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Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


The Once and Future Stephen King

Stephen KingMy first Stephen King book was my also first "adult" book — It, clocking in at over a thousand pages. I read It the way many of King's young readers do — under the covers at night with a flashlight, way past my bedtime. Of course, the book scared me to death. But over the years, it has become apparent that frightening readers, though indisputably one of his strengths, is certainly not the only tool in King's arsenal. His 2000 memoir On Writing is a classic of the genre, filled with pragmatic advice, colorful examples, and a genuine love of language. Novellas such as Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and short stories like "The Last Rung on the Ladder" have proven that sometimes King's strongest work isn't overt horror at all, that he is just as adept at chronicling the universal themes of love, family, and the human condition.

Lisey's Story is a hybrid of the most effective traits of both: while the novel has supernatural elements and truly horrific moments, this deeply involving love story includes some of King's best prose yet. Lisey is the widow of Scott Landon, a bestselling and award-winning author. Two years after his death, she is beginning the lonely work of going through his unpublished papers. Alternating Lisey's memories of her life with Scott and some disturbing goings-on in the present, including a mentally troubled sister and a deranged fan after Scott's legacy, Lisey's Story is an intimate, playful, and deeply moving tribute to marriage and the art of writing. Kirkus Reviews calls the novel "one of King's finest works," and Washington Post Book World applauds, "With Lisey's Story, King has crashed the exclusive party of literary fiction, and he'll be no easier to ignore than Carrie at the prom."

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Jill: How did Lisey's Story begin? Was it a character, or a particular image?

King: Yes, it was a character, and it was a situation. I was in the hospital for pneumonia, and my wife decided to redo my studio. When I came back, she said, "I wouldn't go in there; it's disturbing." So of course I went in there, and it was disturbing. I was still in deep recuperation, and I felt like a ghost anyway. But going in there, I felt even more like a ghost, because the books were all off the shelves, and the furniture had been pulled out because my wife was getting it reupholstered, and the rugs had been rolled up. I thought, This is what this place is going to look like after I die. Because I'd cleaned out my mother's house, and I knew that that was true. When I thought of my wife cleaning out my papers, a light went on. Lisey's Story bloomed from that.

I started to write it because I thought it would be really great to write a story about a writer's wife behind the scenes, because they're always behind the scenes. You know, academics and critics are the biggest sexists in the world. They would holler and scream and say it isn't true, but if you have a famous writer, unless their spouse is somebody like Sylvia Plath, you never hear about them. They're totally ignored, even though they can be very influential in that writer's work. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and his wife told him it was an awful book. So he threw it in the fire, and burned it up, and rewrote the whole thing from scratch. For years, critics have mourned that, and thought that he probably threw away a masterpiece and wrote a lesser book. That is errant sexism, right there. They're assuming that the wife couldn't recognize meretricious quality. For all we know, she was looking at something that was bad, and the second book he wrote was the masterpiece, and the one he threw away was crap.

So I wanted to write a book where the woman who was behind the scenes was always saving this guy's bacon. I saw it almost as a kind of a comedy, but it didn't turn out that way. It turned out to be a love story, instead.

Jill: Private language, like that between Lisey and Scott, which has been a theme in your other books as well, is much more pronounced here. Was that a conscious choice before you started writing the novel, or was that something that developed as the characters evolved?

King: It was a conscious choice. If you're writing about a marriage, particularly a long marriage — and that's what I wanted to write about, the world of a long marriage — it seemed to me, and it seems to me, that that creates its own ecosystem that has all sorts of aspects. For example, a kind of telepathy develops over the years, and that's why you stay married, that's one of the benefits of a long marriage. If you're at a party, you're able to look across the room at each other, and you get a certain kind of look and you both know it's time to leave the party. It's that sort of thing, with both big decisions and little decisions.

Because you're together, all that time, you develop your own language for things, inside that ecosystem. They might start as jokes, or punchlines of jokes, and they become part of that inner vocabulary. That's also part of the benefit of a long marriage; it's part of creating your own world. People sometimes describe it as building a wall between you and the outside world, but I don't think it's a wall. I think it's a dome that you can actually look through, that's permeable.

