An Interview with Robert Cormier

beyond the chocolate war An Interview with Robert Cormier

by Anita Silvey

Beyond the Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is being published by Knopf on April 21, 1985. This interview, conducted at Robert Cormier’s home in Leominster, Massachusetts, took place on December 20, 1984, and focuses on the new book, his methods of writing, and the influences on his work.

AS: Why did you write a sequel to The Chocolate War (Pantheon)? What motivated you to do it?

RC: Actually I resisted a sequel. I don’t particularly like sequels — mostly because they are usually disappointing. But I go into the schools and get a lot of mail from kids, and kids kept saying, “What happened to Archie? And what happened to Jerry?” These questions kept the book alive, eternally fresh, in my mind. Because I’d be challenged by kids about what happened in the third chapter with Tubs Casper, it would force me to read and reread the book. I got to a point where I had just finished a novel, and so I began to wonder what did happen to these people, particularly to Tubs Casper. He was the key. He had a very minor role in The Chocolate War. He was a device. I wanted to show how the sale was going — so I demonstrated it by showing one kid not selling the chocolates, another kid who was an eager salesman, and then Tubs, who was keeping the money because he wanted to buy a bracelet for a girl. Inevitably, when I go into a school, students will ask me about Tubs Caspar, and they’re angry about him. Kids  are so great; they’re very honest about everything. They scold you if they don’t like something. So they’d say, “Why did you do that to Tubs Caspar?” I kept thinking about Tubs. In the first stages of Beyond the Chocolate War I wrote a little about Tubs before realizing that I would go into a formal sequel.

Then, I really got interested about what might have happened to these kids. I sketched a couple of scenes with Tubs Caspar showing what might have happened to him and Rita which don’t appear in the book. There was one scene between Tubs and Rita that I still love that had to come out. Yet, for me it was necessary to write it at the time, even though it didn’t advance the plot at all.

But when I realized that I did have something going, I began to formally structure it as much as I could. I knew I needed a new voice for the reader who isn’t familiar with Trinity. It’s an old ploy. So Obie explains what happened to the newcomer Ray  Bannister. Here again, I work in serendipity. I set myself challenges. That first line of the novel, “Ray Bannister started to build  the guillotine the day Jerry Renault returned to Monument,” is the biggest challenge of all because I introduce Ray Bannister and I introduce the guillotine. I knew, by all the laws, that the guillotine had to fall. That’s the fun of writing — to set up a situation like that and have it hanging there. In I Am the Cheese (Pantheon) it was starting the boy off on the bike and having that package in the basket, not saying what was in the package because I really didn’t know at the time. These are the little challenges that I make for myself to solve later.

AS: The first sentence in The Chocolate War is “They murdered him.” Did you have that in mind at the beginning or did it come later?

RC: One thing I like to do is plunge into my novels. That line in The Chocolate War seemed like a good lapel grabber. In my  books I go immediately for action and set scenes later. I have the image of grabbing someone by the lapels and saying, “Listen. I wrote that first chapter of The Chocolate War probably thirty-five times because that first chapter contains all the dramatic foreshadowing, all the similes and metaphors — such as “sweat like bugs on his forehead.” Sometimes kids tell me that they started reading The Chocolate War, and then it got very violent. I tell them that they were warned in that first chapter. I didn’t pull a switch on page ninety-eight where things get nasty. “They murdered him” is like a big shadow hovering over the novel.

AS: The first book was written as a “what if” response to the fact that your son refused to participate in a school chocolate sale. Beyond the Chocolate War was written in response to many questions from children. Are you more aware of a child-audience now than you were ten years ago?

RC: I still don’t write thinking that I’m creating for children. But it would be dishonest for me to say that I don’t know they are there, that I don’t know that they will be reading the book. I wrote the book because of them, so actually it was an answer to all of their questions. I was aware of them in the questions that they had posed to me. When people say they write for themselves, that’s probably what they do. I will admit that I don’t write for myself; I write to be read. I’ve got the reader in my mind all the time. That’s another part of the whole process.

