Interviews

Stephen King, The Art of Fiction No. 189

Interviewed by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and Nathaniel Rich

Stephen King began this interview in the summer of 2001, two years after he was struck by a minivan while walking near his home in Center Lovell, Maine. He was lucky to have survived the accident, in which he suffered scalp lacerations, a collapsed right lung, and multiple fractures of his right hip and leg. Six pounds of metal that had been implanted in King’s body during the initial surgery were removed shortly before the author spoke to The Paris Review, and he was still in constant pain. “The orthopedist found all this infected tissue and outraged flesh,” said King. “The bursas were sticking right out, like little eyes.” The interview was held in Boston, where King, an avid Red Sox fan, had taken up temporary residence to watch his team make its pennant run. Although he was still frail, he was back to writing every day, and by night he would take his manuscript to Fenway Park so that he could edit between innings and during pitching changes.

A second interview session with King was conducted early this year at his winter home in Florida, which happens to be within easy driving distance of the Red Sox’s spring training compound in Fort Myers. The house lies at the end of a sandy key, and looks—by virtue of a high vaulted ceiling—something like an overturned sailboat. It was a hot, sunny morning and King sat on his front steps in blue jeans, white sneakers, and a Tabasco hot sauce T-shirt, reading the local newspaper. The day before, the same paper had printed his home address in its business section, and fans had been driving by all morning to get a peek at the world-famous author. “People forget,” he said, “I’m a real person.”

King was born on September 21, 1947, in Portland, Maine. His father abandoned his family when King was very young, and his mother moved around the country before settling back in Maine—this time in the small inland town of Durham. King’s first published story, “I Was a Teenage Grave Robber,” appeared in 1965 in a fan magazine called Comics Review. Around that time he received a scholarship to attend the University of Maine in Orono, where he met his wife, Tabitha, a novelist with whom he has three children and to whom he is still married. For several years he struggled to support his young family by washing motel linens at a laundry, teaching high-school English, and occasionally selling short stories to men’s magazines. Then, in 1973, he sold his novel Carrie, which quickly became a best seller. Since then, King has sold over three hundred million books.

In addition to forty-three novels, King has written eight collections of short stories, eleven screenplays, and two books on the craft of writing, and he is a co-author with Stewart O’Nan of Faithful, a day-by-day account of the Red Sox’s 2004 championship season. Virtually all of his novels and most of his short stories have been adapted for film or television. Although he was dismissed by critics for much of his career—one New York Times review called King “a writer of fairly engaging and preposterous claptrap”—his writing has received greater recognition in recent years, and in 2003 he won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. King has also been honored for his devoted efforts to support and promote the work of other authors. In 1997 he received the Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers magazine, and he was recently selected to edit the 2007 edition of Best American Short Stories.

In person, King has a gracious, funny, sincere manner and speaks with great enthusiasm and candor. He is also a generous host. Halfway through the interview he served lunch: a roasted chicken—which he proceeded to hack at with a frighteningly sharp knife—potato salad, coleslaw, macaroni salad, and, for dessert, key lime pie. When asked what he was currently working on, he stood up and led the way to the beach that runs along his property. He explained that two other houses once stood at the end of the key. One of them collapsed during a storm five years earlier, and bits of wall, furniture, and personal effects still wash ashore at high tide. King is setting his next novel in the other house. It is still standing, though it is abandoned and, undoubtedly, haunted.

 

INTERVIEWER

How old were you when you started writing?

STEPHEN KING

Believe it or not, I was about six or seven, just copying panels out of comic books and then making up my own stories. I can remember being home from school with tonsillitis and writing stories in bed to pass the time. Film was also a major influence. I loved the movies from the start. I can remember my mother taking me to Radio City Music Hall to see Bambi. Whoa, the size of the place, and the forest fire in the movie—it made a big impression. So when I started to write, I had a tendency to write in images because that was all I knew at the time.

INTERVIEWER

When did you begin reading adult fiction?

KING

In 1959 probably, after we had moved back to Maine. I would have been twelve, and I was going to this little one-room schoolhouse just up the street from my house. All the grades were in one room, and there was a shithouse out back, which stank. There was no library in town, but every week the state sent a big green van called the bookmobile. You could get three books from the bookmobile and they didn’t care which ones—you didn’t have to take out kid books. Up until then what I had been reading was Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and things like that. The first books I picked out were these Ed McBain 87th Precinct novels. In the one I read first, the cops go up to question a woman in this tenement apartment and she is standing there in her slip. The cops tell her to put some clothes on, and she grabs her breast through her slip and squeezes it at them and says, “In your eye, cop!” And I went, Shit! Immediately something clicked in my head. I thought, That’s real, that could really happen. That was the end of the Hardy Boys. That was the end of all juvenile fiction for me. It was like, See ya!

INTERVIEWER

But you didn’t read popular fiction exclusively.

KING

I didn’t know what popular fiction was, and nobody told me at the time. I read a wide range of books. I read The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf one week, and then Peyton Place the next week, and then a week later The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Whatever came to mind, whatever came to hand, I would read. When I read The Sea-Wolf, I didn’t understand that it was Jack London’s critique of Nietzsche, and when I read McTeague, I didn’t know that was naturalism, that it was Frank Norris saying, You can never win, the system always beats you. But I did understand them on another level. When I read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I said to myself two things. Number one, if she didn’t wake up when that guy fucked her, she must have really been asleep. And number two, a woman couldn’t catch a break at that time. That was my introduction to women’s lit. I loved that book, so I read a whole bunch of Hardy. But when I read Jude the Obscure, that was the end of my Hardy phase. I thought, This is fucking ridiculous. Nobody’s life is this bad. Give me a break, you know?

INTERVIEWER

In On Writing, you mention how the idea for your first novel, Carrie, came to you when you connected two unrelated subjects: adolescent cruelty and telekinesis. Are such unlikely connections often a starting point for you?

KING

Yes, that’s happened a lot. When I wrote Cujo—about a rabid dog—I was having trouble with my motorcycle, and I heard about a place I could get it fixed. We were living in Bridgton, Maine, which is a resort-type town—a lake community in the western part of the state—but over in the northern part of Bridgton, it’s really rough country. There are a lot of farmers just making their own way in the old style. The mechanic had a farmhouse and an auto shop across the road. So I took my motorcycle up there, and when I got it into the yard, it quit entirely. And the biggest Saint Bernard I ever saw in my life came out of that garage, and it came toward me. 

