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Robert Cormier
London, July 2000

ACHUKA interviewed Robert Cormier at his London hotel on the afternoon of 11th July, prior to his evening discussion with Melvin Burgess.
Like the transcript of that event, this extended interview is being uploaded in installments. Join the Mail List via the News page, and you'll be informed when the next part of the interview is online.
Cormier's reputation as a fine writer of Young Adult fiction is widely acknowledged. Beyond that, he deserves recognition as a major writer of the past 25 years, period. His omission from such books as The Oxford Companion to American Literature is heinous.

You've lived the whole of your life in Leominster, and have been in the same house for over 40 years. Why?  

I think I like that sense of security and that sense of--it sounds like a cliche--but roots. When I was young growing up, I thought that to be a writer I had to travel the world, and have all these experiences. Then at some point... I think it goes back to the adventures of Tom Sawyer... that was the first book I really ever owned that wasn't a text book... my godmother gave it to me when I was 11 or 12. Tom Sawyer with his adventures, painting the fence... I sorta realised that there was drama right there in my own neighbourhood. I've thought about that since. At the time it occurred it wasn't a lightning bolt, but I've always been conscious of not having to travel that far. The legends I heard when I was a child, the strikes at the shops were very dramatic to me. Then I'd read How Green Was My Valley and realised these men were in much the same circumstances. It was this feeling that Leominster really was a small echo of the larger world. So I never felt the need to go elsewhere for material. Then I also was very much influenced by Thomas Wolfe... Look Homeward Angel and that life in a small southern town in Carolina. There was that aspiration to go to the big city and seek fame and fortune, but that would be later. Beautiful women would throw themselves at my feet, as Thomas Wolfe dreamt too. But there again he wrote so much about that small town life and family life. I didn't feel that need to go searching for material. In the later years I've loved to travel. With the books, my wife and I have been all over the world... But I love coming home better than leaving. Without the books I don't know how far I would have stirred. This has always been a puzzle to people, say in New York, Manhattan, where everyone's a transient, when they learn that I have lived all my life in a small city, three miles from the house where I was born. It's staggering to them. I've lived in the same house for forty years. We had all our children grow up there... I love the feeling of going downtown, say on a Tuesday afternoon, and meeting someone I was in the first-grade with. And there's no pretense. I know the story of his or her life. They know mine, and who I married. Even my wife finds this hard to understand - that I have such a feeling for my home town.

We have a summer home. And people get a big laugh out of this, because our summer home is 19 miles away! You know, everyone who has a summer home in our area goes to the coast or they go up to Maine or down to Cape Cod, a hundred and fifty miles or more. And I'll tell them we have a summer home. Where is it? And I say in Hubbertson. And I come back to Leominster every day. I come back to pick up the mail, but a lot of people think that's only an excuse, because I go and see my friends, and I go to the libraries. As far as human nature goes, and stories, they're all there in Leominster. Because it's people, it's not so much place. I do have a sense of place when I write, and I'm conscious of creating a sense of place, but I don't feel any need to set it in Asia or...

 

'I never felt the need to go else-where for material

 

 

I love the feeling of going down-town and meeting someone I was in first-grade with...'

And you've said that you can write in more or less any surroundings. But, having been in that house for so long, presumably you've got a place for writing that you're pretty established in...  
Yes, I have. For years I wrote in a little alcove, which wasn't much of anything, I just faced a wall. It was a corner of a small den. And some people would be surprised at where I wrote. It wasn't really a writing area. It was just a typewriter stand and it would take up less than this corner here [the interview took place in the corner of a hotel lounge]. But then, mostly because of books... I buy books all the time. So we built a room as an office, and I have skylights so I have wallspace for just books, so windows wouldn't take up this valuable space. So now I have a pretty spacious place to write. Superficially my life probably sounds very prosaic. I write every morning and in the afternoon I visit my libraries and the bookstores and see friends. I run into a lot of them at the libraries. And then I some time at night take out the work and look it over. And that's pretty much it.

