On 11/11/11, I went to hear Stephen King speak at a local high school. Being on an indie bookstore’s email list alerted me to the event. This particular bookstore was opened not too long ago after Legacy Books, located in Plano, Texas, went under due to the economy. The owner, Teri Tanner, scaled down the operation and moved to another suburb of Dallas, where she opened A Real Bookstore. Since the tickets were first come, first serve, I got to the high school about an hour and a half early. Of course, the auditorium was already quite full. For the next hour, the University of Louisiana-Monroe jazz band entertained the audience while we waited, followed by the high school jazz ensemble. Finally, it was time for Stephen King.
–Stephen King at an event on 11/10/11 at the Majestic Theater, Dallas, Texas
Did you know that Stephen King has sold over 400 million books and has had them translated into 33 different languages? He is from Maine and has been married to his wife, Tabitha, for 40 years. The night before this event, King was at a benefit for The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, the museum located in the old school book depository building in downtown Dallas. King’s latest book is entitled 11/22/63 and tells the story of what might have happened if Lee Harvey Oswald had not succeeded in killing President Kennedy. I have not read this 849-page book yet.
The skinnier-and-grayer-than-I-imagined King was warmly received by the eclectic audience. He started his talk by answering a few questions that people always ask him. What scares Stephen King? He said just about everything, including dropping dead of a heart attack, spiders, snakes, elevators, and the news. What’s it like to be famous? Well, sometimes King is recognized, mainly due to his cameos in TV shows and movies. He said writers aren’t supposed to be famous. However, he has autographed books at events sitting on the john. Whenever anyone mistakes him for Stephen Spielberg or Francis Ford Coppola, he obliging admits he is them! He told the story of having lunch with Bruce Springsteen once in the East Village and this teenage girl kept looking at them and approached the table and, of course, only focused on the Boss. As personable as he is, King seems very comfortable with his fame and seems like a really laid back guy. He loves talking about his days as a high school teacher. And just when you think he is through with a subject, he thinks of another story and has to tell it.
In 1971, on 11/22, King thought of his book premise about that date in 1963. He said he was 17 when Kennedy was killed and that the date is such a “pinch point” in history. He believes that we should follow the gun: Oswald ordered the gun, Oswald picked up the gun, Oswald was sighted at Love Field, Oswald had the picture of himself made with the gun, and the gun was found at the school book depository. The story is a time travel story beginning on September 9, 1958. He had to do a lot of research for this book, research he could not have done at the time he thought about the idea for the book. King was also inspired by the election of President Obama in 2008. There seem to be a lot of parallels with the current president and Kennedy: youth, problems growing up, not easily electable at the time (Kennedy’s Catholicism, Obama’s race), wives, kids. They both inspired real hate. King wanted to write this book because “history repeats itself” and he wanted to remind people of what happens when there is real hate in a society.
–Stephen King at McKinney North High School on 11/11/11
King talked about how helpful people were once he arrived in Dallas. He said people were so willing to talk about the assassination. The only similar place he has been that people wanted to talk so much about what had happened in their town was Selma, Alabama. People helped him with the smallest details so he would get everything right. An example is the spelling of Killeen, Texas (he had misspelled it as Kileen) to the pronunciation of a still existing radio station as KLIF (pronounce “cliff” instead of “k life”). King then read an excerpt from his new book. King’s description of Dallas at the time was spot on (not very flattering, I must say). He read eloquently and changed his voice for different characters. I thought his talk and reading were wonderful and luckily, he was still willing to answer about 10 or 11 questions readers sent in to the bookstore.
Some of the questions follow:
How do you research a place? A friend gave him a book about Oswald. He did a culture study using newspapers from the time and the Dallas Public Library has old movies about Dallas in the 1960’s. King went to the school book depository and became friends with curator Gary Mack and was allowed access into the closed off by plexiglass actual perch of Lee Harvey Oswald.
How has your work influenced your children? King has two sons and a daughter. His eldest son is also a writer and writes under the name of Joe Hill. He has always taken the approach of standing back and letting his children live their own lives, but is there to support them.
Do you believe in heaven, hell, and a happy place? King is agnostic and he has not read Hell is for Real, the new book by the young boy who almost died. He’s not a big organized religion guy. He knows religion gives people a sense of order, so he says to those people: Knock yourselves out. His mother was a devout Methodist and he went to church every Sunday and Thursday growing up. He had to do many bible drills as a child. His mother also liked to drink gin and tonics with his aunts and they played rags and boogies and he said that’s the “Praise God” to him.
Is it harder today to get established as a writer? Maybe. Self-publishing and the business end of books are in a flux these days. He is more concerned that people just need to get words on paper. He put all his reject letters on a nail on the wall and he finally got Carrie accepted.
Out of all the movies and TV movies, etc. that you have written, which one of the productions do you think got it? King did not hesitate and he said Storm of the Century. He also really likes The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me.
How do you prepare your environment to write? Well, King makes tea, takes his vitamins, and has his anti-smoking toothpicks handy. He says his worst day in the chair writing is terrific. He feels like his head is going to blow off when he has written something really terrific. He feels privileged to do the job of writing. He likes to enter a story and then the characters take on their own lives. King is a very thankful and grateful man.
This might have been one of the best author talks I have seen, and I have seen a great number in the past two or three years.