Robert McCammon Interview: October 2007 - Part 1

October 15, 2007

Robert McCammon
Discusses The Queen of Bedlam
Conducted by Hunter Goatley
October 15, 2007

High-quality MP3 file (14 MB, 34 minutes)
Lower-quality MP3 file (6 MB, 34 minutes)

Editor's note: The Robert McCammon interview below was conducted on October 15, 2007, at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, TN.

This is part one of the interview, in which we discuss The Queen of Bedlam.

HG: So, The Queen of Bedlam comes out next week. That must be very exciting.

RM: Yes, very exciting.

HG: There were 5 years between the publication of Speaks the Nightbird and The Queen of Bedlam, but Speaks the Nightbird was actually written many years before that. Was it hard to get back into it, or did the great reception Speaks the Nightbird got make it easier to want to get back into writing?

RM: Well, it did. I came to the point where I wanted to do something else, I wanted to get back into writing, and my first question was: What did I want to read? I didn't really want to go back strictly to the horror genre, but my thing was, if I wanted to read a book now, what would it be?

So I had this idea to carry Matthew forward in a series of books, and I thought, you know, this is something I really want to read, and, of course, to be able to read it, you've got to write it. But then again, since Nightbird did get a good reception, and people really seemed to like the character and like the idea, and like the setting and the historical details, I thought, Give it a shot, and see what happens. So, the answer is yes, yes, and yes.

I've always enjoyed history and reading about history, and my thing was I'm trying to make history not be so dull and stuffy. I think most people think of history as being dull and stuffy, and I want to show people that it's not. For instance, the Governor in The Queen of Bedlam, Lord Cornbury, is anything but stuffy, and that's an historical fact, that he actually did that with his choice of clothing attire. So that's something that's strictly not dull and stuffy.

And also the taverns, and that people got drunk, and they fought, and then the prostitutes.... It was just a lot going on. It's very much similar to our lives today. And my thing was also that people don't really change that much. Settings may change quite a lot, and, of course, they do, but there's something in people that remains constant.

HG: I think maybe that's part of the problem with too many historical novels: they center on the history that they're covering and don't treat the people of that era as being the same as they are now.

RM: Yeah, I think that's true.

HG: They ignore the seedier side of....

RM: The reality that people have always been people, and people by and large will go for those seedy entertainments, or whatever. And then I wanted to develop a mystery, too, and again, as we've talked before, there's an overshadowing storyline involved in these books, too, that involves this Professor Fell, who was like an emperor of crime. He's brought together the criminal families of Europe.

It's fascinating to think, to me, What would the world be like if there really was somebody who's in charge of criminal families of Europe in this particular timeframe? What would he have done? What would be the purpose of doing that? There is an overall story arc that links the books together. And that was exciting to me to do, to put that together.

HG: Yeah. So you had all the historical research that you had done for Speaks the Nightbird. Given the gap between the two books, did you have to go relearn a bunch of that stuff, or did you you still have a lot of those details in your head?

RM: Yeah, because I had to do a whole lot more research for Bedlam than I did for Nightbird, simply because I was dealing with a real place. You know, I mentioned Charlestown, but Fount Royal, of course, was not a real place in Nightbird, so I could get away with more.

I had to really research New York. I found maps, but the problem was that I couldn't find an exact map of 1702. I found a map of 1690-something, and a map of 1730, so I had to kind of interpolate what the city would have looked like in between. I did make some errors, because I probably relied too much on the map of 1730. So what I'm writing about, in reality, probably looks closer to what it was in 1715 or so. I got seduced by the map of 1730. Because the earlier map I had from the 1690s, I couldn't read the streets at all. You could see the map, and the streets were written out, but it was illegible, you couldn't read it. It's only in the 1730 map that you could really read the streets. As I learned later, some of the street names I used didn't come into use until about 1710, 1714, or so. So I kind of messed up on some of the street names. But still, for everything that I messed up on, I did get a lot of stuff right. You know, for every ten things you got right, you might have messed up on one thing, so....

HG: Those are minor details, but when it comes to the historical flavor....

RM: Like I mentioned, I was on this panel in Anchorage [at Bouchercon 2007]—the History Mystery panel—and the question was: which is more important, the history or the mystery? It's a great question, and I started thinking about it: Well, which is more important? And I realized that the mystery has to be. Because.... I use the Reverend, who was the reverend of Trinity Church at that time. There's a long list of all the reverends of Trinity Church, and I'm not using the real name of the real reverend because of his situation in the book. So right there, you're not being true to history.

I have a book of names of everybody who lived in New York at that time. But I don't use all those names—some of the names are fictitious. So right there, you're not being exactly true to history. There's going to be some slippage in terms of what you can do and what you can't do.

