Last Wednesday evening, I attended a 90-minute talk by Stephen King at George Washington University in Washington, DC. It was an amazing opportunity–exactly the kind of opportunity I had been waiting for ever since I picked up my first Stephen King novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, in 1981.
The emcee of the evening was the co-owner of DC’s famous independent bookstore, Politics & Prose. He reminded the audience that Stephen no longer needs to tour behind his work but he occasionally does like to “get out there”. King’s latest novel, Revival, had been released only days before the event to mostly positive reviews, and everyone who attended received a complimentary copy. In support of this new novel, King had chosen to visit six cities including, fortunately enough for me, Washington, DC.
King’s talk covered some expected topics–literature and his writing experience, intertwined with stories from his personal life that informed his development as a writer. He was entertaining, witty and profane, and the audience of fans clearly loved every minute of it.
I had to write this post to share details of the evening with readers who might be interested. In particular, I want to explore four observations about Stephen King for those who have never heard him read or speak.
1. His books have been worth reading over the years for the pure pleasure of finally seeing the man himself.
I mentioned a moment ago how I read ‘Salem’s Lot in 1981. I’ve been reading Stephen King’s books virtually non-stop since then (with a brief hiatus in the early 2000s), which is to say, therefore, more than 30 years. When you read a writer for that long and then face the chance of seeing him in person, you may be setting yourself up for a possible letdown in two different ways.
First, the amount of anticipation that builds up over that amount of time can make it impossible for the real person to live up. Also, you may just find that the person is not as likable as the author who writes the books. In his collection of stories, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, for example, King includes a fictional account–based on a writer he knew in real life–who wrote humane and empathetic novels that would lead one to think he was a cool and all right guy. It turned out however, that this writer was a total shitheel in person.
During his talk in Washington, King also alluded to his friend John Irving, another contemporary novelist of whom I am a fan. I’ve seen Irving read twice, once in New York City when he was touring behind A Widow For One Year in 1998. At that event, he gave a very good reading and talk. But years later, in 2009, I saw him read from Last Night At Twisted River at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, Colorado. There, he was aloof, superior and dismissive of his critics.
I could understand why he might have been annoyed with his critics, since they appeared to be growing in number at the time. And truth be told, I was somewhat disappointed in some of Irving’s work too. But what disappointed me most of all that night wasn’t the fact that his recent work didn’t live up to the quality of his earlier novels, but his plainspoken arrogance. I left that event dismayed; here was a literary icon who I had revered for many years, and this was the result of my coming out to see him in person!
None of that was true of King, however. After 30 years of reading someone’s work, I had built up those high expectations, but he came through in flying colors. Draped in a loose-fitting orange t-shirt and faded blue jeans, King was the model of relaxed coolness. He was funny, he gestured casually, he wandered around the stage, he leaned against the podium and, most importantly, he exuded none of the pretentiousness that I had found in Irving.
And when it came to critics, of which he certainly has many, King simply said that the more popular you become, the harder you have to work to do the right thing. Another writer might have said, the more popular you become, the less you have to care what others think. And yes, that’s true. But does that make you a likable person? And how does that reflect upon your personal character?
King was also humble enough to recognize he had aged beyond any role he might claim to be the voice of the zeitgeist especially as it concerned horror fiction. One audience member alluded to one of his earliest works of non-fiction, Danse Macabre, and asked if King might choose to write a follow-up account of how horror fiction had advanced as a form since the publication of that book. King said he had thought about it but didn’t think he would be the one who should write it. He did say he might like to write a long essay on found-footage films such as the Blair Witch Project, but he also made it clear he wasn’t hoping to come across as an authority beyond others who might voice an equal opinion on the topic.
King reminded readers how he’d been clean and sober since 1987 (a confession which earned a thunderous round of applause). And, finally, he expressed, with some humorous astonishment which seemed genuine, that he found it amazing that he could actually sit in a small room for a long time and write stories and then come out in public to find that people had actually read them.
Really, Stephen King was a likable guy and left me with no regret for all the months (if not years) I have invested in getting through his body of work. He is an all-right kind of guy.
2. He does stand-up very well.
I wasn’t sure what Stephen King would actually DO during the event. Did he plan on standing behind the lectern the whole time and engaging in a serious lecture about literature? Would he simply talk about his latest work of fiction and read from it?
Well, he did read from Revival and confessed that the idea for the story didn’t come from one source, though he had always been interested in religious revivals. But he walked around on stage a lot too and told personal stories about his life (some hilarious) and often opened by the phrase: “So, I wrote a book called…”, which always earned applause.
“So, I wrote a book called Cujo“.