Those dogs look horrible anyway, particularly in summer. They’ve got the dewlaps, and they’ve got the runny eyes. They don’t look like they’re well. He started growling at me, way down in his throat: arrrrrrrrrrggggggghhhhhh. At that time I weighed about two hundred and twenty pounds, so I outweighed the dog by maybe ten pounds. The mechanic came out of the garage and said to me, Oh, that’s Bowser, or whatever the dog’s name was. It wasn’t Cujo. He said, Don’t worry about him. He does that to everybody. So I put my hand out to the dog, and the dog went for my hand. The guy had one of those socket wrenches in his hand, and he brought it down on the dog’s hindquarters. A steel wrench. It sounded like a rug beater hitting a rug. The dog just yelped once and sat down. And the guy said something to me like, Bowser usually doesn’t do this, he must not have liked your face. Right away it’s my fault.

I remember how scared I was because there was no place to hide. I was on my bike but it was dead, and I couldn’t outrun him. If the man wasn’t there with the wrench and the dog decided to attack . . . But that was not a story, it was just a piece of something. A couple of weeks later I was thinking about this Ford Pinto that my wife and I had. It was the first new car we ever owned. We bought it with the Doubleday advance for Carrie, twenty-five hundred dollars. We had problems with it right away because there was something wrong with the needle valve in the carburetor. It would stick, the carburetor would flood, and the car wouldn’t start. I was worried about my wife getting stuck in that Pinto, and I thought, What if she took that car to get fixed like I did my motorcycle and the needle valve stuck and she couldn’t get it going—but instead of the dog just being a mean dog, what if the dog was really crazy?

Then I thought, Maybe it’s rabid. That’s when something really fired over in my mind. Once you’ve got that much, you start to see all the ramifications of the story. You say to yourself, Well, why didn’t somebody come and rescue her? People live there. It’s a farmhouse. Where are they? Well, you say, I don’t know, that’s the story. Where is her husband? Why didn’t her husband come rescue her? I don’t know, that’s part of the story. What happens if she gets bitten by this dog? And that was going to be part of the story. What if she starts to get rabid? After I got about seventy or eighty pages into the book I found out the incubation period for rabies was too long, so her becoming rabid ceased to be a factor. That’s one of the places where the real world intruded on the story. But it’s always that way. You see something, then it clicks with something else, and it will make a story. But you never know when it’s going to happen.

INTERVIEWER

Are there other sources for your material besides experience?

KING 

Sometimes it’s other stories. A few years ago I was listening to a book on tape by John Toland called The Dillinger Days. One of the stories is about John Dillinger and his friends Homer Van Meter and Jack Hamilton fleeing Little Bohemia, and Jack Hamilton being shot in the back by a cop after crossing the Mississippi River. Then all this other stuff happens to him that Toland doesn’t really go into. And I thought, I don’t need Toland to tell me what happens, and I don’t need to be tied to the truth. These people have legitimately entered the area of American mythology. I’ll make up my own shit. So I wrote a story called “The Death of Jack Hamilton.”

Or sometimes I’ll use film. In Wolves of the Calla, one of the seven books in the Dark Tower series, I decided to see if I couldn’t retell Seven Samurai, that Kurosawa film, and The Magnificent Seven. The story is the same, of course, in both cases. It’s about these farmers who hire gunslingers to defend their town against bandits, who keep coming to steal their crops. But I wanted to up the ante a little bit. So in my version, instead of crops, the bandits steal children.

INTERVIEWER

What happens when the real world intrudes, as with the incubation period of rabies in Cujo? Do you go back?

KING

You can never bend reality to serve the fiction. You have to bend the fiction to serve reality when you find those things out.

INTERVIEWER

Cujo is unusual in that the entire novel is a single chapter. Did you plan that from the start?

KING

No, Cujo was a standard novel in chapters when it was created. But I can remember thinking that I wanted the book to feel like a brick that was heaved through your window at you. I’ve always thought that the sort of book that I do—and I’ve got enough ego to think that every novelist should do this—should be a kind of personal assault. It ought to be somebody lunging right across the table and grabbing you and messing you up. It should get in your face. It should upset you, disturb you. And not just because you get grossed out. I mean, if I get a letter from somebody saying, I couldn’t eat my dinner, my attitude is, Terrific!

INTERVIEWER

What do you think it is that we’re afraid of?

KING

I don’t think there’s anything that I’m not afraid of, on some level. But if you mean, What are we afraid of, as humans? Chaos. The outsider. We’re afraid of change. We’re afraid of disruption, and that is what I’m interested in. I mean, there are a lot of people whose writing I really love—one of them is the American poet Philip Booth—who write about ordinary life straight up, but I just can’t do that.

I once wrote a short novel called “The Mist.” It’s about this mist that rolls in and covers a town, and the story follows a number of people who are trapped in a supermarket. There’s a woman in the checkout line who’s got this box of mushrooms. When she walks to the window to see the mist coming in, the manager takes them from her. And she tells him, “Give me back my mushies.”

We’re terrified of disruption. We’re afraid that somebody’s going to steal our mushrooms in the checkout line.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say then that this fear is the main subject of your fiction?

KING

I’d say that what I do is like a crack in the mirror. If you go back over the books from Carrie on up, what you see is an observation of ordinary middle-class American life as it’s lived at the time that particular book was written. In every life you get to a point where you have to deal with something that’s inexplicable to you, whether it’s the doctor saying you have cancer or a prank phone call. So whether you talk about ghosts or vampires or Nazi war criminals living down the block, we’re still talking about the same thing, which is an intrusion of the extraordinary into ordinary life and how we deal with it. What that shows about our character and our interactions with others and the society we live in interests me a lot more than monsters and vampires and ghouls and ghosts.

INTERVIEWER

In On Writing, that’s how you define popular fiction: fiction in which readers recognize aspects of their own experience—behavior, place, relationships, and speech. In your work, do you consciously set out to capture a specific moment in time?

KING

No, but I don’t try to avoid it. Take Cell. The idea came about this way: I came out of a hotel in New York and I saw this woman talking on her cell phone. And I thought to myself, What if she got a message over the cell phone that she couldn’t resist, and she had to kill people until somebody killed her? All the possible ramifications started bouncing around in my head like pinballs. If everybody got the same message, then everybody who had a cell phone would go crazy. Normal people would see this, and the first thing they would do would be to call their friends and families on their cell phones. So the epidemic would spread like poison ivy. Then, later, I was walking down the street and I see some guy who is apparently a crazy person yelling to himself. And I want to cross the street to get away from him. Except he’s not a bum; he’s dressed in a suit. Then I see he’s got one of these plugs in his ear and he’s talking into his cell phone. And I thought to myself, I really want to write this story.

It was an instant concept. Then I read a lot about the cell-phone business and started to look at the cell-phone towers. So it’s a very current book, but it came out of a concern about the way we talk to each other today.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think Cell, because of its timeliness, might look dated in ten years?

KING

It might. I’m sure other books, like Firestarter for instance, look antique now. But that doesn’t bother me. One hopes that the stories and the characters stand out. And even the antique things have a certain value.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think about which of your books will last? 

