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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Popular Writers: A Stephen King interview.


I interviewed Stephen King for the UK Sunday Times Magazine. The interview appeared a few weeks ago. The Times keeps its site paywalled, so I thought I'd post the original version of the interview here. (This is the raw copy, and it's somewhat longer than the interview as published.)

I don't do much journalism any more, and this was mostly an excuse to drive across Florida back in February and spend a day with some very nice people I do not get to see enough.

I hope you enjoy it.


Edit to add - the Sunday Times asked me to write something small and personal about King and me for the contributors' notes, and I wrote this: 



“I think the most important thing I learned from Stephen King I learned as a teenager, reading King's book of essays on horror and on writing, Danse Macabre. In there he points out that if you just write a page a day, just 300 words, at the end of a year you'd have a novel. It was immensely reassuring - suddenly something huge and impossible became strangely easy. As an adult, it's how I've written books I haven't had the time to write, like my children's novel Coraline.”

“Meeting Stephen King this time, the thing that struck me is how very comfortable he is with what he does. All the talk of retiring from writing, of quitting, the suggestions that maybe it's time to stop before he starts repeating himself, seems to be done. He likes writing, likes it more than anything else that he could be doing, and does not seem at all inclined to stop. Except perhaps at gunpoint.”



The first time I met Stephen King was in Boston, in 1992. I sat in his hotel suite, met his wife Tabitha, who is Tabby in conversation, and his then-teenage sons Joe and Owen, and we talked about writing and about authors, about fans and about fame.

“If I had my life over again,” said King. “I'd've done everything the same. Even the bad bits. But I wouldn't have done the American Express “Do You Know Me?” TV ad. After that, everyone in America knew what I looked like.”

He was tall and dark haired, and Joe and Owen looked like much younger clones of their father, fresh out of the cloning vat.

The next time I met Stephen King, in 2002, he pulled me up onstage to play kazoo with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a ramshackle assemblage of authors who can play instruments and sing and, in the case of author Amy Tan, impersonate a dominatrix while singing Nancy Sinatra's “These Boots are Made For Walkin'”.

Afterwards we talked in the tiny toilet in the back of the theatre, the only place King could smoke a furtive cigarette. He seemed frail, then, and grey, only recently recovered a long hospitalisation from being hit by an idiot in a van, and the hospital-infections that had followed it. He grumbled about the pain of walking downstairs. I worried about him, then.

And now, another decade, and when King comes out of the parking bay in the Sarasota Key to greet me, he's looking good. He's no longer frail. He is 64 and he looks younger than he did a decade ago.

Stephen King's house in Bangor Maine is gothic and glorious. I know this although I have never been there. I have seen photographs on the internet. It looks like the sort of place that somebody like Stephen King ought to live and work. There are wrought iron bats and gargoyles on the gates.

Stephen King's house on a key in Florida near Sarasota, a strand of land on the edge of the sea, lined with big houses (“that one was John Gotti's,” I learn as we pass one huge white high-walled building. “We call it murder mansion”) is ugly. And not even endearingly ugly. It's a long block of concrete and glass, like an enormous shoebox, It was built, explains Tabby, by a man who built shopping malls, out of the materials of a shopping mall. It's like an Apple store's idea of a McMansion, and not pretty. But once you are inside the glass window-walls have a perfect view over the sand and the sea, and there's a gargantuan blue metal doorway that dissolves into nothingness and stars in one corner of the garden, and inside the building there are paintings and sculptures, and, most important, there's King's office. It has two desks in it. A nice desk, with a view, and an unimpressive desk with a computer on it, with a battered, much sat-upon chair facing away from the window.

That's the desk that King sits at every day, and it is where he writes. Right now he's writing a book called Joyland, about an amusement park serial killer. Below the window is a patch of well-fenced land, with an enormous African Spurred Tortoise nosing around in it, like a monstrous ambulatory rock.

My first encounter with Stephen King, long before I met him in the flesh, was on East Croydon station in about 1975. I was fourteen. I picked up a book with an all-black cover. It was called Salem's Lot. It was King's second novel; I'd missed the first, a short book called Carrie, about a teenage girl with psychic powers. I stayed up late finishing Salem's Lot, loving the Dickensian portrait of a small American town destroyed by the arrival of a vampire. Not a nice vampire, a proper vampire. Dracula meets Peyton Place. After that I bought everything King wrote as it came out. Some books were great, and some weren't. It was okay. I trusted him.