Jill: One of the last lines of the Newsday review of the book is "Language is where we go when we're gone," which I thought worked on two levels with your book: Lisey going to the pool, which is the source of language and story, to bring back Scott and Amanda, when both of them were "gone," mentally, and she also retreated to their private language to grieve him and to draw strength from.

King: Yes. I heard the concept of the pool from a lecture in 1968 in English class, where Burton Hatlen talked about the pool where we all go down to drink. He talked about the myth-pool. I can't remember if he was talking about the Odyssey or the Iliad; it might have even been Hans Christian Andersen, for all I know. But it's true that those things are global, shared. A myth like Cinderella, for instance — every culture has a Cinderella story. The names change, but the story of ostracism, the third sister from the family, always remains the same. But, I thought to myself, if you believe in a thing enough, and if you have a powerful enough imagination to actually find another world, at the center of that world would be that pool of imagination. Imagination is a wonderful thing, but it's also a terrible thing. I tried to make that other world, Boo'ya Moon, a place that had two sides, two faces, like Jekyll and Hyde. It's sweet in the daytime and awful at night. A lot of times that's the way our imaginations are.

Jill: Certain objects in your books can take on a kind of mythical, totemic quality — sometimes from being in the right place at the right time, and other times because of the intensity of the characters' belief in those objects. In Lisey's Story, one of those would be the silver shovel that ends up saving both Scott and Lisey's lives.

King: TThe silver shovel is a saving object, and it's silver for a reason. Like silver bullets. There are things that are supposed to be good at killing monsters. Dooley is a monster; Gerd Allen Cole was a monster. It's more of a goof than anything else, but it's also symbolic in the sense that silver is supposed to be purifying.

Also, though, the lesson I took from Dickens is that nothing should be wasted. Nothing should be wasted, in a book. There's nothing that's coincidental in the world of fiction. One of the great pleasures of fiction is that you enter a world where coincidence is allowed and characters come back and things recur, so that the shovel becomes a part of Lisey's life again, after it's sat in the barn for all those years. It's the only time, in my view, that Scott in the book ever really speaks to Lisey from beyond the grave. He says, Find the shovel. So she does, and it's perfectly logical that she should want that shovel and that the shovel should be where it is. That's one of the pleasures of fiction, that Dickensian feel, that things should recur.

You know, I played for a long time with the idea of Dooley actually turning out to be Gerd Allen Cole.

Jill: There are definitely similarities between the two.

King: Yes; I compromised on that, because that felt too Agatha Christie to me. That felt a little bit too far. But you can see that some of the clues were planted there. There's the Southern thing, and I thought to myself, Well, yeah, it's possible because Cole never really says that much, and his hair isn't blonde anymore, it's brown, and that could be him. Then I thought, no — that's a step too much. Coincidence is allowed, because coincidence is a part of our lives.

Jill: Often the parts we remember the most strongly.

King: Reality is Ralph.

Jill: Faith, in one way or another — in love, in God, in goodness itself — figures pretty prominently in your books. Do you believe faith is an active, protective mechanism, something that we're naturally inclined towards?

King: I want to believe. And so I do. There's a difference there between saying, I do absolutely believe that it's my fate that this should happen or that should happen. I don't believe in God in the rational part of my mind, but in the emotional part of my mind, yeah, I do. I have reasons to feel the way that I do. I don't go to church or anything, because I think organized religion is dangerous, so I don't do that — I don't do that at all. But faith, God, those things... Let's put it this way: one of the great philosophers said, If you don't believe, and you die, and there is a God, you're going to get the world's biggest surprise on the other side of the veil. If you do believe, and you die, and there isn't a God, well, what have you lost?

Jill: Pascal's wager, I think.

King: It might be; you might be right.

Jill: Something else I've noticed in your books is the importance of accuracy of experience. I'm thinking in Lisey's Story when Lisey's setting the scene with her car, when she's gone up to rescue Amanda, when she's fixing the details in her mind, the license plate, the bumper sticker, and thinks...

King: Something's not quite right.

Jill: And that happens frequently in your characters' memories, as well; there's a kind of "click" moment when everything lines up perfectly.

