His latest novel, Riders on the Storm, his tenth novel featuring small town lawyer and investigator Sam McCain, was recently released by Pegasus Books. Riders has been welcomed with strong critical support, including a starred review from Booklist, and it is highly anticipated by, at a minimum, me.
Mr Gorman kindly answered a few questions about Sam McCain, his fiction in general, and even a little about life, for Gravetapping. The questions are italicized.
I’ve been reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio and I have been struck by the similarity of his small-town Midwestern characters, and the characters you populate your Sam McCain novels with. Who are some of the writers, and works—fiction or nonfiction—that influenced your Sam McCain novels?
Well I’ve been reading and rereading Anderson since I was in high school. He’s one of my Hall of Famers. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Twain, Hamlin Garland, James T. Farrell, Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Stephen Crane (who’s sort of an honorary Midwesterner)—they’ve all had great effect on my world view and writing.
Your work is often from the perspective of the outsider. Your Sam McCain novels—generally—have a softer shade of outsider than much of your other work, but McCain is something of a man without a country. He doesn’t quite belong to the lower socio-economic class he grew up in, but he also doesn’t fit the more educated middle- and upper- middle class. How much of this outsider perspective is from your own experience, and how much is from observation?
Very good question. That’s one of the traits I share with McCain. I’ve never fit in anywhere. Bill Pronzini once said that my characters are outsiders who are trying to make peace with the world but can’t ever quite make it. That’s certainly true of me.
Esme Anne Whitney. Judge Whitney is a gentrified judge from a wealthy family whose influence in Black River Falls is waning. She is a character who is astonishingly out of touch with Main Street. Did you have a particular person, or type of person, in mind when you created her? And where did the rubber-band flipping come from?
I like the Judge. She represents everything Sam despises but he enjoys her and respects her. She was created from whole cloth as was the rubber band bit.
The historical detail you include in your McCain novels is impressive. You tend to have one or two significant background events—the death of Buddy Holly, the 1960 presidential campaign, the release of the Ford Edsel, the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc.—that frame each novel’s era, but more interesting are the smaller details. The novels, movies, fashions, haircuts, stores—Woolworth, Rexall, etc.—and the small town politics. What type of research do you do when you write the novels, and do you have any recommendations for further reading?
The things you cite are as fresh in my mind as when I was living through them.
Sam McCain’s favorite actor is Robert Ryan. Do you share that sentiment, and if you were to recommend one or two of his best films, what would they be?
Ryan was a man of parts—rage and sorrow. He never got his due. He was the perfect Irish actor. The Iceman Cometh and Odds Against Tomorrow are my favorites.
In the first three Sam McCain novels there were two significant recurring characters, the beautiful Pamela Forrest and Mary Travers. Sam McCain loved Pamela Forrest who loved a married Stu Grant, and Mary Travers loved Sam McCain. This strange love triangle was written with humor, but it was shaded dark with undertones of pre-destined unfairness. All three of the characters lost something—love, acceptance—that could easily have been theirs for the taking. What were you trying to say about McCain, and the world, with this relationship?
I wasn’t thinking of anything more than how when you look back over your life you see how perverse romantic entanglements are. You lose a woman and yet she circles back years later. I like the French philosophy: “Sometimes the only thing worse than losing the woman is winning her.” You chase and chase a woman until you’re finally in a relationship with her only to find out that she’s less than wonderful. Then after you’re able to function again despite the pain you see somebody you should have been with all along. I wrote a long story called “The End of It all” that is exactly about that theme. It’s been optioned three times for darkly comic cable but it’s never been made.
Speaking of Mary Travers. Is there any relationship between her name and the folk singer Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary?
No. She’s named after a girl I knew in Catholic school.
The Sam McCain novels are populated with a colorful cast. There is the rubber-band flipping Judge Whitney, the incompetent bully Sheriff Cliff (Cliffie) Sykes Jr., the beatnik sleaze writer Kenny Thibodoux, and medical examiner Doc Novotny—graduate of the Cincinnati Citadel of Medinomics. I can only imagine the fun you had creating these characters. Do you have a favorite, and are these small town oddballs something of an homage to The Andy Griffith show?
