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Hearts in Atlantisby Stephen King
Dear Constant Reader,
I hope Bag of Bones gave you at least one sleepless night. Sorry 'bout that; it's just the way I am. It gave me one or two, and ever since writing it I'm nervous about going down cellar - part of me keeps expecting the door to slam, the lights to go out, and the knocking to start. But for me, at least, that's also part of the fun. If that makes me sick, hey, don't call the doctor.
When I came to Scribner and Pocket Books, I proposed three quite different works. The first was the novel you have just read (unless you're one of those rare and strange people who read the stuff at the back first), the second was a book of short stories, and the third was a combination memoir and how-to-do-it book called On Writing. I don't think they'll ever teach the writing book in school: I've had too much fun and too many laughs working on it.
But I digress.
The collection of short stories, I thought, would be the easiest. It would be a little bigger than Night Shift (my first collection) and a little smaller than Skeleton Crew (my second one). I had a bunch of pretty good stories, a few of which had been published in small magazines and quite a few that hadn't been published at all. (Only two, "Everything's Eventual" and "The Man in the Black Suit," had been published in major magazine markets.) I even had a name for this book picked out: One Headlight, after the song by The Wallflowers. It seemed to fit; if writing short stories isn't trying to make it home with one headlight, I don't know what is.
Except something happened. I think part of it was being energized by a new publisher and new people; a lot of it was just catching an inspired idea and riding it like a wave. Between bouts of working on Bag of Bones (on their slow and winding road to publication, books keep coming back to you, I've found, like attacks of malaria), I wrote a story called "Hearts in Atlantis." It was one of my "little novels," a story too long to be short and too short to be really long, as in novel-length. During a career in which I have been routinely accused of writing to outrageous lengths (think The Stand, It, and The Tommyknockers), I have produced about a dozen of these little novels, saving most aside for their own special collections. The first "little novel collection" was Different Seasons; the second was Four Past Midnight. I like those two books; the stories in them are among my very favorite works. I had no intention of publishing such a collection to follow Bag of Bones, though, because I had no longer stories; the cupboard was bare.
Then came "Hearts in Atlantis," and it unlocked something in me that had been waiting patiently to find expression for thirty years or more. I was a child of the sixties, a child of Viet Nam as well, and have all through my career wished I could write about those times and those events, from the Fish Cheer to the fall of Saigon to the passing of bell-bottom pants and disco funk. I wanted, in short, to write about my own generation - what writer does not? - but felt that if I tried, I would make a miserable hash of it. I wasn't able to imagine, for instance, writing a story in which a character flashed the peace sign or said "Hey . . . groovy!"
Of Los Angeles, Gertrude Stein said: "There is no there there." That's how I feel about the sixties, when the consciousness of my generation was really formed, and about the years after the sixties, when we won our few victories and suffered our many appalling defeats. It was easier to imagine swallowing a brick than it was to imagine writing about how America's first post-World War II generation moved from Red Ryder air rifles to army carbines to mall arcade laser pistols. And yeah, I was afraid. Allen Ginsberg said: "I have seen the best minds of my generation rot"; I have seen some of the best writers of my own try to write about the so-called Baby Boomers and produce nothing but bad karma laced with platitudes.
Now I happen to think that too much thinking is bad for writing, very bad, and when I sat down to write "Hearts in Atlantis" I wasn't thinking about much - I was writing not to explain a whole generation but only to please myself, drawing on an incident I had observed when still a freshman in college. I had no particular plans to publish the story, but I thought it might amuse my kids. And that was how I found my way in. I began to see a way I might be able to write about what we almost had, what we lost, and what we finally ended up with, and how to do it without preaching. I hate preaching in stories, what someone (it might have been Robert Bloch) called "selling your birthright for a plot of message."
After finishing "Hearts" I backtracked and wrote another long story, this one a novel in its own right, called "Low Men in Yellow Coats." A third story, "Blind Willie," already existed; it only needed to be adjusted a tiny bit to fit what I was doing. A fourth one, also new ("Why We're in Viet Nam") seemed to finish things off and sum up what I needed to say, but even then it seemed I was not quite done, and I wrote a final piece called "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling." Hearts in Atlantis begins with Bobby Garfield in Harwich, Connecticut (a fictional suburb of Bridgeport) in 1960; with "Shades of Night," it finishes with Bobby in Harwich forty years later. The final result - especially with this last segment added to the mix - seems closer to a novel than a collection, but whatever it is, I'm pretty pleased with it. I think the stories are frightening and funny, sad and sometimes thought-provoking. You never say everything you wanted to say, but sometimes you catch enough of that wave to satisfy you for a while. This is a wave I could not have imagined riding ten years ago, a book I could not have imagined writing, and one that never could have been written if planned. In the argot of the sixties, it was a happening.
Hearts in Atlantis will be available from Scribner in September. If you were in your teens when the platform shoe was king and there actually were groups with names like The Strawberry Alarm Clock, maybe it will remind you of what you were, what you had, what you lost, and what you gained. If you came later, Hearts in Atlantis might explain a little bit about just what we were and why we turned out the way we did. I hope you'll read it and tell me what you think. In the meantime . . . peace, dude.
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