King: Yes. What's a concern with me when I write is — I'm an imagist. When I was in college I turned on to a lot of modern poetry, particularly James Dickey and William Carlos Williams and a lot of the disciples of Williams, though not all of them. I always liked Wallace Stevens, although I didn't have a fucking clue what that man was talking about. Not even in "On Sunday Morning." As a matter of fact, there is one that I did know what he was talking about, and that was "The Emperor of Ice Cream." I just loved that poem. There's also Randall Jarrell, W. H. Auden, and all those people — another one is Dylan Thomas. A lot of them are a little bit old-fashioned now, but there's a new-fashioned poet that I like, too, a guy from Pittsburgh named Chard deNiord who's really, really good. He's got a book out called Night Mowing.

What these people do is what formed me in that last great period when you're plastic, when you're in college and you're still kind of a sponge, you're still open to change in every way. It goes on a little while after that, but not a long while after that. That's when you say, Teach me. I'm ready to learn; teach me what to do. What I was taught was really be specific in your writing. Never, never, never, never tell the reader. Always show. And you know, I tripped on that a bit, particularly in my reading that didn't have anything to do with school. People like Raymond Chandler. I always loved Chandler, and I never really connected with Dashiell Hammett. But I loved Chandler. Chandler was crystal clear to me. When I read him, it was like being in ecstasy, almost. Somebody else was Thomas Wolfe, although he never met an adverb he didn't like, I'll tell you that.

I'm like that with what Lisey's doing in that scene. It's a case of saying, I want to be able to visualize this place exactly, and come back to where I left these things. It was a pleasure to write that scene, because it's like a total visualization. The more I can do that, the more excuse I have to do that, the better I like it.

Jill: Speaking of visualizing things, I was reading On Writing for the first time a couple of a days ago, and I was reading the passage about writing as telepathy, and picturing the white rabbit with the number eight painted on its back, and I thought, Wait a minute — where have I just seen this?

King: It was on Lost.

Jill: Exactly!

King: I saw it on the show and I thought to myself, that looks sort of familiar, but I couldn't really think why. I think part of the reason why was that when I wrote a lot of On Writing, I was in a lot of pain from the road accident, and I was taking a lot of pain drugs, so that I guess I didn't remember that part.

Jill: The line of poetry that Scott writes in Lisey's Story is a beautiful line, and seems to sum up a theme you come back to frequently: that madness, insanity, is never very far away.

King: It's actually a version of a poem I wrote in college. I looked and looked — you know how you do workshops, and they make offprints of material. I thought I had some offprints from that, and I didn't, and so I called the prof who taught the class, and I said, Do you have any of those offprints? He looked, and he couldn't find it, either. Really, all I remembered of the poem was the first line, "The arguments against insanity fall through with a soft shirring sound," and I really didn't have much of a clue beyond that. So I worked on it a little bit, and it actually worked better, because it was more specific to the book.

But don't forget, there's another poem — there's a Hallmark card. They're like apples and oranges. I worked hard on that Hallmark card. I actually had someone ask me if I'd gotten permission from the Hallmark company. I was proud of that.

Stephen King appeared in Portland through Portland Arts and Lectures, a program of Literary Arts, on November 2, 2006. The following is a transcript of the audience Q&A portion of his reading that evening.

Q: Is there anything you're too scared to write about?

King: No. If I write about things, then I don't have to worry about them. You know what I mean? This is the best gig in the world, I can't even tell you, because other people pay like eighty bucks an hour to go to a shrink — and it's not even a full hour, it's a fifty-minute hour. I write these things down and people pay me. It's great! It's wonderful. People say to me, Do you have bad dreams? And the answer is, yes — when I don't write, then I get bad dreams.

Q: When you received your medal at the National Book Awards in 2003, you talked about building bridges between popular and literary fiction. Are you satisfied that those bridges are being built?

King: No. The problem, I think, is that there's almost no understanding in the serious critical establishment, and when I say that, I mean in the journals — everything from Harold Bloom to Ploughshares to — pick your poison, the Antioch Review, etc. I read these things. Do the people who publish them read me? That's a good question. If they do, a lot of them probably don't admit it. If their literary friends come over, they might put my books under the bed like... lit-porn. You people may have faced this; some friends will come over and say, "Oh, you read him? Really? You read Stephen King? Well, all righty. Guess we won't be coming here again."

