Meeting an Inspiration, by Athena Workman

Written by Athena Workman, December 2003

The following essay was written by author and editor Athena Workman and was posted to in December 2003. It describes Robert McCammon's appearance at the 2002 Southern Festival of Books, held in Nashville, TN, on October 12, 2002. It is reprinted here with her permission.

I'm normally a very punctual person. But because we were nearly out of gas, and a bee—annoying to me; life threatening to my husband—flew into the car, I didn't make it to the Southern Festival of Books until right after ten a.m. Still, as I entered the Nashville Public Library, asked for directions, and headed toward one of the reading rooms, I thought that I would still be able to find a seat. After all, Robert McCammon had been "retired" and essentially out of sight for ten years, so not many people would actually show up, right?

Wrong. The small room of about fifty or sixty was Standing Room Only, and I hovered anxiously in the open doorway until an usher smiled me inside. Quickly, I found a spot in the back corner (a place where most would not even notice me—a good thing, as I later discovered that my purse strap had yanked down the front of my blouse), and turned to see the author that a few years earlier had unknowingly inspired me to keep writing.

At the reading, I thought Robert McCammon to be of average height, although when he later passed me in the War Memorial Plaza, he seemed over six feet. He paced behind the front table, dressed casually in a blue shirt, brownish blazer, and pants of a light color, and spoke softly with a slight Alabamian twang. For some strange reason, this surprised me: although not every Southerner has a southern accent, why had I thought he wouldn't?

He paced, and a silver-haired gent sat near him at the table, smiling and checking the crowd from time to time; a crowd that continued to slightly grow as more and more people filtered into the room, parking themselves on the carpeted floor, leaning against the wall like me. We all listened quietly, attentively, as he spoke of his first novel in ten years, Speaks the Nightbird. A historical novel set in 1699 dealing with a witch trial in North Carolina, he explained that he took a year to research, then a year to write, and had completed the massive tome eight years earlier. His publishing house, Viking Books, had been set to take the book, offering him a substantial amount of money for it, too, but publishing houses are fickle, to put it mildly. An editor (that remained nameless) wanted changes. No one wants a historical novel without romance! Viking wanted the ending changed, and instant love. Since the woman accused of witchcraft in the novel had been in a colonial prison (a dank, dark tomb) for five months with only a chamberpot to piss in and nothing in which to bathe, Mr. McCammon thought this was ludicrous. So, rather than give in, he shelved the book and went back to his private life, becoming a full-time dad and enjoying not being recognized in public. Then River City Publishing, a small publishing house, came along and took the book as it was. Although he was happy with his life, he mentioned that he'd gotten excited a few nights before the reading, thinking that since StN was doing so well, he might take a chance on the other novel he wrote during the time he was "away": a novel set during World War II about a Russian performing troupe—much like our USO—that gets sent behind enemy lines. But since political correctness and historical correctness do not go together in today's climate, and one of the characters is a sympathetic German soldier, he thought probably not (personally, I'd love to get my hands on that one). Another reason was that he still liked not having to deal with the publishing world, and enjoyed his privacy.

He opened the floor up to questions then, and was asked which of his novels was his favorite. Boy's Life was the answer, and the novel that panned out closest to his initial vision. Expounding on some of the mechanics of writing, he said that he did not write from an outline, and sometimes, quite a lot of times, the initial vision changes. He said it was exciting to see something that was merely hinted at on page 10 realized on page 110. When asked if he would ever write again, he answered this: writing is the best and worst thing in the world. When it's the best, you feel like you're doing what God put you on this Earth to do. When it's the worst, NO ONE can help you if you get stuck. Moving on to another question, he said that writers need a place to write; meaning, when they're in that place, writing is what they're going to do.

On panels at horror conventions (it should be noted that Robert McCammon is one of the founder of the Horror Writers Association), he would often be asked, "What frightens you?" His answer was, "Being in a box." Categorized. Success in the horror genre brought that; something he never wanted, but it was also one of the reasons Viking would not publish StN. But he'd always loved history, and wanted to write about it.

Listening to all this; the mechanics, the behind-the-scenes of it all, I was perhaps naively amazed at how much I agreed with, how much was familiar to me (although I have yet to deal with the book publishing industry). But I feel the inherent pull of writing, don't like working from an outline, and agree about the best and worst of it all.

Someone in the crowd asked what advice he would give about researching material, and he said to focus on a particular; as in not the entire colonial judicial system, but how they dealt with the crime of witchcraft. Also, do all the research first. In addition to his research, he'd taken part in two mock witch trials, and found both defendants guilty (although in reality they'd both been acquitted). Despite this, he'd enjoyed them immensely.