I had my own private catalyst in the book. Whenever I reread The Chocolate War, or discussed it, I always thought that Obie was the most neglected character in the book, probably the most poignant, and the one that I sympathized with. Kids ask me questions like, “Which character do you like best?” They’re always surprised when I don’t tell them Jerry. I sometimes half shock them and tell them Archie. He is a terrific character; I really love him dearly. Obie was a tragic kid who went through his entire high school career and had nothing to show for it, and he was aware of that. I knew Tubs didn’t have the stature of a major figure to carry out a revenge motive so I figured that for any dramatic movement Obie seemed the perfect vehicle. While writing The Chocolate War I had contemplated bringing in romance. What if Obie did have a girl? He was so devoted to Archie, and suddenly his loyalties would be divided.

Then this wonderful thing happened when I sat at the typewriter. I started writing about Obie being in love, and suddenly this girl Laurie Gnndardson came onto the page. I can’t track where she came from. She started to ask about the Vigils, and Obie suspected she knew about his role. Not only did his feeling for Laurie alienate him a bit from Archie, but he saw himself in her eyes as a stooge, and that began the big change in him.

Writing, even though it’s hard work, is really a joy when you get these characters to come alive. It’s hard to trace where they come from. I can’t say that I am sitting here one night at nine o’clock and that a character occurs to me. The magic for me happens at the typewriter.

AS: David Caroni comes back in a very poignant way; is that because you asked “what if” or because children asked you about him?

RC: Children never asked me about David Caroni, but he appealed to me as a sensitive character who was left undeveloped in the first book. He is a tragic character in the sequel because of that “what if” question I posed about him. What if he became devastated by something that would seem almost trivial to other people? We often think that tragedies happen because of great earthquakes in people’s lives. I think they sometimes occur because of small things that become obsessive to a particular person. So I went ahead on that assumption in dealing with David Caroni. As I wrote about him, it seemed to ring true.

My wife, Connie, and I have started to play golf. I’m an indoor person, and for years everyone has been trying to get me outdoors. So I have consented to play golf once in a while. One gorgeous day a friend of ours was going to join us for golf. Earlier I sat down at the typewriter and started fooling around. Well, let’s see what will happen to David Caroni. Connie came to get me, and I said, “I think I’m going to write, instead.” That first scene with David, the aborted suicide, was written in one session that morning. I hardly touched it afterward, and I was so glad I hadn’t gone to play golf.

Actually I was going to have him commit suicide in the scene. That’s the way things were going: “Look thy last on all things lovely.” He got into the bathtub, and then I thought — he doesn’t. Suddenly, the entire Caroni aspect changed. I had no idea that eventually he would be connected with Brother Leon in a climactic scene at the end. By not killing himself at that moment he brought in Leon. “Why should he go alone, leaving Leon behind, sparing him?” Again, serendipity. I started out writing a suicide scene, and instead I set up a later development. There are always options. If it hadn’t worked out, I could always go back and say, “No, he will die.” So I just said, “I’ll pick that thread up later.” I let it sit for a couple of weeks and went on with other things. When, for the sense of pacing, the time came for David Caroni to come back again, I carried him further. That’s the joy of writing — letting things happen.

AS: What happens to Archie in Beyond the Chocolate War?

RC: I knew that Archie would have to get the black marble, because kids had bothered me so much about his always getting the white one. In fact, kids write final chapters for The Chocolate War; in their versions Archie does get the black marble. I had to work out some way in which Archie isn’t a miracle man; he’s human. So again I thought, what if he does get the black marble, what will happen? I kept talking to Connie about this. At one point I said, “You know, Archie is really going to get it in this book. I can feel it because once he gets the black marble (I’d set up the Fair Day and the Fool) he’s really going to be humiliated.” Then, as I started to write that segment, he got the marble, but nobody dared to do anything to him. So he surprised me. Very early when he was training Bunting to be the Assigner, it bothered me that I’d created Bunting to be the Assigner, because he is so unlike Archie. Then it occurred to me that Archie has a motive for picking a kid like Bunting. Archie doesn’t want someone there who would outdo him. He really isn’t going to tell Bunting his secrets about how to manipulate people. I said, “I’ll solve that later when I come to it.” I have always planted these little time bombs in my books. Sometimes they don’t work though, and I go back and remove them.

