StokerCon 2019: Robert McCammon interviewed by Jonathan Maberry

 

At StokerCon 2019, Guest of Honor Robert McCammon was interviewed for 90 minutes by author Jonathan Maberry. Unfortunately, the session was not recorded, by Amanda Desiree attended and has written this recollection, which she shared in the Robert McCammon Group on Facebook.

Jonathan Maberry and Robert McCammon

This is a reconstruction of Saturday’s interview between Jonathon Maberry (JM) and Stokercon Guest of Honor Robert McCammon (RMC). It was a fascinating, candid 90-minute talk about RMC’s life, his outlook on writing, and of course his books.

JM proceeded chronologically through RMC’s early life and career, inquiring about what influenced him to pursue writing and the horror genre.

“Do you want me to be brutally honest?” RMC asked the audience. “My grandfather owned a department store. We lived in a mansion. We had servants. We had an orchard, all the land you could want. We had two swimming pools, one for the adults and one for the kids. From the outside looking in, we had it pretty good. But my grandparents hated each other. They argued all the time and they’d try to play me against each other. They’d tell me, ‘I love you more. We don’t like him, do we?’ or ‘I love you more. We don’t like her, do we?’ But on the other hand, my grandfather used to tell me ghost stories. Maybe that was just to keep me awake late at night.” RMC also remembered reading two influential books: English Ghosts and Irish Ghosts.

“How did you go from reading about scary things to writing about them?” inquired JM.

“I’d go in my room and write stories to get away from all the arguing. I’d type my stories on a Royal typewriter.”

“Do you still have it? (No.) Do you miss those days of using a typewriter?” JM asked.

RMC paused. “Not really. Once, when I was working on a book I decided I didn’t like one of the characters’ names. By then, I was about 400 pages into the manuscript. I had to get out the white-out and go through each page to change the name. I don’t miss doing that.”

“I wasn’t good at sports,” RMC went on. “I wasn’t interested in sports. I liked to read. I read the encyclopedia because I wanted to know all the things I didn’t know about the world. (“No internet then,” JM joked). And if you weren’t into sports in Alabama, you were in trouble. I got bullied. Until one day, I decided to write a war story and use the names of some of the other kids in my class as characters. I’d read the story on the playground. And people started to look at me differently. And they’d ask, ‘What happens to me? Do I live? What happens next?’”

“When I was a freshman, I wrote a story about the wandering spirit of suicide getting into soldiers and making them kill themselves. When I finished reading it to the class, everyone’s mouth was hanging open. I also wrote a story about a soldier dying in the trenches having a conversation with a leech on his arm. When I got that story back, my teacher had written, ‘A freshman wrote this?’ and underlined ‘this’ six times. So I started to think maybe I had some talent.”

When RMC went to college, he continued to write stories, but confessed that they weren’t very good. “Do you ever think about going back to re-work them?” JM asked.

“Sometimes. Out of about 25, there were maybe three that would be worth re-working.”

“You started in journalism, didn’t you? I did too. I wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein.”

RMC said he wanted to be a foreign correspondent, but when he went to look for a job, the only work he could get was as a copywriter, preparing headlines and advertisements.

“At that time there were two papers in Birmingham, a morning paper and an evening paper. I got a job with the morning paper but I quickly realized it was a dead-end job. I still wanted to write features. Now, maybe this is true of all wooded areas, but at the time there was a rumor about a Bigfoot creature in the woods. I decided I’d write a story about this creature. I told the editor my idea and he said, “As long as I’m the city editor here, you will never write a feature story,” meaning I was just a copywriter and I needed to stay in my place. The evening paper ended up picking up the story. But people in the news room would sometimes give me their stories to read and ask ‘What do you think?’ So I figured I might be a good writer.”

JM mentioned the first novel he’d read was They Thirst (he read them out of order.) He praised it but added, “I know you weren’t happy with your early books for a while. ”

“I’ve heard about other writers with trunk stories that got rejected. My first novel got published though, and after that, I felt like I was practicing my writing in public.”