I'm probably being overly sensitive about it — but not too much. What I mean is that there's a whole range of people who are doing really, really good work, that we call popular fiction. First of all, it's an artificial distinction between literary fiction and popular fiction. I sometimes think that literary fiction is a term that writers and critics give to a certain kind of well-written fiction that doesn't sell very much. That's the criteria, and a certain prejudice kicks in against you if you do sell a lot of books. The way the prejudice works, it's never scathing, outright, but it goes something like this: If three million people are reading X, I don't really need to read X to know that that is a bad writer's work. Because all I do is divide three million by the average IQ and come out with a minus number, and that's the IQ of people reading that book. That's bullshit, is all, it's just bullshit. There are people like Scott Turow. Scott Turow's in the band with me; he's kind of a rarity, because he can actually sing. I'm also thinking about Michael Connelly, who is a terrific writer; George Pelecanos, who's an amazing writer, Dennis Lehane, who's a terrific writer, and those are just a few.

A good example of what happens to a good writer with literary aspirations is what's happening to Scott Smith, who wrote A Simple Plan and a book called The Ruins that was out this past summer. If you read the reviews that the critic in the New York Times wrote about those books, Michiko Kakutani, it isn't so much the reviews themselves — she hated the books, but then Michiko hates a lot of books. The thing is, it's a colossal misunderstanding about what those books were about, and the tradition they come from, which is naturalistic fiction, Theodore Dreiser and Thomas Hardy, going all the way back. Then the divide gets wider, and it becomes more and more of a challenge and more and more of a risk for so-called literary writers, people who are taken as literary writers, to write popular, accessible fiction for the masses.

You get somebody like Jonathan Safran Foer, who is really a good writer, when he lets his hair down to do it, but Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the book about the World Trade Center, is so tight-assed, and so literary. His first book has some wonderful passages, so he's capable of that. Another writer who's taking that risk and has been able to deal with it is Michael Chabon. Michael Chabon lives in both worlds, as a literary writer and as a popular writer. But you are listening to a guy who's a little bit paranoid about that, because I've had my ass burned a lot of times.

Q: How does Tabitha feel about Lisey's Story? When did you know that she was your ideal reader?

King: I knew that Tabby was my ideal reader from the first time that I gave her something to read, before we were married, which was a story called "I Am the Doorway" that's in my first collection, Night Shift. She said, "This is really good." And that's usually the extent of her comments, if she likes something. She will line-edit, and she will always tell me if she thinks something really sucks. She'll say, "This is terrible." With Lisey's Story, she said, "It's good." She said, "It makes me nervous, because people are going to take the two characters for you and me." "Well," I said, "it's not you and me." She said, "I know that, but will they know that?" And I said, "I'll tell 'em." She said, "They won't necessarily hear you."

So: Scott and Lisey are not me and Tabby. We have been married a long time, but unlike Lisey, Tabby did graduate from college, and she's written books of her own, and they're good ones. Scott and Lisey are childless, and we have three wonderful kids that are no longer kids and are all grown up. We actually have three grandchildren now, so that's a good thing.

Q: Will you sing us a song?

King: No. I'm not going to do that. I love the old folkies, and I always have. I'm just a grown-up folkie, an old folkie (and an old fogey, that's true). I learned guitar from a lot of folk musicians, Tom Rush and Phil Ochs, and a guy named Dave von Ronk. The computer is a wonderful thing, and I discovered the crack of my generation: it's called iTunes. I love that thing. It's painful for me because I love it so much. I try to find old Dave van Ronk stuff, there's an old song called "Cocaine Blues," and he's got a version on there that I never heard before, and it goes, If you've got something that you want him to tell, just give him a mirror and a twenty-dollar bill. I love that. Maybe you had to be into the stuff.

Q: Name a book or a story you wish you'd written.

King: I wish I'd written Lord of the Flies. I love that book. People will ask, What's the first book that ever scared you?, and that was the first book that ever really scared me. It terrified me.

