'I enjoy writing about young people because I feel an affinity for them'
Miss Roehrig: How long did it take to get "The Chocolate War" published? Mr. Cormier: "The Chocolate War" was rejected by two publishers before it was published, principally because some publishers wanted a happy ending. And one publisher thought it was neither adult or a young adult or children's book.
I had written three novels in the Sixties. And I wrote then an series of short stories about young people because I was surrounded by teenagers at my home. I had three teenagers; the phone was ringing, they were falling madly in love and out of it. . .
Then my son got involved with a chocolate sale in school, and he refused to sell the chocolates. This was a family decision sort of, and it got me to think about the individual against society. So I started writing about a high school boy who refused to conform. Gratefully, the young adult audience did adopt it [ "The Chocolate War"]. And it made a big difference in my life.
Miss Borghi: Reading through your books, it seems like they are geared to young adults. Did any parents have negative response to "The Chocolate WAr"? Because of the Boy-girl kind of emotions and little vivid scenes in the boy's mind or the language?
Mr. Cormier: I never got angry letters or anything like that. But there were places where they wouldn't put it in the school system. One town had a big town meeting because they wanted to ban it from the schools. People talked and students had a petition to support the book. Eventually the book remained in the curriculum.
The teacher told me the great thing about it was when the kids decided to have a petition to support it, one of the kids got up and said "Everybody should sign this peition." And a girl got up and said "No, let anybody who doesn't want to sign, not sign it, because that's what happens in 'Chocolate WAr.'" The teacher felt that was all worth it, because the students got the message of the book.
Miss Borghi: How did you break into newspaper writing and then make the transition over to book writing? Or had you always done both of them?
Mr. Cormier: In my heart I was always a writer. A novelist. I worked in newspaper work to support myself and my family, but I always wrote nights and weekends. The transition was when the novels started to sell and I was able to leave my work.
Miss Roehrig: Did anybody ever influence you that made you know that you wanted to be a writer, or was it all from in you?
Mr. Cormier: Writers. Thomas Wolfe from the '30s, William Saroyan, Ernest Hemingway. And great teachers. I was always blessed by teachers who were interested. And in fact the one year I spent in college I had an art teacher. I wrote an art theme for her and of course everything I wrote I put my heart and soul in. So she called me up after school and she said "Gee, this theme you wrote was great. It looks as though you'd want to be a writer." I told her yes. And she said "Well, the next time you write something I'd like to see it." That was all I needed.
I wrote a short story that night, brought it to her, she had it typed (without telling me), and sent to a magazine. And it sold. In fact that was late in the spring, and in the summer this car pulled up and she got out of the car and she was waving a check in her hand. It sold to a national Catholic magazine for $75. And that was may first.
Miss Borghi: How did your parents feel about your career, that you wanted to go into writing? Were they with you?
Mr. Cormier: Well, yes. My parents always were. But I come from a working class background and I was the strange one who sat under a tree reading a book or something while the other people were out doing things. My parents always were supportive. They thought it was kind of strange. But the day that the woman came up with the $75 check, then suddenly "Wow, that smart Bob Cormier."
Miss Irwin: There is a lot of violence in your books, and people have brought that up. Why is it there? Is it supposed to be realistic?Is this what you feel the young adult's would is about?
Mr Cormier: Not so much the world of high school. But the things that intrigue me are identity and placing people under impositions or stress. And usually that involves violence.Not always physical violence. It was more psychological violence in "The Chocolate War." And that is worse probably than the physical. We are all intimidated. And I just draw it probably to its furthest degree.
Miss Roehrig: Where do you get your ideas?
Mr. Cormier: You know the bicycle trip in "I Am the Cheese"? I don't usually write about myself, but I started writing about a boy and a bicycle because I was in between books and things weren't gelling. . . I was really writing about myself as a kid.
I was a newspaper editor at that time and material came across about the witness relocation program [a government program that offers witnesses a new identity if they testify in a dangerous case.] And again because I was surrounded by kids at that time, I thought if it's hard for a man [ to have a secret identity], how hard would it be for a 14-year-old boy? When I was 14, I wasn't quite sure who I was.
Miss Borghi: We've talked a little bit about your writing and your career. Is there anything really interesting about your family that you'd like to tell us? In your background?
Mr. Cormier: Happy families are all alike, and they're not very dramatic. I began writing about my kids because they were living more dramatic lives than I was.
No, my life is full and very pleasant. There are the parts that contribute to the writing I suppose. I have insomnia, which I think has been a good thing as well as a bad thing because I was always up at night when my kids came home from dances and proms and things. They always knew that I was there, but that I wasn't spying on them. And we'd have some great talks. There are things you will talk about with your son or daughter at one in the morning that you'd never be able to say at one in the afternoon. And I think this helped us to be closer to each other.
Miss Roehrig: If you could think of several adjectives to describe yourself, what could they be?
Mr. Cormier: Well, probably honest. That's one of the things I've tried to be, in my writing and in my relations with people. And sometimes it hurts. And then also I believe in goodness -- but this kind of goodness: a good pencil is one that writes. And a good person is one who does what he is here to do. I feel that I was made to write, so I try to do it to the best of my ability.
Miss Roehrig: Do you have any advice for us?
Mr. Cormier: As young writers? My advice is to write and write and write.And somewhere someone eventually notices. I think it is the same in painting and composing and singing, any of the arts. There's always an audience or an editor. Or a publisher.
You hear about rejection slips so much, that we have the feeling editors are there to reject. Editors are there to accept. That's their job. The difference is, they are looking for quality. Quality is eminently achievable through hard work. You don't have to be a genius to succeed. I know it sounds like the old standard American ethic, but it works. It has worked in my case.
Miss Roehrig: Which do you like writing for, adults or kids? I could relate to your books so well, it was almost like someone my age wrote them.
Miss Borghi: [It seemed] like it was a teenager who just sat down and put all his thoughts into the book.
Mr. Cormier: I enjoy writing about young people because I feel that affinity for them. But most of all it's because I think whether it's 30 years ago or 40 years ago or 40 years in the future, all those emotions are the same. Sitting here, there is a big disparity in our ages, but as far as emotions go, the way we feel, I think we're at the same level, maybe. You get hurt, you get bruised, you go home tonight and be happy or sad about something. and whether you are 16 or 35 or 50, it doesn't matter what it is. Happiness is the same. So I don't sit down and say "Gee, how would a 16 year old react to this?" It just comes out. And thankfully it seems to hit the mark.