Carrie was the book that King started and abandoned, and which Tabbie King pulled out of the waste paper basket, read and encouraged him to finish. They were poor, and then King sold Carrie, and everything changed, and he kept writing.

Driving down to Florida I listened, for over thirty hours, to the audiobook of King's time travel novel, 11/22/63. It's about a High School English teacher (as King was, when he wrote Carrie) who goes back from 2011 to 1958, via a wormhole in time located in the stockroom of an ancient diner, with a mission to save John F. Kennedy from Lee Harvey Oswald.

It is, as always with King, the kind of fiction that forces you to care what happens, page after page. It has elements of horror, but they exist almost as a condiment for something that's partly a tightly researched historical novel, partly a love-story, and always a musing on the nature of time and the past.

Given the hugeness of King's career, it is difficult to describe anything he does as an anomaly. He exists on the border of popular fiction (and, on occasion, non-fiction). His career (writers do not have careers, most of us. We just write the next book) is peculiarly teflon. He's a popular novelist, which used to be, perhaps still is, a description of the author of a certain type of book: one that will repay you for reading it in pleasure and in plot, like John D. MacDonald (whom King tips his hat to in 11/22/63). But not just a popular novelist: It does not matter what he writes, it seems, he is always a horror writer. I wonder if that frustrates him.

“No. No it doesn't. I have got my family, and they are all okay. We have enough money to buy food and have things. Yesterday, we had a meeting of the King Foundation (the private foundation King funds that gives to many charitable causes). My sister-in-law, Stephanie, she organises it and we all sit down and give away money. That’s frustrating. Every year we give away the same money to different people... it's like chucking money into a hole. That’s frustrating.

I never thought of myself as a horror writer. That’s what other people think. And I never said jack shit about it. Tabby came from nothing, I came from nothing, we were terrified that they would take this thing away from us. So if the people wanted to say “You're this”, as long as the books sold, that was fine. I thought, I am going to zip my lip and write what I wanted to write. The first time that anything like what you’re talking about happened, I did this book Different Seasons, they were stories that I had written like I write all of them, I get this idea, and I want to write this there was prison story, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, and one based on my childhood called “The Body,” and there is a story of this kid who finds a Nazi, “Apt Pupil”. I sent them to Viking, who was my published my editor was John Williams – dead many long years - terrific editor – he always took the work dead level. He never wanted to pump it. I sent them Different Seasons, and he said well, first of all you call it seasons, and you have just written three. I wrote another one, “The Breathing Method” and that was the book. I got the best reviews in my life. And that was the first time that people thought, woah, this isn’t really a horror thing.

I was down here in the supermarket, and this old woman comes around the corner this old woman – obviously one of the kind of women who says whatever is on her brain. She said, 'I know who you are, you are the horror writer. I don’t read anything that you do, but I respect your right to do it. I just like things more genuine, like that Shawshank Redemption.'

And I said, 'I wrote that'. And she said, 'No you didn’t'. And she walked off and went on her way.”

It happens, over and over. It happened when he published Misery, his chronicle of toxic fandom; it happened with Bag of Bones, his gothic ghost story about a novelist, with nods to Du Maurier's Rebecca; it happened when he was inducted into the National Book Foundation's Medal for Contribution to American Letters.

We're not talking in the huge concrete shoebox house. We're sitting by the pool in a smaller house the Kings bought on the same street, as a guest house for their family. Joe King, who writes under the name of Joe Hill, is staying there. He still looks like his dad, although no longer a clonal teenage version, and now has a successful career of his own as a writer of books and graphic novels. He carries his iPad everywhere he goes. Joe and I are friends.

In Bag of Bones, Stephen King has an author who stops writing but keeps publishing stockpiled books. I wonder how long his publishers could keep his death a secret?