KING

It’s a crapshoot. You never know who’s going to be popular in fifty years. Who is going to be in, in a literary sense, and who’s not. If I had to predict which of my books people will pick up a hundred years from now, if they pick up any, I’d begin with The Stand and The Shining. And ’Salem’s Lot—because people like vampire stories, and its premise is the classic vampire story. It doesn’t have any particular bells or whistles. It’s not fancy, it’s just scary. So I think people will pick that up for a while.

INTERVIEWER

When you look back on your novels, do you group them in any way?

KING

I do two different kinds of books. I think of books like The Stand, Desperation, and the Dark Tower series as books that go out. Then there are books like Pet Sematary, Misery, The Shining, and Dolores Claiborne that go in. Fans usually will either like the outies or they’ll like the innies. But they won’t like both.

INTERVIEWER

But even in the more supernatural books the horror is psychological, right? It’s not just the bogeyman jumping out from behind a corner. So couldn’t they all be characterized as innies?

KING

Well, my categorization is also about character, and the number of characters. Innies tend to be about one person and go deeper and deeper into a single character. Lisey’s Story, my new novel, is an innie, for instance, because it’s a long book and there are only a few characters, but a book like Cell is an outie because there are a lot of people and it’s about friendship and it’s kind of a road story. Gerald’s Game is the innie-est of all the innie books. It’s about only one person, Jessie, who’s been handcuffed naked to her bed. The little things all get so big—the glass of water, and her trying to get the shelf above the bed to tip up so she can escape. Going into that book, I remember thinking that Jessie would have been some sort of gymnast at school, and at the end of it she would simply put her feet back over her head, over the bedstead, and wind up standing up. About forty pages into writing it, I said to myself, I’d better see if this works. So I got my son—I think it was Joe because he’s the more limber of the two boys—and I took him into our bedroom. I tied him with scarves to the bedposts. My wife came in and said, What are you doing? And I said, I’m doing an experiment, never mind.

Joe tried to do it, but he couldn’t. He said, My joints don’t work that way. And again, it’s what I was talking about with the rabies in Cujo. I’m saying, Jesus Christ! This isn’t going to work! And the only thing you can do at that point is say, Well, I could make her double-jointed. Then you go, Yeah, right, that’s not fair.

Misery was just two characters in a bedroom, but Gerald’s Game goes that one better—one character in a bedroom. I was thinking that eventually there’s going to be another book that will just be called “Bedroom.” There won’t be any characters at all.

INTERVIEWER

Mark Singer wrote in The New Yorker that you lost part of your audience with Cujo and Pet Sematary and Gerald’s Game because those novels were too painful for readers to bear. Do you think that’s actually the case?

KING

I think that I lost some readers at various points. It was just a natural process of attrition, that’s all. People go on, they find other things. Though I also think that I have changed as a writer over the years, in the sense that I’m not providing exactly the same level of escape that ’Salem’s Lot, The Shining, or even The Stand does. There are people out there who would have been perfectly happy had I died in 1978, the people who come to me and say, Oh, you never wrote a book as good as The Stand. I usually tell them how depressing it is to hear them say that something you wrote twenty-eight years ago was your best book. Dylan probably hears the same thing about Blonde on Blonde. But you try to grow as a writer and not just do the same thing over and over again, because there’s absolutely no point to that.

And I can afford to lose fans. That sounds totally conceited, but I don’t mean it that way: I can lose half of my fan base and still have enough to live on very comfortably. I’ve had the freedom to follow my own course, which is great. I might have lost some fans, but I might’ve gained some too.

INTERVIEWER

You have written a lot about children. Why is that? 

KING

I wrote a lot about children for a couple of reasons. I was fortunate to sell my writing fairly young, and I married young and had children young. Naomi was born in 1971, Joe was born in 1972, and Owen was born in 1977—a six-year spread between three kids. So I had a chance to observe them at a time when a lot of my contemporaries were out dancing to KC and the Sunshine Band. I feel that I got the better part of that deal. Raising the kids was a lot more rewarding than pop culture in the seventies. 

So I didn’t know KC and the Sunshine Band, but I did know my kids inside out. I was in touch with the anger and exhaustion that you can feel. And those things went into the books because they were what I knew at that time. What has found its way into a lot of the recent books is pain, and people who have injuries, because that’s what I know right now. Ten years from now maybe it will be something else, if I’m still around.

INTERVIEWER

Bad things happen to children in Pet Sematary. Where did that come from?

KING

That book was pretty personal. Everything in it—up to the point where the little boy is killed in the road—everything is true. We moved into that house by the road. It was Orrington instead of Ludlow, but the big trucks did go by, and the old guy across the street did say, You just want to watch ’em around the road. We did go out in the field. We flew kites. We did go up and look at the pet cemetery. I did find my daughter’s cat, Smucky, dead in the road, run over. We buried him up in the pet cemetery, and I did hear Naomi out in the garage the night after we buried him. I heard all these popping noises—she was jumping up and down on packing material. She was crying and saying, Give me my cat back! Let God have his own cat! I just dumped that right into the book. And Owen really did go charging for the road. He was this little guy, probably two years old. I’m yelling, Don’t do that! And of course he runs faster and laughs, because that’s what they do at that age. I ran after him and gave him a flying tackle and pulled him down on the shoulder of the road, and a truck just thundered by him. So all of that went into the book. 

And then you say to yourself, You have to go a little bit further. If you’re going to take on this grieving process—what happens when you lose a kid—you ought to go all the way through it. And I did. I’m proud of that because I followed it all the way through, but it was so gruesome by the end of it, and so awful. I mean, there’s no hope for anybody at the end of that book. Usually I give my drafts to my wife Tabby to read, but I didn’t give it to her. When I finished I put it in the desk and just left it there. I worked on Christine, which I liked a lot better, and which was published before Pet Sematary.

INTERVIEWER

Was The Shining also based on personal experience? Did you ever stay in that hotel?

KING

Yes, the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. My wife and I went up there in October. It was their last weekend of the season, so the hotel was almost completely empty. They asked me if I could pay cash because they were taking the credit card receipts back down to Denver. I went past the first sign that said, Roads may be closed after November 1, and I said, Jeez, there’s a story up here.

INTERVIEWER

What did you think of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the book?

KING

Too cold. No sense of emotional investment in the family whatsoever on his part. I felt that the treatment of Shelley Duvall as Wendy—I mean, talk about insulting to women. She’s basically a scream machine. There’s no sense of her involvement in the family dynamic at all. And Kubrick didn’t seem to have any idea that Jack Nicholson was playing the same motorcycle psycho that he played in all those biker films he did—Hells Angels on Wheels, The Wild Ride, The Rebel Rousers, and Easy Rider. The guy is crazy. So where is the tragedy if the guy shows up for his job interview and he’s already bonkers? No, I hated what Kubrick did with that.

INTERVIEWER

Did you work with him on the movie?

