Digging up stories with Stephen King
(The following interview was originally conducted for Writer's Digest magazine on Sept. 16, 1991. King was coming off an uncharacteristically fallow period in which his output had slowed and he'd attempted to withdraw somewhat from the public eye. At the time of this interview, he told me he hadn't planned to write at all that summer, preferring instead to "play baseball and goof off" before beginning his 26th novel, DOLORES CLAIBORNE, in the fall. But soon, King was smitten with the idea for yet another book, GERALD'S GAME, and began working on it, relegating the previously announced DOLORES CLAIBORNE to the backburner. Both novels were published the following year.
This interview was the first time King spoke in depth about the mechanics of writing and his own creative process. He would elaborate on many of these points years later in his book ON WRITING.
This interview was conducted by phone from King's office in Bangor, Maine.)
WALLACE STROBY: How far in advance do you generally have your novels planned out? When you're in the midst of one novel, do you know what the next one will be?
STEPHEN KING: No, there's often a lot of stuff in between, actually. There always is, for me. It's usually just a case of scuffling around through ideas I've got, and having some of them work out better than others.
With GERALD'S GAME, it was like an unplanned pregnancy. I was on an airplane going down to New York - I'm not a very good flyer but the air was very mellow that day - and I fell asleep. I had a dream with something salvageable from it, and I said: "Oh, that's wonderful, what a great idea. I must write it." Not because it was a whole story but because it was one of these situations that's so interesting that you figure if you start to write it, things will suggest themselves.
It's like seeing an interesting building and saying to yourself: "I'd like to go in and walk through there." And in some cases there's nothing inside anyway, it's just an interesting front. But in this case there was a lot of stuff inside.
So I worked on it and I complained to my wife a lot about it, because I had not wanted to write last summer. I just wanted to sort of play baseball and goof off, and that isn't the way it turned out.
I thought for awhile that I could put this thing together with DOLORES CLAIBORNE and do one book. Sometimes that happens. I've done that before with DIFFERENT SEASONS and FOUR PAST MIDNIGHT, where the stories actually seemed to group together, although they were novels. But these things were a little bit longer and just would not be harnessed together. So eventually I decided to do them separately. Since I went to work on "Gerald's Game" first, I decided to go with that one.
STROBY: It seems like there's been a lot of wrapping up going on in your last few novels ...
STROBY: ... and NEEDFUL THINGS was obviously a wrap-up of a lot of the Castle Rock stuff ....
KING: That was the finish of a lot of old business actually.
STROBY: Is there a new path taking shape before you now with the upcoming books?
KING: It's funny, I just used to reject that question. What's interesting is I'm actually seriously considering that question. I used to just reject it out of hand and say "Well, this is just the next thing. There isn't any question of having a long-term agenda." And I guess that's still my answer.
I know that Norris Ridgewick from NEEDFUL THINGS shows up - he has a cameo, if you will - in GERALD'S GAME. He just happens to be the person to solve a crime and he's mentioned in that context. He's never really seen on stage, so to speak.
That part of the world is still there, and I always felt that in the entire body of my work, that it was never going to be any kind of a big, important thing. That it was never going to be, you know, sort of a literary pose, that I would have my own little county with an unpronounceable name in Mississippi or something like that. But it always seemed to me that every time you go back to the well and you dip into that other world, that all the things you talked about before in that other world should still be there, they should be part of the history you're writing about. So that's still the case.
I think that if I'm doing anything, I'm trying as hard as I can - and succeeding, I hope - to stay alive creatively, not fall into a sort of Cheyne-Stokes respiration, where I'm doing the same things over and over again. I don't want to mention names, but there are people who do that. I'm sure that I could make a very nice living just being Stephen King, the master of the modern horror story, unquote, for the rest of my life. But if it came down to that, to just doing that, I would rather not write at all. And I could afford to do that too, at this point.
This has been an extremely fertile period for me in terms of ideas. I've had four or five in a row, all of which would make wonderful books or short stories or something. I know pretty much what they are. I told one to my wife the other day and she said: "Gee, I think that one's really good. Are you going to write that down?" And I said: "Well, I'm working on 'Gerald's Game'." And she said: "I don't mean are you going to write the book, I mean are you going to write it down so you won't forget it?" And my response was: "If you forget it, you never wanted to write it in the first place."
So I'd like to write all those things, and I suppose there was a time in my career when I would have. I still remember working on EYES OF THE DRAGON and MISERY at the same time, one in the morning and one at night. But I was younger then and I can't seem to do that anymore.
