Before I encountered Stephen King last night, I encountered his books. I had reached the sidewalk next to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, taking brief refuge from the drizzle and getting my bearings (long day; long story), when some guy lost control of a handcart with several boxes of copies of King’s latest novel and BLOMP they splatted onto the wet sidewalk. (It’s raining King!) I picked up a box while the book-moving guy gathered the others back on the cart, and he thanked me, and I was glad to be of service, and I entered the hall with him like I was a fellow employee and started sneaking around and making my way backstage and finally fulfilling my dream of stalking…
Um. No. I put that box on top of the other boxes and felt glad I could’ve helped the guy. You know me; I’m much better behaved than that. Besides, I hadn’t yet gotten my ticket at Will Call.
The Schnitz is a warm and welcome place anyway, made extra so by it being cold and drizzly outside. A typically eclectically dressed Portland crowd (not filling the 2,800-seat theater, but occupying a good portion of it) filed in, meaning I saw suits and dresses and an Invader Zim coat (“It’s not stupid…it’s advanced!”). I sat in the balcony, about seven rows from the front, and the people in front of me had piled coats and bags on the chair directly in front of me so I wound up with an unblocked view of King in his blue jeans and black T-shirt when he started soon after 7:30.
Stephen King’s voice is an unexpected (to me) combination of rough and measured, his cadence almost deliberate, even when he chuckles. I get the sense he thinks and writes much, much faster than he talks, but he took the ambling, unhurried path when he talked to last night’s audience. He said “I like to open these things with a public service announcement,” and mentioned an insurance company had put a survey on-line which said that about 1 in 50 people driving somewhere at night don’t lock their cars. So he wanted us to be careful. And to go back to our cars after the talk and be wary of scary men. With scary knives. And scary abilities to find the unlocked doors of those cars and crawl in, waiting, waiting, waiting for you to start driving home until you start to wonder what that man-shaped shape is in the back seat…
Oh, and that the same survey said that 1 in 200 people don’t lock their houses, either. There. Stephen King wanted to be sure you knew that.
So he opened successfully unsettlingly, and got the audience in the right mood for his work, work that often leads me to imagine King at his typewriter or computer or writing pad going “heh heh heh” as he writes, say, Dreamcatcher’s raw bacon scene. Like that scene, King’s disturbing and funny. I don’t know why it took me so long to start reading him, but I’m catching up. (I first read The Stand in 1994, inspired by liking the miniseries version; I dove into his non-fiction next with Danse Macabre, then there was The Shining in ’99, during the trip to TJ and Cindy’s wedding, and his “Bachman book” The Regulators soon after that and then Different Seasons and so on… so that over two dozen King books have gone through my brain. So far.)
He read two excerpts from his new novel Lisey’s Story, about the wife of a late, famous and eccentric writer (think a more published J.D. Salinger) and how she doesn’t truly grieve for him until two years after he’s buried. He mentioned that one inspiration for the book was when he was in the hospital about six years ago, sick and then sicker (got a hospital bug) to the point doctors were concerned he’d die, but when he rallied, his wife Tabitha – a well-regarded novelist in her own right – told him she’d remodel his office while he recovered. He croaked out vague approval of this (he was more focused on not dying). The remodeling wasn’t quite done when he returned, and Tabitha warned him not to enter yet: she called it “disturbing.” He finally went in late one night, and he saw his entire office rearranged: books in boxes, rugs rolled up, furniture gone for fixing, papers stacked. “This is how my office will look when I’m dead,” he thought. And as King’s skirted death at least three times – the sickness ’round 2000, getting hit by that van in June ’99, and a serious drug problem that led to intervention and AA starting ’round ’86 – and as he’s written plenty about death, he could think about the subject in a constructive manner. And a book started to form after that moment. Life gives ideas.
Now I’ll tackle the rest of the evening with a slew of bullet points:
* King still performs in the writer-based band the Rock-Bottom Remainders. “The dirty little secret about the band is, we’re not bad,” he said; you might get to hear them, ’cause they’re touring next year. Fellow bandmate Dave Barry, though, makes a point of going to radio shows and urging listeners to check out the authors who “play music the way Metallica writes books,” so people expect a hilarious train-wreck and get – hey! – pretty good, straight-ahead rock-and-roll, only performed by King and Barry and Amy Tan and Scott Turow and Matt Groening and Ridley Pearson and Mitch Albom (Mitch Albom can rock??!!!), plus a couple of full-time musicians who aren’t also full-time writers.