KING

No. My screenplay for The Shining became the basis for the television miniseries later on. But I doubt Kubrick ever read it before making his film. He knew what he wanted to do with the story, and he hired the novelist Diane Johnson to write a draft of the screenplay based on what he wanted to emphasize. Then he redid it himself. I was really disappointed.

It’s certainly beautiful to look at: gorgeous sets, all those Steadicam shots. I used to call it a Cadillac with no engine in it. You can’t do anything with it except admire it as sculpture. You’ve taken away its primary purpose, which is to tell a story. The basic difference that tells you all you need to know is the ending. Near the end of the novel, Jack Torrance tells his son that he loves him, and then he blows up with the hotel. It’s a very passionate climax. In Kubrick’s movie, he freezes to death.

INTERVIEWER

Many of your earlier books ended with explosions, which allowed you to tie various plot strands together. But in recent stories and novels, like “Riding the Bullet” and Cell, you seem to have moved away from this. Your endings leave many questions unanswered.

KING

There is a pretty big bang at the end of Cell. But it’s true, I get a lot of angry letters from readers about it. They want to know what happens next. My response now is to tell people, You guys sound like Teddy and Vern in Stand by Me, after Gordie tells them the story about Lardass and the pie-eating contest and how it was the best revenge a kid ever had. Teddy says, “Then what happened?” And Gordie says, “What do you mean, what happened? That’s the end.” And Teddy says, “Why don’t you make it so that Lardass goes and he shoots his father, then he runs away and he joins the Texas Rangers?” Gordie says, “Ah, I don’t know.” So with Cell, the end is the end. But so many people wrote me about it that I finally had to write on my Web site, “It seems pretty obvious to me that things turned out well for Clay’s son, Johnny.” Actually, it never crossed my mind that Johnny wouldn’t be OK.

INTERVIEWER

Really? I wasn’t sure the kid was OK.

KING

Yeah, I actually believe that, man. I’m a fucking optimist!

INTERVIEWER

It’s amazing that, in the introduction or afterword to many of your books, you regularly solicit feedback from your readers. Why do you ask for more letters?

KING

I’m always interested in what my readers think, and I’m aware that many of them want to participate in the story. I don’t have a problem with that, just so long as they understand that what they think isn’t necessarily going to change what I do. That is, I’m never going to say, I’ve got this story, here it is. Now here’s a poll. How do you think I should end it?

INTERVIEWER

How important are your surroundings when you write?

KING

It’s nice to have a desk, a comfortable chair so you’re not shifting around all the time, and enough light. Wherever you write is supposed to be a little bit of a refuge, a place where you can get away from the world. The more closed in you are, the more you’re forced back on your own imagination. I mean, if I were near a window, I’d be OK for a while, but then I’d be checking out the girls on the street and who’s getting in and out of the cars and, you know, just the little street-side stories that are going on all the time: what’s this one up to, what’s that one selling?

My study is basically just a room where I work. I have a filing system. It’s very complex, very orderly. With “Duma Key”—the novel I’m working on now—I’ve actually codified the notes to make sure I remember the different plot strands. I write down birth dates to figure out how old characters are at certain times. Remember to put a rose tattoo on this one’s breast, remember to give Edgar a big workbench by the end of February. Because if I do something wrong now, it becomes such a pain in the ass to fix later.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned wanting your study to feel like a refuge, but don’t you also like to listen to loud music when you work?

KING

Not anymore. When I sit down to write, my job is to move the story. If there is such a thing as pace in writing, and if people read me because they’re getting a story that’s paced a certain way, it’s because they sense I want to get to where I’m going. I don’t want to dawdle around and look at the scenery. To achieve that pace I used to listen to music. But I was younger then, and frankly my brains used to work better than they do now. Now I’ll only listen to music at the end of a day’s work, when I roll back to the beginning of what I did that day and go over it on the screen. A lot of times the music will drive my wife crazy because it will be the same thing over and over and over again. I used to have a dance mix of that song “Mambo No. 5,” by Lou Bega, that goes, “A little bit of Monica in my life, a little bit of Erica”—deega, deega, deega. It’s a cheerful, calypso kind of thing, and my wife came upstairs one day and said, Steve, one more time . . . you die! So I’m not really listening to the music—it’s just something there in the background.

But even more than place, I think it’s important to try to work every day that you possibly can.

INTERVIEWER

Did you write this morning?

KING

I did. I wrote four pages. That’s what it’s come to. I used to write two thousand words a day and sometimes even more. But now it’s just a paltry thousand words a day.

INTERVIEWER

You use a computer?

KING

Yes, but I’ve occasionally gone back to longhand—with Dreamcatcher and with Bag of Bones—because I wanted to see what would happen. It changed some things. Most of all, it made me slow down because it takes a long time. Every time I started to write something, some guy up here, some lazybones is saying, Aw, do we have to do that? I’ve still got a little bit of that scholar’s bump on my finger from doing all that longhand. But it made the rewriting process a lot more felicitous. It seemed to me that my first draft was more polished, just because it wasn’t possible to go so fast. You can only drive your hand along at a certain speed. It felt like the difference between, say, rolling along in a powered scooter and actually hiking the countryside.

INTERVIEWER

What do you do once you finish a first draft?

KING

It’s good to give the thing at least six weeks to sit and breathe. But I don’t always have that luxury. I didn’t have it with Cell. The publisher had two manuscripts of mine. One of them was Lisey’s Story, which I had been working on exclusively for a long time, and the other was Cell, which I had been thinking about for a long time, and it just sort of announced itself: It’s time, you have to do it now. When that happens, you have to do it or let it go, so Cell was like my unplanned pregnancy.

INTERVIEWER

You mean you wrote Cell in the middle of writing Lisey’s Story?

KING

I was carrying both of them at the same time for a while. I had finished a first draft of Lisey, so I revised it at night and worked on Cell during the day. I used to work that way when I was drinking. During the day I would work on whatever was fresh and new, and I was pretty much straight as an arrow. Hung over a lot of the time, but straight. At night I’d be looped, and that’s when I would revise. It was fun, it was great, and it seemed to work for me for a long time, but I can’t sustain that anymore.

I wanted to publish Lisey first, but Susan Moldow, Scribner’s publisher, wanted to lead with Cell because she thought the attention it would receive would benefit the sale of Lisey. So they put Cell on a fast track, and I had to go right to work on the rewrite. This is one thing publishers can do now, which isn’t always necessarily good for the book.

INTERVIEWER

Can’t you tell them no?

KING

Yes, but in this case it was actually the right thing to do, and it was a huge success. Cell was an unusual case though. You know, Graham Greene used to talk about books that were novels and books that were entertainments. Cell was an entertainment. I don’t want to say I didn’t care, because I did—I care about anything that goes out with my name on it. If you’re going to do the work and if someone is going to pay you for it, I think you ought to do the best job that you can. But after I finished the first draft of Lisey, I gave myself six weeks. When you return to a novel after that amount of time, it seems almost as if a different person wrote it. You’re not quite as wedded to it. You find all sorts of horrible errors, but you also find passages that make you say, Jesus, that’s good!

