Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Notes from A Stephen King Interview, Part 2

Photo: Stephen King at The Harvard Bookstore, June 6, 2005.  From his Wikipedia page.

[This is Part 2 of a blog started a few days ago, which you can go to here if you don't want to scroll.]

[Stephen King gave this sort of loose interview to The Atlantic on April 12, 2011.  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.)]

To another vein.  You know how your writing and English teachers always tell you to walk around with pen and paper (or, today, an iPhone, or an iPad, or just talk into your cell, or--) because you must write down that great idea or you'll forget it?  Well, the guy who has sold more books than anyone currently alive says:

I never write ideas down. Because all you do when you write ideas down is kind of immortalize something that should go away. If they're bad ideas, they go away on their own.

For the record, I also believe this, and I very rarely write anything down.  When I do, I hardly ever use them.  I also believe that ideas you'll use will germinate in your head and simply not leave until you write them into a story.  All the other ideas are unwanted guests who are correctly shown the door.  The more I practice this, the more writing I get done.  The more I let every single idea take root, I stray or the elevator stops.

Out of nowhere, practically, King gives a pretty good description of what poetry is good for:

[Poetry] takes ordinary life, it takes things that we all see, and concentrates them in this beautiful gem. When the good ones do that, that's what you get. When the Philip Larkins or the James Dickeys do that, you get something that is heightened, that says to us that reality is finer and more beautiful and more mysterious than we could ever possibly express ourselves. Which is why we need poetry.

Indeed so.  I'm not a good enough poet to do this myself--I've only managed to sell one poem, though it's also true that I've only sent out one poem--but I agree that this is what good poetry can do.  It's life, super-concentrated, super-compact.  I wrote a line that says, "A poem is a thought shared in compacted time."  I believe this to be true.

But I respectfully disagree with King on one point.  When asked to compare the short story markets of his youth to the ones today, King said:

All those magazines published short fiction. And it started to dry up. And now you can number literally on two hands the number of magazines that are not little presses that publish short fiction.

While this may be true in terms of physical, tangible magazines you hold in your hands, this is not true overall.  There are a ton of markets--many of them big, that pay well--on the Web.  They're called e-magazines.  I've been published in a few of them, and they often pay better than the hand-held, paper ones.  A sign of the times, but a fact nonetheless.

In fact, when King says that people don't read short stories (or much else) anymore, I would politely disagree with that, as well.  Those online mags wouldn't be able to pay what they do if nobody was reading them.  And there's a ton of decent-paying online mags. Again, I know: I've been in them.

And, finally, here's an interesting irony:

JP: It is odd, though, if you think about it, that with all the speeding-up that we're being told about, and the dwindling of the attention span and all that, that people would rather chomp their way through a 400-pager than just get zapped by a little story ...

SK: And so many of the 400-pagers are disposable in themselves. When I see books by some of the suspense writers that are popular now, I think to myself: "These are basically books for people who don't want to read at all." It just kind of passes through the system. It's like some kind of fast-food treat that takes the express right from your mouth to your bowels, without ever stopping to nourish any part of you. I don't want to name names, but we know who we're talking about.

This is also true.  I'll name names for him: James Patterson.  Many of the heart-felt vampire books, or young-heroine dystopias.  But, I should also add, in all honesty: Stephen King himself, sometimes.

I think he would admit that, most of the time.  He was just having a negative, cranky interview.


  1. I finallly got around to reading "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive". The title alone peaked my curiosity, but I'm not exactly sure how I feel about the story. I've known some negative people in my life (myself included), but those two women in the van brought hoplessness to a new low. Being overweight, poor, with no means of support, and a whole litter of kids will do that to you. Plus they're both feeding into each other's misery. Was it poor decision making? Bad upbringing? Early abuse? Lousy choice in men? Why do some go down such a bleak life while others (like the poets) make all the wise choices and are blessed enough to see all the good in life?

    Anyway--I also agree short stories are still very much popular today. In fact, I'm looking forward to King's next anthology of short tales coming out later this year. I also agree people do still enjoying reading a quality book. Not all popular books these days are fast food for readers. But isn't it great for people just read at all? Sure those vampire/dsytopian love stories are not very nourishing, but the end result is the same. Kids are reading. They are buying books, downloading stories, buying Kindles, etc.

    It amazes me how King can think of a story (a good one, too) just from looking at a flyer. I suppose that's what sets writers apart from the rest of us. That capability to see beyond what's there. What you do with that gift is the real challenge.

    1. Whoa--lots to respond to here, Diane. Thanks for commenting! I hope other readers answer some of your questions with a comment, but my two cents to some of them:

      --there's an unfortunate "white-trash" tinge to those women, which dilutes the message of the story, if there is one. Any person from any socio-economic status commit suicide and take loved-ones with them. Certainly very rich people have killed others and themselves.

      --I felt while reading the story that alcohol and depression (or mental health illnesses in general) had more to do with their problems than the dead-beat dads did. It's never pointed out, but these women couldn't have been easy to live with, either.

      --the poets made very bad decisions, too, especially with drugs, which could be similar to the ladies' drinking. The difference might come down to learning from your mistakes, and mental illness (again).

      --short stories are alive and well. And it is indeed awesome that people are reading, no matter what it is. Harold Bloom would say that reading garbage would give you a garbage-literate culture. That may be so, but I'd argue that even a garbage-literate culture is better than no culture at all. (Though it's unfortunate that those two things do seem to be the only choices at this point.)

    2. Well, it was indicated that the other friend was abused early on. I suppose the real issue is not so much how the woman behind the wheel came to be that way, but how she chose to deal with it.

      As much as I disliked Fifty Shades of Gray, I would rather talk to someone who has read the book than someone who plays video games all day. At least the trashy book reader is trying to use their imagination (even if in a perverse way).