PW:Speaks the Nightbird is your first novel in 10 years. Why the long silence?
RM: I wrote Speaks the Nightbird about three or four years after I wrote Gone South , but when I handed it in, I had some difficulty with an editor and the situation just exploded. I don't think the person understood the book or really liked it, and that was very frustrating. I wrote another book after this and also had trouble placing it. So I said, "Well, I think my time has passed. I'm going to put it on the shelf and just retire." Then one of the editors from River City Publishing heard me read a chapter from Speaks the Nightbird at a local college. He liked it, they made an offer for it, and that's how it got published.
PW: This is the first pure historical novel you've written. What was the inspiration for it?
RM: I've always been interested in history, and colonial America in particular. I don't really know where the idea came from, but I started thinking about it during the O.J. Simpson trial. Here was a celebrity on trial, and there was so much furor circulating around the trial. That got me wondering what it would be like to take that kind of notoriety back in time, with people trying to make money off a trial for witchcraft and the proceedings.
PW: Do you consider this book a departure from your previous novels?
RM: I think it's a departure in terms of the setting, but I don't know if it's a departure in terms of theme. My books always begin with the characters. It's always a struggle for the lead character to break out of a situation he or she finds himself or herself in. It's always a growth situation. Certainly that's what Matthew does in the novel. It isn't easy for him to buck the hundreds of years of medieval knowledge built into the legal system at the time. But he does, and he breaks through to a new level of understanding, of himself and the world.
PW: This book is similar to Gone South in that it uses the grotesque and the suggestion of the supernatural to move out of the horror genre. Was this deliberate on your part?
RM: It was. I really enjoyed writing strictly horror and supernatural novels, but for me it was like being a magician: after you learn to do the trick, you feel the need to do something different. After you're successful in a certain genre—and I think this may be one of the problems I had getting the book published—you run into the problem of changing from something you do well to something different. But an artist wants to do something different, something that stirs the juices.
PW: Do you anticipate any problems with the novel's reception now that your name is less familiar in the bookstores?
RM: That actually works to my advantage. I was trapped in the genre; people thought of me as a horror writer. I was moving away from supernatural horror in my last few books, but it became difficult to do that because my supernatural books sold very well. When you sell very well there are a lot of machines and powers that say "we want you to keep doing the same thing, we don't want you to do something different." I told my wife that we might need 10 years for my name to be forgotten so that I can be born again, at least in the sense necessary for publishing Speaks the Nightbird.