STROBY: You mean just energy-wise?
KING: Yeah, energy-wise.
STROBY: C.S. Forester, the British writer, once described his story-developing process as dropping assorted objects into the water of his subconscious and letting them sit there for weeks or months or years. Eventually, he said, he would feel them merge and meld and take some sort of shape until an idea surfaced and he could start writing. How does that process work for you? Is it more subconscious?
KING: Yeah, that's the way it works. Except that I have never felt like I was creating anything. Actually, when I feel that I'm creating, I feel that I'm doing bad work. The best work that I've ever done always has a feeling of having been excavated, of already being there. I don't feel like a novelist or a creative writer as much as I feel like an archaeologist who is digging things up and being very careful and brushing them off and looking at the carvings on them.
I don't work from an outline, or anything like that. It's just that these ideas will connect with me on some level. On the "Dark Tower" series, which is a sort of quest cycle, the first one was written when I was 22 and the most recent one was written when I was 42. That's 20 years later and all the connections are still there, they happen effortlessly. All this stuff is there waiting to be developed from the first book. Believe me, I remember writing the first book and I was not planning (sequels). It's just that the proper connections are there, because the story exists. Only sometimes you get a little pot out of the ground, and that's like a short story. Sometimes you get a bigger pot, which is like a novella. Sometimes you get a building, which is like a novel. In the case of "The Dark Tower," it's like excavating this huge fucking buried city that's down there. And I'll never live to do it all. (NOTE: King did complete the seven-book "Dark Tower" saga in 2004.)
The thing is, for me, I never get all that stuff out unbroken. The trick and the game and the fun of it is to see how much of it you can get. Usually you can get quite a lot.
But I love it. I mean, when the stuff just shows up at the right time. You say to yourself: "Well, I know what's gonna happen for the next 30 pages, but after that I'm fucked, I don't know." Then it's like a door opens and somebody ambles in and says: "You called for me." And I say: "I don't remember it, but come on in and help me 'cause this is where you're supposed to be. You fit right in here today. Thank you for coming." And that's it.
And they pay you for that. But it's like what they pay you for is the leap of faith that says: "If I sit down and do this, everything will come out okay." It occurs to me that what I'm trying to say is: "If I build it, they will come."
STROBY: When things start to take shape in your mind, what usually comes first, the characters or the idea of what's going to happen in the story?
KING: For me, it's the idea. The characters are a perfect blank. Everything about the characters is a blank. For me, the characters' physical being just is not there. If I'm inside a character, that's it. I don't see myself, because I'm inside that person. If that person goes by a mirror or if there's some kind of situation where his or her physical looks become important, that (description) can be there. But the only people (described) in the books are usually minor characters that are observed by the major characters, passing through their lives.
If you go back to a book like THE DEAD ZONE, Christopher Walken makes an extremely good Johnny Smith in the film. But Robert DeNiro would too, or really just about anybody within a certain age group, because the man is never described. There's no real need to do that.
I'm not the only one that feels that way. When somebody says "Perry Mason," boom, the image that comes into people's minds is Raymond Burr, because he did it on TV. But Erle Stanley Gardner never described the guy.
STROBY: But let's say in CUJO, what came first, Cujo or Donna Trenton, the mother?
KING: No, the idea. It wasn't even Cujo that came first. The idea was the mother and son being trapped over a period of time. In fact, the original idea was that she would contract rabies, and the central conflict of the book would be her struggle to keep from hurting her son as she was overwhelmed by madness, which is kind of a repeat of some of what goes on in THE SHINING.
And then, luckily for me, as I started to read about rabies, I found out that it takes a lot longer to develop than I'd thought. Then the game became: "Let's see if we can put them in one place in such a way that nobody will find them for the length of time that it takes for them to work out their problem, or for their problem to work them out." Because it's always one way or another. When we're faced with a problem, either we solve it or it solves us.
So the first thing that comes is the situation, and the next thing that comes are characters that will fulfill that situation. They're like light bulbs that go on that make the story light up. In the case of CUJO, I said to myself: "I want a woman who would, for one reason or another, cheat on her husband. And I want a husband who, for one reason or another, would be extremely ambivalent about what to do about that. And I want a guy who's fairly destructive, who is this woman's lover, who's out to muddy the waters."
Then you make an agreement with yourself. You say: "Within those wide limitations of character, let them do whatever's realistic." And don't you stop them if they're doing something you don't like, because you will like it if you really watch it and let it happen.