He grins. “I got the idea for the writer in Bag of Bones having books because somebody told me years ago that every year Danielle Steel wrote three books and published two, and I knew Agatha Christie had squirrelled a couple away, to put a final bow on her career. As of right now, if I died and everybody kept it a secret, it would go on until 2013. There's a new Dark Tower novel, The Wind in the Keyhole.That comes out soon, and Dr Sleep is done. So if I got hit by a taxi cab, like Margaret Mitchell, what wouldn’t be done, what would be done. Joyland wouldn’t be done but Joe could finish it, in a breeze. His style is almost indistinguishable from mine. His ideas are better than mine. Being around Joe is like being next to a catherine wheel throwing off sparks, all these ideas. I do want to slow down. My agent is dickering with the publishers about Dr Sleep, that's the sequel to The Shining, but I held off showing them the manuscript because I wanted time to breathe.”

Why would he write a sequel to The Shining? I do not tell him how much that book scared me when I was sixteen, nor how much I loved and at the same time was disappointed by the Kubrick movie.

“I did it because it was such a cheesed-off thing to do. To say you were going back to the book that was really popular and write the sequel People think of that book, they read it as kids. Kids read it and say it was a really scary book, and then as adults they might read the sequel and think, this isn’t as good. The challenge is, maybe it can be as good - or maybe it can be different. It gives you something to push up against. It's a challenge.

“I wanted to write Dr Sleep because I wanted to see what would happen to Danny Torrence when he grew up. And I knew that he would be a drunk because his father was a drunk. One of the holes it seemed to me in The Shining is that Jack Torrance was this white-knuckle dry drunk who never tried one of the self-help groups, the like Alcoholics Anonymous. I thought, okay, I'll start with Danny Torrence at age forty. He is going to be one of those people who says 'I am never going to be like my father, I am never going to be abusive like my father was'. Then you wake up at 37 or 38 and you're a drunk. Then I thought, what kind of a life does that person like that have? He'll do a bunch of low-bottom jobs, he'll get canned, and now he works in a hospice as a janitor. I really want him to be in a hospice worker because he has the shining and he can help people get across as they die. They call him Dr Sleep, and they know to call for him when the cat goes into their room and sits on their bed. This was writing about guy who rides the bus, and he's eating in a McDonalds, or on a special night out maybe Red Lobster. We are not talking about a guy who goes to Sardi's.”

Stephen and Tabitha met in the stacks of the University of Maine library in 1967, and they married in 1971. He couldn't get a teaching position when he graduated, so he worked in an industrial laundromat, and pumped gas, and worked as a janitor, supplementing his meagre income with occasional stories, mostly horror, sold to men's magazines with names like Cavalier. They were dirt poor. They lived in a trailer, and King wrote at a makeshift desk between the washer and the dryer. All that changed in 1974, with the paperback sale of Carrie for $200,000. I wonder how long it has been since King has stopped worrying about money.

He thinks for a moment. “1985. For a long time Tabby understood that we didn’t have to worry about these things. I didn’t. I was convinced they would take all this away from me, and I was going to be living with three kids in a rental house again, that it was just too good to be true. Around about 1985 I started to relax and think ‘this is good, this is going to be okay’.

“And even now this” (he gestures, taking in the swimming pool, the guest house, the Florida Key and all the many McMansions) “”is all very strange to me, even though it's only three months of the year. Where we live in Maine is one of the poorest counties. A lot of the people we see and hang with cut wood for a living, drive trash, that sort of thing. I don’t want to say I have the common touch, but I am just a common person, and I have this one talent that I use.

“Nothing bores me more than to be in New York and have a dinner in a big fancy restaurant, where you have to sit for three fucking hours. You know and people will have drinks before, wine after, then three courses, then they want coffee and someone is going to ask for a fucking French press and all the rest of this crap. To me my idea of what’s good is to drive here and go to Waffle House, get a couple of eggs and waffle. When I see the first Waffle House, I know I’m in the South. That’s good.

They pay me absurd amounts of money,” he observes, “For something that I would do for free.”.


 Stephen King's father went out for cigarettes when King was four, and he never came back, leaving King to be brought up by his mother. Steve and Tabby have three children: Naomi, a Unitarian Minister with a digital ministry; Joe and Owen, both writers. Joe is finishing his third novel. Owen's first novel is coming out in 2013.

I wonder about distance and change. How easy is it to write about characters who are working blue-collar jobs in 2012?

“It is definitely harder. When I wrote Carrie and Salem's Lot, I was one step away from manual labour. – but it’s like also true - Joe is going to find out this is true, that when you have small children of a certain age, it is easy to write about them because you observe them and you have them in your life all the time.