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever do extensive rewrites?

KING

One of the ways the computer has changed the way I work is that I have a much greater tendency to edit “in the camera”—to make changes on the screen. With Cell that’s what I did. I read it over, I had editorial corrections, I was able to make my own corrections, and to me that’s like ice skating. It’s an OK way to do the work, but it isn’t optimal. With Lisey I had the copy beside the computer and I created blank documents and retyped the whole thing. To me that’s like swimming, and that’s preferable. It’s like you’re writing the book over again. It is literally a rewriting.

Every book is different each time you revise it. Because when you finish the book, you say to yourself, This isn’t what I meant to write at all. At some point, when you’re actually writing the book, you realize that. But if you try to steer it, you’re like a pitcher trying to steer a fastball, and you screw everything up. As the science-fiction writer Alfred Bester used to say, The book is the boss. You’ve got to let the book go where it wants to go, and you just follow along. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a bad book. And I’ve had bad books. I think Rose Madder fits in that category, because it never really took off. I felt like I had to force that one.

INTERVIEWER

Who edits your novels, and how much are they edited?

KING

Chuck Verrill has edited a lot of the books, and he can be a very hard editor. At Scribner, Nan Graham edited Lisey, and she gave me an entirely different look, partially because it’s about a woman, and she’s a woman, and also because she just came to the job fresh. She went over that book heavily. There’s a scene late in the book where Lisey goes to visit her sister, Amanda, at a nuthouse where she’s been committed. Originally there was a long scene in which Lisey stops at Amanda’s house on her way there, and then Lisey ends up coming back later with her sister. Nan said, You need to reconfigure this section, you need to take out this first stop at Amanda’s house because it slows down the narrative and it’s not necessary.

I don’t think it’s me, I don’t think it’s a best-seller thing, I think it’s a writer thing, and it goes across the board—it never changes—but my first thought was, She can’t tell me that. She doesn’t know. She’s not a writer. She doesn’t understand my genius! And then I say, Well, try it. And I say that especially loud, because I’ve reached a point in my career where I can have it any goddamn way I want to, if I want to. If you get popular enough, they give you all the rope you want. You can hang yourself in Times Square if you want to, and I’ve done it. Particularly in the days when I was doping and drinking all the time, I did what I wanted. And that included telling editors to go screw themselves.

INTERVIEWER

So if Cell is an “entertainment,” which of your books would you put in the other category?

KING

They should all be entertainments, you know. That is, in some ways, the nub of the problem. If a novel is not an entertainment, I don’t think it’s a successful book. But if you talk about the novels that work on more than one level, I would say Misery, Dolores Claiborne, and It. When I started to work on It, which bounces back and forth between the characters’ lives as children and then as adults, I realized that I was writing about the way we use our imaginations at different points in our lives. I love that book, and it’s one of those books that sells steadily. People really respond to it. I get a lot of letters from people who say, I wish there were more of it. And I say, Oh my God, it’s so long as it is.

I think that It is the most Dickensian of my books because of its wide range of characters and intersecting stories. The novel manages a lot of complexity in an effortless way that I often wish I could rediscover. Lisey’s Story is that way. It’s very long. It has a number of interlocking stories that seem to be woven together effortlessly. But I’m shy talking about this, because I’m afraid people will laugh and say, Look at that barbarian trying to pretend he belongs in the palace. Whenever this subject comes up, I always cover up.

INTERVIEWER

When you accepted the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, you gave a speech defending popular fiction, and you listed a number of authors who you felt were underappreciated by the literary establishment. Then Shirley Hazzard, that year’s award winner in fiction, got on stage and dismissed your argument pretty flatly.

KING

What Shirley Hazzard said was, I don’t think we need a reading list from you. If I had a chance to say anything in rebuttal, I would have said, With all due respect, we do. I think that Shirley, in a way, has proven my point. The keepers of the idea of serious literature have a short list of authors who are going to be allowed inside, and too often that list is drawn from people who know people, who go to certain schools, who come up through certain channels of literature. And that’s a very bad idea—it’s constraining for the growth of literature. This is a critical time for American letters because it’s under attack from so many other media: TV, movies, the Internet, and all the different ways we have of getting nonprint input to feed the imagination. Books, that old way of transmitting stories, are under attack. So when someone like Shirley Hazzard says, I don’t need a reading list, the door slams shut on writers like George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane. And when that happens, when those people are left out in the cold, you are losing a whole area of imagination. Those people—and I’m not talking about James Patterson, we understand that—are doing important work. 

So I’d say, yes, Shirley Hazzard does need a reading list. And the other thing Shirley Hazzard needs is for someone to say to her, Get busy. You have a short life span. You need to stop this crap about sitting there and talking about what we do, and actually do it. Because God gave you some talent, but he also gave you a certain number of years.

And one other thing. When you shut the door to serious popular fiction, you shut another door on people who are considered serious novelists. You say to them, You write popular, accessible fiction at your peril. So there aren’t many writers who would take the chance that Philip Roth did when he wrote The Plot Against America. It was a risk for him to write that book because it’s an accessible novel that can be read as entertainment. It is involving on a narrative level. That’s a different book from Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire—which, by the way, is a damn good book. But it’s not the same thing at all.

INTERVIEWER

Is there really much of a difference, then, between serious popular fiction and literary fiction?

KING

The real breaking point comes when you ask whether a book engages you on an emotional level. And once those levers start to get pushed, many of the serious critics start to shake their heads and say, No. To me, it all goes back to this idea held by a lot of people who analyze literature for a living, who say, If we let the rabble in, then they’ll see that anybody can do this, that it’s accessible to anyone. And then what are we doing here?

INTERVIEWER

The use of brand names in your novels especially seems to irk some critics.

KING

I always knew people would have a problem with that. But I also knew that I was never going to stop doing it, and nobody was ever going to convince me that I was wrong to do it. Because every time I did it, what I felt inside was this little bang! like I nailed it dead square—like Michael Jordan on a fade-away jump shot. Sometimes the brand name is the perfect word, and it will crystallize a scene for me. When Jack Torrance is pumping down that Excedrin in The Shining, you know just what that is. I always want to ask these critics—some are novelists, some of them college literature professors—What the fuck do you do? Open your medicine cabinet and see empty gray bottles? Do you see generic shampoo, generic aspirin? When you go to the store and you get a six-pack, does it just say beer? When you go down and you open your garage door, what’s parked in there? A car? Just a car?