I used to love watching Andy Griffith even though I knew it was, you’ll forgive the phrase, a white wash. Amusing as it was there never was a town like Mayberry anywhere anytime. No, my characters all have dark sides. And Black River Falls, while there are many decent people in it, is a town of shadows and secrets like any other small or large town.
The tone of the novels have shifted as the series has unfolded. The early titles were more innocent and hopeful than the later novels. This shift in tone is aptly geared towards matching the changing times—from the late-1950s to the early-1970s. When you started the series, did you plan to take it into the 1970s, and is this shift in tone something more than just matching the era where the story takes place (i. e. is it also related to the current political climate)?
Each book got a little darker on its own. The times became more and more turbulent and Sam, who was growing up, had to respond accordingly.
I recently re-read your fine novel The Autumn Dead, featuring part time private eye Jack Dwyer, and I was struck by the relationship between Dwyer’s childhood neighborhood “the Highlands,” and Sam McCain’s “the Knolls.” Both are presented as lower class enclaves dying of poverty, decay, and desperation. Your work often showcases the tension between classes, and these neighborhoods display the “less than” segment of society. How much of this tension comes from your own childhood, life?
From age six to approximately age seventeen these were the neighborhoods I lived in. Mixed race, violent, girls who got pregnant around fourteen or so, boys who went to reform school as prep for prison, spending Saturdays downtown just for a glimpse of the very pretty girls we considered (from where we lived) rich but who were really just middle-class.
Your most recent Sam McCain novel, Riders on the Storm, is scheduled to be released by Pegasus in October. It is the tenth novel featuring Sam McCain. Would you tell us a little about the novel, and is it going to be the final entry, or can we look forward to another?
Since it’s a sequel to Ticket to Ride I don’t want to give away the storyline. It’s a novel about the Viet Nam where Sam is forced to change in ways that would have been unimaginable even six months before.
I heard this question in an interview on a BBC program a few years ago. If you were stranded on an island and you had only one book. What would it be?
Oh man my answer would change day to day. Today it would probably be a Graham Greene novel.
The opposite side of the coin. If you were allowed only to recommend one of your novels, or stories, which one would you want people to read?
Probably The Autumn Dead which is being reissued as a two-fer with another of my books The Night Remembers.
[Editor's note: Stark House Press is scheduled to release The Autumn Dead / The Night Remembers as a trade paperback in December 2014.]
In 1996 you published a novel titled Black River Falls, which is the name of the fictional city Sam McCain inhabits. Are these the same city—removed by a few decades—or did you simply like the name? On a side note, BRF has one of the most heart rendering scenes I have read in popular fiction; the protagonist, a young boy named Ben (as I recall), sneaks ice cream licks to a kitten dying of leukemia.
Black River Falls may have come from my friend the late Dick Laymon. He may have used a town by that name in one of his books.
[Editor's note: Richard Laymon used the name Black River Falls in his 1986 novel Beast House. The protagonist, Gorman Hardy, wrote a nonfiction book titled Horror at Black River Falls. Interestingly, Black River Falls, Wisconsin was home to a crime outbreak, and general misfortune, in the 1890s.]
I don’t get a lot of fan mail but Black Rivers Falls is frequently mentioned by readers as my best novel—that or Cage of Night.
When I was getting clean from alcohol and drugs my little boy Joe brought me a kitten because he said he knew I’d be lonely. Hi mother and I had divorced six year earlier. The kitten was tiny and beautiful. I named her “Ayesha” after the woman in H. Rider Haggard’s She. She developed leukemia when she was six months old. It took her three months to die. It broke my heart watching her become more and more frail. I can still feel her tiny warm body in my hand sometimes.
I know you grew up in Iowa, but did you, like McCain, grow up in a small town environment?
Yes, after the big war my family did live in a few small towns. I draw on a lot of memories when I’m fleshing out Black River Falls. But basically I lived in Cedar Rapids which is small by many standards but large if you live in Iowa.