The Big Idea: Robert McCammon
The “bad guy”: Essential for many plots, fun to write, and fun to read. But what goes into making a bad guy bad? Is it more than malfeasance on the mind? In The Providence Rider, the latest Matthew Corbett book, set in colonial America, Robert McCammon brings the bad guy out to play. Here’s why, and how it makes this novel fit in with the rest of the series.
I wanted to write about the “bad guy.” In essence, what makes a perfectly respectable and unassuming human being crack, and in cracking birth from himself an evil force that revels in power and will never—can never—go back to what he was before. I had introduced the character of Professor Fell first in The Queen of Bedlam. He keeps to the shadows in the next Matthew Corbett book, Mister Slaughter. But in the new one, The Providence Rider, he emerges from the darkness onto center stage…or, to be more precise, he always brings his cloak of darkness with him, but here he presents a picture of his past and how—as he puts it to Matthew: “You have seen part of my world. What I have achieved. And me…from academic beginnings. It boggles the mind, doesn’t it?”
Matthew has to agree that it does.
I have embarked upon a journey of ten books. The first “Matthew book,” Speaks the Nightbird, wasn’t meant to be the beginning of a series. It was the story of an earnest and intelligent young magistrate’s clerk in the year 1699, who finds himself acting as the champion of justice for a woman accused of witchcraft in a small Carolina colony town. I had no intention of taking him forward. I was going to do something entirely different next, and yet…
I left the ending of Speaks the Nightbird open. Matthew was out upon the world, facing “the century of wonders,” and who might know what he would find there? Well…how do these things happen? How does walking, or sitting on a balcony bench, or lying on a grassy hill watching the clouds move help create the magic that makes an idea work? I suppose it’s in the stillness. It’s in that inner realm all writers know…the mystic place where things from childhood and a hundred thousand memories and desires merge. And then you say, “Oh yes, I understand now.” And you may think you fully understand but you don’t, because nothing is born without effort and some books are kind to their creator and some are near killers, but suddenly you have an idea and a purpose. A challenge, too. And a whole lot of hard road to travel.
But…you know you have something that calls you, and pulls you, and in a way commands you. You can’t turn away from that. You must follow where it leads.
So…I’ve done four in this series and working on the fifth. I’m approaching the halfway point. I suppose my Big Idea is the series itself. There’s a larger story arc that connects all the books, and I’m hoping that when I’m done it will read as smoothly as one long book. It’s a challenging task, keeping up with so many characters, names and such…and the research is tough, too, but very rewarding. I know there’s an expert for everything under the sun, and you’ll be told very quickly when you make a mistake…but I’m trying to keep the series as historically “valid” as possible while having fun with it. No boring history lessons here! Trying to make them exciting, funny, suspenseful, sexy, wicked…but never boring!
And I suppose there are other Big Ideas at work here as well. I always like having a “motif” for my books. In Speaks the Nightbird, it was the idea of finding a place for yourself in a hostile world. In The Queen of Bedlam it was the creation of order from chaos. In Mister Slaughter it was the juxtaposition of civility and brutality. In The Providence Rider it is the hierarchy of predators. And in the Matthew book I’m working on now, The River of Souls, it is the flow of comedy into tragedy and back again. Kind of like a river, I suppose.
I intended the series to offer a respite from the modern world. Someone recently pointed out to me that, in spite of the fast-forward motion of progress and the subsequent quick-dating of modern novels, the Matthew series will never become “dated,” since it’s already set in the past.
I like that. I also like the idea of taking a break from cell phones, instant messaging and the frenzied pace of modern life. The Matthew series is a door to the past, and one I particularly like opening and living in for awhile. I couldn’t survive very long in that era, for sure, but it is fun to go visit.
Professor Fell makes his first physical appearance in The Providence Rider but of course there’s more to come. Actually, the seed of what the entire series is about is planted in this book. I am getting so much pleasure out of doing this. I don’t work from an outline, so the books occasionally surprise me in the direction they take and the choices they offer. I think that’s as it should be.
I am pleased to be able to offer a visit to another world. Neither supernatural nor science fiction, but a vastly different and strange world all the same, with that intriguing juxtaposition of civility and brutality at its core.
One thing I’m doing that’s particularly fun for me is…since my series is about one of the first “problem-solvers”, I’m dropping in each book the names of various fictional detectives. Some are out there for everyone to see, some are more hidden. But another Big Idea behind Matthew’s story is that it is my bow to the authors of the great detectives of history, and of one of my first loves…the mystery novel, starring the stalwart and indefatigable detective who never gives up until the last clue is deciphered and the case solved.
I hope I and Matthew can do our parts to carry that tradition into the future, even working as we are in the past.