Another serendipity figure is Emile Janza, whom I introduced in the first book as a thug to show Archie from another viewpoint. He kept popping up. In Beyond the Chocolate War I realized how he could be manipulated by Archie, even after Archie’s gone. I had no idea that I’d be writing that particular final scene for the book. In fact, I was a little disappointed as I neared the end. Obie and Archie have that great scene where Archie says, “You could have said no all along. I’m your other side; I’m your evil side.” I ended it when Archie says, “Good-bye,” which he has never done. I figured, that’s good-bye to the readers. They’ll never hear from him again. I knew my last scene would be Bunting Sitting there contemplating the following year. But then I sat down to write, and I said, “Well, why not bring in Emile Janza?” Then these marvelous things happened. Even though Archie’s gone, he is still there because of his influence. He’s going to ruin the school, maybe. The boy Henry Malioran suddenly comes out of nowhere with a tomato, possibly a sign of good things to come.

AS: And there’s been some transformation of Jerry?

RC: I suppose the natural thing would have been to bring Jerry back to Trinity and have him confront Archie again. But I didn’t want to do that. It would be like rewriting The Chocolate War. I wanted to keep him away from Trinity and yet have him involved with a Trinity character. Graham Greene, my favorite novelist, said that in every book he writes one character always gives him trouble, a character that you worry about—like Wilson in The Heart of the Matter (Viking). In The Chocolate War it was Jerry. I was trying not to make him sound like my son, so I wasn’t writing naturally. To me he was stubborn and refused to come to life; I worked so hard on him. In Beyond the Chocolate War he was the problem from the very beginning. In the first version I had him more psychologically defective than he is in the actual book. I had him mute for a good time. In that version because of the language problem in Canada, he wasn’t speaking, and suddenly he realized that he couldn’t talk anymore. So when he came back to the States, he wasn’t able to communicate at all during Goober’s first visit. In fact, because he wasn’t able to talk, he let out a terrible scream of frustration that sent the Goober out of his home in horror. I wrote several scenes in which he was trying to talk and was talking haltingly. It just wasn’t working for me; it just didn’t ring true. I did an awful lot of writing. Here Jerry was again, giving me problems.

A novel must work as a story because no one’s going to get to the other themes if you don’t entertain the reader. But I like to have another layer of meaning, although you can read the book on one level and not bother with that other layer. I wanted Jerry to be the opposite of evil, to begin to have an aspiration to something greater than what’s going on at Trinity. That’s why I had him thinking about the church in Canada, aspiring to return. Just a hint that he could do that. He’ll probably go back to Trinity and go through a Purgatory but be triumphant in the end even though he looks as if he’s defeated. I was very tentative about writing those scenes, and I really had to work hard on them. I didn’t want a fourteen-year-old kid to sound like a Christ figure. He still had to sound like a kid. That’s why I made him groping, not quite sure what he wanted to do. But he still has a quest, a mission. I wanted something to balance Archie’s evil. Jerry would transcend all of this evil. He may become a contemplative; in a way I tried to hint at that in the first scenes when he was praying in Canada, repairing his mind and body and soul. I didn’t want Jerry to become part of the revenge plot because that would have been out of character. I gave more thought and more rewriting to Jerry Renault in this book than I did to any other character.

Cassie in The Bumble Bee Flies Anyway (Pantheon) caused me no end of grief. She ran away with the book for awhile, and I wrote page after page of her life. She ended up not being a particularly likable person until I changed her. So in almost every book there’s a person who is a problem or who doesn’t behave.

AS: So essentially you become attracted to a character; you start to work; and then a scene evolves?

RC: When I see things that I’ve started that don’t work out, that I’ve abandoned, I find that it’s because I wasn’t that emotionally involved with the characters—they didn’t come alive. Always, it’s the emotion that gets me going, and then immediately I create a character. In Beyond the Chocolate War the characters were already there, and I had to get emotionally involved with them again. That’s why I didn’t choose to bring back some characters; I brought back David Caroni rather than Brian Cochran because Brian didn’t particularly move me.