He talked about his first novel. Baal (“Bail or Ball,” as RMC called it), came from a place of anger. “I was still angry about everything that had been done to me, about getting pushed down as a child, and it came out in the writing of that book.”

JM commented that many of RMC’s characters are dealing with PTSD in some form, sometimes literally as a result of the Vietnam War, and sometimes from other traumas. (He referenced the work of David Morrell, another author who writes of PTSD and whose books inspired the Rambo movies). RMC acknowledged that his characters do carry trauma with them, and that on some level, maybe he does too. He also shared a chilling fact. “I was almost drafted into the Vietnam War. My number was close to coming up. I wouldn’t have survived.”

“You were well-off growing up, but most of your books have a blue collar sensibility. Where did that come from?” JM asked.

“My best friend’s father worked in a garage. They were blue collar. That’s where that came from. His father was a great guy. He was a very fair man.”

“Did the relationship between your friend and his father inspire the relationship between the characters in Boy’s Life?” JM asked. It did.

“Even though you’ve always lived in the South, your early books are set in different places around the country: Pennsylvania, New York, Los Angeles. Did you do a lot of traveling in order to develop those settings?”

“I did a lot of research, but I did travel too. I didn’t want to become known as a Southern writer. I felt that was too limiting,” RMC said.

“I had a book I didn’t finish called The Address. It was a lot like the haunted Hollywood house in American Horror Story. Each chapter was about a different family moving into this house in Beverly Hills. I went to Beverly Hills. I wanted to drive down the street I was using in my novel—and I found the house! It was a Spanish hacienda style house with green awnings and a little pond, a little pool. I couldn’t believe it.” RMC explained that he couldn’t finish the book because it got too grim and it was troubling him.

“My friends and I were discovering your books at the same time, and the one we all loved was Mystery Walk. The saw blade that screams was one of the scariest things I’d ever read,” JM recalled.

RMC laughed. “When you’ve written so much and someone makes a specific reference like that, you sometimes wonder, ‘What the hell did I write?'” But RMC did remember that feature of the book. He said he’d wanted to convey the idea of an evil force embedded in the object and haunting it.

“My best friend’s grandparents lived out in northern Alabama, near an idyllic little town that was the inspiration for the town in Boy’s Life. We’d go visit them in the summers and we had to pass by a saw mill on the way. That made an impression on me and I used it years later. That’s part of being a writer: being observant and using the things that inspire you.”

That led to a discussion about RMC’s writing process. JM asked if he outlined his books. “I tried to outline once, but by the time I finished the outline, I already knew everything that would happen in the book and I was bored. I want to be the first one to read my book.”

Instead of plotting, RMC will start writing his idea and see how far he gets with it. “When I get it to a certain point, I’ll think, ‘Let’s see if I can take it a little further.’ Then I’ll get to a point where I need to make a decision about which direction to go, so I go a little further to see if it still works, and if it’s not working, I’ll give it up.“ By now, he’s pretty good at figuring out quickly whether or not a story is working, or at making it work if it isn’t working. “I think it’s necessary to feel strongly about whatever you’re writing, to feel like you have a message.”

JM asked him about his inspiration to found the HWA (originally HOWL, the Horror and Occult Writers’ League), an origin story RMC had told the previous day at the Lifetime Achievement panel. “I felt so isolated where I lived. I didn’t have any horror writers near me. Other genres had conventions all the time. I’d gone to the World Fantasy Convention and I’d met lots of authors whose works I’d admired when I was growing up. I saw how everyone knew each other and I thought, ‘Why can’t we have something like this too?’” But he wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming response to the idea to launch a horror writers’ organization and gathering. “I couldn’t keep up with all the mail that came in. And I kept getting letters from wolf conservationists because of the name. I finally got help from Joe and Karen Lansdale, and Dean Koontz stepped in too. I’m so pleased by the way the organization has grown and the way it continues to grow and develop.” He beamed at the audience. “You’re like the family I didn’t have.”

