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Robert Cormier
London, July 2000

ACHUKA Special

Part Two

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In Frenchtown Summer there's a section in which the character puts on his very first pair of spectacles. How has being short-sighted affected you as a writer?  

The first pair of glasses was just like in the story. A boy didn't crush the glasses - that was fictional. But, today glasses are almost fashionable. In those days, for a boy of that age, 11, 12 or 13, it was almost, not disgraceful, but... they were these wire-rimmed... fashionable today, but they weren't fashionable in those days... I resisted wearing them. I would sort of lose them and have to fake my way in the classroom, until finally I realised that I had to wear them. They were really a burden. I was never a schoolyard hero. I was never athletic. And I did have 'the bully'. The only consolation I get from that is that Graham Greene had a bully and seventy years later he was still writing about him. Fellow by the name of Carter. Well, I had my bully, and it was excruciating. Not only the bully, but the intimidation I felt. That ethic of the schoolyard... I was always introspective, reading...

My older brother, Norman, who's two years older. He's in Frenchtown Summer. Wonderful athlete. I was just the opposite. Yet Norman and I were always close. Family life was wonderful. The streets were bleak. The playgrounds were bleak. But home was always warm. My mother and father had a great relationship. I always felt 'safe' there. Maybe it's the same kind of security I feel in Leominster as a whole now. Like so many kids I felt like maybe I had been adopted, because I was so different. My uncles and aunts were all factory workers or store clerks. My father worked in the comb factory. I used to bring him his lunch. My father wasn't as distant probably as the father in the book, but he was a mystery to me, the way fathers often are. There was a mystique about him. I worked in the factories during the summertime. He worked in factories for 42 years. I used to stand there at these brush-making machines and wonder how he did it. His pleasure seemed to be a glass of beer at the end of the day, being with his family, puttering around the house. He was a great ball-player in his youth and always followed the baseball and I remember listening to the radio games and going to the corner bar when television first came out. We had a close relationship, but he was very different from me. Pretty silent, and not too articulate, but a dry wit. He'd listen to everyone else and then come out with a devastating statement. So he was not an intellectual but he wasn't any...

 

The streets were bleak. The playgrounds were bleak. But home was always warm....

My father wasn't as distant probably as the father in the book, but he was a mystery to me...

So you knew you didn't want to follow him into the factory. Did he have any aspirations for you?  
Those weren't the days when you went to college. I knew college wasn't in my future. There was a teacher in high school, a Miss Ricker, who was a lot to do with my writing, she tried to arrange for me to go to college. I was very aware of my family responsibilities. A large family, we'd just come out of the Depression. They knew I wanted to write, and encouraged me. My mother was my great fan. My father was in awe of my talent for writing. I think it was probably surprising to him. To a lot of my uncles and aunts, they couldn't understand. Even in later years I think I've had aunts and uncles who not only haven't read my books but could hardly believe that I was a writer. They regarded me almost as a stranger. I always felt like an outsider. Even though I had a deep affection for it all. My mother was Irish and I identified more with my Irish uncles. Much more colourful. And yet, what's always drawn me to the writing was the French connection. There's a dichotomy there that I've always been aware of. My Irish uncles were almost too typically Irish I think. There was the gambler... I don't want to go into a disparagement... and I never felt any need to explore that. And of course I grew up in the French neighbourhoods. That's where my emotional life was. As a boy and as an adolescent. My Irish uncles were strewn around Leominster. There was no Irish enclave where they lived.

 

...I've had aunts and uncles who not only haven't read my books but could hardly believe that I was a writer...

So you went into journalism. Was that more or less straight away?  

One of the reasons I didn't serve in WWII was that in those days I weighed hardly anything. Everyone was always trying to fatten me up from the teachers in the cafeteria to my aunts and uncles. Waitresses would bring me extra portions. And of course my eyesight. And I had a series of illnesses, particularly pneumonia. They thought I was developing tuberculosis. Then I went to work in a comb shop, much like the one my father worked in, but not the same one. It was a very comfortable job. I was friendly with the owner's daughter. I had a couple of dates with her. In fact, the owner brought me in one day and said that I had a future there, that they did have sales reps who went out on the road and that I might work myself into something like that. It was a velvet rug. They treated me very nicely. It was a family-owned organisation. Then a man gets married and has a couple of kids and he's there for forty years. I sensed this. And I burned to write. I was writing at night, at home. I thought, I can't do this for the rest of my life.