As far as stories, I think that a lot of the early Ray Bradbury stories were ones that made an impression. There's one about a little boy who has a dog that brings things to him, and the little boy is sick, he has rheumatic fever and he can't get out of bed. The dog brings back visitors, a lot of times, and he's in the fourth grade, and he misses his class so, and he loves his teacher, Miss Martin. So the dog brings back classmates, and the dog brings back the smell of the fall, and the kid puts his face in the dog's fur and smells the leaves and the frost. The boy says to the dog, "I really wish that you would bring back Miss Martin, I wish you'd bring back Miss Martin to visit." The dog goes out again, and the kid's mother comes in and says, "I have something terrible to tell you. Miss Martin died. She died a few weeks ago, and we hadn't wanted to tell you quite yet. She died, and she's been buried." Then the dog comes back, this time looking very tired, he's limping, and this time when the little boy smells his fur, he smells dirt and rot, and pretty soon there's a shadow that falls across his bed, and he wakes up, and the last line of the story is, "The little boy had company."


We laugh, because we feel embarrassed about screaming at something. But this stuff is like a capsule; it's time release. You'll think about it later. When you get into your car. In the dark.

I never forgot that, in The Haunting of Hill House, the first one, the good one, the Robert Wise black-and-white one, the housekeeper keeps saying, "No one lives any closer than town, no one will come any closer than that, so no one will hear you if you scream. In the dark. In the night."

Q: What's the question you'd most like to be asked but never have been?

King: What's the question you'd most like to be asked... Okay, let's just forget that one, because I can't think of any right now. What color underwear am I wearing? I've never been asked that. Somebody once asked me at one of these readings, "What is it? Boxers or briefs?" And I said, "Depends." My wife was at that one, and she said, "Nobody loves a smart-ass."

Q: What is your favorite book written by you?

King: My favorite book is Lisey's Story, which is why I'm here. [Laughter]

You know, I like Misery, and I have a soft spot for The Dead Zone because I thought that was my first real novel, but there were a lot of good ones that I still like. And I like Cujo, because it was the first one set all in one place.

I have such a reputation for being a horror writer; we have a place in Florida where we go in the wintertime. We didn't want to go, but at a certain age it's a law. My wife goes, and she does the weekly shopping on Friday, and if we need something else during the week, then I go, which seems like a fair tradeoff, because I always get to use the express lane. So I'm there one day, and I'm going up the aisle that has pet food on one side and things on the other side — which is, you know, things, like potato mashers and things that have Teflon on them. Things. The ones they sell on cable tv. So this woman comes up to me and she goes, "I know who you are." I guess she's about eighty; she's got that orange hair. She says, "I know who you are! You're that horror writer. You're Stephen King." I said "Yes, guilty as charged." She said, "I don't read what you do. I respect what you do, but I don't read it. Why don't you do something uplifting sometime, like that Shawshank Redemption?" I said, "I did write that." She said, "No, you didn't." It was surreal. It was like, What question have you never been asked? What clothes have you never worn? What person did you never meet? It was weird.

Q: Are you going to write an autobiography?

King: I don't think so. I got as close to that as I'm going to get in On Writing.

Q: When you were writing the Dark Tower series, did you know that it would bring together all the worlds of your previous works?

King: From almost the beginning, I thought to myself, if I'm going to create fictional towns in Maine, really, they all ought to be close to one another, and I ought to be able to go back to those places, and it just seemed natural to refer to some of the other books. I've read other novelists who do that, and by then, I'd been working on the Dark Tower series longer than any of the other books, except for a couple of the Bachman books, like The Running Man and The Long Walk, which I wrote before I was able to shave, and they show it.

Particularly after I knew that I was going to play a part in the books, I think what really made that a necessity in my own mind was that a lot of the continuity was screwed up in the early books. There were a lot of mistakes in those books. Co-op City in New York was in the wrong borough. The A Train in New York doesn't stop where Susanna originally lost her legs. I thought, Well, if those things are wrong, they're wrong because I got them wrong. If I'm the influence in their world, that's got to be the only reason why. To me, there's never really a problem, there's always an opportunity. What I don't refer to in the other works is that I'm the creator of all these works. It's always seemed to me that a writer in some ways is a God in his worlds. If that person dies, the world would kind of freeze, if you see what I mean.

