Saturday, February 09, 2008

Man of Mystery, Part II

(The first installment of Ali Karim’s appreciation of author Robert McCammon can be found here.)

After discovering American writer Robert McCammon’s work in 1979, when I purchased a paperback copy of his debut novel, Baal (1978), and then being so enraptured by his 1987 book, Swan Song, I was desperate for more from his pen. But I was certainly not the only one.

As I explained previously, I have been in contact for close to a decade with McCammon’s friend and dedicated Web master, Hunter Goatley (shown above with singer-songwriter Alice Cooper). Goatley is now a 44-year-old computer programmer living in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and working on an anti-spam product for Process Software. His contribution in keeping McCammon’s readers informed about this author’s work over the years cannot be overlooked. I had the chance recently to ask Goatley some questions about his long friendship with McCammon, and to seek his insights into this important writer. As well, I asked Goatley what it takes to manage his enthusiastic and informative McCammon Web site, which has been such a valuable resource for McCammon enthusiasts over the years.

Ali Karim: When did you first discovered Robert McCammon’s work.

Hunter Goatley: When perusing the racks at a local bookstore in 1981, I saw the cover of the Avon edition of They Thirst, with its lurid, pale, fanged face. At the time, Stephen King was my favorite author, and I was always looking for other horror novels that looked good. It’s said that you should never judge a book by its cover, but people do, and I did too, in this case. And I wasn’t led astray by it. When Mystery Walk came out [in 1983], I knew that this McCammon fellow was no fluke.

AK: And how did you come to launch the Lights Out! fanzine?

HG: With each successive novel, McCammon just got better, and my appreciation for his novels grew. By the time Swan Song was published, McCammon had replaced King as my favorite author, and I tried to collect everything I could find. As more of McCammon’s short stories started appearing, and as his popularity grew, I thought it would be great if someone published a newsletter to let fans know about upcoming works. I mentioned my idea to Dave Hinchberger, owner of the Overlook Connection, who knew McCammon, and he passed it on to McCammon, who was receptive to it. I decided it would be fun to do it myself, so a couple of weeks later, I wrote a letter to McCammon with my formal proposal, asking for both his permission and his help. He was very enthusiastic about it, and I started making plans for the first issue.

AK: For how long was Lights Out! published in fanzine form?

HG: The first issue was published in July 1989. There were a total of six issues published, with the last appearing in October 1991. The newsletter eventually took more of my time and money than I could afford to give it, and its end coincided with McCammon’s plans to take a bit of a break when his daughter was born.

AK: Can I assume you’re an information technology type of guy?

HG: Yes, I’m a computer programmer. Lights Out! gave me a chance to do something for fun at a time when I was under a lot of stress from my job.

AK: Which of McCammon’s novels strike a chord with you, and why?

HG: I enjoy them all, of course, but I’d have to say Boy’s Life [1991] and Speaks the Nightbird [2002] are at the top of the list. Boy’s Life is, without a doubt, the most magical, touching book I’ve read--a true masterpiece. The novel’s story is set [in] the year I was born, but it still seemed to capture so many aspects of my own childhood--the feelings and experiences of growing up. I find Speaks the Nightbird to be very similar, in that it’s also a great coming-of-age tale, but the historical setting makes it even more interesting.

Among his short fiction, “Night Calls the Green Falcon” and “Blue World” (the novella) have fantastic protagonists with whom I could readily identify, despite being nothing like either of them, and feel what was happening in the stories.

AK: Looking at your Robert McCammon Web site, I assume you are a collector of his work. Is that right?

HG: Yes, I am. Many, but not all, of the cover scans in the cover gallery on the site came from my own collection.

AK: How much work is involvled in running that Web site, and how many e-mails do you receive each week from McCammon’s readers?

HG: The amount of work varies, depending on what’s new to report. With the publication [in October 2007] of The Queen of Bedlam, I’ve been pretty busy posting links to new reviews and new interviews. On average these days, I’d say I spend five or six hours a week maintaining the site and looking for news. The amount of McCammon-related e-mail I receive varies weekly, but there’s always a steady stream. It’s a rare day when I don’t get at least one message from a reader. Connecting with other McCammon fans is one of the things I enjoy most about running the Web site.

AK: When and where did you first meet Robert Rick McCammon? And can you tell us a little about that encounter?

HG: My first contact was through a fan letter I wrote in 1984 after I read Mystery Walk. He replied to my letter, which really impressed me.

After my letter proposing Lights Out!, McCammon called me to talk about the newsletter. I was living in Utah at the time, and figured I’d be lucky to ever get to meet him. But I was lucky, and when I had to take a business trip in January 1989, I was able to arrange an overnight layover in Birmingham, Alabama, to meet Rick. He graciously offered to pick me up at the airport, and in his home that evening, we conducted the interview that appeared in the first issue of Lights Out! (and that can now be found on the McCammon Web site). I was very nervous about the meeting, but Rick and his wife, Sally, made me feel quite at home. Over time, we became good friends.

AK: The original Web site for Robert McCammon was Lights Out! So why did it go offline for a while?

HG: When McCammon announced his retirement in 1999, he asked me to shut down the Web site. He didn’t feel that there was any point in having a site when he didn’t plan to write any new novels.

AK: And the relaunch? Did that coincide with McCammon’s return in 2002 with the Matthew Corbett novels?

HG: Yes. When I received the phone call in which he told me that Speaks the Nightbird was going to published, we discussed relaunching the Web site to help promote the book. Now that the Matthew Corbett series is continuing, I’ll be continuing to run the site to help provide news and information for fans and new readers.

AK: Why do you think McCammon’s work is so popular?

HG: I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that his words paint pictures more vividly than any other author I’ve read. He’s very adept at thoroughly describing a scene with an economy of words. The other is his ability to create a wide variety of characters with great depth. When you read a McCammon novel, you really know and care about the characters, even those that are background characters. McCammon combines those factors with a good sense of humor, exciting action scenes, intriguing mysteries, and some real insights into life to make great novels.

AK: Who else do you read in your spare time? And what books have you enjoyed over the last year?

HG: I’ve mostly been reading thrillers and historical novels recently. My favorite authors besides McCammon include George Chesbro (whose Web site I also run), Stephen Hunter, Gregg Hurwitz, T. Jefferson Parker, Robert B. Parker, Mark Billingham, Ronald Kelly, and Michael Slade. Over the past year, I’ve discovered the Tudor England mysteries of C.J. Sansom, and I recently finished Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. I look forward to reading more historical mysteries in the coming years.

AK: And finally, how important do you think it is for a writer today to have an Internet presence?

HG: I think it’s pretty important if you’re a writer looking for readers. The Internet has become such a major part of everyone’s lives that people now tend to look for author sites when they read books they enjoy. Most of the advertising for The Queen of Bedlam has been Internet-based, and I’ve heard from dozens of readers who wouldn’t have known about the new books if they hadn’t found the McCammon site or seen mentions [of the novel] on other sites.

(To be continued)

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