AS: Then it’s a combination of character and emotion? Because what the reader feels in the chapter about David Caroni is that wave of despair, that life is indeed worthless.

RC: And David is still carrying on this act of being normal. So often you read about suicides, and people say, He acted the way he always did. Oh, he probably was a little distracted.” What has always struck me is a line from a Stevie Smith poem that some day I may write a novel about: “I was much further out than you thought and not waving but drowning.” That happens all the time. So you get a kid like David Caroni who was devastated; and yet he carried on these planes of existence; he was still a brother and student and son. When you get emotionally involved with a character like that, you really have this sense of doom hanging over him, and you hate to see what’s going to happen. I could see what was happening to Kate in After the First Death (Pantheon); inevitably she’d make that fatal error that all amateurs do. She was braver than I thought she ever would be when I started the novel. When I got to that scene where she and Miro were nestled together, and I knew it just had to end that way, it affected me too. There’s that strange thing about characters; you become very attached to them. Even to the villains.

After I wrote The Chocolate War, I was invited to a party at Random House by my editor, Fabio Coen, at which a young editor came up to me and said, “I just read The Chocolate War, and if I ever met someone like Archie Costello, I think I’d just lose all control and I’d want to thrash him.” I was thinking, “You’re looking at him,” because I had devised all these things. Once when Connie was typing a scene, she came down into my study and looked at me and said, ‘‘Who are you? We’ve been together all these years, but sometimes I wonder.”

AS: How do you achieve the incredible pacing and tension in Beyond the Chocolate War?

RC: The rewriting is always crucial to what I do; whenever I do a scene, I always tell myself that this isn’t final and that I can do it again, better. The pacing is probably from experience. I’ve always liked gradual disclosure. I keep thinking of my rubber-band theory. You have a rubber band that you keep pulling and pulling and pulling, and just at the moment of snapping you release it and start another chapter and start pulling again.

The editing was crucial in this book, and Dinah Stevenson was so important in that process. The book was much longer than I wanted it to be, simply because in the first version I wanted the people to go their way. I thought it would be easier to cut than to add. So I sent in this large manuscript, and I was beginning to lose my perspective. Dinah wrote me this letter that was glowing about the book but also so insightful about what I might do to cut the manuscript. She gave me major suggestions that affected the book, particularly the climax. I had disclosed pretty early what Obie had in mind for the guillotine, and I’d told the reader what I was going to do. She spotted that flaw right away and said we should let the reader find out for him or herself. That change made a big difference. She knew exactly what I wanted to do and really came through with insights that I needed. So she was terrific for me. In fact, what delighted me was that she started to come up with a couple of wild ideas of her own about Archie. Archie’s such a character; she started talking about him as though he really was alive the way I felt he was alive.

AS: The philosophy of your books is very often brought back to you, sometimes negatively. What do you think you are saying to the reader in terms not only of character and emotion but also of content? What are the most important statements in your books?

RC: In Beyond the Chocolate War it’s that choice is always possible. I’ve always been aware of moments in life when I had a clear choice. I was more explicit in Beyond the Chocolate War about the themes. I spelled out a lot of things in it that were only implicit in the other book. Obie could have said “No” all along. The power of the leader comes from those who allow themselves to be led. There’s a scene in The Chocolate War in which Brother Leon falsely accuses Gregory Bailey of cheating, and nobody comes to his rescue. I made a Nazi Germany comparison. The same kind of idea is expressed in Beyond the Chocolate War: Terrible things happen because we allow them to happen. Frankly, I was astonished at the reception of The Chocolate War when people started talking about its downbeat philosophy. I thought, what’s that got to do with me? You know I have family, friends. I’m an optimist. A writer is separate from his work. Looking back on the body of my work I suppose there is a certain theme running through it. When I wrote The Chocolate War, however, I didn’t realize I was going to write I Am the Cheese. So it’s not as if I sat down in the seventies and eighties to write these novels exploring these things. It’s not a philosophy that I have tried to tow from book to book, though I hope there are serious things in the books.

