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Alabama’s own ‘Great American Read’

McCammon holds a copy of his newest book, Cardinal Black; the back cover features a photo of him in early 1700s period attire. Photo by Michael Mixon

Robert McCammon is the only living Alabama author to have a book named to PBS’ “The Great American Read” list of 100 beloved 100 books. (Harper Lee, who died in 2016, topped the list with To Kill a Mockingbird). McCammon’s apocalyptic novel Swan Song, co-winner (with Stephen King) of the 1987 Bram Stoker Award, was #94 on the list. It is one of 23 novels the Birmingham native has written since graduating in 1974 from the University of Alabama, where he was editor of The Crimson White. Many are bestsellers, including his 1978 breakout novel, Baal, Boy’s Life and Gone South. Although he enjoys a loyal international fan base, he still lives in Birmingham.  We talked with him as he was wrapping up his latest book in the popular Matthew Corbett historical fiction series. – Lenore Vickrey

When did you first begin writing?

I remember writing a story about an invasion of giant grasshoppers and reading that to other kids in my first grade, so I guess I would’ve been six. When I was a freshman at Banks High School in Roebuck they had a writing contest that I won with a story about a dying soldier in Vietnam. The prize was $10, but the real prize was that a teacher—one of the contest judges—had written on my paper the question, “A freshman wrote this?” that I suppose was directed to the other judges. That, unfortunately, was the first and last year they had the contest.

You’ve talked publicly about the lack of encouragement for your writing that you received at the Birmingham Post-Herald, where you worked on the copy desk. Was there any professor at UA who did see writing talent in you, and encouraged you to pursue that?

Yes, there was, though I’ve forgotten his name. He was a creative writing teacher, and he seemed to like my work, but it became weird because whenever any of the other students read his or her work this professor would look at me and say something like, “What do you think about that story?” So it became a bit uncomfortable for me, being expected to give my opinion on everyone else’s efforts!

What’s your typical pattern for writing these days? Do you have a secluded place in your home where you do your research and writing?

Late night, starting around ten or so and going until I’ve figured I’ve done enough, which can go on all night. The night belongs to me. I’ve always been a night person and remain so. Many years ago—many years!—I had to write down all my questions about a subject and trek to the library, but of course now with the internet that’s not necessary. But I’ll tell you that I could never write the Matthew Corbett series (set in the 1700s) without the internet of the 21st century…there are just too many things that demand research. If I had to go to the library to look up everything, each book would take years to write!

Tell us about the online video you star in, “My Creations.”

A friend of mine is a film director. I told him what I wanted to do and that I had the song—or the “rap”, if you please—and we went from there. I do believe it’s the first music video ever made by a fulltime writer who is not also a working musician. The reaction has been exactly what I hoped…that it was just “fun,” and we really had a great time doing it. (Watch the video at robertmccammon.com)

I read that your next project was The King of Shadows, in the Matthew Corbett series, followed by a book of short stories. Is that still on track?

Yes, still on track. I’m hoping to finish The King of Shadows next month and then I’ll be doing a book of Matthew Corbett short stories before I do the final book in the series. After that I have a couple of other projects in mind that I’m looking forward to. Several years ago I was planning to retire when I got to “my age,” but now…no way.

As time goes on, what book or books of yours do fans seem to appreciate the most?

Swan Song, Boy’s Life and the Matthew Corbett series. Of course, sometimes I get comments from people who’ve just read my first few books and love those. Sometimes it hits you out of the blue that a reader says a book you wrote 30 years ago has had a profound and positive influence on either them or a loved one. The Wolf’s Hour has a pretty large following too, and I’m always getting requests to do a sequel to that, which is why I did the semi-sequel The Hunter From The Woods a few years back. But people want more. Which is good for me!

What books would we find on your nightstand?

You would find a mix of history, books on music and books on board games (which I collect, and I have thousands of them) and also a few of my also-vast collection of science fiction magazines like Analog, Fantastic, Worlds Of If, and Amazing, which introduced me to reading as a kid and I now have every one of the issues that (no joke) my grandmother threw away! Now if only I could afford to get back all the Batman comic books of the 1950s and 1960s that she tossed out!