Then the last thing is, you say to yourself: "What's it all about?" That's okay at that point. But I don't think it's fair to sit down to write and say: "I'm going to write The Great American Novel and explain where American youth went wrong in 1968." That's ridiculous. But it's okay to sit down after you have your story and your characters and (ask yourself that).
In the case of CUJO, what I wanted to say was: "Well, here are these people and they should have been found, but they never were. And what does that mean? Does that mean that's fate, does that mean it's coincidence? Let's think about that a little bit." It doesn't mean you have to answer those questions, because then it becomes an Aesop's fable.
STROBY: You mentioned outlining. You once wrote that extensive outlining was the last refuge of a hack ...
KING: Uh huh.
STROBY: ... but I can't believe that you sit down to begin a novel and have no idea of where you're going. How much do you know about what's going to happen before you begin writing? Or, to rework one of your favorite Watergate phrase, "What do you know ...."
KING: " ...and when do I know it." Well, okay. I have an idea for a novel right now and I know it will be a good book, I just know it will be a good book. This thing is there waiting to be dug up.
It's like we're walking through a desert and all at once, poking up through the hardpan, we see the top of a chimney. You know there's a house under there, or at least you assume there's a house under there, and I'm pretty sure that I can dig it up if I want.
I had to take a plane out of Long Beach (California) recently. I got to the airport a little bit before the pilots were ready to go, so I went for a walk along this really desperate ... I don't know what to call it, it was the aviation equivalent of one of those exurban strips where they have MacDonald's and Burger King and Arby's and Bowlerdromes and everything. Only instead of all the fast food and fast entertainment, it was hot air balloons and motors and used planes and all the rest of that stuff. I got this image of somebody walking along and being picked up by people in a black car and discovering that he was in a different environment, a sort of militaristic environment, that everything had changed, in fact. That was it. But that's enough for me. I'll sit down and start to write it and everything will come out okay.
So there's no outline, nothing like that. That freezes it, it takes what should be a liquid, plastic, malleable thing to me and turns it into something else. Hey, to me it's the difference between going to a canvas and painting a picture and going out and buying a Craftsmaster paint-by-the-numbers kit.
STROBY: On a long book like THE STAND or IT, is there a problem with keeping everything straight? Do you have to start taking notes when you're dealing with so many characters and so many situations?
KING: Yeah. I knew IT was going to be big, but I didn't know it was going to be as big as it turned out to be. And when I got up to about five, six hundred pages of manuscript, I gave it to one of (my secretaries) and said: "Read this and write down the names of all the characters." And once they did that, they put the list in a word processor and pushed a button and alphabetized it. And basically that was it, that was all I did.
I can keep five to seven major characters in my mind - I'm thinking about "The Langoliers now," which is a story in FOUR PAST MIDNIGHT. But I think you should try and stick with two or three, unless you're a genius, somebody like Paul Scott, who wrote "The Raj Quartet." It's very difficult to keep a number of real complex central characters in your mind. But when it comes to secondary characters, I can hold as many as 30 together without too much trouble, because they tend to be these sort of Dickensian characters, they're very eccentric and colorful. I like them a lot and so they're easy to remember.
STROBY: Speaking of "The Langoliers," in the introduction to that story you talk about research you did, talking to pilots, finding out specific facts about airliners. How much research do you usually get into for a book and what form does it take?
KING: I hardly ever research anything unless I absolutely have to, and I've gotten a little bit more paranoid about that. It's okay to go pretty much on your imagination if a lot of people aren't reading you, but once it piles up to the point where I am right now, if you screw up anything, somebody knows. I've gotten my hands burned a couple of times.
I'll take some of that and shrug it off. Every now and then you get into a situation where you can't fix an error, there are unique situations where you just can't. I got into one of those in the "Dark Tower" cycle where I erroneously, in the course of the second book (THE DRAWING OF THE THREE), put Co-Op City in Brooklyn (rather than in the Bronx). Because of the way the plot was in place, Co-Op City had to be in Brooklyn in the third book, and I'd already gotten letters about it. So I just put a note at the front of the book that said I'd screwed around with the geography of the borough of Brooklyn to suit the course of my fiction. I've done that in THE STAND and some other places as well.