For instance, in this summer of 1702, I found out in my research that there was a huge fever epidemic there, and a couple of hundred people died. That was the same summer that Lord Cornbury came, and I thought, the fever idea.... I could use it, say, in some other book, but I couldn't use it in this book now because there'd be too much going on. Because The Queen of Bedlam is really almost like two books in one. It's about Matthew's becoming involved with the Herrald Agency—becoming the problem solver—and the mystery of the Masker and the Queen of Bedlam. So you really can't put anything else in there, like the fever epidemic. Historically there was a fever epidemic that summer. I can't use that, so that right there means, "Well, have you been true to history?" No, no, I'm not. But I did want to use Lord Cornbury. I mean, how could you not use Lord Cornbury?

HG: He's a helluva character....

RM: Absolutely. But one deal, also is.... I started out in 1699 with Nightbird because that was probably one of the last years that people really thought that there might be witches. That feeling was beginning to go away. So by the time the 1700s came around, that had gone away. People were beginning to be more enlightened. So 1699 in the Carolina Colony, then for the next book I wanted to do, I didn't want Matthew to be much older. So I thought, two or three years later, I want him to be in New York, I want to be in a place where there's more going on. Ideally, I would have set it in about 1730—the whole series in about 1730—then you would have more going on, you'd have probably shadows and shades of the coming revolution, you'd be able to do some spy stuff, and some skullduggery stuff.... But I couldn't, because I'd started the series out in 1699 with the witch trial. So that was kind of limiting, in a way. But you have to do what you can with where you are and make the best of it as best you can.

HG: I personally find it a little bit more interesting than it might have been had it been set later simply because I don't know anything about the early 1700s. We're taught the American Revolution, so everybody knows about the late 1700s, but not the early decades. So from that aspect, I find it very interesting.

RM: You really kind of have to pick and choose, though. I read a novel set in about 1700, and everything was nasty, and everything was muddy and brutish, and the rats were wild. And that's true, that was going on there. But I've chosen to do it in a different way. I've chosen not to focus on the rats and the garbage and.... There's some of that, too, but I've chosen to focus on something else. In other words, I've kind of Disney-fied it, in a way, because while I haven't cleaned it up, it's what I've chosen to focus on.

But you're right, most people don't know much about that era. Your knowledge of Colonial America only starts with the Revolution, and there was so much more going on—fascinating interactions with Indians, and pirates, and a lot more. One thing that experts really don't agree on is how sophisticated the city really was. Some experts say it was just a frontier, a fur-trade town, and others will say that it was a very sophisticated monetary town, that there was a lot going on with the money and a lot going on in terms of economics. So you really do have to do your research, but pick and choose what you want to present.

HG: Well, any historian looking back that at that is going to bring his own bias, what he's looking for. So one person with an economic bias may see that it was a flourishing economic center, but somebody that doesn't have that economic background may not see it that way and may focus on something else, based on their own experiences.

RM: Right, right. Well, my feeling about it is that unless you lived in that era, nobody knows what it was really like. Nobody. So you just have to do the best you can do. And I wanted to make it exciting, too. There's some bit of—I won't say alternative history, but I'm kind of going for a bit of Wild Wild West or James Bond-type feel, too, in that maybe this didn't happen, but it could have happened. It may be a little bit of alternative history.

I think we mentioned one time we talked that Nightbird won a science-fiction award. I never could understand why it won a "Best Book of the Year" award from a science fiction group. I thought that was kind of amazing, but I think maybe because the way it's presented, younger readers may see that as being as distant as a rocket to Venus, or a colony on the moon, or whatever. It seems like such a long, long time ago that it's completely like another world.

So that's kind of where I'm going: it's rooted in history, but it is sort of another world, in a way, that was never recorded in history books.

Knowing that I'm going to make mistakes.... I made mistakes in Nightbird, I made mistakes in The Queen of Bedlam, because there's a massive amount of detail in The Queen of Bedlam. I think the more detail you do, the more you're going to mess up, the more potential there is for error. But it's a learning experience for me, too, because I've done so much research on everything I could.... But I'm going to miss some things. I just am. But I'm going to learn for the next book.

The problem is when you assume anything. When you have ten things to work on, and you go, "I'm just going to assume that," then that's what you're going to mess up on—when you assume something. And that's certainly happened to me. I've learned quite a few lessons about assumptions.

But you just read, do your research, and understand that you are creating a world and creating an atmosphere to suit your mystery and to suit your characters.

HG: The level of detail in Bedlam is impressive, but it never gets in the way of the story. I find it interesting to see the aspects of life back then, but they never overwhelm what's going on with the characters.

RM: Well, good. I'm glad! I didn't want it to be too overwhelming. In the next book, the details won't be as overwhelming.