Stephen King is a big motorcycle guy and he cracked about how he used to only ride Hondas back in the day because he didn’t know any better. Once in the late 1970s he had to take his bike to a mechanic who lived off in the backwoods of Maine. The motorcycle drove in fits and starts the whole way until, when he finally arrived at the garage, it died altogether. A giant St. Bernard came out of the garage just then and began growling at King. Fortunately, the mechanic came out too and knocked the dog in the head with a wrench, which only quieted the large beast a little. The mechanic then looked at Stephen King and said, “I guess he doesn’t like your face.”
“So I wrote a book called Pet Sematary“.
Perhaps King’s most memorable line of the evening came in describing how he had already been dubbed a horror writer by the time he started writing Pet Sematary but that he didn’t think of himself that way. “I’m not a horror writer, or a Western writer or any kind of writer,” Stephen King said. “When readers keep coming back to you, it’s about the voice.”
To the credit of the audience, many if not most of whom were non-writers, they “got it”. Meaning they understood what King meant by voice. It wasn’t what a horror writer wrote in Pet Sematary or any earlier novel that made them read Stephen King’s books. It was the sum total of what he wrote about, how he wrote it and the sense that there was a real person behind the writing of the story who you genuinely liked.
“So I Wrote a Book Called Gerald’s Game“.
This represented one of many comical moments in the evening. The novel starts with protagonist Jessie Burlingame handcuffed to the posts of her bed. Her husband Gerald has, shortly after handcuffing her for a little S&M fun, died of a heart attack and now Jessie has to figure out how the hell to get out of her awkward predicament. When King was writing the novel, he originally figured that Jessie could just kinda-sorta swing over the back of the bed and then push the thing toward the window to call for help.
Well, King said he had to figure out whether it was possible for someone to actually do that. So he called upon the assistance of his son Joe, who was 14 at the time (this is Joe Hill, the well-known horror writer) and asked if he would mind going up to his room and allow himself to get tied to his bed. “Sure, cool,” Joe nonchalantly said.
Of course shortly after the experiment began, King’s wife Tabitha came upstairs, saw her son struggling to get out of the bed and asked “What in God’s name is going on?”
“Just some more of dad’s shit,” Joe promptly replied.
King did find out that Joe couldn’t (and therefore Jessie couldn’t) get out of bed in his originally intended fashion. So Jessie ended up having to do something else–I won’t spoil it!–to save herself.
“So I wrote a book called The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon“.
King’s rebellious streak, which I will get to in a moment, was clear during the process of writing The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, which his publisher claimed could conceivably end up on a library shelf for older kids if he would remove the word “fuck”, which the young female protagonist Trisha utters only once in the book. The fact that he refused to remove that one word earned King a rousing round of applause.
Interestingly enough, I spoke at the beginning of this post about how I grew up with Stephen King over many years, as so many other readers have. At the event, by an amazing coincidence in such a large theater, the first woman I ever dated in Washington, DC sat just one row behind me and about eight seats down. I don’t know if she saw me and I didn’t approach her–we didn’t date all that long–but if one thinks about “growing up” with King, then it’s interesting to see someone you knew so well 15 years previously and to notice how she’s changed. I wondered too how she might think I had changed if she happened to see me there too.
While she and I were dating, King released The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. This was in 1999. This woman borrowed my copy of the book and I never saw it again. Very interesting how, given this coincidental run-in with her, King should choose to speak about this book.
In addition to his humor and his storytelling, which as mentioned was punctuated by routine announcements about the books he had written over the years, Stephen King also could be direct and irreverent. He spoke of how, when he, John Irving and Harry Potter novelist J.K. Rowling gave two consecutive evenings of talks for fundraising purposes at Radio City Music Hall, someone told him they would never fill the theater, because the event concentrated on books and reading.
“Fuck you,” King shot back. And they did fill the theater…both nights.
Which leads me to my third observation about Stephen King that night.
3. He is a creature of the 1960s, and that’s cool.
One thing about King was that he used a lot of profanity. It wasn’t the profanity of an egotistical, self-centered jerk, however, who has attained fame and no longer had to care what anyone thought. It was clear he did care. His profanity, though, reminded me of the personality of someone raised in the 1960s and who had an irreverent streak that just didn’t fade over the decades.
I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1990s and, when I returned from my service in Sri Lanka in 1998, I fell into a community of former volunteers, many of whom had been first-generation volunteers in the early 1960s. The Peace Corps and those who served as volunteers were deemed controversial back then, opposed to war, anti-authoritarian, opposed to jingoistic love-my-country mantras that can often be used to glaze over the fact that “my country” actually could inflict harm on other countries.
