Tuesday November 7th, 2006
Sponsors: Hodder & Stoughton, The Times and Waterstones
Report by Chris High Photos © Ali Karim
The term “Living Legend” is often over used. In the case of Stephen King, however, the term is an understatement. The author of classic novels such as Misery, Christine, The Shining, Pet Sematary, Carrie, Cujo and the lifetime-to-complete Dark Tower series was making his first public speaking appearance in the UK in 10 years promoting his latest novel, Lisey’s Story, before a packed audience of some 3,000 devotees. We have to be fair here, you know you’ve made it when a fleet of London Taxis have been decked out in the livery of your book cover for the occasion.
Clearly revelling in his environment as much as the audience were excited to see him looking so well, King took to the stage to rapturous applause – and the ominous background noises of aircraft either departing or entering Heathrow – before proceeding to take the interview by the horns and shake it down like a dog with a rag doll.
‘It’s a little like being on a chat show,’ King remarked to interviewer and organiser of The Hay Festival, Peter Florence, ‘being up here in front of so many people. We’d be in trouble if they attacked. Sorry, it’s my job to point these things out.’
Welcome to the world of Stephen King.
Having sold over 300 million books, King is a phenomenon. He embraced questions on many subjects in a show split into two halves. The first being dedicated to Lisey’s Story, with the second hosting a reading and answering readers questions that were sent in to The Times via Email.
Never afraid to voice his opinions, King made notice of the desert boots he was wearing in support of the James Webb, Democratic candidate for Virginia, who has a son in Iraq and wants to get the troops out. ‘The point of the boots is that John Grisham wants us to wear them as a message of solidarity for Jim Webb and for those serving in Iraq and that, while we hate the war and the imperialism of the war, most importantly we mourn the loss of every life in Iraq and just want the bloodshed to stop. George Bush is the head of Nascar nation with a Bud in one hand and big hat in the other. He says the Democrats don’t have a plan and just want to get out. Truth is, he doesn’t have a plan either.’
Then, looking up to the ceiling as another jet headed for home, he whispered ominously: ‘I hope that thing doesn’t crash and douse us all in gallons of burning jet fuel. I don’t have a pen handy.’ The chuckle this got from the audience was both receptive and not a little nervous.
Lisey’s Story is an immensely personal tale about the widow of a famous author coming to terms with the loss of her husband. ‘People are always asking me if I’m Scott and I say “no” and if Tabby is Lisey and I say “no” but the truth is that reality is the wall you bounce your ideas off. After my accident, I picked up a bug that collapsed my lung and turned it green. When Tabby realised I wasn’t going to die she said “ Right, I’m going home to tidy your office”. I couldn’t do anything except gurgle “okay, dear” and when I got home she said: “I wouldn’t go into your office. It’s disturbing.” She was right. I found the rugs had been rolled back and most of my stuff had been packed into boxes. And then I thought, “This is like being the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come” and I thought “this is the way it will be if your wife outlives you, which she probably will because she hasn’t indulged in your bad habits. You’ll be dead and she’ll be in the throes of grief after being married since being 21. She’ll also have to deal with the fact that there will be an unfinished manuscript and all that goes with it”. That is a huge chunk of the novel … the realisation that those left behind have everything to deal with.’
So when does he know a novel is finished? ‘When you don’t know what comes next.” King answered matter-of-factly. And how does his wife Tabby – a respected novelist in her own right – feel about Lisey’s Story? ‘She said this is very important to you isn’t it and I said yes. And she said what would you do if I said the book worries me and I said … I will put it away. And she said: “It worries me, but its too good to do that”. And that’s the first time that’s happened. I’m not here in England to fatten my bank account. I’m here because I believe the book is a great story.’
Peter Florence then asked if it was more difficult to write about grief than fear? ‘No, its tough to write about both. I’d never written about grief this way before. There’s no point writing about the same thing the same way twice. Besides, that’s Tom Clancy’s job. I’ve always been called a horror writer and I’ve never quibbled with that. Readers and stores need to put my books somewhere. Horror doesn’t have to be all big bugs coming out of manholes and Zombie killers. What I want to do is saw on your emotions and I am very, very serious about doing that. I want to reach you personally and want to leave a sonic boom that makes the Reader very glad or very sorry its over and when its there, I want you to feel every emotion as fully as I do. A work of art should enrich the emotions and that’s what I want to do. If it’s something vast, like Leatherface for example, bring it on. If it’s something more subtle, that’s great too. If Lisey’s Story makes you cry I’m not sorry about that. I’ve done my job and reached your emotions.’