“That’s how I feel too,” JM agreed, “like the HWA is a family. I wanted to work that into my speech tonight (at the Stoker Awards). ”

JM asked RMC about his experiences as a horror writer and the reaction people have to finding out he writes horror. “I went out for a walk a couple of days ago.” He dropped his voice. “I went to a cigar lounge. I started talking to another man there, and he said, ‘You’re not from around here. ‘ I told him I was in town for a convention and he asked which one. I told him the Horror Writers’ Association and he said, “Hmmm.’ I started explaining to him how horror is all around us, in all aspects of our lives, how it’s in our neighborhoods and in our work [alluding to the topic of the previous day’s panel Horror—The Original Literature]. He said ‘Hmmm. . .I think you must be right.’”

The discussion returned to RMC’s output. “Swan Song inevitably draws comparisons to The Stand, but that wasn’t intentional, was it?” JM asked. RMC concurred that he wanted to write his own version of the Apocalypse. They tried to recall when Swan Song had been released and figured on the mid-80s (it came out in 1987 and won the Stoker award that year). “In most post-Apocalyptic books, bad things happen because the survivors turn on each other, but Swan Song is more optimistic because it’s about survivors learning to work together.”

RMC described what it was like growing up during the Cold War. “We did a drill once in grammar school where we had to time ourselves on how quickly we could run home from school. I think we’re in a similar situation again now, not only internationally but with this country too. I eventually realized that if nuclear war actually happened, it would be a disaster. Nothing would survive. I wanted to write about the process of trying to grow things again, about trying to build society again and trying to live again.”

“The end of that book had me crying,” JM confessed. “At the time I was reading it, I was working as a bouncer and a martial arts instructor. I’d read the book on the bus going into work and I’d show up, a huge guy with tears running down my face, and I didn’t care.”

“Where did the idea for the Job’s Mask come from?” JM wanted to know.

“I liked the idea of the mask cracking open and showing what a person’s true nature was like.”

“That was a very Twilight Zone moment for me. In my head, Rod Serling stood up and applauded,” JM praised.

“And you had a real ‘Twilight Zone’ moment of your own in the 80s with ‘Nightflyers,’” he went on.

“‘Nightcrawlers,’” RMC corrected. He explained that it was Harlan Ellison who had convinced him to go through with the adaptation. “He was appearing at a library nearby so I went out to see him, and he was very encouraging. Harlan gets a bad rap for being difficult, but he had a good heart and he really helped set me on the right road.”

JM continued the career retrospective. “After Swan Song, you made a sharp turn into science fiction with Stinger,” he observed.

“That was my B-movie,” RMC recalled fondly. He and JM reminisced about a character from Stinger who’s carrying something around with him from elsewhere.

“I’m a big first lines guy,” JM continued, “and the best first line I ever read was, ‘It was Hell’s season and the air smelled of burning children. I was in Waldenbooks when I read that sentence in Gone South. I closed the book, and even though I couldn’t tell what it was about at that point, I knew I had to read it.”

“My publishers wanted another Boy’s Life,” RMC recalled, “but Gone South was a very different type of book.”

“Most of your books are stand-alones. Let’s talk about your series. The Wolf’s Hour is your first book in a series of eight.”

“No,” RMC corrected. “Do you mean the Matthew books? Maybe you’re thinking of the short stories and novellas I wrote to follow Wolf’s Hour (collected in The Hunter from the Woods).” RMC is considering an additional book in the Michael Gallatin series, tentatively titled Peter Is the Wolf.

“Are you going to continue the Trevor Lawson series, too?”

“I wrote the opening for the third book. Ann is working at a Wild West show that gets attacked by vampires. I love the idea of Native American vampires. And horses whose blood has been tainted by vampires!”

They did discuss the Matthew Corbett series, which started with Speaks the Nightbird. “I’m fascinated by the time period, by the contrast between the courtly manners on one end and the brutal behavior on the other. I love the beautiful language of the era. I also wanted to be able to create grotesque characters, like in the Hammer films. Not the horror films, but the period pieces, like the movie Night Creatures. Anybody remember that? They dress as skeletons and paint their horses to look like skeletons.”

“Peter Cushing as Dr. Syn in The Scarecrow,” JM acknowledged.