Q: What books are on your nightstand?

King: Not too much right now, because I'm traveling, but there's novel called China Lake, and I brought something else to read that is so vivid that I can't remember what it is. It's in my bag; it's a galley. I have mostly been reading short stories this year. I've got to edit Best American Short Stories, so I've been caught in short story hell. I've read like 400 of those suckers — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Q: Do you find anything in Oregon scary?

King: Actually, I have a history with Oregon, because my daughter went to Reed for two years. When she transferred back to the University of Southern Maine, she had a car, and she asked me if I would drive it back across the country. I said that I would, and I came out here, and I stayed at the Heathman Hotel, and I couldn't sleep. In the course of that night, I thought, Maybe I have insomnia. That idea occurred to me; that was the kernel of that idea, and I worked it out in the book.

Then, just a few days later, when I was driving through some little town in Nevada, there was nobody on the streets, and that place was entirely deserted. Except there was a cop car parked in one of the slanted parking spaces, and I saw the cop walking down the sidewalk. He was a big guy, and I thought to myself, Oh, I know where everybody is — that cop killed them all. That was the idea for Desperation. So if I'm going to get ideas like that every time I'm in Oregon, then I just love this place.

Q: How's the Dark Tower comic series coming along?

King: It starts next February, and it's beautiful.

Q: Do you miss Roland?

King: Yes, I do. I miss all those characters.

I'm not a strong believer in spoilers. I hate that; it's childish for people to say, "Oh, you spoiled that! You told me something that spoiled that!" I don't think you can really spoil something — or, under ordinary circumstances you can't do so. There was a college freshman who came to interview James M. Cain towards the end of his life. Cain was the guy who wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, and Double Indemnity. Double Indemnity was made into a wonderful movie with Frederick McMurray. I never forgot the scene where Barbara Stanwyck hands him a glass of iced tea, and he takes a sip, and she says, "How is it?" And he says, "A little bourbon would really get this up on its feet." I love that line.

The premier literary critic at that time, the Harold Bloom of his day, was Edmund Wilson, and he dismissed the book in one line. He said, "We don't need the jungle in the lunchroom." A lot of times, that's what popular fiction's had to contend with, that immediate dismissal. But that's beside the point; that's neither here nor there. James Cain revolutionized — he opened my eyes, let's put it that way. And this guy came and sat down with Cain, and the first thing that he said was, he moaned about how the movies had ruined all James M. Cain's books. Cain said, "No, they haven't, young fella; they're all right behind me," and pointed at the shelf in the back of the room. And that's true, they're all there, so I don't think there are such things as spoilers, and I think it's hard to ruin a book because they're still up on shelves.

Anybody who's ever read a book and then reread a book knows that the pleasure is sometimes even deeper with a good book the second time through. You find things that you forgot, and say, Oh, this is a good part. You find things that you remember and you say Oh, this is a great part. So I miss Roland. Sometimes I'm glad that that series is over because the last three books just about killed me, to the point that I announced my retirement. For a while there, I thought I was going to announce my death. It was the equivalent of writing twenty-five hundred pages, all at the same time, all at a go. On that score, I was glad to wave goodbye. But on the other hand I got to like them all. Roland and Susannah and Eddie Dean, and Oy; I liked those guys a lot. They were good company over the years for me.

The funny thing is, people asked for those books. Not everybody — they were a special community, a pretty large one though by no means a gigantic one, a subset of what I would call the fan base, but they were very, very loyal, and I felt the same way. I would finish a Dark Tower book, and some years would go by, and I would think, I don't know if I want to do any more of this. I'm kind of used up on it. But when I went back, it was always like, Let me in. I can't wait to do more. So that was good.

And you've been good; you've been a great audience. I really appreciate you having me here. And take a look into the back of your car.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. On Writing
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  2. Lisey's Story: A Novel
    Used Hardcover $5.95
  3. Lisey's Story New Trade Paper $17.00
  4. It
    Used Mass Market $5.95

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