King also revealed he was in a lot of physical pain writing the book. ‘Pain medication is ridiculous. You take it at first to relieve the pain then you take it for the high it gives you. Sometimes you even manufacture the pain to get the medication. There came a point where I either kicked it or got my prescriptions in a wheelbarrow.’
So, what does King read? ‘I’ve just discovered a wonderful writer named Meg Gardiner. God she’s good, but nobody is reading her. I read one of her books in one gulp on the way over here. There is nothing better than an intelligent thriller. Then there’s Michael Connolly, of course, and Nelson de Mille. Hemmingway comes up a lot in my books, but more in terms of what a writer shouldn’t do. He leaves me a little cold.’
So do his novels come from dreams, as has been reported with Misery, or from true-life experiences? ‘It’s a combination of true life and things that come out of nowhere. Very rarely do dreams play a part. With Misery, he was going to be fed to pigs and she was going to bind the book with his skin. Misery was originally going to be called The Annie Wilkes First Edition but evolved into what it is today in the writing process. The original idea moved away by writing in longhand at Browns Hotel in London, drinking tea through jetlag. It was like old times until the Porter told me Kipling had died at the desk I’d been working at.’
King has had his troubles with drugs and alcohol. Today he is clean. Does he feel more creative? ‘I do. It’s taken some time. You go through a period of being flat, like a glass of Seltzer water that’s lost its bubbles, but I don’t worry anymore about whether the ideas come or don’t come because I have some stored away. I don’t use a notebook. If the ideas are good ones they’ll stick around if they’re bad they won’t. If I had a bad notebook it would be full of bad ideas so what’s the point?’
So what about Roland and The Dark Tower series? Did he know it was set to become his life’s work? ‘No. It was accidental really. I came across some stories after Carrie and Salem’s Lot had been published and thought I could sell them to a magazine. Fantasy and Science Fiction took them then Donald Grant asked me to do them as a book for his small press on a 10,000 print run. We all thought that the job was done. When my next major book came out, Pet Sematary, I made the mistake of listing The Gunslinger on the masthead of the book and got inundated with requests by people angry that they couldn’t get a copy. So we reissued it in cheap paperback form and so began the comet ride. Was I disappointed when it was over? Was I ever. I learned to love those people.’
So how does King feel about the recent adaptations of his books for movies? ‘I like the quotation of James Kane when a reporter asked how he felt about the fact that movies had ruined his books. Kane turned around and said: “no they haven’t young man. They’re on that shelf right there and they’re all just fine”. Personally, I don’t care if they want to make a movie. But if I’m in, I’m all the way in and if I’m out I’m not involved at all. If they’re great I applaud. If they’re bad I remember what my mother used to say: if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all and I do that unless somebody says Stephen King likes this movie when I don’t. If I think it’s a piece of shit I’m going to say it’s a piece of shit and, like with The Shining, if somebody says its great looking picture, my view is “yeah but you can sugar frost a dog turd but it doesn’t make it a Twinkie bar”.’
So are there any of his adapted books that he really loves? ‘Oh God, yes. Shawshank Redemption is a great movie and so is The Green Mile. Misery is a good movie. Stand By Me is a good one too and, personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for Cujo. Dee Wallace should have won an Academy Award for her performance as the mother who rescues the little boy in that Pinto.’
With The Green Mile being set on death row, where does its author stand on capital punishment? ‘I oppose it morally in 99.9 per cent of all cases. The exceptions to the rule is for those monsters like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacey who just need to be put to death.’
What about Saddam Hussain? ‘No. Nobody made him an American citizen but George Bush has become the decider on that. He doesn’t come under my scope of monster in this context.’
So is King pro-life? ‘I believe it’s the woman’s right to choose. It’s her body and its nobody else’s business.’
Will King be writing under a pseudonym in future? ‘There is one more Bachman book from 1973 written on the typewriter my wife claims I married her for. An Olivetti. She’s wrong. I married her for her body. The typewriter though was a really nice added attraction.’
And, sadly, Stephen King’s work here was done … with the exception of having to sign a few thousand copies of Lisey’s Story.
It may have taken a decade to coax him back to these shores, but every second of his presence on the stage in Battersea was a once in a lifetime experience that will never be forgotten by those lucky enough to be here.
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