Friday, April 24, 2015
Photo: Stephen King's house in Bangor, Maine. From his Wikipedia page.
Stephen King gave this sort of loose interview to The Atlantic on April 12, 2011. (I don't know why I'm reading it now, four years after the fact. And...It's not called The Atlantic Monthly anymore? Was I napping when that happened?) The interview was in conjunction with a new-at-the-time short story, "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive," which you can read here. (You should read the story first before continuing on with this blog entry.)
King said a couple of things I thought were interesting, things I didn't always agree with. So, without further ado...
James Parker: Would you mind filling our readers in just a little bit on the back story to "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive"?
Stephen King: Every year my son Owen and I have a bet on the NCAA March Madness Tournament, and last year the stakes were that the loser would have to write a story [with a title] the winner gave to him. And I lost. Except I really won, because I got this story that I really like. The title that he gave me for the story was "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive," because he'd just a read a piece saying that the guy was still alive and he's still writing even though he's 95 or 96 years old.
So I thought about it a lot--believe me, I thought about it a lot. The tournament was over by the first of April that year, and I mulled that over in my mind until about July. So there was a period of about four months when I thought, "What am I gonna write, what am I gonna write?" Usually you get an idea yourself and then you write a story -- you don't think of a title and then write a story to go with it. So it was kind of an ass-backwards kind of thing. And my first thought was to write a story about a guy in a mental asylum who believed that he was keeping certain writers alive by brainpower. And it was going to be kind of a funny story, and there was going to be a list of writers that he'd gotten tired of and that he had allowed to die.
Belanger: These are the minds of writers. He started with a title and no story (99.9% of the time it's the other way around) and then had a thought about a mentally unbalanced guy who thought he was keeping writers alive out of his own will. And when he tires of the writer's stuff--boom, the writer's gone. Now, that's not normal thinking--on the part of the character and on King himself. But that is how the minds of writers work.
Stephen King offers another moment of how he gets ideas for his writing:
The other day I went out to the mailbox at the end of the road and there was a flyer in there, one of these things where they give you coupons and you get a dollar off mouthwash or makeup or whatever, and on the back there's a number of pictures of children, missing children. It says: "Have you seen me?" It's just a sort of throwaway -- you get it and you don't really look at it. And I was looking at it on the walk back from the mailbox, and I thought: "What if there was a guy who got one of these and one of the pictures started to talk to him and say 'I was killed and I'm buried here in this location or that location, in a gravel pit or stuffed into a culvert ...'"? And I thought: "You know, a guy like that, who could find bodies, would be under a lot of suspicion from the police. And there's a story there.
Now, that's messed up. But, interesting, right? I mean, that's not a bad story idea, right there. But it's still messed up. King always calls such moments his "What If?" moments.
I've had these moments. Not to the same degree, of course. (Or to the same benefit.) But these are indeed very cool moments.
Writers speak differently, too, because they think differently--and, hopefully, we've all learned to think before we speak. Here's what he said about having too many good story ideas at once:
In the old days, it would seem like ideas were crammed in like people in an elevator. And my head was sometimes a very noisy place to be.
Now that's a great comparison! I'm going to bet that your average intelligent person (the question of whether the average person is intelligent is a different conversation) wouldn't be able to have that thought or explain it in quite that way. And, by the way, he's right: This is exactly how that feels. To this I would add the extended metaphor that, when the small elevator gets too crowded with ideas, the elevator gets stuck between floors. At least, mine does. They're all so busy pushing and jostling everyone aside to get to the front, closer to the doors, that nobody ever presses any buttons, and the damn elevator can't move.
And what happens when all these ideas come at you, but you're busy working on something that's going very well?
The other thing that happens with that is, say you're working on something and it's going along pretty well, and two or three ideas occur, and they're all yelling "You should write this! You should write this!" It's almost like being married and all of a sudden your life is full of beautiful women. You have to stay faithful to what you're working on. But it can be uncomfortable.
Again, just not a thought, comparison, or verbal explanation that most people would have. And, again, he's perfectly right. My problem is that I've "cheated" and, sometimes, I've just run away from all of them, because there was just too many. This is why novels take years and years...
To be continued, in another blog entry, in a couple of days...