The last comment before the reading was from a man in the audience who said that many stories affected him mentally, but only one had physically, and that story was "Pin". There were a few appreciative chuckles from the audience (not from me, although I did realize later that I had indeed read that one). Mr. McCammon responded that the idea had come simply from wondering what it would be like to stick a pin in one's eye. Shudder. "Pin" is probably the squirmiest story I've ever read.

He launched into the first chapter of Speaks the Nightbird. The mark of a good writer is when the reader becomes wholly engrossed and lost in that fictional world, and Mr. McCammon's writing is so vivid, so descriptive, that even in my uncomfortable stance, I was transported back to the dark, rainy, mysterious and wild North Carolina woods, traveling right beside the magistrate and his apprentice as they journeyed toward Fount Royal and the jailed witch.

When the first chapter came to an end, Mr. McCammon offered a teaser of the second chapter, which sounded as cool as the first, and opened the floor again for more questions. He admitted that he'd learned to write in the public's eye; that he'd only written one novel at the time he was first published. He also admitted that Baal wasn't very good. When asked about Swan Song, a post-apocalyptic tale, arguably his most famous novel and a fan favorite, he said it was during the time when everyone wondered who would be the first to drop the bomb. He said he wanted to explore that world from an ecological, corporate, and of course, supernatural view. For Boy's Life, probably his best critically received novel, he revealed that he'd had an okay but fractured home life, and spent a lot of time on a friend's farm, and drew on those experiences. For Gone South, my personal favorite, a member of the audience said he could actually believe there was a man out there with his malformed twin joined to his chest. Mr. McCammon revealed that he'd found an old Civil War picture of just that.

And that was it. The reading was over. I wound my way up the street to the War Memorial Plaza, where the rest of the festival was taking place. Booksellers and publishing houses occupied tents that lined the plaza, and after repeatedly adjusting my mutinous shirt, I found the table for Robert McCammon. I purchased the huge hardcover (no tax!), and got in line for the signing. It spread out all the way across that section of the plaza, ten times longer than any other author's line, and I decided to pass the time by launching into the second chapter. My concentration was repeatedly interrupted by the woman behind me, a woman I swear I think I went to church with; a sci-fi club president that I'd had a conversation with at one of the church's Wednesday night dinners. She was having a loud conversation with a Trekkie, and went on about having lunch with Mr. McCammon after the signing. Briefly, I considered ingratiating myself into the conversation and getting a personal intro to Mr. McCammon, but I'm too shy to do something so bold, so I went back to my reading, stopping only to fill out a paper that said, "To Athena", written out in block letters so Mr. McCammon would know how to sign my book. Before I was ready, it was my turn at the table.

He smiled and said, "Hi, how are you?" I answered, and asked him the same, but he didn't answer. Well, usually that makes me huffy, but I let it slide and gave him the note. He asked if I was Athena, and I answered yes, and as he signed the title page, he asked if I'd read any of his other books. I answered, "Gone South… I thought about it for a long time afterward… it really moved me." I wish that I'd said so much more: like how "Mine" physically affected ME; how disappointed I was when I'd learned he'd retired, and how it made me finally realize that my favorite authors weren't going to be around forever to entertain me; how I'd also read Bethany's Sin, Swan Song, Baal, etc. etc. How reading his Afterward to the L.A. vampire book, and his admittance to writing 200 pages before turning around and starting all over again made me feel better about my failures like that, and encouraged me to keep going. That one day I'd finally be able to finish writing a novel. How much of a turning point that had been for me.

But no, I just stood there like a lump on a log. Maybe that was fine. Are there any words, sentences that an established, famous author hasn't heard before? He finished signing the book (To Athena! Best Wishes, Robert McCammon), thanked me for going to the reading, hoped that I would enjoy the book (I did manage to get out an "I will!"), and told me to have a good day. I walked off with my autographed book in hand; one of the coolest things to possess that I can think of (and everyone who steps into my house sees it, and is expected to exclaim loudly over it).

Why was this one of the best "writer's" days for me? As a writer and editor, I already know the mechanics and some of the behind-the-scenes stuff, so that was nothing new. And my shyness got the better of me, so I never managed to tell him how inspiring his words had been. I think perhaps that the intimate setting of the reading, and the questions and answers, stripped away the misconceptions of the famous and fortunate author, and brought it all down to a level that revealed all the commonalities between Mr. McCammon and all the unpublished or struggling writers in the room. I think that's why it's all so vivid and memorable to me to this day. Despite the financial or fame status, we still go through the same old shit.

By the way, Speaks the Nightbird was fantastic. Viking missed out big time.

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