Friday, July 19, 2013

A Conversation with Stephen King

Stephen King and Colin McEnroe at the Bushnell. Photo: John Groo
By Lauren Yarger
Fans packed the house at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts last night to hear author Stephen King in a conversation to benefit the Mark Twain House and Museum.

Local radio personality Colin McEnroe moderated the discussion which ranged from King's favorite movie adaptations of his books to God and religion.

Greeted by a rousing standing ovation by the sell-out crowd, King joked that they must not have been able to get tickets for the Justin Bieber concert down the street at the XL Center (traffic in Hartford was snarled through rush hour as people flocked to these two events and to fireworks programs scheduled on the waterfront).

Applause greeted the mention of each of King's book titles, prompting him to quip that he would just name them all because the adulation was making him feel like a rock star. He agreed to appear for the Mark Twain House, he said, because Twain was "a big deal" to him. His mother had read him "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" when he was a boy of about 6 and he was fascinated by the story about white washing the fence. Here a kid is given the job as a punishment, but gets other people to pay him to do it for him, King thought. "Would that work?" he wondered, and decided he'd like to be a writer because "that's what kind of job it is."

Here are some highlights from the two-hour conversation with the popular author whose books have sold more than 350 million copies worldwide. His next book, "Doctor Sleep," a sequel to "The Shining," will be out this October (visit http://www.stephenking.com).

On reading, writing and criticism:
He reads across a wide spectrum. He loves William Faulkner, Margaret Atwood, Jonathon Franzen. He just re-read "The Scarlet Letter," by Nathaniel Hawthorne, "though I still can't get through "Moby Dick." He likes "Game of Thrones" -- "brilliant acts of storytelling."

He doesn't like it when people make "artificial" distinctions between popular fiction and literature, That's like a kid who complains that he can't eat his dinner because the peas and potatoes are touching each other on the plate. "Well, that's bullshit."

He writes about regular people who live regular lives -- something that got him bad reviews from critics early on. "We live is a culture where there is an actual texture to life," and specifics help tell that story. When he wrote "Carrie," his first novel, he was the new kid on the block and critics of his parents' generation would think of his kind of writing as "trash." As it happens, he's outlived most of those critics and the people he "scared the shit out of when they were kids now are critics and they think I'm great."

On being a romantic:
It might be from watching too many Kim Novak movies when he was younger, he joked. But he doesn't want to cross the line of having too much sentiment and emotion in a story. Honest emotion and response to the book is good, though. He has been married to the same woman (novelist Tabitha King) for 43 years. "Lisey's Story" was written after King almost died from pneumonia and a hospital infection and had a vision of an author's widow cleaning out her husband's office. He wanted to write a book not just about marriage, but of the "secret sphere" of a marriage only the people in that relationship know.

On God and religion:
"I choose to believe in God, because, what's the down side?" he quipped to the audience who laughed. If you die and there's nothing, you haven't lost anything, but if there is a god and you stay on his good side...

 "I have no love for organized religion," he continued. Most religionists and churchgoers -- the "foot soldiers" -- are nice people, he said, coming to the aid of people in need and doing other good works. But sooner or later a philosophy emerges that says "God wants to put a gun in your hand or a suicide belt around your waist. "That kind of stuff can take a hike."

Does stuff happen because of God's will? No, what's done is done, he said. The past is history; the future is a mystery.

Do things happen for a reason? "Why ask that question?" he said. "You're never going to know. Shit happens. If you want to say God ordained it, fine, but you don't really know. That's why we have faith."

On being an alcoholic and drug addict:
It has been 25 years since he has had a drink. "If it would make me high, I wanted it," he said. The hardest thing he quit was cocaine. The easiest was Oxycodone, which he had to take to combat severe pain after he was struck by a van and thrown 14 feet into a ditch on a road in his native Maine. He suffered a compound fracture of the leg, a broken hip, a collapsed lung and other injuries.He took the drug for three or four years  until it became clear that he would have to stop or die.