It's a real challenge to do a series—you know, I've never done a series before. So the challenge to me is—in this new book, Mr. Slaughter—how much do you go back and do the detail that you've already done, for people who are just getting into the series? That's a challenge that I'm trying to face because I have some carryover scenes in Mr. Slaughter that have to do with events in The Queen of Bedlam. So my challenge is: how much do you explain to people who haven't read The Queen of Bedlam? What do you need to do to get people into the story?

That's something that I'm having to deal with right now. I'm not sure that I have to go back and re-do all that detail I did about New York City, because I already did it in The Queen of Bedlam. I don't think I need to do it again in Mr. Slaughter. It's very challenging.

HG: Were you able to get any pointers on how to do that kind of thing while you were at Bouchercon?

RM: Well, there were people there doing historical mysteries, but nobody was doing anything in this era. The thing that I talked to some other writers about was consistency—making sure everybody's consistent. But even so, I found out that some people realized they messed up even the descriptions of major characters. You just try to get the consistency down as much as possible.

HG: Without getting too far into spoilers for the book, there were a couple of scenes that I found very interesting, like the proverbial "bull in the china shop," or pottery shop, as the case is. I think it's a wonderful scene.

RM: I wanted there to be a bull in a china shop, and this is as close to a china shop as you can get.

HG: It works.

RM: That whole thing came out of the most bizarre thing you could ever imagine. One of my daughter's favorite movies is The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. It's one of those movies that's so bad that it's good, it's funny. Skye and I watched that over and over this summer. There are two ghosts; one ghost is played by Boris Karloff—his name is Hiram Stokely. The actual ghost in the invisible bikini is named Cecily. So I said, "All right, Skye. For you, I'm going to put those names in this book." So they became Hiram and Cecily, the pig. So where do you go from there? You can't just put the names in the book. So it kind of built from there, that Cecily the pig knows that something is going to happen, has this foreboding, and it just went from there.

But then I got the opportunity to say, I've always heard this about a bull in a china shop. What would it actually be? And here's an opportunity to really have a bull in a china shop—a pottery shop—because you've got bulls in the streets. So go ahead and do it, while you can!

HG: It was a wonderful scene! It obviously brought to mind the bull in the china shop, but it didn't pull you out of the story. It seemed a natural progression of the events.

RM: And being a series, there is some continuity to that thing. It's not just that it happened, and I'm not going to mention it ever again. There is some continuity that I'm going to talk about in Mr. Slaughter—something happens because of that.

HG: That must be fun.

RM: It is fun. It's a tricky thing to make sure that everything doesn't exist in a vacuum. Something was done in Nightbird that's going to come back in three or four books. I've got it planned out that something is going to happen, or that some character is going to come back, and there's something that's going to happen later on because of what happens in The Queen of Bedlam. These things won't exist in a vacuum, but they'll continue on and have some meaning later on in the series.

HG: It's fascinating to me to see how everything developed with Matthew and the Herrald Agency, with the sword-training and....

RM: The sword-training. I bought three swords—three rapiers—and I was going to take fencing lessons. But I found out that you can't really get rapier-fencing lessons anymore, it's all foils, which is the long, thin sword. That's wasn't going to help, because I needed the weight of the rapier. I found on the Internet—I couldn't have done this book without the Internet, but I'll get to that in a minute—I found three or four old books on fencing with a rapier, and I kind of taught myself. Of course, how can you teach yourself? All I'm saying is that I taught myself the moves.

Heavy sword. How these guys could use the sword like that—unbelievable. Recently, within the last 10 years, maybe, a skeleton was found in Williamsburg, and they determined the man was a swordsman because the bones of one forearm were bigger than the other. He had actually been using the sword for so long that the bones were actually bigger.

How they could use that heavy sword in fighting.... Unbelievable. But obviously they could.

HG: Very interesting stuff.

RM: Thank you. I was going to say about the Internet: it used to be that I would go and do my research just at the library. I would have a list of research items to look up at the library, or I'd call somebody and go from there. In these particular books, you have so many questions all the time that, if you had to wait until the next day to go to the library, it'd be years before you could get the thing done. It would be years before you could finish the project.

I have a scene where Matthew goes to get a horse. I'm not necessarily going to write it, but I need to know something about what the inside of the stable is going to look like. I'm not going to write it, but I need to know that for myself. Now, he's going to go on a trip the next day. About how far can he go on a horse? How far can you reasonably go on a horse? If I didn't have the Internet, it'd be like, I have to wait until tomorrow. I can't go any further until I get this information from the library.

So you get the information about the horse's gait, and how far the horse can go, and then you'll have another question. You can't think that far ahead—these are very specific questions that you need answered, and answered right now, so you're going to have to use the Internet.

It would have taken years to finish this book without the Internet.

HG: So you found useful sites?

RM: Absolutely. You know, the clothes.... I found this entire book on terms used by—as they called them, the lower class of British persons—used by the rascals and rapscallions, this type of "gutter language." I haven't used a lot of that, but having that is invaluable. I did find a book that I bought at a bookstore on Colonial language, but then I found this other "gutter language" book right there on the Internet.

