The May 2011 issue of The Atlantic features the short story "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive," by Stephen King. The story's origins are unusual. As part of The Atlantic's package on "First Drafts," James Parker, The Atlantic's entertainment columnist, talked to King about how the story came into being, about King's creative process, about the state of short fiction today, and about the relative merits of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest as background music to write to. They spoke on April 1.
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.
SK: Like J. D. Salinger. When he finally decides J. D. Salinger's never going to publish another book, it's kind of like, "Fuck it! Move on!" So I had this idea, and then one day there was a terrible motorcycle crash about a mile from our house and a woman died and about two days later, you know how it is, the crosses started to appear and the flowers and that sort of thing, and I started to think about that, and this ["Herman Wouk is Still Alive"] is the story that came out of it.
JP: Dare I say this to Stephen King, but it's a very Stephen King sort of a setup, isn't it? I mean the bet, and the random title -- if you'd written a story about this happening to a writer, then the story that he wrote would have acquired some sort of prophetic power, or it would have overtaken him in some way. Wouldn't it?
SK: That's not a bad idea, actually. That's not a bad idea at all. I like that.
JP: Well you've written books like that, haven't you?
SK: Yeah, I've written some stuff like that, and I'm actually thinking of something like that right now. I don't want to spill the beans on it. That kind of thing is very liberating, actually, it gives you a chance to stretch out and do something different. So I like it, I like it a lot. It turned out that there was an actual accident on Mother's Day in Maine about seven years ago where a bunch of people, mostly children, were killed. You know how it happens when you write a story or when you start to get an idea, all sorts of different elements kind of pull together. That's the real magic of the job.
JP: And is that sort of suggestibility, or availability to coincidence, and to these pokings and prods that come out of reality and into your imagination -- is that something you cultivate? Or is it something that you have at different levels of intensity at different times? I mean, how does that work for you?
SK: I don't think you can force it. I think that sometimes you have a certain ... Well in this case I had a job to do. We made the bet and I wanted to come through with it, that's the honorable thing to do. So I think that probably my unconscious was looking for something to pitch upon. That's something that is almost accidental at the beginning of a career, but the more you write, the more trained you are to recognize the little signals. I'll give you an example. 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."
JP: Yes. Yes!
SK: So that's kind of the way it works.
JP: Are the ideas, or the suggestions, still coming at the same pace?
SK: No. I don't think so. And in a way that's a relief.
JP: I was going to ask that.
SK: 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. 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.
JP: So do you keep them in a different file, or ...?
SK: No. 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.
JP: So this awful thing of the writer who goes, "Oh, I had a great idea but I forgot it!" -- you don't really subscribe to that.
SK: No. Because that wasn't a great idea. If you can't remember it, it was a terrible idea.