On "11/22/63" and the Kennedy assassination:
He grew up in a Republican home where his mother couldn't even say the name of FDR. He worked on the campaigns of Republican candidates in Maine and Barry Goldwater and voted for Richard Nixon (a decision for which his wife "is still giving me shit."). When John F. Kennedy was elected, his mother was devastated, but when he was assassinated, he came home from school to find her on the couch crying. "Something was changed; a light had gone out," he recalled. When she was dying of cancer, she confided in her son that in 1972 she had voted for McGovern....

He's pretty sure Oswald acted alone and if he did, there is a chain of events that led to that fateful moment (hence the book). "Life turns on a dime,: he said. "That one moment that changed everything."

On children and his childhood:
What people really want to ask about his childhood, he said, is "What fu**ed you up so bad.?" He grew up like most kids, afraid of monsters, of the monster under the bed, in the closet or in the cellar, but at the same time was attracted to it. One of the main characters in "Doctor Sleep" is a girl of 12. Another is a now-adult Dan from "The Shining," still haunted by his childhood experience at the Overlook Hotel. Kids interest King, he says, because they "haven't started to narrow their focus." He told of seeing a kid sitting in his underwear on a street in his hometown, striking the dirt with a stick and saying, "I'll  get you." If an adult did that, he'd be taken to a mental institution, King said.

He writes about kids for adults. More often authors write about kids for kids. He likes being a voice for the loser.

"Anybody who looks back on high school as the best part of life has severe mental problems," he joked. High school is like being asked to run the gauntlet. At the time, it seemed horrible. He was a fat kid, the youngest in his family and always saying, "Hey guys, wait up."

"'Wait up' is the cry of a loser," he said.

He loves it when the monsters get the bad kids....

On the highlight of his celebrity existence:
While dining with Bruce Springsteen, a beautiful, awestruck young girl kept looking over at their table, then finally approached. Springsteen made a move to get his pen for the anticipated autograph request when she asked, "Aren't you Stephen King?"

"She never fu**ing looked at him," King laughed. "For one golden moment, books trumped rock."

On which movie adaptations of his works he likes:
Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Misery and the Dee Wallace version of Cujo.

Which one didn't he like?
"The Shining," directed by Stanley Kubrick. It's a beautiful movie, it just isn't the book, he said. In the first scene, when Jack applies for the job at the hotel, you know he's crazy. "There's no arc for that character. There's never a moment he wasn't crazy." And Shelley Duvall, though a wonderful actress, isn't given anything to do as Jack's wife except to be a scream machine, King said.

"A lot of men came out of that movie and said, 'I would have killed her too.'"

On favorite foods:
"My idea of a really great meal when you're hungry is The Waffle House." They leave you alone, the menu is waterproof, it has pictures of the food....

On favorite places to visit:
New York, Sarasota and Hartford, though "what I don't like is coming in on I-84."

On who he would like to be if he could inhabit someone else's life for 24 hours:
"Not Barack Obama," he said. Maybe an African-American bus driver in Cleveland -- not someone famous -- as a way of seeing an experience that he doesn't have, like being someone of another race or a woman.  But celebrity wouldn't be too bad if he could throw the ball like Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady or be Red Sox stars Ted Williams or David Ortiz.



Coming up at the Mark Twain House and Museum:
  • Terry Brooks, Creator of the World of Shannara. Friday, July 26 at 7:30 pm
In 1977, author Terry Brooks first opened the gates to the fantasy realm of Shannara. More than 30 years later, Brooks continues to build the epic history and legacy of his world in an unparalleled run of over-two dozen Shannara novels. Brooks celebrates the release of his latest novel, "Witch Wraith: The Dark Legacy of Shannara" where elves, trolls, gnomes and other dark things dare to dwell. Tickets $25 / $20 members; VIP Reception Ticket: $65 includes lecture and 5:30 reception with Terry Brooks. (860) 280-3130.
  • Mark My Words, an evening with Sue Grafton, Alice Hoffman, Scott Turow, moderated by David Baldacci, 8 pm Wednesday, Oct. 9 at the Shubert Theatre, New Haven. http://www.twainmarkmywords.com/

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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