While some Americans served as soldiers in Vietnam, others joined the Peace Corps to serve in a way that wasn’t necessarily respected by those back home. Draft dodgers, some might have called them.
To this day, former Peace Corps volunteers cannot serve in the Central Intelligence Agency and, I believe, are limited if not excluded from participation in other security agencies. Now I’m not a Molotov cocktail-throwing kind of guy by any means. I’m pretty non-threatening in my kind of lifestyle. But it does amuse me that there may be “something about me” (insurrectionist? revolutionary?) as a result of my background in the Peace Corps that causes concern for others.
So…King reminded me of that–someone you couldn’t stop from feeling what they felt, saying what they wanted to say or believing what they chose to believe. His irreverence reminded me of a lot of the older, saltier Peace Corps volunteers I had come to know in New York City and Washington, DC who still had a pretty big fire in their belly about international affairs and how they thought things ought to be. And they weren’t afraid to talk or do something about it.
Finally, King admitted that rock and roll is part of his identity. I can share that sentiment, since it is something I have loved since the early 1980s. Stephen King spoke about the years he played guitar with a band called the Rock Bottom Remainders, which was composed of famous writers (Amy Tan, Dave Barry, etc.) and some genuinely famous musicians from the 1960s such as Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. Kinky Friedman would have fit in perfectly! In fact, the section of Revival that King read from that evening had, as its central image, a guitar. The author’s photo on the book jacket shows King with a guitar slung over his shoulder.
Even readers who have never seen him in person will not be surprised that Stephen King is a die-hard creature of the 1960s. He writes nostalgically about that era in many of his novels and, occasionally (remember his novel 11/22/63?) will dedicate an entire book to it.
4. I’m not the only one Stephen King helped get through the years.
At the end of his presentation, Stephen King took questions from the audience. More than one person there couldn’t help prefacing his question with a word of thanks for all King had contributed with his writing. One person mentioned how he spoke with his dying grandmother about King’s work in her last weeks of life. Another spoke of difficulty with a family member though they had always been able to connect with enthusiasm over Stephen King’s writing.
A good number of writers have been around as long as Stephen King though arguably few have been as prolific. It’s easy, once one gets caught up in his world, to return to it again and again as soon as a new novel comes out, and to believe, as a result, that King and his stories are always there. That is probably part of the magic many readers feel as they relate elements of their lives to his particular brand of storytelling.
When asked by one audience member who his favorite characters are from his own novels, Stephen King mentioned Annie Wilkes (from Misery) and the boys from The Body (a novella made into a popular movie, Stand by Me). Then he alluded to Richie Tozier from It. Richie is part of the Losers’ Club, and It remains one of King’s most popular works, and one–he mentioned–which readers mentioned to him most often, along with The Stand.
Every person in the world can feel disenfranchised at some point in time, and so the appeal of the Losers’ Club in It can reverberate with many readers and their varied experience of isolation. That point got brought home to me when listening to the audience members telling King how much his writing had meant to them over the years.
At one point during the evening, Stephen King caught himself rambling on a particular topic and then said, “Well, I’d better stop. I don’t want to keep you here all night,” to which several audience members called out in protest that they had no problems being kept there by him all night. My sentiments, indeed.
Stephen King told more comic stories than I can even remember. They just kept coming.
He told of how, when Brian De Palma made a film of his first novel, Carrie, in the mid-1970s, he and his wife Tabitha drove into a double-feature outside Boston that began with a blaxploitation film followed by Carrie. As a result, they were the only two white people in the theater. King was uneasy about how this audience might relate to a film about a suburban white chick with high school problems. But, as the famous menstruation scene opened the film with images of cruel high school girls throwing sanitary napkins at Carrie in the shower, King said, the theater audience kept yelling: “Kill those bitches!”
And King went on to describe how two large, burly linebacker types were sitting behind him and his wife in the theater. But when Sue Snell, at the film’s conclusion, visits Carrie’s grave and Carrie’s hand strikes up out of the ground and grabs her, those two guys just clung to each other and shrieked like a couple of little girls.
Really, Stephen King had his audience in stitches the whole time. I laughed more than once. But every moment like this–a moment when you happen to see one of your idols in person–must come to an end. I left the theater and passed through the basement lobby along with everyone else to receive my copy of Revival.
It was a great evening and I got to see and listen to one of the most iconic individuals of my generation. A lot of what I experienced during those 90 minutes was the natural extension of what I had come to expect from King’s novels and interviews over the years. But the extent of his humor and personality could never have come across so strongly except in person. Consider me lucky.
I got to see Stephen King in person and that’s the experience of a lifetime.