November 3, 1990
Interview: Al Sarrantonio
Conducted by Robert R. McCammon
Transcribed by Hunter Goatley
Editor's Note: Al Sarrantonio is a former editor for Doubleday who is now writing for a living. His short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and his werewolf novel from 1989, Moonbane, brought a lot of attention to his work. He has a number of horror novels to his credit, including Campbell Wood, The Worms, Totentanz, and his most recent novel, October, published by Bantam in October 1990. He also has a regular column in Mystery Scene magazine, mixing humor with updates from his fellow horror writers.
Mr. Sarrantonio is always interesting to talk to; having seen both sides of the publishing fence, he knows the ins and outs of "the business" better than most. This interview was conducted at 2 AM one morning during the 1990 World Fantasy Convention.
McCammon: What have you been working on? What's been going on with you?
Sarrantonio: OK—I've got a new book coming out next spring—in May—called House Haunted—it's a haunted house novel! [It will be published] by Bantam. After that, I have to write two more for Bantam. The next one's going to be called Skeletons—it's gonna be an apocalyptic, broad-canvas type novel, so I'll be working on that soon. I have a Western coming out this fall, in November, from Evans.
McCammon: Is this your first Western?
Sarrantonio: Yeah. It's called West Texas. It's about buffalo soldiers—the black soldiers at Fort Davis in Texas.
McCammon: How did that come about?
Sarrantonio: I spent about a week in the town of Fort Davis. The last three years I've been out there for a week in the summer, visiting a friend of mine named George Proctor, who's a Western writer. We're both telescope buffs and we go out to a thing called the Texas Star Party, which is held in the Davis mountains. They are the clearest skies in the whole United States—the Milky Way stretches like a ribbon across the sky. Out there you can read by it—it comes up, and people think it's a cloud.
McCammon: That must be fantastic.
Sarrantonio: It's unbelievable! One night George Proctor and I went through about 50 galaxies—galaxies!
Anyway, I got to stay in Fort Davis, which is where the buffalo soldiers, who where the black Cavalry, were stationed after the Civil War, and I wrote a novel about one of them who's a Sherlock Holmes freak. And there's a serial killer in the 1890s—this is about the time of Jack the Ripper—killing people in the desert, and [the soldier] tracks the guy down. I had a ball with that!
McCammon: That's different.
Sarrantonio: Yeah. They want a sequel to that already. It should be out this fall, in November—which I guess is now, since this is November! I delivered it to them in July, and they're publishing it in hardcover in November, which is very fast.
McCammon: That's great. Now you work pretty quickly, don't you?
Sarrantonio: No—this book I did, but usually it takes four months—it depends on the book. A book for Bantam, I'll take a little bit longer.
McCammon: It seems like most writers take about eight to ten months to do a book.
Sarrantonio: I used to, but I've tightened it up because I had to.
I've got one more for you. I've got a side career going with Simon & Schuster where I do humor anthologies. I've done two collections with pieces by Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. I've got a book that'll be out next summer called The Treasury of National Lampoon Humor—it's the best of the National Lampoon magazine—twenty years of it. I edited [the book]—it's about 75 pieces.
McCammon: So you do a lot of different things.
Sarrantonio: Yeah, you've gotta diversify. I think that's one of the keys to the business. Last year I did a science fiction novel, this year I've got a Western and a horror novel, and the humor stuff. You've gotta be open to doing different things.
McCammon: It seems like that's important now, because it seems like many writers are finding limits on what they can do in the horror field. There's a general feeling that horror is—
Sarrantonio: It's not a dead-end. I wouldn't call it a dead-end, but there are limits. If you're really serious about a career, you have to be ready to do other stuff. I won't say you have to, but you have to be ready. I still think the horror field needs good books. There are too many bad ones published—there's still room for the good ones.
McCammon: Do you think those bad ones have hurt at all?
Sarrantonio: I don't know. It's almost a futile question. I was in the science fiction field for a long time—I edited books—and I saw so much bad work, and it didn't seem to make much difference. Books are getting published anyway; whatever the publishers decide they can fit into their lines, they're going to publish that many anyway. I do think there are too many bad horror novels now, and I think— Actually, your question is more valid than I thought to begin with, because the preponderance of bad ones—the lower price spread, the lower lines.... There are just too many of the supermarket-type ones; I think they're clogging the arteries.
McCammon: I think they are too. There's nothing that can be done about it....
Sarrantonio: If the readers are buying—I don't know what the readers are.
McCammon: Yeah, but does that mean that the readers have lowered their expectations?
Sarrantonio: I don't know. Whenever I try to think of what an ideal reader is, or what any reader is, I still get a fuzzy image after all these years, because I don't know who they are.
McCammon: You kind of approach writing from a different avenue than a lot of writers, since you have been in the business—in the publishing end of it—as an editor.
Sarrantonio: I was lucky to be able to experience that end of it. The awe that a lot of writers have for the New York publishing establishment, I don't have. I know that a lot of them are just people.
McCammon: And they don't know all the answers.
Sarrantonio: No; no they don't. The good ones will admit it, and the rest of them....
McCammon: It's almost like a crap game, isn't it. I guess you have the market research, and the benefit of experience, but a lot of it is—
Sarrantonio: Yeah, a lot of people seem to think my background is kind of special, but to me it's just.... I worked at Doubleday with people like Jackie Onassis. Isaac Asimov was the first guy I worked with. It's awe-inspiring to me now to think about it—I met Ray Bradbury there, and a lot of other people, but it was just a job. I was always writing on the side, and I started to sell the short fiction, and I was able to break away from the editing side. Editing is not easy, it's not as easy as a lot of writers think.
