About Author Charles McCain
[wpex more=”▼ My Youth in the South” less=”▲ My Youth in the South“]
I’m an 8th generation South Carolinian and grew up in my mother’s hometown of Orangeburg, South Carolina. During my childhood my grandmother, Big Lurline, would often tell me stories about our family who had lived in the area for many decades. My favorite was one she told about her father who both owned a country store and doctored on people.
Late one afternoon, great-grandfather had ridden many miles to treat a man who had taken ill. By the time great-grandfather had finished tending to the patient, the dark night of the South Carolina low country had fallen. Riding his faithful horse, Molly, he picked his way through the pine forest, yet in the darkness became lost. Far in the distance—then closer and closer—he heard the howling of wolves. Not a moment before the wolves pounced, great-grandfather put his head down to Molly’s ear and said, “Home, Molly, home!” Faithful Molly took off like a shot and galloped through the forest, chased by howling wolves.
Did they arrive home safe and sound? Yes, they did. There are no wolves in South Carolina.
Growing up and listening to these improbable stories made me an heir to the wonderful oral tradition which has so defined the South and Southern writers. Like many a defining folkway, it appears more interesting to those who study it than to those who live it.
This oral tradition consists of everyone in the family talking–all the time. To be part of this oral tradition, you can’t just talk for twenty or thirty minutes a day about who was pregnant before marriage or some distant cousin who once took a sleeping pill and within weeks became a heroin addict. Anyone can do that. No, you have to be able to talk the bark off a tree. Everyday. That’s why so many Southerners have turned to writing. We’re trying to get away from our relatives who won’t shut up.
I graduated from Orangeburg High School in 1973. I only did things I wanted to do and that annoyed lots of people. I was different and difficult and didn’t pay attention to anyone. The reason: I saw the world very differently from others both then and now. Why? My illusions about life were sandblasted off of me by the death of my parents and grandparents.
My mother was the last to die, of cancer. I was sixteen. Suddenly all the truths I heard most of my young life–“everything usually works out for the best,” or “your mother will always be there for you,” and all the rest of it were proven untrue. And so if those bedrock things weren’t true, then what else wasn’t true? Well, a lot. Because life stripped me of my illusions so young, I have always seen the world very clearly and very differently from most people. I sometimes wish I didn’t. All of that combined with my unusual personality and my innate writing ability has made me the writer that I am.
After graduating from high school I matriculated and even graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans. To say I attended would imply far more involvement with the university than I ever had. I don’t function well in highly structured environments and college was no exception. I couldn’t stand it. I never went to class. I read novels and history, played cards and drank beer and vodka and wine and smoked tobacco and marijuana. The only reason I graduated was most exams were written which played to my greatest strength.
Two loves from childhood which have stayed with me throughout my life: history and writing. And when I say “history,” I don’t mean the boring dates and places where something happened a long time ago–I mean what was life like for people? Did they fall in and out of love? What did they eat? What obstacles did they overcome? What psychological and social barriers limited them? Why did they do the things they did? However inexplicable, the things that people do makes sense to them. And it was the combination of those two loves and living in New Orleans (a very supportive venue for artists and writers and musicians) that led me to first write the drafts of what became An Honorable German.
In 2007, by sheer happenstance, a friend took my manuscript to Deborah Grosvenor, a literary agent in Washington who had both a great reputation and a great love of historical naval fiction. She liked my novel a lot and asked to represent me. Since she had discovered the novelist Tom Clancy she came with immense credibility.
Knowing this was my chance to fulfill my life long dream and see my novel published, I quit my permanent employment to focus on rewriting and revising An Honorable German which I thought I could do in six months. Deborah wanted me to “enrich the tapestry,” as she called it. To enrich a tapestry involves unweaving the tapestry until it is in a thousand strands on your living room floor, which is what I did with An Honorable German. It took me almost two years to reweave the tapestry and go through the process of editing the manuscript with my editor.