I am frightened by today’s world, terrified by it. I think that comes out in the books. I’m afraid of big things. Some of these schools have three thousand kids, and even the size of the schools frightens me. Big government frightens me; so does big defense. I think that those fears come out in I Am the Cheese. The terrorists who call themselves freedom fighters commit indiscriminate bombings. How could anybody do that in today’s world? In After the First Death I was trying to answer that question for myself: that it could only be done out of a total innocence, a monstrous innocence, which is what Miro was. My philosophy is not that set and determined — it varies from book to book.

AS: What are the rewards of writing?

RC: There are so many rewards. When you get the ideas, that’s a thrill; when you’re writing the book and it’s corning out well, that’s a thrill; when you finish it and other people read it, that’s a thrill. There are going to be reviews, of course; not everyone’s going to love it. You feel sort of naked and vulnerable in a way. That’s just a minor part of the process, really. If you can’t take that part, you shouldn’t be in the business. But there are so many joys to writing. Then there is the sense of so many people having been involved. There are a lot of people who have contributed, people whose lives you have affected. An artist had to design the book; another person worked on the promotion. It has set a whole world going.

AS: How have you learned the craft of writing?

RC: Constant reading, reading, reading. I sometimes get tired because I can seldom read a book for pleasure. I’m like the play reviewer who happens to go to a play on an off day and can’t help but view it critically. A man I know who writes and aspires to be a novelist does very little reading, and he’s not that successful. But I think it’s because he’s like the kid who wants to be a  ballplayer and never goes to the ballpark or tries to hit a ball. So I’d say reading is the most important thing that I do, besides the actual writing. I’m always asking as I read, “How did the writer do this? Why do I suddenly have tears in my eyes? Why am I crying?”

I think there are two great influences on my writing. One is current. I read a lot of detective stories because they always deliver.  They give you a beginning, a middle, and an end — a resolution. The modern novels I read don’t always deliver because I’m looking essentially for a story. As in Shakespeare, “The play’s the thing.” In particular I read detective stories for pacing, plot and suspense.

I love the form of the detective novel. Ed McBain’s Seventy-sixth Precinct mysteries are probably the most underrated detective stories in the world today. I also like police procedural novels; I was brought up on Ellery Queen, and, of course, those books were puzzles rather than mysteries. But I learned plotting technique and gradual disclosure from Queen. Then there are people like Ross Thomas, who I think is so underrated. He ought to be reviewed on the front page of The New York Times.

The earliest influence on me was the movies of the thirties when I was growing up. Those were stories. If you look at them now, you see the development of character and the twists of plot; but essentially they told stories. My mother didn’t go to the movies because of a religious promise she made early in her life, and I used to go to movies and come home and tell her the plots of those old Warner Brothers/James Cagney movies, the old romantic love stories. Through these movies that had real characters, I absorbed drama, sense of pacing, and plot.

When I write, I never think of segments as chapters; I think of them as scenes. I always visualize them in my mind. Then I try to get the scene down on paper as closely as I can. That’s the one thing that readers don’t see — what you have in your mind. The  reader can only see what you get on the page.

Even with these influences I don’t think I began to be a professional writer until I learned my weaknesses and what I couldn’t do. This forced me to compensate. I use a lot of similes and metaphors when I work, simply because it’s my best way of describing a building or a scene. I’m terrible at describing landscapes — trees, buildings. The inanimate things don’t interest me: I always think, “Oh, no, here comes another building I have to describe.” So I usually use a simile or metaphor. When I first started out writing and heard about figures of speech, I thought they were “fancy writing,” but I realize they’re not. Graham Greene showed me the use of metaphor to evoke emotion, scene, and place.

There is very little that is accidental in my work. I believe in serendipity for developments of plot, but the actual writing is arrived at by very hard work. I mentioned the joy of writing, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t get the backaches and headaches and the days when it’s not coming. The hundreds of discarded pages for Beyond the Chocolate War (Knopf) fill a huge cardboard box. It’s not that I wrote the book once and then wrote another four hundred pages. Chapter one was probably written five times or a certain page ten times. Once in a while I get a chapter like that David Caroni chapter that sings beautifully as I write it and needs very little tampering. I think Dinah made a couple of suggestions about it, but it stood basically as I wrote it. The last chapter with Bunting and Janza stood just as I wrote it, with only a word changed here or there. In another scene, for instance the one in which Obie was approaching Archie for the first time, I worked and reworked and reworked until I got it just where I wanted it. The reworking is usually cutting and tightening so that every word matters.

