought it up to date.

Labbe: What's your definition of horror?

McCammon: Good question—and I don't have an answer! "Horror" can mean different things to different people. Is horror a car crash and the smashed bodies lying on the pavement? Is it a corpse with maggots writing on its face? Is it the sound of kids wailing in a bombed-out building in Beirut? Or is it the silence between a husband and wife who realize they don't love one another anymore? I'd say all of those things are pretty horrible, and that's why I think the term "horror" is both constraining and universal. I do consider horror fiction to be serious literature, capable of saying some very penetrating and important things about the human condition. Just look at the long list of classical authors who have used the techniques of horror fiction in their work: Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, A. Conan Doyle, Hawthorne, Dante, Milton—it just goes on and on. So my definition of horror is not necessarily confined to the supernatural or occult variety; rather, horror can be very quiet and very real.

Labbe: Do you read much contemporary horror fiction?

McCammon: I do read a lot of contemporary fiction, though not all of it is horror. While I'm working, I like to read histories and biographies. The Shining is probably the best horror novel I've ever read, and some of my other favorites include The Haunting of Hill House, All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, Crowned Heads, Interview with the Vampire, and Floating Dragon. The resurgence of horror fiction today is a fantastic thing—there's just so much out there, it's staggering!

Labbe: Any advice for the aspiring writers among us?

McCammon: Sit down. Write. And have a place—maybe just a corner of the room—someplace that you know you'll use for work. Like everything else, the discipline of writing is a habit. Don't wait to be "inspired," because you'll probably be waiting forever. Inspiration comes from working day after day; if you keep at it, sooner or later your craft is going to develop. And don't be afraid to show your work to people. Don't be afraid to hear the truth about your material. It might hurt, but you have to take the punches in order to keep going.

Labbe: How did you feel about the transition from paperback to hardcover?

McCammon: Strange. What I found out when I got into hardcover was that there are—by far—more readers of paperbacks. Books, for some reason, are not considered worth the price by the majority of people in this country. So I learned that, even though it looks great to have a hardback or two, the largest readership of horror novels is still in paperback.

Labbe: Were you at all inspired by Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot when writing They Thirst?

McCammon: Yes, I was influenced by 'Salem's Lot. It made me wonder what I could do with the vampire scenario. I thought: if Steve King can do a vampire novel on the scale of a small town in New England, I can do one on the scale of a major city.

Labbe: How long did it take to come up with a final draft?

McCammon: They Thirst involved approximately nine months of actual writing time, and before that, I worked on it mentally for three or four months. I researched the novel in Los Angeles, where I spent one of the most horrible weekends of my life. I stayed in a Mexican hotel and sprained my back and had to go to an acupuncturist. It was my first trip alone to the West Coast, and I had enough experiences that weekend to fill up six books!

Labbe: How did you come to develop Mystery Walk?

McCammon: Mystery Walk grew from an incident that took place during my childhood. My grandfather's house used to have a huge peach orchard behind it, and he once allowed a travelling evangelist to put up a revival tent out there. I could hear those wild voices and wailings night after night, and I drew on those sensations for Mystery Walk.

Labbe: Would you ever consider a sequel to Mystery Walk? Your ending left that possibility open.

McCammon: I might, at some point, write a sequel, but I've got a lot of projects planned, and they don't include going back to something I've already finished. Again, there's the possibility ... I usually try to leave all of my books a bit open-ended.

Labbe: It was gutsy of you to use Poe in the prologue of Usher's Passing. The scene between Hudson Usher and Poe could very well have emerged a self-conscious mess.

McCammon: I knew that might be a very tricky scene to do, but I wanted to express my feeling that any writer had the defense of curiosity. So I let Eddie Poe say it for me.

Labbe: What can you tell us about Swan Song, your latest masterpiece?

McCammon: Swan Song takes place after a devastating nuclear holocaust, and two of its lead characters are a girl named Sue Wanda (Swan) and a huge, black professional wrestler. I started working on the book four years ago. It's approximately 800 pages and covers a period of seven years or so. I'm excited about it. Swan Song is a very violent, graphically explicit book. I didn't want to pull any punches in describing the aftermath of a nuclear war. I expect it might be too strong for some readers.

Labbe: We've heard so much about King and Straub—why not McCammon? When are we going to see you on an American Express Card commercial?

McCammon: I don't have an American Express Card! I do have a Sears card, so maybe if those folks called me, I could do an ad for them. But until the phone rings, I'll be in my office writing!

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