And then I say to myself, I bet they do. Some of these guys, the college professors—the guy, say, whose idea of literature really stopped with Henry James, but he’ll get kind of a frozen smile on his face if you talk about Faulkner or Steinbeck—they’re stupid about American fiction and they’ve turned their stupidity into a virtue. They don’t know who Calder Willingham was. They don’t know who Sloan Wilson was. They don’t know who Grace Metalious was. They don’t know who any of these people are, and they’re fucking proud of it. And when they open their medicine cabinet door, I think maybe they do see generic bottles, and that’s a failure of observation. And I think one of the things that I’m supposed to do is to say, It’s a Pepsi, OK? It’s not a soda. It’s a Pepsi. It’s a specific thing. Say what you mean. Say what you see. Make a photograph, if you can, for the reader.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever feel typed by your reputation?

KING

If you mean, do I feel like I’m blocked in and I can’t go where I want to go—not at all. No, I never did a bit. Other people will hang tags on me like the horrormeister, the schlockmeister, the fearmeister, the master of suspense, the master of horror. But I’ve never said what it is that I do, and I don’t write letters complaining about these tags, because then it sounds like I’m trying to put on airs and make myself sound like something I’m not.

I remember having this conversation with Bill Thompson, my first editor, at Doubleday. They had just published Carrie, which was a big success, and they wanted a follow-up book. I gave him two other books I had already written: ’Salem’s Lot and Roadwork, which was later published under my pseudonym, Richard Bachman. I asked him which one he wanted to do first. He said, You’re not going to like the answer. He said that Roadwork was a more honestly dealt novel—a novelist’s novel, if you know what I mean—but that he wanted to do ’Salem’s Lot, because he thought it would have greater commercial success. But, he said to me, You’ll get typed. And I said, Typed as what? He said, Typed as a horror writer. I just laughed. I thought, What? Like M. R. James and Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley? I said, I don’t care. It’s nothing to me.

And they did type me as a horror writer, but I have been able to do all sorts of things within that framework. Only once in my entire career did I feel that it was a millstone, and that was when I did a book called Needful Things. I was in a sensitive place anyway, because it was the first thing that I’d written since I was sixteen without drinking or drugging. I was totally straight, except for cigarettes. When I finished the book, I thought, This is good. I’ve finally written something that’s really funny. I thought that I’d written a satire of Reaganomics in America in the eighties. You know, people will buy anything and sell anything, even their souls. I always saw Leland Gaunt, the shop owner who buys souls, as the archetypal Ronald Reagan: charismatic, a little bit elderly, selling nothing but junk but it looks bright and shiny.

INTERVIEWER

Wait a minute. An autographed Sandy Koufax baseball card, nothing but junk? Come on.

KING

But that’s not really what the kid’s holding—it looks like a Sandy Koufax card, but it turns out it was somebody else’s card entirely. And holy shit, was Sandy Koufax mad at me. Especially since the last thing the kid says is “Sandy Koufax sucks,” and then, pow! He blows his head off. Koufax said that he had tried to be a role model for youth throughout his entire career as a pitcher, and that he was very angry about playing a part in a child suicide.

I tried to explain that the boy doesn’t mean Sandy Koufax sucks, he means that Leland Gaunt and the shop and this whole business sucks. See, this is the only way that the character can say that this whole business of buying things and selling your soul is wrong. Koufax didn’t understand. When they made the movie, they changed it to Mickey Mantle. Mantle didn’t give a shit. He thought it was funny.

INTERVIEWER

What did you make of the negative reception of that book?

KING

The reviewers called it an unsuccessful horror novel, even though I had assumed everybody would see it as a satire. Over the years I’ve come to think that, well, maybe it just wasn’t a very good book.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think a poorly received book gets a more serious critical response once it’s made into a film?

KING

A movie tends to generate a lot more criticism, and frankly the criticism tends to be a little easier. It certainly happened for me with the adaptations of Misery and Stand by Me, and to a degree with Dolores Claiborne

INTERVIEWER

You’re something of a book collector. The book dealer Glenn Horowitz once told me that he sent you something by mistake and that, when he apologized, you said you’d buy it anyway.

KING

I think that’s true. I’m not a huge collector. I’ve probably got a dozen signed Faulkners and a lot of Theodore Dreiser. I’ve got Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers. I love her. At home I’ve got one of those old-fashioned paperback racks they had in drugstores. And I have a lot of fifties paperbacks because I love the covers, and I’ve collected a certain amount of pornography from the sixties, paperback pornography that was done by people like Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block, just because it amuses me. You see little flashes of their style.

INTERVIEWER

What did you learn from writers like Faulkner, Dreiser, and McCullers?

KING

The voices. I’m reading All the King’s Men again now, but I’m also listening to it on CD. And the guy who does it is a good reader. Willie Stark goes, “There is always something. . . . from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.” You hear it and you say to yourself, Oh man, that’s the voice! It just clicks in your head.

INTERVIEWER

You’re rooted in a kind of American idiom. You’re probably the most regional writer now writing.

KING

I’ve lived in Maine my whole life, and when I write about it, the dialect comes back to me. There are a number of good writers who are writing about that area, but they’re not read a whole lot. There’s Carolyn Chute, who wrote The Beans of Egypt, Maine, and John Gould, who wrote The Greenleaf Fires—but I’m the one that’s widely read. In terms of regionalism, Grisham’s a pretty good writer, and his book A Painted House is a terrific regional story about the South.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to go out of your way to promote other writers—giving favorable comments to new authors and referring to other contemporary authors throughout your novels. Are you really admiring of so many of them?

KING

When I read good stories, I get excited. I’m also aware of how small the market is. I’ve been fantastically fortunate, and I would like to spread some of that fortune around. Short stories are where I started. I came out of the story magazine market. Books themselves have become a niche market, short stories are an even smaller market, and so you want to make people as aware as possible that this stuff is out there.

INTERVIEWER

Now that you’re editing next year’s Best American Short Stories, are you considering stories from the kind of genre magazines that you read as a kid?

KING

Yes, I’m reading all the fantasy and science-fiction journals, especially Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, to see what’s there. Alfred Hitchcock used to be a literary-quality magazine, but it’s been subsumed by the same company that owns Ellery Queen, and the quality of stories has gone downhill. Editing Best American is a good project, but it’s scary because there’s so much out there. What haunts me is, what are we missing?

INTERVIEWER

When do you write your own short stories?

KING

I often write them between novel projects. When Lisey and Cell got done, I was flat. I tried to start another one, but I couldn’t, so I wrote a couple of short stories. Then I began to read all these stories for Best American—a dozen, two dozen, three dozen, a hundred—and finally I got rolling on another novel. I mean, I’ve always got a couple of ideas for future stories whenever I’m working on something. But you can’t think about what you’re going to do next. You’re like a married guy who’s trying not to look at women in the street.

INTERVIEWER

Were you ever like the writer Mike Noonan in Bag of Bones, who would finish a novel and stash it because he had too many stocked up?

