Over the years, King has often been a polarizing figure, beloved by fans, sniffed at by critics. Neither bothers him very much: King has stories to tell. Perhaps more than any living novelist, King thinks actively about what it means to be a professional writer.
It’s been a busy year for King, with the release of the novel Finders Keepers in June and a new short story collection coming out in November. The day after this interview, President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts. The following day, he rounded out Stephen Colbert’s first week of guests on The Late Show. Despite the accolades and his celebrity status — he was greeted with thunderous applause at an event at Harvard, where we met — King remains, in his own words, “a proletarian novelist.”
ANGELA S. ALLAN: You’ve given a great deal of consideration to how the popular market has influenced and shaped your work as a “brand name” author: Finders Keepers is, much like Misery, interested in questions about authorial ownership and literary property: has your success shaped the way you think about your relationship to your work over the years?
STEPHEN KING: No, it hasn’t. I’m aware, in a kind of general way, that I’ve become somebody who’s well known, which is an unusual thing for writers. It’s not the normal course of things. Writers are actually supposed to be secret agents and we go along and see stuff and kind of record it. [Things I say] come back out, and I realize that a lot of what I see is warped by the way people see me. I’m still not used to being looked at, so that changes some of the day-to-day stuff.
For instance, coming in tonight, there are people out there who want autographs in books. There are people outside the hotel who kind of cluster together — they want autographs basically — they’ll say it’s for their grandmother or their poor blind son or whatever, but really it’s for eBay or Craigslist or somewhere like that. That’s the sort of behavior you associate around movie stars, TV stars, rock stars, that sort of thing.
That makes a difference in terms of life, but in terms of work, once I sit down to write and I’m in the story, all that falls away. I’m not thinking about cultural implications, I’m not thinking about genre, I’m not thinking about any of those things that have to do with what critics would talk about when they analyze fiction — all those things go away. But they only go away in the first draft. And then you put stuff away. When you come back to it, you read it and you say, these are the important things, this is where lightning struck for me. Those are almost always things that are cultural and thematic, and I just try and highlight those.
You have been invested in a wide variety of media experiments: Riding the Bullet was one of the first ebooks, The Plant played with serial publishing, and, most recently, you released “Drunken Fireworks” early as an audiobook. You’ve also written for television, film, and the stage. How do you think the medium affects the way the audience engages with the story?
First of all, a lot of the stuff I did with Riding the Bullet, the ebook, and then the serialized novel, and the whole thing about doing Mile 81 and Ur — those were straight to ebook things. The medium popped up. In other words, that was part of the technology that didn’t exist when I was starting out and it showed up. So there’s this urge to experiment and say what’s going to happen if I try this? What’s it like? It’s like a new flavor.
And the nice thing about having been successful and supporting the family, putting the kids through college, got some money put in the bank, everything’s okay on a day-to-day basis, financially. You can try new things if you want to.
Obviously, that’s not true of movies and TV. They predated me, and they formed me to a large extent. My first editor, Bill Thompson, who edited Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Night Shift — in his report on Carrie, he said, “this writer has a projector in his head.”
One of the reasons that so many of these things have been bought for movies is because the situations at the bottom are simple, and the visuals are extreme. I grew up and movies molded me. I saw movies before I could read any more than Peter Cottontail. I see things visually. That was reinforced in college, where I took a lot of poetry courses, and people would come down on this idea about the image before everything, let the image talk, don’t tell me that this person is sad, don’t tell me this, don’t tell me that, show me something. And to me that felt perfectly natural, because of the way I’d been brought up. And the reason that a lot of these movies have not succeeded — some have, the ones based on shorter works like Shawshank; Misery is a shorter novel — is because filmmakers, I think, get entranced with visual possibilities or by the hook at the base of it.
There’s this TV series, Under the Dome, that ran for three seasons, and they were entranced by the idea of the Dome. But, what it’s really about is the whole novelistic thing: character, theme, development, the arc of the narrative and all that. You miss that, it doesn’t succeed. I’ve written some movies, and Creepshow was a success. Some of the other ones have not been successful. The things that I like best are the miniseries, the things that run two or three or four parts. My favorite thing of mine is Storm of the Century, which I thought really succeeded. It’s very much like a Friedrich Dürrenmatt play called The Visit. I just loved the way that turned out. They’re doing 11/22/63 now as a nine-part thing: James Franco is fantastic, and the people who are involved were all involved in Friday Night Lights, and they know how to tell a story.
And that’s the thing. Episodic TV and miniseries, those things have a novelistic arc. I gravitate toward that immediately, so for me, shows like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or The Walking Dead — all of those things are superior to movies because they have more texture, more depth.