In another instance, the last of the Richard Bachman novels, THINNER, is a novel about gypsies, and there's some places where they're talking in Romany, the gypsy language. What I did was I yanked some old Czechoslovakian editions of my works off the shelves and just took stuff out at random. And I got caught. I got nailed for it (by the readers), and I deserved to be, because it was lazy.
One or two things like that and you smarten up. So in the case of DOLORES CLAIBORNE, there's some material about last wills and testaments and I have to research that a little bit.
On the other hand, I don't mean to criticize my colleagues, but there are writers for whom research has become a substitute for creativity. They focus on how things work and why things work. You find out everything that happens in a large metropolitan hotel but you don't find out anything about what happens in the human heart.
STROBY: What is your current writing schedule like?
KING: I work from about 7:30 or 8 a.m. until noon, maybe 12:30, maybe one o'clock. I work four, maybe four-and-a-half hours a day, but that's seven days a week.
The work that I do now I used to do more quickly ten years ago, and that's just a function of being ten years older. But I think it's also that I'm taking more time with it. There are two ways to react to the knowledge that a lot of people are paying attention to what you do. The unacceptable way to deal with that is to freeze and just say: "Oh my God, I can't do this anymore." The other way is to ignore them pretty much and try to raise your standards and become a little bit more exacting.
STROBY: How many words do you produce in a day?
KING: I would say 2,000. That's 14,000 words a week though.
STROBY: Working seven days a week, there must be times when the cylinders aren't firing, when you can't type five words without spelling three of them wrong. How do you kickstart yourself on those days? How do you push yourself past those initial barriers?
KING: For me, a lot of times the real barrier to get to work - to get to the typewriter or the word processor - comes before I get there.
I had one of those days today where I thought to myself: "I'm not sure if I can do this." I have a lot of days like that. I think it's kind of funny really, that people think: "Well, you're Stephen King, that doesn't happen to you," as if I wasn't really the same as everybody else.
But I had to do this tense scene where there were a lot of sexual politics involved, and I wanted to do it right and I didn't know if I could. And what that means is that I dallied by the teapot, and I read the sports twice and I said to myself: "Well, you shouldn't be doing this, you shouldn't be reading anything right now, because when you read, it fucks you up. Read the sports afterwards. You know the Red Sox won, what else do you need to know?"
And then I said to myself: "Well, it wouldn't be such a bad thing if you went down to the Y and had a workout." So I did that, and finally I got back, and the same thing always happens. I sit in front of that word processor and I say: "Why did I stay away? It's so good to be back here."
And then there's always those first few things where you feel awkward and there's a feeling of being in a medium where you don't precisely belong. But then you acclimate. There's nothing really very magical about it. If you've done it day in and day out, the cylinders all sort of fire over. I think the best trick is experience. After you've done that a certain amount of time, you know that it's gonna get better.
STROBY: With a large novel - IT is the extreme but even NEEDFUL THINGS is fairly long - there's a lot of time, work and emotion you're going to have to devote to it. You know that when you're going into it. If you're working on a book over a long period of time, how do you keep yourself from falling out of love with it in the meantime?
KING: Sometimes you do fall out of love with it. Mostly though, it gets deeper, if it's what you're supposed to be doing. I'm very fatalistic about this whole thing, that really sort of Arabian view toward it.
When I begin a novel I'm mostly thinking about how neat and how funny certain ideas and scenes are. I can remember that was my response going into 'SALEM'S LOT. With NEEDFUL THINGS, when I came out of it I still was sort of saying "How neat," whereas when you put the ideas into practice they usually stop being neat and funny. Indeed, there's a subplot in NEEDFUL THINGS about these two gay high school teachers who have a falling out over some misplaced cocaine and shoot each other. That's the kind of thing where, when I thought that up I said: "How neat, how funny," and when it comes out it's kind of sad and horrible.
So I think, on a long piece of work, the key toward not falling out of love with it is to deepen what I know about the characters and get to like them better and to see around them through their eyes more.
STROBY: Every writer at some point, especially working on a long book, is going to run into a crisis of confidence where you'll be 600 pages into something and you'll look back and your first instinct is "Oh, this is a piece of shit ..."
KING: Uh huh.
STROBY: .... and your second instinct is "I've spent all this time on this. What am I gonna do?" Is there anything you can do to get yourself past that?
KING: I don't know. It's a good question. I spent about four months last year writing a novel called INSOMNIA. It's a long piece of work, it's about 550 pages long. It's no good. It's not publishable. And I've been writing and publishing books for a long time.