I write very tightly, and my big fear is boring people. I want them to read quickly, stopped in their tracks. I resist indulging myself. I find that most books that I don’t like are those in which the authors have indulged themselves. I can almost sense when they’re writing something for themselves.

AS: The power of your writing has always been compared to Salinger. Is he an influence on your work?

RC: That always embarrasses me because Salinger is such a terrific writer; he did so many great things. He is one of those writers that I still reread, simply because he makes me see the possibilities and makes me feel like writing. There are certain writers who put you in the mood to write. In the way a whiff of a cigar will bring back memories of a ballgame on a Saturday afternoon,  reading Salinger makes me want to get to the typewriter. Catcher in the Rye (Little) is on my list of best books.

AS: What are the others?

RC: Three would have to be Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, and The Power and the Glory (all Viking). It’s amazing that one man wrote three masterpieces. The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (Harcourt) by William Saroyan. Thomas Wolfe was my first great influence. I spent a lot of time when I was thirteen years old trying to write like him, until Hemingway and Saroyan showed me the simple manner. Hemingway is looked down on now, but he was such a door-opener for us in his time. The Sun Also Rises is really my favorite of his books, for that time in his life; The Old Man and the Sea (both Scribner), later. But he showed me what a simple word can do. I’d also include Appointment in Samarra (Random) by John O’Hara. He writes very differently from the way I write; he never used a metaphor in his life. Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (Washington Square). They are the people who write the kind of books I love so much.

AS: What about young adult writers whose books you like?

RC: Well, individual books come along that really knock me out in young adult literature. The Language of Goldfish (Viking) by Zibby O’Neal; M. E. Kerr’s Is That You, Miss Blue? and Gentlehands (both Harper). I’m not a reader of young adult fiction for the simple reason that these novelists are writing for adolescents, so they are not writing for me. Norma Klein has such a range, writing for both adults and young adults. Judy Blume is such a good writer. So is Bette Greene. Then I admire some craftspeople who can consciously do what they do so beautifully. Richard Peck is one of them; he can take a theme like rape and then dramatize it in such a way that it hits the fourteen- or fifteen-year-old sensibility. Earlier, there was Pamela Frankau, who wrote A Wreath for the Enemy (Harper); in it there’s a section called “The Duchess and the Smugs,” which is a classic example of what a young adult novel can be. Someone ought to reprint it.

AS: Your writing is tremendously powerful. It touches off chords — the reader can’t help but respond to it. You do “Disturb the Universe” in your books. I think that’s what has touched off some of the negative critical comments. You feel naked writing, but people feel naked reading your work.

RC: That’s good. Because you do strive for those shocks of recognition. You hope that people read your book and say “Yes, this is the way it is or could be.” But then you have no way of knowing until the reader reads the book. Actually, the critical response doesn’t worry me. I’ve had very few reviews that have upset me. There were only two or three about the whole series of books that I’ve written, and those were clearly because the books were not only misread but treated with a certain contempt. You have to accept the critical reviews if they treat you with respect. Actually, it’s one person’s opinion. So, it’s a concern but not an overriding one, and I don’t stay up nights worrying about reviews. But there are certain people I respect who I hope will like a book.

AS: When you write today, do you consider some of the censorship of your books and decide not to put in certain scenes?

RC: That’s the big danger with censorship. I know it is because I talk to other writers. I had a writer tell me about a letter he received from an editor that said, “Look, from now on we’re not going to put up with this kind of thing.” I wrote Beyond the Chocolate War without pulling any punches. I do try to get everything I can in a book without sensationalizing or exploiting. But this sequel is being published at a very conservative time. Frankly, I was afraid that I would send it in and receive a call from somebody at Random House/Knopf in policy-making who would say “Look Bob, we just can’t have this scene, or that scene.” I wouldn’t have been surprised. I was delighted when Janet Schulman [Vice President and Editor in Chief], who was responsible for policy, read the book, called up, praised the book, and said nothing about cutting difficult scenes. To me that is a great tribute to Random House/Knopf because there may be some things in the book that will upset people.