McCammon: Well, I'm sure it's tough. That is something that I just could not do: edit somebody else's work. That would be very difficult to do.
Sarrantonio: Well, the key to editing is to let them do their own thing, and be savvy enough not to try to change it. I knew a couple of editors who liked to change things around, and they weren't the good ones. I have not been jerked around—I've been kind of lucky.
I don't hold much awe for the business because I know what it's like on the inside. It's a wonderful business, but it kind of saddens me to see newcomers who are completely cowed by these people. They're just people. Some of them are very good people, some of them are very good at their jobs; the peer principle works in publishing too.
McCammon: I was talking to Sean Costello today, and he said that it always amazed him that one year the publishing business was an impenetrable fortress, and the next year they were calling him. All of a sudden, it's like he has his entry.
Sarrantonio: He's been sucked in, like a vacuum. Some of us tend to forget how far we've come sometimes.
McCammon: I know, and I think that's amazing—that we have come a long, long way. And we're in situations where most people just—
Sarrantonio: They have no conception of it. Sometimes I think of it as a job, and my wife keeps bringing me back to Earth and saying, "What you do is not just a job. Most people do not understand what you do—don't expect them to."
McCammon: But you know how amazing it is how many people wish to become a writer—wish they could be a writer. You hear about these actors and actresses, these stars out in Hollywood, who say, "Boy, you know, I'm gonna quit this, and I'm gonna write a novel!" Kirk Douglas just wrote a novel, and he said, "This is something I've been wanting to do all my life, because now I'm in control of what I'm doing. I'm writing this novel and I'm in control." And you'd think Kirk Douglas would be satisfied with his life, he wouldn't need more....
Sarrantonio: Spartacus, for God's sake!
McCammon: ...but he obviously wanted to become a writer.
Sarrantonio: Yeah. But the flip side of that, though, is the people you get at cocktail parties who say, "I've got a great idea...." Lawyer friends—I have a couple of friends like that, and I feel like, "Dump them," because they're demeaning what we do. When somebody says that to me now, I say, "What did you make last year? I wanted to be a lawyer, but I didn't feel like it." "I wanted to be a brain surgeon, but I don't have the time!" It really is the same question! But once again, my wife Beth says to me, "Have a little patience with these people, because you really are in a unique profession." No one understands what it's like until you do it.
McCammon: I think that it's a wonderful profession. I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing—I can't think of anything I could do, besides writing. But I think there comes a point when you're writing, if you have a problem with your book, you're really alone, because nobody can help you.
Sarrantonio: That's great in a way—it's kind of invigorating. It's hard but it's invigorating because you have to solve it yourself. I don't know about you, but when I hit "the wall," I pace. I have a place in the house where I pace back and forth. It may take two hours, and then maybe I'll sleep on it, but sooner or later you break through the wall. Because it's your job. The ones who have no patience for it anymore are the ones who whine about, "I'm writing and now I have writer's block and now I just don't feel like it." When it's your job, you do it. And you find a way to get through the wall.
McCammon: Do you find that you come up with these solutions, whether you realize it or not? These things kind of happen. I wonder why that is?
Sarrantonio: It's a very mysterious process, I think.
McCammon: You know, you get the questions like "How do you come up with your ideas?" How can you answer that? That's one of those things you can't answer.
Sarrantonio: What was it Stephen King said? Utica, New York? "I get them in the mail from Utica, New York." I haven't been able to top that one....
McCammon: You can't tell. "How do you learn to write?"
Sarrantonio: What I tell them is, "You have ten years to put aside, and you do nothing else. You just keep pounding the typewriter like a monkey, and sooner or later it'll start making sense." But you can't tell anybody—I don't even know how it works!
Do you remember, Rick, your first short story, the first time you got it right, how mysterious it was? It was like another person now—it was like another Al Sarrantonio.
McCammon: It is like another person. Don't you sometimes feel like that?
Sarrantonio: I can't conceive of that now, but then it was— I remember my very first sale because I sold it to Asimov's Magazine—Isaac Asimov helped me sell my first short story, because I knew him. I told him, "If this stinks, send it back to me." Isaac Asimov, for Christ's sake! He took it home over a weekend, brought it back the next week when he came in to Doubleday Books, and said, "This is wonderful, I'm passing this on to George Scissors at Asimov's Magazine." And they bought it. I was high for a week. But I knew it worked. I'd written how many scores of short stories before it, and there was always something missing. But that one, when I wrote it, I said, "It's right." And the next one I knew was even more right.
It's not just confidence—I always tell people, when they ask, that it's the only profession in the world that's completely self-taught. No one can teach you how to write. But you can teach them how to teach themselves—you can help them teach themselves. It's the most lonely profession in the world as far as teaching goes.
McCammon: There are no shortcuts; people seem to think there are shortcuts or tricks. This thing about working out problems—they do seem to work themselves out.
I was at a writer's seminar in Texas a couple of weeks ago, talking about writing and how do you write. The questions they posed were such that if you really sat down and thought about these things, you'd really have trouble writing....
Sarrantonio: Yeah, the mechanics and everything! Yeah, they're just second nature after a while.
McCammon: You just can't think about those things—you just don't think about those things.
Sarrantonio: It's like asking a milkman, "How many degrees do you lift that carton before you carry it in?"
McCammon: If you thought about it too much, you'd go nuts.
But I do sometimes feel like they're talking about somebody else, that I'm two people—that I'm Rick and Robert is somebody else. The person who wrote this book is somebody different from me.
Sarrantonio: I don't think any of us will ever figure it out. I hope we don't—it would take away the magic.