One of the great moments of my father's life was he served on jury duty in Worcester, which is a larger city about 25 miles away from where we lived. He didn't have a car and there was an undertaker, a funeral director in town, who also was on jury duty. Somehow they hooked up and he drove my father into Worcester every day. So I said to my father, Can I drive in with you? I'm gonna look for a job on the newspaper there, the Worcester Telegram. I had amassed references from teachers, my high school principal. I worked after high school also in a shoe store... so I had all these letters of reference. My father said, Sure, so I drove in with them and they dropped me off and I made my way to this newspaper, the Telegram & Gazette. I went in the door and there was a doorway to the left and a doorway to the right. Because I'm right-handed maybe I went to the right, and it was the radio station that the newspaper also owned. A man saw me wandering the corridors there. It turned out his name was Herbert Kruger. I talked to him. He brought me into his office. And he hired me as a script-writer. I showed him my letters of... and I... you can only do this at, what was I, 19, 20... He said, What do you write? I said, Mr Kruger, get me a typewriter, and I'll write anything you want. I must have said it not in a boastful way but in a confident way, so he looked at my letters of reference and said, When can you start? And I said, Any time. This was October. He said, We're coming in to the Christmas season. I could use a scriptwriter for commercials. I think this was like midweek and I began the following Monday. I rushed home and went to the library to get some books on how to write for radio. Because you're writing for the ear instead of the eye. I worked there for two years. After two years... the people on the radio knew that my heart was in newspaper work, and I began writing freelance articles for the newspaper. And they accepted them. Finally I had a long talk with Mr Kruger. He knew my aspirations and so they transferred me to the newspaper. I was a newspaperman for the next 28 years. I wrote three so-called adult novels, The Chocolate War and I Am The Cheese and all those short stories while I was working full-time as a newspaper man.

It was a velvet rug. They treated me very nicely. It was a family-owned organisation

 

I said, Mr Kruger, get me a typewriter, and I'll write anything you want...

Did you give up as soon as enough money was coming in from writing?  
Yuh, even though I loved newspaper work. I was lucky on a small newspaper. I went from the Worcester Telegram to the local paper, because on the Worcester Telegram I was working nights, from 5 till 1 in the morning, and I never saw the family in the evening. After seven years of that I had a chance to go over onto the day side of the local paper and I worked there for 23 years. I loved newspaper work and I missed it. That was sorta accidental. What happened was for the first time with The Chocolate War I had achieved some critical and financial success. Then I Am The Cheese assured that. That was such an important book. And then I had an idea for what became After The First Death. I told my wife, Connie. I said, If I could have six months I think I could write this. So I asked for a leave of absence. They were very nice. They said, Well, we're a small paper, and you wear so many hats, but how about this... You have a month's vacation, 4 weeks, why don't we give you another 2 weeks with pay, then you take 2 weeks without pay, that'll be 8 weeks, how ill that be? So I came home, and I told Connie that, and she said those magic words. She said, Why don't you quit? I'm a child of the Depression, you know! You don't cut off the umbilical chord to the weekly pay cheque. It kind of took my breath away, really. She said, Bob, you're giving all your energies to this paper. I was writing a column there that was taking a lot of energy. She said, All your potentiality is in your writing.

I said, If I could have six months I think I could write this...

I'm a child of the Depression, you know! You don't cut off the umbilical chord to the weekly pay cheque.

So in those years you were writing Chocolate War etc. and being a journalist, when did you do the fiction writing?  
I did it mostly at night. Say between the hours of 10:30 and 12:30 or 1 o'clock in the morning. I've always had insomnia so I've always been a night person. Luckily, my work there I would get out early in the afternoon. I'd be home when the kids came home. I'd also have a chance for a nap, either right after dinner, or late in the afternoon. In the evening when things quietened down and the kids were all in bed, about 10 or 10:30, then at weekends... And Connie was great, she always created an atmosphere for me to create in without ever shooing the kids away. And I never did that. My writing room has never had a door in this house we've lived in for forty years. It's sort of an archway. I've even had my kids tell me now that they're all grown up, Gee, dad, when I think back we must've driven you crazy cos I never remember going in and having shush me up or saying, I'm writing. And I was home more than most men. They might be out at the bars at night or playing golf on weekends, I was always in the house. And I was always up at night when they came in from their dates or their movies. I got a lot of material out of them, too. When they became adolescents. And they renewed my own echoes of adolescent life.

My writing room has never had a door in this house we've lived in for forty years. It's sort of an archway.

And did you use holiday time as well. Have you been a bit of a workaholic?  
They joke about it now, but I would spare them one day in the summer at the beach! And they have pictures of me sitting there with my clothes on, and a hat, and book! But they never felt deprived. Maybe they did, but now it's become a family joke. But we live not far from a pond and a recreation... you know one of those parks with roller-coasters and things like that, so they weren't deprived of recreation. They know how important the writing was, and to have two weeks off in the summer to just write was heaven for me. Also they had the benefits of the writing. I remember the first big sale to a magazine in the sixties. It was 1500 dollars and we went out as a family and celebrated. I had bought my wife a very small engagement ring. Redbook was the magazine. We decided to invest it in a diamond for my wife. We called it the Redbook Rock. I'd been selling for years to midstream magazines - 300 dollars, 200 dollars - but I started hitting Redbook, Evening Post up to a 1000, 1500, 2000, but my heart was always in the novels. The short stories were a quick... You don't get rich working for a newspaper... at least not in Leominster! So in these short stories I was learning my craft but also an extra 400 dollars when I was only making probably 70 dollars a week at the newspaper in those times, it helped to buy the extras. The rejections would come and an acceptance would come and it was always a part of the family.

I would spare them one day in the summer at the beach!

 

PART 3 COMING SOON...

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