Over the years I have learned to write using suggestion rather than explicitness. But it’s impossible to write about kids of that age without going into certain things that are on their minds. Kids tell me all the time, “I don’t know how you do it, but that’s us in the book.” That’s the kind of response you want, and I can’t sacrifice it for the sake of somebody worried about censorship. You have to find a way to be truthful and honest.

People always ask me about the role models that I’m providing for kids, and I say I can’t be concerned with that. I’m not worrying about corrupting youth. I’m worrying about writing realistically and truthfully to affect the reader. It would be the death of all creativity for me if I had to sit there and be concerned with the sensibilities of a fourteen-year-old kid. Some fourteen-year-olds would revel in the book, and some would be very sensitive to it, so you can’t afford to worry about that. What I worry about is good taste and getting my message across by whatever means I can.

When I go into schools, I sometimes get accused by kids of being old-fashioned. Often they tease me about it because they’ve heard about the censorship cases. Most of the children are puzzled by the controversy. The parents and the other adults get upset about the books, but the kids know the language they hear and what’s going on in the locker rooms and the school buses. They know my books are mild in comparison.

AS: How do you actually get these books written — the physical process of composition?

RC: I’ve been home for seven years now writing daily, and discipline is the key. I act as though I’m going into the office each day, and I try to be very businesslike. I get up and dress and shave, read the paper, and go to the typewriter. I plan a good full morning that might be two-and-a-half or four hours. I find that intense writing at the typewriter is very exhausting. I rest in the afternoon and see friends or watch something I’ve taped on my VCR. Again, in the evening I bring out my writing and look at it. If it reads well, it makes me feel like writing again the next morning; and if it doesn’t, it still makes me feel like correcting the material. I try to set up a continuity, a momentum. Even though I set up these artificial times, the book is always with me. I probably get the greatest idea of the week standing in line at the bank or driving the car. I’m always telling myself as I write that I’m not really writing a novel; I’m just going to fool around with a character or an idea. I have a whole pile of manuscripts that are different  books in different stages. Until the sequel, I drove my editors crazy because I never told them what I was working on. Until Fabio Coen saw I Am the Cheese (Pantheon), he had no idea that I was working on it — nor did my wife.

I don’t even number my pages. There again, I don’t think that I’m writing a novel. I also don’t like to think in terms of writing ten or twelve pages a day. Usually I’m writing a scene, and it’s always with the idea, “I wonder what is going to happen.” Or sometimes I write about something that affected me emotionally the day before and that I don’t want to lose. I’m very unorganized at first; but finally it comes into a structure where consciously I’m working on a novel per se.

AS: What can we expect from you in the future?

RC: I’m in between books now, and I just put some thoughts down on paper the other night. I typed this page, wildly. I can’t tell you right now what the next book’s going to be. I hope there is a next book. That’s the big fear: losing your faculties. I’m always afraid I’ll wake up some morning and it will all be gone. And you never reach the stage when you say, “I’ve done it.” The blank page is there every day; that’s what keeps you humble. That’s what keeps your feet on the ground. No one can do it for you; and the page can be terrifyingly blank. As much as there is joy in writing, there’s always the little bit of terror to keep you on edge, on your toes. It is a strange way to occupy yourself — to enjoy your life on a daily basis. There is no guarantee that something great is going to come next. That’s why I don’t sign three-book contracts ahead of time; I don’t like to write against deadlines, demands.

I’ve always wanted to write a love story. After the First Death I thought would be my adolescent love story. But what I would like to write and what I am going to write are usually two different things. I’ve got a character on a page now, and I don’t know what is going to happen to him. But it would be beautiful if it came out to be a nice, tender love story.

From the March/April 1984  and May/June 1985 issues of The Horn Book Magazine.

share save 171 16 An Interview with Robert Cormier

Comments

  1. Kieran Fanning says:

    Brilliant interview. The man was a legend.

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