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The Lion and the Unicorn 24.3 (2000) 445-464
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"No Safe Place to Run To":
An Interview with Robert Cormier
Robert Cormier is so well-known as the founding father of YA dark realism, as the author of almost a score of award-winning and controversial novels, and as the lightning rod for recurrent censorship campaigns that it seems presumptuous to introduce him. With their stark and uncompromising challenges to conventional happy endings and their innovative intellectual and stylistic complexity, The Chocolate War (1974), I Am the Cheese (1977), and After the First Death (1979) made the seventies landmark years and broke new ground for a whole genre. Never one to rest on his laurels, Cormier continues to shock and to provoke thought in more recent work, especially in Beyond the Chocolate War (1985), We All Fall Down (1991), Tunes for Bears to Dance To (1992), In the Middle of the Night (1995), Tenderness (1997), and Heroes (1998). Teen and world violence pervade these often brutal, always mesmerizing novels, which treat variously of youthful trashers, Holocaust survivors, maimed World War II veterans, and serial murderers and the girls drawn to them. Whether he's inside the mind of a young Protestant girl puzzling over the mysteries of Catholicism, alcoholic parents, and global warfare; a boy who kills to experience tender love; or a teenage runaway who doesn't know what she's getting into when she indulges her fixation, the grownup author has an uncanny ability to write across decades, genders, and moral universes. He often works with alternating points of view, juxtaposing male and female voices convincingly. Most recently, in a lecture (Probing the Dark Cellars) at UCLA, and in his poignant Frenchtown Summer (1999), a lyrical revisitation of youthful memories and fears, Cormier has explored the roots of his remarkable art, further developing the autobiographical elements in what might be called his postmodern, metafictional, or magic realist Fade (1988), wherein young Paul's environment bears much resemblance to French Hill, the close-knit community of French Canadian immigrants where Cormier grew up.
He lives only a few miles from where he spent his formative years and where he usually sets his work. That physical proximity emblematizes the adult's psychic kinship with the youngster inside who inspires him and the juvenile readers (and adult teachers and critics) in the larger world whom he inspires [End Page 445] and empowers in turn. He manages to rivet both teen audiences and tough adult critics, who have both lauded and chastised his relentless and unflinching portrayals of adolescents who must somehow achieve selfhood in an intimidating and manipulative universe. If some critics and many censors have seemed as unyielding as the juvenile detention center inmates who read about their fellow detainee, Eric Poole, the anti-hero of Tenderness, in English class, Cormier most typically wins the minds and hearts of readers through his empathic powers. The young prisoners thawed too when the author paid them a personal visit, though even some of them would have opted for the Disney or TV ending Cormier will never sell us. Cormier's chocolates always come bittersweet.
A working journalist for thirty years until he opted for full-time authorship, Cormier has always lived in Leominster, a small town in north-central Massachusetts, the fictional space of "Monument" in most of his tales. He still resides in the house on Main Street where he and his wife, Connie, brought up three daughters and the son whose disquietude about selling chocolates at his private school launched his father's career as the chronicler of adolescence's dark underside. Cormier had already published several adult novels, but his empathy with youthful consciences soon won him a national and now international reputation.
Because his body of work is at once outstanding and crucially relevant to the moral dilemmas and somber themes that this special issue opens out for discussion, Cormier is an obvious interview choice. With characteristic generosity and grace, he answered formidable and perhaps impertinent inquiries. Cormier...