KING

There might have been a time in my life where I had two or three backed up. The inspiration for that detail in Bag of Bones came from a rumor I heard that Danielle Steel was writing three books a year and publishing two. And I was saying, If that’s true over the last ten years, she must have a lot piled up. And there are other writers in the popular canon like that—Nora Roberts has published, my God, over a hundred and fifty books. And people think that I’m prolific.

INTERVIEWER

You have used many different strategies to market your books—serialization, e-books, excerpting a forthcoming novel at the end of a new novel. Is there any kind of larger strategy at play?

KING

No, I’m just curious to see what happens, like a kid with a chemistry set: What if I pour these two together? The Internet publishing experiment was probably a way of saying to the publishers, You know, I don’t necessarily need to go through you. I also wanted to break some trail for some other people. And it’s a way of keeping things fresh.

Scribner asked me if I had a short story they could publish online. But their focus was never, in fact, the Internet. They were thinking more about these little gadgets that let you read a book in your hand, where you push a button to turn the page. I never liked the idea and most people don’t. They want to have pages. We’re like people who bought cars in the 1910s, and they would break down by the side of the road and people would yell, Get a horse! Now people yell, Get a book! It’s the same deal. But all the excitement over online publication was interesting to me because people who had never talked to me before—business guys, suits—suddenly took notice. What are you doing? Can you do it all yourself? Are you going to be able to change publishing? It was always the bucks that were driving the interest. It was never about the stories.

This was at the very end of the dot-com bubble—the last big exciting thing that happened before the crash. Arthur C. Clarke had already sold a piece on the Internet—a six-page deal on broadcasts coming back from the stars—and I thought to myself, Jesus, this is like kissing your sister! It was a little essay that this guy probably flipped off in an afternoon when he couldn’t take his nap.

INTERVIEWER

Since the Scribner story, “Riding the Bullet,” was a big success, why did you stop publishing online? You ended your next online project, “The Plant,” after just six installments.

KING

Many people thought that I didn’t finish “The Plant” because the marketing strategy was unsuccessful. That’s one of the few times that I felt a gentle but firm media push toward untruth. In fact, “The Plant” was very, very successful. And I published it on the honor system. With “Riding the Bullet” there was all this talk about people trying to hack the system to get it for free. And I thought, Well, yes, this is what these Internet people do. They don’t do it because they want to steal it, they do it because they want to see if they can steal it. It’s a game. And so I thought, Well, if you just say, look, here it is—it’s like a newspaper honor rack. If you really want to be that much of a schmo, that much of a palooka, go ahead and steal it! Hope you feel good about yourself, turkey! And most people paid for what they took. I think some people still wanted to see if they could steal it, and then after that they paid.

I made almost two hundred thousand dollars, with no overhead. It was incredible when you think about it. All I did was write the stories and we set up a server. It was like a license to coin money, if I can be vulgar about it. But the story was just OK, and I ran out of inspiration. It remains unfinished.

INTERVIEWER

The relationship of your writing to money is now, I assume, beyond a sense of survival. Does it still mean anything to you?

KING

I think you should be paid for what you do. Every morning, I wake up to the alarm clock, do my leg exercises, and then sit down at the word processor. By noon my back aches and I’m tired out. I work as hard or harder than I used to, so I want to be paid. But basically, at this point, it’s how you keep score.

One thing that I don’t want to do anymore is take another monster advance. I’ve taken a couple of them. Certainly Tom Clancy has gotten his share of them. He boasts about them. John Grisham has gotten some big advances too. The big advance is the writer’s way of saying, I want to get all the money up front and I’m never going to give a penny of it back when those books wind up on the remainder shelf. And the publishers go along because they would like to have a Stephen King or a Tom Clancy or a John Grisham. It draws attention to the rest of their list. Certainly the bookstore guys want those writers out there because they increase foot traffic into the store. The booksellers just about get down on their knees and worship John Grisham, not just because he sells as much as he does, but because he sells it when he does: he publishes in February, after the Christmas rush, when trade in the bookstores has a tendency to be totally dead.

I could get those big advances, but I can do just fine without them. I made a decision when I left Viking that I’d ask to be made a partner in the publishing. Give me a modest amount to bind the deal over, and then we’ll split the profits. Why not? It’s still a good deal for them. But if I were doing it just for the money, I’d quit, because I’ve got enough.

INTERVIEWER

But did you ever feel you had to make as big a score as someone like Clancy or Danielle Steel?

KING

We’re a competitive society, and I think I have a tendency to measure whether I’m as successful as one of these guys based on the amount of money that I can get. But the bottom line is always sales, and these guys outsell me. Grisham outsells me four to one. It’s not a big deal to me anymore. Sometimes you look at the best-seller list in The New York Times and you say, Do I really want to bust my ass to be on this list along with Danielle Steel and David Baldacci and the born-again books?

INTERVIEWER

It’s now been seven years since the accident. Are you still in pain?

KING

Yes. All the time. But I don’t take anything for it anymore. I had to be hospitalized with pneumonia a couple of years ago, another operation, and after that it got to a point where I realized that I couldn’t go on taking medication forever, because I’d have to be loading it on by the boxcar. At that time I’d been taking painkillers for five years. Percocet, OxyContin, all that stuff. I was addicted. If you’re using it for pain and not using it to get high, it isn’t terribly difficult to quit. The trouble is, you have to get used to living without it. You go through withdrawal. Mostly it’s insomnia. But after a while your body says, Oh, all right!

INTERVIEWER

Do you still smoke cigarettes?

KING

Three a day, and never when I write. But when there’s only three, they taste pretty good. My doctor says, You know, if you’re going to have three you might as well have thirty, but I don’t. I kicked booze, Valium, cocaine. Those were all the things that I was hooked on. The only thing that I could not kick was cigarettes. Usually I have one in the morning, one at night, one in the afternoon. I do enjoy my cigarettes. And I shouldn’t. I know, I know. Smoking, bad! Health, good! But I sure do like to kick back with a good book and a cigarette. I was thinking this the other night. I came back from the ball game; the Red Sox won. And I was lying on the bed reading The Quiet American by Graham Greene. It’s a terrific, terrific book. I’m smoking a cigarette, and I’m thinking, Who’s got it better than me?

Cigarettes, all those addictive substances are part of the bad side of what we do. I think it’s part of that obsessive deal that makes you a writer in the first place, that makes you want to write it all down. Booze, cigarettes, dope.

INTERVIEWER

Does that mean that writing is a kind of addiction?

KING

I think it is. For me, even when the writing is not going well, if I don’t do it, the fact that I’m not doing it nags at me. Writing is a wonderful thing to be able to do. When it goes well, it’s fantastic, and when it doesn’t go so well, it’s only OK, but it’s still a great way to pass the time. And you have all these novels to show for it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still go to AA?

KING

Yes. I try to go on a regular basis.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about the religious aspect of it?