“But your kids grow up. It is harder for me to write about this little twelve year old girl in Dr Sleep than it ever was for me to talk about five year old Danny Torrence because I had Joe as a model for Danny. I don’t mean that Joe has the shining like Danny but I knew who he was, how he played, what he wanted to do and all that stuff. But look, here’s the bottom line: if you can imagine all the fabulous stuff that happened in American Gods, and if I can imagine Magic Doors and everything then surely I can still put my imagination to work and go: look, this is what I imagine it's like to work a ten hour day in a blue collar job.”

 We're doing the writer thing, now: talking about craft, about how we do what we do, making things up for a living, and as a vocation. His next book, The Wind in the Keyhole, is a Dark Tower novel, part of a sequence that King plotted and began when he was little more than a teenager himself. The sequence took him years to finish, and he only finished spurred on my his assistants, Marsha and Julie, who were tired of fielding fan letters asking when the story would be completed.

Now he's finished the story he is trying to decide how much he can rewrite it, if he views the sequence as one very long novel. Can he do a second draft? He hopes so. Currently, Stephen King is a character in the fifth and sixth Dark Tower books, and Stephen King the non-fictional author is wondering whether to take him out on the next draft.

I told him about the peculiarity of researching the story I was working on, that everything I needed, fictionally, was waiting for me when I went looking for it. He nods in agreement.

Absolutely – you reach out and it's there. The time that it happened the clearest was when Ralph, my agent then, said to me 'This is a bit crazy, but do you have any kind of idea for something that could be a serialised novel like Dickens used to do?', and I had a story that was sort of struggling for air. That was The Green Mile. And I knew if I did this I had to lock myself into it. I started writing it and I stayed ahead of the publication schedule pretty comfortably. Because...” he hesitates, tries to explain in a way that doesn't sound foolish, “...every time I needed something that something was right there to hand.
“When John Coffey goes to jail – he was going to be executed for murdering the two girls. I knew that he didn’t do it , but I didn’t know that the guy who did do it was going to be there, didn’t know anything about how it happened, but when I wrote it, it was all just there for me. You just take it. Everything just fits together like it existed before.

“I never think of stories as made things; I think of them as found things. As if you pull them out of the ground, and you just pick them up. Someone once told me that that was me low-balling my own creativity. That might or might not be the case. But still,  on the story I am working on now, I do have some unresolved problem. It doesn’t keep me awake at nights. I feel like when it comes down, it will be there...”

King writes every day. If he doesn't write he's not happy. If he writes, the world is a good place. So he writes. It's that simple. “I sit down maybe at quarter past eight in the morning and I work until quarter to twelve and for that period of time, everything is real.   And then it just clicks off. I think I probably write about 1200 to 1500 words. It's six pages. I want to get six pages into hardcopy.”


I start to tell King my theory, that when people in the far future want to get an idea of how things felt between 1973 and today, they'll look to King. He's a master of reflecting the world that he sees, and recording it on the page. The rise and fall of the VCR, the arrival of Google and smartphones. It's all in there, behind the monsters and the night, making them more real.

King is sanguine. “You know what you can’t tell what is going to last, what’s not going to last. There’s Kurt Vonnegut quote about John D. McDonald saying “200 years from now, when people want to know what the 20th century they ll go to John D. McDonald”, but I’m not sure that’s true – it seems like he’s almost been forgotten.  But I try and reread a John D. McDonald novel whenever I come down here.”

Authors populate the cracks in a conversation with Stephen King. And, I realise, all of them are, or were, popular authors, people whose work was read, and read with enjoyment, by millions.

“You know what's bizarre? I did the Savannah Book Fair last week.... This is happening to me more and more. I walked out and I got a standing ovation from all these people, and it's like a creepy thing... either you've become a cultural icon, or they are applauding the fact that you are not dead yet.”

I tell him about the first time I ever saw a standing ovation in America. It was for Julie Andrews in Minneapolis on a try out tour of Victor/Victoria. It was not very good, but she got a standing ovation for being Julie Andrews.


 “That’s so dangerous though, for us. I want people to like the work, not me.”


And the lifetime achievement awards?

“It makes them happy to give they to me. And they go out in the shed, but the people don't know that.”
Then Tabby King turns up to tell us that it is time for dinner, and, she adds, that back at the big house the gargantuan African Spurred Tortoise had just been discovered trying to rape a rock.








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