Taken piece by piece and chapter by chapter, it is (good). But I didn't get this one out of the ground. It broke. And I sometimes go back to it and I say: "Well, I could do this to it," and then something comes up and says: "No, you really can't, because of this."
One image is that archeological one of trying to get a story out of the ground and saying it broke, but what's a clearer one in this case is to say it's like having a pipe sculpture - except none of the pipes thread together the way they're supposed to. Some do, but a lot of them don't, so it's sort of a mess. My reaction to that was to put the manuscript away, and that's what I've done.
But for other books or other stories, when you go through the process of write and rewrite and re-rewrite, there always comes a point where it looks like crap. But that loss of perspective is a part of the process of writing and rewriting and polishing. You learn to expect it and you learn to count on yourself and to say: "It's as good as I ever thought that it would be, and it's better then when I was first moved to sit down and spend all this time in the first place. I just don't see it anymore because I'm too close to it."
It's like repeating the same word over and over again for 45 minutes. It loses any sense that it once had and it's just a sound. But it's still a word to somebody who hears it.
STROBY: And yet with INSOMNIA, you finished that. That was a completed book?
KING: Yeah. The thing that hurts is that the last 80 or 90 pages are wonderful (laughs). But things just don't connect, it doesn't have that novelistic roundness that it should have. And maybe some day you'll read it, but it won't be for a long time.
STROBY: Have you ever abandoned a story or a novel?
KING: Yes, more than once.
STROBY: Was it because it didn't work or because you suddenly got an idea you liked better?
KING: I've done both, but a lot of time inspiration just runs out. I don't know how to put it ... it's like having one stilt instead of a pair, one suspender instead of a pair.
I've got an unfinished novel called WELCOME TO CLEARWATER that I've been thinking about a lot. It was originally written in 1981 or '82, I think, and I've made two or three efforts to try and kickstart it since. You always think about going back to them, and in your head there's the mental equivalent of milk cartons with pictures on them saying: "Have you seen this story? Do you know how it ends?"
THE STAND was the same way. It just ran out. I put it away and it sat there, and I was convinced it would never be done. And then there was this one idea that came to me. I thought to myself: "Well, if there was an explosion you could blow most of (the characters) up," and it opened the story up for me again.
A lot of what this business is about is faith and confidence. It's just that simple. And I have faith and I have confidence that at some point I'm going to be driving along (and things will come together).
I almost had the same situation with THE DARK HALF. The book was done, but it wasn't a good book. It just was flat and it had no shine to it. And one day I was driving along and all these sparrows took off in front of the car, and it was like this bright light went off in my head. I knew how that (device) would work and that it was what the book needed. So far, whatever the sparrows are for this novel INSOMNIA, they just haven't flown yet. And when they do, I'll know. (NOTE: INSOMNIA was published in 1994, three years after this interview).
STROBY: With the kind of success you've had, undoubtedly it's intimidating for editors to work with your books ...
KING: I don't think (Viking editor) Chuck Verrill's very intimidated (laughs). He just keeps on trucking.
STROBY: Are you worried at all that you're not getting any of the feedback and guidance you were getting earlier in your career?
KING: No, I've tried to take care of that. I sometimes think that I'm a little more sloppy than I was. You get some of those old guy habits, you know (in old man's voice): "Don't tell me how to make this hat, boy. I've been making these hats since from when you were in your mother's womb. I know what I'm doing," and the fucking hat doesn't have any brim or the thing's inside out. So you have to listen.
And yet there's that tendency after awhile to say to yourself: "I'm 44, my editor's 35. He's wet behind the ears. What the fuck does he know?" Well, in fact, he knows quite a lot. I try to listen and I try to factor that in and say, you know, if you're the biggest ape in the jungle, you better be pretty careful.
STROBY: Do you worry about losing perspective on your work at all?
KING: Yes, I do. I worry about that a lot. I worry about losing my fastball and not even knowing it. Buy hey, what are you going to do? (laughs)
STROBY: Writing-wise, professional-wise, what's the worst advice someone ever gave you?
KING: The worst advice? "Don't listen to the critics." I think that you really ought to listen to the critics, because sometimes they're telling you something is broken that you can fix. I think the advice "Don't listen to the critics" is a sort of defensive thing that says if you stick your head in the sand, you won't have to hear any bad news and you won't have to see any bad news and you won't have to change what you're doing. But if you listen, sometimes you can get rid of a bad habit. And hey, critics ... none of us like 'em, but if they're all saying something's a piece of shit, they're right.