Many of your works actively think about the ways that genre defies conventional boundaries. How do you understand your relationship to genre?
It’s a troublesome question, because I don’t think of myself as a genre writer, but I’ve never objected to people who wanted to call me a horror writer, or a fantasist, or a science fiction writer. Whenever I read it in print, I kind of go “raaawr.” It’s a fight you can’t win. The same way that you don’t really want to get into this tar baby of serious literature versus popular fiction, or American literature versus genre, that sort of thing.
As far as I’m concerned, genre was created by bookstores so that people who were casual readers could say, “Well, I want to read romances.” “Well, right over there, that’s where romances are.” But if you go over there, you’re going to find Harlequin this and Harlequin that, and maybe you’re going to find Fifty Shades of Grey or whatever the newest series of whatever erotic romantic fiction is. But what you’re not going to find is Rebecca, you’re not going to find The Time Traveler’s Wife, you’re not going to find One Hundred Years of Solitude. All of those things have genre elements to them, and my fiction has genre elements. I grew up loving horror stories: Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Lovecraft, August Derleth, all those people. And I still read that stuff, although it becomes tougher and tougher to find anything that’s really good, because I’ve been around. I’ve been around the block! I’m shopworn. So, I don’t read as much of it as I used to, and I read across all genres.
The only time I had this discussion in my own mind was when I got the idea for Mr. Mercedes and I’d seen this thing on TV. I was coming from Florida to Maine and I stopped for the night at a motel in South Carolina and there was a story on TV about a woman who got pissed at her boyfriend and he was applying for a job at McDonald’s. This was during the economic downturn. She drove her car into a whole crowd of people to get him, and then reversed and ran over a whole bunch more. I said, “This would be terrific. And what if you have this ex-cop and the guy who did it kills a lot of people and starts to torment him, starts to tease him?”
And then I thought to myself, “This isn’t what you do. This is a detective novel, this is not what you do.” And then I thought, “Really? Are you going to, after all these years and all the work you’ve done, not write something you want to write because it’s a different genre?” Because even I, I can say to you, genre doesn’t matter. But, to some degree, it does matter. The same way you could say gender politics don’t matter, but they do! On some level it does, because we’re socialized to believe that, but to my credit, I went ahead and wrote it anyway.
So many people complain about genre as a corporate form. And then in The Dark Tower series, the characters literally incorporate. Is that playing off this idea?
The thing about genre is, so many people are like little kids who say, “I can’t eat this food because it’s touching this other thing.”
Right. I love that part in Wolves of the Calla.
The Dark Tower books are this total scramble. It’s got the western thing going on. It’s got the fantasy thing going on. There’s an element of science fiction and all of that. But to me, in my formative years in college, when I was totally vulnerable to this thing, I learned about mythic archetypes, and that’s what I really got interested in. I don’t say that a lot, because it sounds highfalutin. But I wanted to touch all of those things if I could.
You recently wrote an essay for The New York Times about novelists and productivity. Is writing a form of labor for you? Do you think it’s like or unlike other kinds of work?
Well, it’s a great job, because I can only work four hours a day. Writers are totally different all the time. Anthony Trollope used to get up at four o’clock and write until seven, because he had a job at a post office. And John Irving says he writes all day, but I don’t understand how anybody can do that.
Balzac supposedly wrote all night long.
Right. Supposedly Thomas Wolfe did that — he wrote all night long. But for me, you reach a point of diminishing returns. Also, I’m older. I wrote more when I was younger, working on two different projects: I’d work on something new in the morning and something that was done at night. But it was never done to make money. It was done because all those ideas were there. They were all screaming to get out at the same time and they all seemed good.
I’ve got two sons who are novelists, Joe Hill and Owen King. Joe is the same way I am. Owen’s a little more laid back, a little slower, a little more reflective. And Joe, he’s just popping corn. He reminds me so much of me when I was in my 30s.
You’ve also been very outspoken in your nonfiction on issues like gun control and taxation. Do you think of your novels as making political statements?
I always get some letters from some people who are disgruntled because they feel like the right wing has been dissed and that’s probably true. I’ve been left of center my entire life. Well, not entirely. My wife will tell you that I voted for Richard Nixon in 1968 in the first election I could vote in, because Richard Nixon said he planned to get us out of Vietnam. Tabby will say, “And Steve believed him!” Well, I did! Nixon would say, “Yes, I have this plan, but it wouldn’t be proper to say anything before the election.” So, I voted for him and his plan was to escalate things further.
