Tomorrow, September 18, is Stephen King’s birthday. I adore King. I want to be him someday but so far haven’t arrived on the bestseller lists, so I have a coffee mug that says on it, “Still not King.” The printing on it is faded, so you can tell I’ve had it a while.
The first of his books I read was The Shining. It scared the snot out of me, especially the part with the topiary animals. I’ve never forgiven Kubrick for leaving those out of that stultifying film he made. I’ve been a huge fan since the mid-seventies, but since there are about a bazillion King fans on the planet, that absolutely does not make me special. However, my experience as one may be just a little different from the usual.
One year during the late eighties, I was travelling on the rock band AC/DC Who Made Who tour with my husband who was a member of the road crew. Moving through the northeast, one of the stops was Bangor, Maine.
Ayuh, Bangor, Maine. Right next door to the fictional town of Castle Rock, familiar to everyone who enjoys King’s novels. And Who Made Who was part of the sound track of King’s recent movie, “Maximum Overdrive,” based on his short story, “Trucks.” Given the relationship between the writer/director and the musicians, there was an excellent chance Mr. King might attend that concert. I went, “Hm.”
Generally, since my husband is a show bus driver, we would go to the hotel to sleep during the concert, to be well rested for the drive to the next city. I had two choices: to go to the hotel to sleep, or hang out at the concert and hope for a chance at meeting my favorite novelist, who might or might not show up. After much deliberation and weighing the odds, I concluded that I just wasn’t that lucky. Staying at the arena would be a waste of time, and I would only be disappointed after an evening of thinking everyone I saw was him. So I went to the hotel with my husband.
That night we returned to the arena to pick up the road crew and make the trip to Rhode Island. Business as usual, until we stopped for fuel at a truck stop just outside of Bangor. Everyone on the bus was still awake and wanted to eat, so we went into the restaurant and I grabbed a table for my husband and myself.
I had with me the copy of Different Seasons I’d picked up in Cincinnati, and that night was about halfway through it. I was reading, waiting for my husband to finish fueling the bus and come inside to eat, when one of the crew guys at the next table looked over and said, “Stephen King. You know he was at the gig tonight.”
Well, crap. I’d missed a chance to meet Stephen King backstage at an AC/DC concert. That was just my luck.
So, I told you that story to tell you this one.
Several years later, on the invitation of a friend I went to New York City for their New York Is Book Country fair (and we’ll ignore the absurdity of the word “country” in the same sentence as “New York.”) When I arrived the night before the fair, my friend said, “By the way, Stephen King is expected to be there tomorrow.” At first I thought she meant his books would be there, but then I realized that wasn’t what she’d said. King was expected. I said, “Glug.” I envisioned an autograph line stretching to New Jersey, and knew neither of us wanted to spend the entire day standing in line. But I really wanted a signed book. I told my friend, “Well, let’s see how it goes.”
The next day we went to the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Ave., but I not only couldn’t find where the autographing would be, I couldn’t find any copies of the book. Anywhere. A sales clerk pointed me to the cashier counter, where a short line waited, and told me that was where I needed to buy the book and I would be given a tag that would entitle me to get into the autograph line. Only 250 copies would be autographed. Huh. Strange, but not unreasonable. No line stretching for miles. So I got in line.
Just then the girl behind the counter began counting those in line, and stopped when she got to the customer standing in front of me. She said to me, “I’m sorry, but that’s all we have.” My luck. Again.
But wait! The customer in front of me said, “Oh, no, I’m not in line. I’m just with her.” She pointed to the customer in front of her. So I got the very last tag.
This time I not only got to say hello to Mr. King, but I had something to say to him other than, “I’ve read all your books.” When I told him, “I missed meeting you backstage at an AC/DC concert a few years ago,” he smiled and we took off on a short (rigidly timed) conversation about AC/DC.
Lots of folks sneer at King and his work, for not being “literary,” which is a genre construction in any case. To me, the objective in writing fiction is to entertain an audience. Sometimes that audience prefers a style of writing that resembles classic literature, and sometimes the audience prefers a more straightforward style and no-nonsense storyline. King certainly knows his stuff. It’s no accident that his books are so popular. He didn’t just hit on a story and milk it for forty-odd years, he constructs his work deliberately, and each novel and short story says something different. I read Danse Macabre about thirty years ago, and while I was struggling to become published and learning the craft, it was (along with The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri) a main source of direction for me. Forget On Writing, his first book on writing was all about nuts and bolts, and the essentials of storytelling. And for me, that’s what it’s about—storytelling. It doesn’t matter what genre. The body count is irrelevant. Plot vs. character is a pointless discussion, because story requires both and it makes no sense to respond to books that have cardboard characters by writing books where nothing happens. If only more writers of fiction understood these things so well.
So, I continue to study the craft in my quest for a spot on the bestseller lists, drinking my caffeine from my “Still not King” cup, and know there will be a day when Stephen King will be studied in literature classes the same way other obscenely popular and populist writers such as Dickens and Shakespeare are today.
I sign myself,
Julianne Lee writes the Berkley Prime Crime Restoration Mystery Series under the pseudonym Anne Rutherford. Set in the theatre world of Restoration London, the first two books are THE OPENING NIGHT MURDER and THE SCOTTISH PLAY MURDER.