[wpex more=”▼ My Battle with Cancer” less=”▲ My Battle with Cancer“]
No one likes to hear the word, “cancer”, especially when the word is directed at oneself. That’s what happened to me on December 4th, 2008. People ask me: “Were you afraid?” Me? Afraid? I’m a manly kind of guy. I wasn’t afraid. Anyone can be afraid. I was terrified. Being diagnosed with cancer is the physical equivalent of being hit in your chest by an arrow. You can’t pull it out and you can’t forget it. And it won’t go away—no matter how much you wish it.
Through the Grace of God and the brilliance of Dr. Wydham Wilson, PhD, MD and his deputy genius, Kieron Dunleavy, MD, of the lymphoma team of the National Cancer Institute, they cured me of that monster. The treatment was intense chemotherapy. If you know what that is, I need say no more. If you don’t know, then you don’t want to know. I finished the treatment a month before my book was released.
As exciting as that moment was, I was too debilitated to care. I was so weak, I could barely walk. A book signing party? That had to wait. Almost a year later, the side effects of the chemo are gradually fading away. I’m still fatigued a lot. Oft times I sleep twelve hours a day. I’ve gone back to the gym. But getting my strength back will be a longer process than I thought. I’ve always been a big strong man. Losing much of that physical strength has been hard to accept.
Was I angry, bitter that I had cancer? Yes, I was. Sometimes I still am.
People ask: “What did you learn from having cancer?” Cancer sucks is the first thing. Avoid it if you can. Second, every day is a great day. And I mean that. Every day you are alive is a blessing. And no doubt, good things came out of surviving cancer. But I can’t bring myself to think much about those yet. I’m too close to the experience, I’m still dealing with the side effects and I’m too pissed off.
Was I afraid I might die? Yes, I was. Not for very long, since my body responded immediately to the medications. But long enough. Had I thought about dying before? Yes. Lots of times. My father, grandparents, assorted relatives, all died over a short period of years when I was very young. My mother was the last to go. She was diagnosed with terminal cancer when I was fourteen. But she was tough. She lived two more years. I was orphaned at sixteen. Death and I have a long acquaintance.
My illusions about life were sandblasted off me by my mother’s death. That forced me to live my adult life without the comfort illusions give most people. We can die at any moment. The people we love can be taken from us in a heartbeat. Most people think those things won’t happen to them. They will happen to someone else. That’s the comforting illusion. But I was the someone else those things happened to. So I can’t create the illusion that those things won’t happen to me. And I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried.
Life is a high wire act without a net. Yet most of us go through life believing there’s a net right below us. And that’s good. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. We will all age, become ill, and die. It’s the way of the world. But we pretend we won’t. Freud said we are all convinced of our own immortality. I’m not. Living my life without illusions has been very hard. Why? Because I instinctively know that whatever people say about life, about the world the world around them, about me—is absolutely wrong.
Since I have no illusions, I see things very clearly. I don’t mean I have visions. I just see life very clearly because there are no illusions to distort my view. We are creatures driven by deep emotions, many of which we don’t understand. Here, I have greater clarity than most. I’m highly intuitive. I read people well–through their body language, what they say, or don’t say, how they are dressed, what they do for a living.
If you and me sat down and talked for ten minutes, you would be amazed at what I had come to know about you. And how little you had come to know about me. Seeing and understanding people with this kind of clarity is part of my stock in trade as a novelist.
I have struggled with other issues—one of the worst being depression. For years and years it dogged me. On several occasions I almost took the permanent cure for that disease. When I was diagnosed with cancer all I could think was “Haven’t I had enough bad things happen to me?” I’m orphaned, suffer terribly from depression, and get cancer? How much more could I be expected to take? Who was doing this to me? Of course, no one was doing this to me. It’s life. But it ain’t fair, I kept thinking. And it wasn’t. Having cancer was not fair. But life isn’t fair and no one ever said it would be. I learned this early on.