The Internet has been really invaluable. You can find anything there, but you also have to be careful; you have to check your sources, for sure, and find it in a couple of places. I found a couple of things that I had never heard of before and that some of the people who edited the book hadn't heard of before, either, and it took them by surprise, too, that a particular thing was true. It's been a real interesting thing to do, and vital to use the Internet.

HG: You're lucky the Internet is where it is now.

RM: Oh, yeah, even a few years ago, it wouldn't have been where it is now. If you searched for "Colonial America," you'd get all Revolutionary War hits 5 or 6 years ago. But now you can find all sorts of things: the list of the mayors, the list of the reverends at Trinity Church.... It's absolutely amazing that everything is there, you've just got to look for it. And what's not there, you can always make up. [laughs]

HG: Is there anything else you wanted to say about The Queen of Bedlam?

RM: Just that I'm very excited about having a challenge in terms of the series and looking forward to reading these books. It's so exciting to me to be doing something that I'm looking forward to doing, with characters that carry on. I really like the characters. I love the era, and the feeling of the era, and that this mystery is going to evolve, that Professor Fell is going to evolve. Matthew's going to come into contact with him, physically, pretty soon. And then there's a larger scope of something else going on. There's a lot ahead, and there's a lot to look forward to.

HG: Your characterizations have always been one of your strong points, and in reading these books, I feel like I know these people.

RM: On my last trip to New York, Sally, Skye, and I went to Trinity Church and walked around the cemetery there. Just about every stone is washed clean of anything, any date, because they're so old. I almost came to tears there a little bit—and I get a little emotional about it, still—because you look at these graves and these people, and I felt so like I knew what that was like. I knew what the town was like. I felt like I had some bond with these people who lay dead in the cemetery, and I was speaking for them, in a way. Which is kind of weird and presumptuous of me to be saying that, but I felt some kind of kinship with the people who were buried there. That's how real they were to me.

HG: That's something you wouldn't have unless you'd done all that research....

RM: I needed a word that meant "sorrowful" or "sad".... One of the things I really have to have is a book of word origins, because I have to make sure that they're not using a word that didn't come into being until years later. That's tricky to do, and I'm always checking that book to make sure whatever word I'm using was used then. But I needed a word that meant "sad" or "sorrowful"—I think the line was going to be, "Shall we shamble off to the nearest bar and drown our sorrows," or something like that. So I started to look up "shamble" or a word.... I could not find a word that meant "to walk in sorrow," or "to walk sadly," or "to proceed sadly."

The world was so hard—life was so hard—they had many words for "joy," but few words for "sorrow" or "sadness." That was just such a matter of fact.... Life was hard. So you didn't cry about it. You just went on.

But joy.... If you had joy in your life, you expressed that. Sadness? That was just part of life, so you just went on, day to day. I thought that was pretty interesting.

HG: Speaking of language, I recently tried to read a medieval mystery set in the 1300s. But I couldn't get into it, because the language seemed to be too modern. It was like the only way that I knew it was set in the 1300s is because the author told me it was. There was no feeling of being there. But with Nightbird and Bedlam, I got a strong feeling of where I was and when I was.

RM: That's good. I hope I can keep that going. I think there are some instances where I stepped out and did a little bit more modern language, but I did it later on in the book. I think as you read further on in The Queen of Bedlam, there are some instances were somebody says something, and the lady says, "Well we got that," or something like that. It's more modern, but I thought, you know, it's OK.... You can do a few things later on, but first I think you've got to set it up as to where you are. Later on, you can kind of play with it a little bit. Which I did a little bit with the language.

That's why I use this etymology book. It is like a bible to me. I've got that beside me, and I use it all the time. But it can be frustrating, because you've got a really good line, but you find that this word was not used in that way until 1725 or so. Nope, can't use that, got to find something else.... You really have to check, because I'm a stickler about that, as much as possible. You can make the dialogue stiff or breezy, but you've got to make sure the words suit the era.

HG: Is it too early to say anything about Mr. Slaughter, the next Matthew Corbett novel?

RM: I guess it is. I've really just started it. I've got it finished mentally, but I just started it, and I guess I'm about sixty pages into it. Hoping to be finished with it in February.

It is more of a manhunt piece than a Sherlock Holmesian-mystery, which I guess Speaks the Nightbird and The Queen of Bedlam were. This is more like a cross-country fugitive hunt. There's more to it than that, of course, but that's the gist of it. I wanted to do something that moves fast, and it's pretty violent—there's a lot of violence in it. But it adds to the overall story, it adds to the overall reach of the whole project.

I view the whole thing as like you're reading one book. All the books are set at most a few months apart, so everything merges together. By the time you finish the whole series, you'll see how everything merges together.

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