KING

I don’t have any problem with that at all. It says in the program if you don’t believe, pretend that you do. Fake it till you make it, they say. And I know that a lot of people have problems with that, but I follow the program. So I get down on my knees in the morning and say, God help me to not think of drink and drugs. And I get down on my knees at night and say, Thank you that I didn’t have to drink or use.

Whenever I speak about this, I tell people the story about that movie Pink Flamingos that John Waters made with Divine, this big fat female impersonator. There’s a scene in Pink Flamingos where Divine eats a piece of dog excrement off the sidewalk. Waters was always asked about that particular scene. Finally, one time he exploded and said, Listen, it was just a little piece of dog shit and it made her a star! OK? As far as I’m concerned, the whole issue of God is a little piece of dog shit. But if you can swallow that part of the AA program, you don’t have to drink and drug anymore.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever been in therapy of any kind?

KING

When I was quitting drugs and alcohol, I went for a while to a counselor to see if I could find a way to get over that absence in my life. But if you’re talking about real psychotherapy, I’d be afraid that it would put a hole in the bottom of my bucket, and then everything might go out the wrong way. I don’t know if it would exactly destroy me as a writer, but I think it would take away a lot of the good stuff.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever think about where your creations are coming from while you’re in the process of writing?

KING

Once in a while, something will declare itself so obviously that it’s inescapable. Take the psychotic nurse in Misery, which I wrote when I was having such a tough time with dope. I knew what I was writing about. There was never any question. Annie was my drug problem, and she was my number-one fan. God, she never wanted to leave. And at the same time, there was a funny side to all that. A lot of times those things will come up. I remember working on the end of Black House, the book I wrote with Peter Straub, and coming to a scene where one of the characters is talking about never being able to go back to this plane of existence—American life in the year 2001 or 2002—because this person would sicken and die if that happened. And I was thinking that it was an elegant way to describe where I was coming from at that time. I was in pain a lot of the time, but when I was writing, I felt fine, because I would be . . . wherever you go when you’re making these things up. When I go there, I’m not physically aware of my body very much. And I was thinking, this is a pretty good analogue to the creative state. It’s a place where you can go and feel well.

INTERVIEWER

At what point in the process of writing a story do you know whether any fantastic elements will come into play?

KING

It doesn’t come because I want it to. I don’t force it through that door. It just comes. Thing is, I love it. “Duma Key,” the novel I’m writing now, is about a guy named Edgar Freemantle who has an accident and loses an arm. So right away I’m thinking, maybe there’s some paranormal symptomatology with missing limbs. I knew that people who lose limbs have phantom sensations long after the accident. 

So I Google “phantom limbs” to see how long the sensation lasts. I love Google. It turns out there are thousands of recorded instances, and the best one—and I put this in the book—is a guy who lost his hand in a baler. And he picked the hand up, wrapped it in a bandanna, took it home, and put it in a jar filled with alcohol. He put the jar in his cellar. Two years go by. The guy’s fine. And then one day, in the winter, it’s freezing cold at the end of his arm, where his hand used to be. He calls the doctor. He says, The hand is no longer there, but it’s cold as hell at the end of my arm. The doctor says, What did you do with the hand? He says, I put it in a jar, it’s down in the cellar. The doctor says, Go down and check it. So the guy goes downstairs. The jar was on a shelf and the window had broken and the cold wind was blowing in on the hand. So he moved the jar by the furnace and he was all right. This is a true story, apparently.

INTERVIEWER

Recently, and especially in Lisey’s Story, it seems as if you’re starting with a character instead of a situation. Do you think you’re doing something differently?

KING

There might be a shift. It certainly wasn’t the case with Cell, but Cell was an old idea. Lisey, on the other hand, is about character. I had the idea three or four years after my accident. I thought I was all better, but it turned out that the bottom part of my lung was still all crumpled up. I got pneumonia, and they ended up taking my lung right out of my chest in order to repair it. I almost died. It was really close. During this period, my wife decided that she was going to redo my study. When I came back from the hospital, everything had been pulled out, and I felt like a ghost. I thought, Maybe I died. This is what the study would look like after I died. So I started to write this story about a famous writer who died, and about his wife, Lisey, who is trying to get on with her life two years later.

Lisey just took off and went on its own. At some point it stopped being a book specifically about this woman’s grieving process and it started to be a book about the way we hide things. From there it jumped into the idea that repression is creation, because when we repress we make up stories to replace the past.

INTERVIEWER

What does your wife think of the book?

KING

She never said that much about Lisey’s Story, but then a lot of times she doesn’t. A lot of times she’ll just say, Good. I think anybody wants their wife to say, Oh, honey! This is great! And I love this part, and I love that part! But she’s not that kind of person. “Good” is fine.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel that Lisey’s Story is a departure for you?

KING

Well, I am the wrong person to ask. I’m inside it, and to me it feels like a very special book. To the point where I don’t want to let it out into the world. This is the only book I’ve ever written where I don’t want to read the reviews, because there will be some people who are going to be ugly to this book. I couldn’t stand that, the way you would hate people to be ugly to someone you love. And I love this book.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think they’ll be particularly ugly?

KING

Because it does try to do more than be a popular novel. It wants, on one level, to be taken more seriously than, let’s say, a Mary Higgins Clark or a Jonathan Kellerman. When a writer spends a part of his life on a book, he has an obligation to ask himself, Why does it matter? And when I finished that book I thought to myself, well, to some degree this is a book about myth, depression, and story-making, but it’s also about marriage and about faithfulness.

INTERVIEWER

Now that you’ve been published in The New Yorker and been honored with a National Book Award and other international awards, it seems pretty clear that you’re taken more seriously than you were earlier in your career. Do you still feel a strong sense of exclusion from the literary establishment?

KING

It has changed a lot. You know what happens? If you have a little talent and you try to maximize it and you don’t give in or settle, then you’re taken more seriously. People who have grown up reading you become part of the literary establishment. They take you as part of the landscape that was there when they came along. In some ways you get a squarer shake. When Martin Levin from The New York Times reviewed The Stand he said it was “the plague novel goes to the devil” and he called it the “son of Rosemary’s Baby.” I thought, Oh my God, I worked on this book for three years to have this guy say that. As a writer, I’ve always been extremely conscious of my place. I’ve never tried to be highfalutin or to put myself on a level with my betters. I’m serious about what I do, but I never wanted to indicate to anybody that I was better than what I was.

The other major thing is that you get older. I’m pushing sixty now. I might have another ten creative years left, maybe fifteen. I say to myself, I’ve got this amount of time, can I do something that’s even better? I don’t need the money. I don’t need another movie based on one of my books. I don’t need to write another screenplay. I don’t need another big, butt-ugly house to live in—I have this one. I’d like to write a book that’s better than Lisey’s Story, but I don’t know if I ever will. Gosh, I’d like not to repeat myself. I’d like not to do shoddy work. But I’d like to keep working. I reject the idea that I’ve explored everything in the room.