RMC talked about the detailed research he undertakes for the series. “The weapons, the clothing, the transportation: I never could have written this series without the Internet.”

“You must have some kind of series outline. [The books ] are so tightly plotted.”

“No, but I have an end in mind.”

“Then the series is coming to an end?” JM confirmed. “Damn.”

“That’s the reaction I hope for. I want my readers to want the story to go on and on.” RM said there will be two more books, King of Shadows and Leviathan, along with a book of short stories.

“When writing your books, do you intend for them to be read aloud?” asked JM. RMC did not “And yet they sound so good! Do you listen to your books when they’re read?”

“No, I don’t like hearing my work read, though sometimes I’ll read parts aloud to myself to hear how they sound. Has anyone heard the audio books? The narrator is fantastic. He does different voices for the characters.”

RMC then talked about an experience he had reading his short story “Strange Candy” at an event a couple of years ago. He described the plot in detail and as he did, he started to get choked up. “You see? The same thing happened to me. I got choked up and I had to call someone else up to finish the reading. About a year later, I did another reading. Same story, and the same thing happened. I thought, ‘What’s wrong with me? I can’t read anymore.’ The story and the characters were so real to me that I got emotional. I don’t like it. I think it breaks the spell for the audience.”

“I don’t think it breaks the spell at all. It shows them how invested you are in your characters,” JM countered.

“Anyway, I gave a reading a couple of weeks ago of the first chapter of my novel Cardinal Black. It was twice as long as my story, and I didn’t have any trouble that time.”

To my surprise, JM opened the floor to audience questions. I hadn’t realized we would be given that opportunity.

The first question was about RMC’s history with publishing companies. “You’ve worked with major publishers like Simon and Schuster and then you went to independent publishers like Subterranean Press and Cemetery Dance. Which do you prefer?”

“Definitely the smaller presses.” RMC repeated the story from the previous day of how his contacts at S&S got replaced and the new editors didn’t “get” his work.

“I had originally written Boy’s Life as a murder mystery set in a small town, but it wasn’t working out, so I expanded it into what I thought was the best thing I’d ever written to that point. I was expecting the editors in NY, who were like gods to me, to call me up and say, ‘We didn’t know you had it in you!’ Instead they said, “We think this is going to go over the heads of your audience.” They wanted me to change it back to a straight murder mystery. I said, ‘Hold that thought! I’ll be in New York tomorrow.’ And I got on a plane to New York the next day and went to a meeting that afternoon. I told them I wasn’t going to make the changes, that I would tear up the contract and take them to court.” The smaller, independent presses are less stressful.

One woman asked, “Can you share your experience with the Great American Read?”

RMC told how he was informed that his book Swan Song was nominated as one of America’s 100 favorite books. “I couldn’t believe it! What an honor! It came in at 94 out of 100, but it was still on the list. At the party afterward, when I was mingling with all the other writers, I thought, ‘I belong here!'”

A man asked why RMC had given up on writing The Address. “It was too grim. It was getting to me. In the book, there’s an old director and a younger director. The house belongs to the old director, and he’s haunting it. It takes place over a period of many years. Eventually the younger director realizes the old director’s ghost is behind everything, but by that point, he’s aged and he doesn’t feel he has the strength to fight back.”

Then I got to ask a question! “Earlier you alluded to meeting some of the science fiction writers you’d grown up reading at one of the conventions. Can you tell us what it was like to meet some of your heroes?”

He recalled that at the World Fantasy Convention, he was at a table surrounded by authors he’d admired. “It was, ‘Let me introduce you to Jack Vance. Let me introduce you to…one after the other.” He also recalled doing a radio interview where Ray Harryhausen, the special effects wizard behind Jason and the Argonauts, had also appeared. “The host said, ‘Let me introduce you to Ray Harryhausen.’ And Ray, being a British gentleman, stood up to shake my hand and said, ‘Hello.’ My idol stood to shake my hand! I also got to meet Ray Bradbury. We were both scheduled to do a reading at a Waldenbooks—and he thought I worked at the store. Ray finished his reading first, and when I approached him, he said, ‘Could you get me a cab, huh?’ (to JM) Do you remember that way he had of speaking? ‘How are you, huh?’ ‘What are you reading, huh?’ Now, even though he wrote about rocketships and futuristic technology, Ray didn’t even drive a car. But he was always moving forward, and I thought it would be a good thing if I could somehow help him to keep moving forward. So I said, ‘Sure, Mr. Bradbury, I’ll get you a cab.’ That’s one of the fringe benefits of this job, getting to meet the people you admired.”