I got more and more radicalized. My politics have described a course of being somewhere on the right. Because I grew up in Maine, all my folks were Republicans. They swore by the Republican Party and they swore at the Democrats. Vietnam radicalized me. It radicalized a lot of kids. Never to the point where I joined SDS or burned buildings or anything like that, but I understood the people who did. And I’m still left of center. There are still things on the right-wing side that make me crazy. You know, especially the people who profess to be Christians. I just can’t understand the double standard.
What makes me particularly crazy is that you’ll see these Republican candidates, and Ben Carson is the worst. He talks about the national debt and he talks about how our grandchildren are going to inherit this debt. All of these guys talk about their grandchildren when it’s about money. None of them talk about them when it comes to the environment and how their grandchildren are all going to be wearing fucking gas masks. That makes me crazy.
When I write, I try to write from both points of view, depending on character. Everything proceeds from character. But when I do the nonfiction, the important thing is to not just say, “I’m going to go along, I’ve got a good gig here, I don’t want to rock the boat, I don’t want anybody angry at me, I don’t want to get flamed on Twitter or Facebook or the trolls come out.” I don’t want to be afraid of those people. I want to say what’s in my mind. The gun control thing is just one of those issues. I’m like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, because nothing really seems to change. Like John Lennon said, “We’re all doing what we can.”
You’re receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama tomorrow. How do you think your reception and reputation have evolved over the years, especially given some of the less kind responses to your work in the past?
When I came on the scene, I was seen as a genre writer and as a pulp writer. I never squealed about it. I never complained or wrote angry letters. I just kept my head down, kept doing my work. I think it’s important to speak out on issues that are important, to say later on you’ve been counted. But when it comes to literary criticism, it’s best to keep quiet and just do your work.
And the other thing about literary criticism is, it’s a valid field. If everybody is saying the same thing about your work that’s negative, then there’s something there that’s wrong. You’re doing the wrong thing and you’d be crazy to say, “I’m right, and all these other people are wrong.” But usually what happens with reviews, anyway, is that everybody is saying something different. I noticed it first with Different Seasons. There were four novellas, and almost every review would say, “This is a really great book, except this one story doesn’t work,” but it was never the same story.
But there are a lot of critics, old-school critics, who thought I was kind of a hack. The Harold Bloom thing, you know — I’m a terrible writer and somebody who’s not worthy of any real serious critical notice. And I think what happened was, well, a lot of them died. A lot of the people who are writing criticism today are people who grew up with my work and knew it from when they were younger. They have the tendency to be a little more open-minded about it and to take each work on its merits. That’s the really important thing.
The thing that used to drive me crazy about critics like Harold Bloom and some of the old-school guys that passed on now is that they didn’t seem to have any understanding at all of American culture. It was as if literary evolution had stopped with Sherwood Anderson and there was nothing after that. Okay, we’re going to go a little further — we’re gonna have Faulkner here, and Hemingway here, up until about 1953. I said to myself, they totally overlooked the novelists of the people: Steinbeck doesn’t really get the credit he deserves for those amazing books he wrote. Nobody wants to talk about Theodore Dreiser, American Tragedy, unless they want to say, “Well, he was a shitty prose stylist.” Which he was! But that doesn’t change the fact that Sister Carrie and American Tragedy are these huge landmarks in American fiction. Or Frank Norris: nobody talks about McTeague and The Octopus and those things, but they’re fantastic books! Anybody who’s ever read McTeague can’t forget the end of it, when the guy is just there with the dying bird on the railroad tracks. Stephen Crane, same thing, doesn’t get the sort of credit, because those were proletarian novelists.
And that’s what I am: a proletarian novelist. I’m blue collar; I come from blue-collar people. I don’t get a restaurant where you need a reservation. There are a lot of things I don’t get. I don’t get clothes. Any of that stuff. I can read it, I appreciate American people who work in American literature. I idolize Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, incredible people. And that’s fine. But that’s not all there is. I would argue that a critic like Harold Bloom has no real basis to stand on, because he doesn’t seem to know Jim Thompson, he doesn’t seem to know Ross Macdonald, he probably doesn’t know Irwin Shaw.
Anyway. Bingo! That’s that. I’m glad to get the award, anyway. I got a National Book Award for special contributions. It’s kind of a Miss Congeniality thing. They give somebody a thing for advancing the cause of literature. And, you know, Harold Bloom squawked about it, and a number of other people squawked about it, and they’ll squawk about this too, but that’s okay. It adds to the discussion.
Angela S. Allan teaches History & Literature at Harvard University.