* He talked about being inspired by mistakes, or at least perceived and possible mistakes. He first got the idea for his nicely nasty zombie novel Cell (not his best work, but I liked how single-minded it was in its end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it wrongness) while in New York City, and started happily imagining a zombie outbreak caused by a pulse over the cell phone network. He got held up, though, by realizing he’d probably piss off many New Yorkers by getting geographic details of the city wrong. He got inspired by the city of Boston in 2004, however, when he was there covering the Red Sox’s championship season (for the book Faithful), so he learned the lay of the Boston land, so…Cell starts with the zombie outbreak as seen in Boston. The other, bigger instance of how it helped to think about mistakes was King’s decades-long saga of writing the Dark Tower fantasy novels, where as he thought back on the earlier books he noticed how many errors of continuity and geography he’d made – he’d misidentified the New York subway train significant in Book Two (The Drawing of the Three), for one example – and realized that the characters were having to run around in his mis-imagined world. So…maybe (he thought), he was affecting the world more than expected…soooo…maybe he had a role in the story and hadn’t realized it! And that led to him making himself a part of The Dark Tower, which sounds indulgent but which really does work in the weird context of this huge story. (Remind me to tell you how Cervantes made the lemon of an error in Don Quixote into the lemonade of a nifty explanation for that error.)
* He called iTunes “crack for my generation.”
* When someone asked King if he’d been surprised by the makers of Lost referencing him and his work, he said he’d been more surprised that an image he’d concocted as a visualization exercise in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft had been incorporated, too. (I haven’t seen Lost yet, but I will; for now I’ll take his word for it that there’s a reason the show showed a caged rabbit munching on a carrot and with the numeral 8 on its back. I know why King came up with that image in the first place, and that’s good enough for now…) Actually, he’d forgotten about that rabbit in his book until people started mentioning the Lost rabbit to him!
* Asked to name a book he wished had been his, he replied “I wish I could have written Lord of the Flies.” Asked which of his own books he was especially fond of, he replied, “Lisey’s Story, of course” (to our knowing chuckles), and added he has real deep soft spots for Misery, The Dead Zone (it felt like “my first real novel; like it was all there”), and his infamous Cujo.
* He wishes more people would admit to reading popular fiction as well as “serious,” “literary” fiction, and that more critics and readers would let themselves remember that books can be both serious and popular. He feels it’s an artificial divide between two parts of the giant mass of literature, because he sees worth in all of it. And he has to soak up the bullets, so to speak, from critics who get mad at King getting literary awards, so he admits he’s extra-sensitive to critical reaction like that, but he’s proud of the popular fiction by such people as George P. Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Scott Turow and others.
* He called his crazy senatorial-candidate character Greg Stillson from The Dead Zone “kind of an early prototype George W. Bush.”
* He enthused about writing fake text for an “I’m sorry” card for Lisey’s Story. “I got to write my own Hallmark card. Not many people get to do that.” It’s in a funny scene, too (he read it). Imagine a 40-something woman who learns that her 40-something boyfriend had found true love in the form of a 19-year-old girl, and had then sent her a card to apologize for this. Her reaction is rhythmic, rhyming, and profane. Fun stuff.
* He admitted that he got the initial inspiration for his novel Insomnia while unable to sleep in Portland’s Heathman Hotel, right next door to the Schnitz. He was in Portland that time to pick up his daughter’s car at Reed College and drive it back to Maine; taking a scenic route, King drove through Nevada, and saw a seemingly deserted small town where the only visible person was a large cop. Oh, he thought; he killed everybody. And that inspired Desperation. Again, life gives ideas. And King uses them. Often, I think, chuckling while writing them.
* (Reading from a question card): “’Is there anything you’re too scared to write?’ No.” (Pauses while we laugh.) “Writing about it means I don’t have to worry about it.” He figures it’s better-than-free therapy; he works out his demons in words, and people buy the results! Score! He added that he tends only to have bad dreams when he’s not writing; when he is writing, his life is sweeter. “Writing: it’s better than any drug,” he said. And he’s had enough experience to know. Writing’s never almost killed him. Well, he admitted, except for maybe writing the last three Dark Tower books (some 2,000-plus manuscript pages) in only about one year…
But even so…
“Do I miss Roland? Yes, I do.” – Stephen King, Portland, Oregon, Nov. 2nd, 2006.