“Yeah, and finding out they’re just like you, they struggled too,” added JM.

“My favorite book is Mine. Can you talk about that?” requested a woman.

“We haven’t talked about that one yet,” JM realized. He remarked that Mary Terror, frightening as she was, also retained sympathetic qualities.

RMC gave a brief plot overview. “Mary Terror is a former radical from the 1960s who wants to recapture that life. She’s trying to find her former leader, Lord Jack. She kidnaps a baby to replace one that she lost, thinking if she can get the baby back to Lord Jim, everything will be great again, but she doesn’t realize that Lord Jack could care less about the ideals from the past. “

“How many radical activists were really like that, do you think?” JM asked.

“Probably lots. In my research, I read an interview with one of them who said the only reason he got involved in radical activism was to pick up women.”

“My favorite book is The Five,” another fan shared.

The Five gets misunderstood a lot. The character Jeremy is actually a hero.” RMC described a significant plot point in detail to explain why.

“Which of your books is your favorite?” another woman asked him.

“That would be The Five.”

Someone asked him to talk about defending Boy’s Life (from an attempt to ban it from a Florida school district). “I went to Florida to speak at the school board meeting. I was the only author of a challenged book to show up. One particular councilwoman, who was the driving force behind the campaign, saw me, and she knew who I was. They had the meeting and went through the list of books. My book was discussed last. The councilwoman said, ‘All these other books pass muster—but not this one.’ And she gave me a look.” RMC’s speech at that meeting in defense of Boy’s Life is on his website here. He explained the main objection was because of the language, particularly the language used by the carnival sideshow-man. “In the end, we reached a compromise that the book would remain at the library desk and students could check it out with a parent’s permission. That was better than banning it outright.” Later, RMC revealed, it transpired that the councilwoman had been embezzling funds and the censorship campaign “was just a smokescreen.”

“One of my favorite details from your Matthew Corbett series is about the cross-dressing governor. Was that a real person?” someone else inquired.

“Yes, Lord Cornbury, the governor of New York, really existed, but whether he actually dressed in women’s clothing or whether that was a rumor made up by his enemies after the fact is debatable. There is a portrait of him wearing a dress, but that may have been painted by his enemies.”

A man asked whether there were any plans for film or TV adaptations of RMC’s books. “Actually there are a couple of deals in the works now. The Matthew Corbett series is being optioned for a series. We came very close with Wolf’s Hour. Universal optioned it for their Dark Universe series when it was rebooting the Universal Monsters to be in competition with Marvel, but they decided to do The Mummy first instead.”

“And how did that work for them?” JM asked sarcastically.

“But they’re getting ready to boot it up again. Have you heard? The next movie is going to be The Invisible Man with Johnny Depp.”

“Why would Johnny Depp want to be the invisible man? The only reason Claude Rains agreed to play that part was if he got a close up at the end when he was dying.”

“Will you have any creative input in the series?” someone asked.

“No. I’ve been asked my opinion because ‘It’s your baby,’ and my response is, ‘No, the show is your baby. The book is my baby and it will always be here whatever happens with the adaptation.”

“Will you watch the series?” someone else asked.

“Maybe.”

By this time, some people were getting called on for a second time. I raised my hand again too and got to ask the final question: “What color is your bird?”

“My bird is teal-azure, like the waters of my favorite place in the world, Cozumel, Mexico,” RM answered.

“And if you don’t know what that question means, you have some reading to do,” JM concluded.

Afterward, RMC lingered to sign books and chat with his fans. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to him speak (and I was thrilled that he addressed my questions). JM did a marvelous job of guiding the interview. This event was one of the highlights of my StokerCon experience.

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