 

'...my life probably sounds very prosaic'

When you say libraries...  
These are public libraries. There's one in Leominster. I was a trustee there for 15 years. And then the surrounding towns each have libraries. They're all very close by, within a matter of 4 or 5 miles. So I'll set out and I'll go to one or two libraries a day maybe. Then our summer home has libraries in our summer town, so sometimes I'll hit 5 libraries in an afternoon. Libraries today are really community centres. Not only books, but magazines, newspapers, videos... A lot of people know when I show up. I usually go on certain days to Leominster library. People know that and will meet me there.

'Sometimes I'll hit five libraries in an after-noon...'

Friends, or...?  
Friends mainly. I remember once a teacher telling me he told his students that I usually show up at the Leominster library about 1 o'clock on Mondays. And the librarians told me there were a couple of students there skulking around waiting for me to come in. This was 3 or 4 years ago. And if I have to meet somebody, I'll meet them at the library. We might go on from there and go some place. If someone's going to interview me, someone from out of town... I'll often get a call from a teacher who's passing through. There's a meeting room in the library that they virtually hold open for me. I'll call the library and make sure there's nothing going on there. Recently there was a teacher teaching a summer session in a small school in western Massachusetts. He called me and took in his seven or eight students and I met them at the library and they wanted to see the places in Leominster, you know in Monument, where certain events took place in my books, so I gave them a little tour around town. I've done that on occasion.

'There's a meeting room in the library that they virtually hold open for me...'

You've not been worried about being publicly available, have you? To the extent of putting your home telephone number in one of the books.  
I keep myself pretty accessible. I haven't been overwhelmed. I'm telling you these things, but they're isolated. They don't happen every day, or every week. I think a writer has to be involved with people. I don't know how a writer could afford to be a recluse, unless he's writing certain philosophic things. It's pretty well known now that I get a lot of phonecalls because my number is in I Am The Cheese. That goes on and on. Almost, well I'd say a few times a week I still get calls from students. Sometimes teachers. Sometimes they come at inopportune times, and they'll call back but most often I talk to people. As I said, it's not overwhelming. Most times it's curiosity. A kid has heard about it and just wants to check it out. Some of them can't believe they're actually talking to 'a writer', because a lot of them think writers come from a different world. I always get a delight out of it, because often there's that pause and they'll say, 'Can I speak to Mr Cormier?' and I'll say 'Speaking' and you can sense them going 'Oh my God!' Sometimes two or three young people will be together in a house and they'll pass the phone around and I'll hear in the background, 'I can't believe we're doing this! I can't believe he answers his phone!' They think that I have a battery of secretaries, you know. They just want to touch base. Once in a while there's a serious call. A student might be interested in writing. Once in a great great while, it hasn't happened in quite a while, I've had calls from young people who have a problem. I do have some recurring calls, which I try to discourage, because there are some lonely kids out there. It's hard to turn them off completely. But I'm very careful not to invade their privacy. I answer any question they ask, but I seldom ask them their backgrounds, because I don't want to intrude in... I don't mind if they intrude in my life, but... I might ask them their name and where they're calling from. This has been going on since 1977 because the book is still out there in the schools. And a lot of these kids don't look at a copyright. They don't know if the book was published 2 years ago or 20 years ago. And you know in all these years, this is a remarkable thing, and I think it's a testimony to young people, in all those years, I've never had an obscene call, or a wise-guy call, or a middle-of-the-night call. You'd think a lot of these kids on a Friday night at a party would get together and say 'Let's drive this man insane' or something. I've had group calls from dormitories where they pass the phone around but never a disturbing call, and really I think that's remarkable considering the possibilities.

 

'I think it's a testimony to young people, in all those years, I've never had an obscene call, or a wise-guy call, or a middle-of-the-night call...'

 

CONTINUED IN PART 2