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.
Excerpted from: Anita Silvey, “An Interview with Robert Cormier,”
Originally published in The Horn Book Magazine, March/April 1985 and May/June 1985. http://www.hbook.com/2013/08/authors-illustrators/an-interview-with-robert-cormier/