So did I feel sorry for myself? Yes, I did. But not for long. I knew from the events of my youth that it doesn’t do any good. Neither does complaining. We all suffer in life. I’m hardly unique. I just had a lot of it at an early age when I was least equipped to handle it. The people I loved the most, left me when I needed them the most. That has been the hard part to deal with. Not that it happened. It just happened. I’m not a victim. But now I think, I even pray, that if life fires another arrow at me, then let it hit a vital spot and kill me. Please, no more near misses. And I don’t want to see it coming. As we in the South say of sudden death, “He went to bed just fine and woke up dead.”
Having been through so much heavy weather in my life, with green water coming over the bow, I know what to do in a crisis. After I was diagnosed with cancer I went into crisis mode, a path I know well. It’s everyday life I’m not so good at.
And one last thing, I learned or rather relearned, of all of life’s treasures, devoted friends are among the most precious.
Being diagnosed with cancer was a terrible and a terrifying experience. But it was made infinitely worse by what had transpired not three days before, on December 1st of 2008, for that was the day I had signed the final proof of my novel and sent it off to the publisher. I had realized the dream of a lifetime. That was my final step. All the editing and rewriting and fact checking and copy editing is finished. The next time I would see the manuscript it would be the book. My book. With my name on the front cover—bold as brass.
I don’t remember much about that day except I was exhausted. The editing and rewriting phase had gone on for ten months. I didn’t sleep a lot those last months. What I do remember so clearly about that day was holding the manuscript in my hands–my manuscript–the original version of which I had written in the early 1980s in New Orleans. And in order for the publisher to actually send the novel to press, I had to sign a notice stamped on the title page saying that indeed this was my novel and I promised the manuscript was correct in every way.
And it was and so I did even though the moment was anti-climatic. I felt relief tinged with sadness at letting it go. But the process had been so long, so time consuming, so demanding. My editor seemed to have some sixth sense of scenes in the manuscript where my writing wasn’t at its absolute best. And he pushed me to make those scenes as polished as diamonds. At times, I wanted to throw my laptop out of the window. But as you might imagine, the scenes he pushed me on, the ones I rewrote five, six, seven times—produced some of the best writing in the book.
Those ten months before the final signoff engaged every emotion I have and left me wrung out. But throughout that time I was living my dream: I was a novelist. A real one. A novelist with a book coming out. And just as important, a writer whose first novel had been purchased by one of the most reputable publishing firms in New York. What a moment. To have that moment trumped by cancer was one of the most horrible, vile things I have experienced. Cancer is a monster. It is a scourge.
[wpex more=”▼ Rebuilding My Life” less=”▲ Rebuilding My Life“]
It took me more than five years to get over the chemotherapy treatment which saved my life. Just as I was getting my strength back, my beloved older brother, Will McCain, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. He died in October of 2013. This has been the saddest part of my adult life. For many years after chemo and my then my brother’s death, I couldn’t write fiction. You need all your wits about you and your mind has to be clear and sharp.
Since I came close to losing my life in 2009, I am more passionate than ever about my writing. Writing is my passion so come hell or high water, I will continue with it. I have so many plots, so many different characters, so many different ideas I want to write about that I could write for fifty years and never run out of material.
I tried to write my first novel when I was fourteen. This isn’t a middle aged passion. I have the talent. I’ve always had it. I was born with it. My mother had the gift of words and she gave that to me along with many other wonderful gifts. The only sadness I felt when my novel was published was that my mother wasn’t here to see it. She would have been so proud.
Novelists often have difficult lives. Unfortunately, I haven’t been an exception to that rule. I’ve had a successful life but I haven’t had a particularly happy one. But suffering is what sharpens the pen of the novelist. To write compelling fiction is to touch the emotions of each reader. And the only way I can do that is to write with all my spirit about the things we all feel: that there are times when simply putting one foot forward after another is all we can do, that we are often scared, that there is much we don’t understand and never will, that we are often caught up in situations beyond our control, can’t see the way forward, and when we least expect it–we fall in love, or meet a wonderful friend or see the most magnificent sunrise ever–all of which connect us to the infinite and makes us feel that we are truly alive and belong.