Stephen King on the Creative Process, the State of Fiction, and More

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.

JP: Well let's go to the story itself, which I read today. It's such a gut-punch of a thing -- it couldn't have been anything other than a short story, right?

SK: Yeah I think it's only a short-story idea. The motorcycle accident made me think of this terrible crash that happened on Mother's Day -- these two women, and they were going upstate with a whole bunch of kids, and there were eight or nine fatalities, and the van was going over a hundred miles an hour, and nobody knows why. Okay? Were they arguing? Were they maybe on a cell phone? There was no alcohol involved. And I think sometimes we write a story to try and figure out what happened, to our own satisfaction.

JP: One of the things that you seem to enjoy is sort of mixing, or actually in this case colliding, different categories of experience.

SK: Walks of life.

JP: Right. I mean, here you have these two poets who've both had these rich, fulfilling lives, even if they're waning a little bit now, and then these stomped-on women ...

SK: What I wanted to do is: You've got two people who are intellectuals, who have made a career out of using language to exalt the human experience. To me that's what poetry does. It 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. And then on the other hand you've got these women whose lives are the absolute opposite of poetry. Who are living below the margin, below the radar, this kind of desperate life, and it seems to me that when they look at each other, and take this unspoken decision to just end it, not only for themselves but for their children, who are going to have lives that are just the same -- that's almost like a poetic epiphany. That moment. Their deaths are a kind of poem. It's an awful poem, it's an awful decision -- nobody's saying that this suicide is the right thing to do -- but if you read the story and respond to the story, you can say, "Well maybe for them at the time it was the only thing to do ..."

JP: I'll tell you what I responded to. In the last two paragraphs, the tears sort of jumped to my eyes, but I realized that it wasn't the deaths, oddly enough, that I was responding to -- it was the bravery of the old poet, staggering around.

SK: Oh yes. I love that little moment there ... when I thought to myself: Well, these are poets. And poets, in my view, and I think the view of most people, do speak God's language -- it's better, it's finer, it's language on a higher plane than ordinary people speak in their daily lives, that these women or their children would speak in their daily lives. And at a moment like this the old lady poet turns and says, "What the fuck does it look like?" Because that's all you can say. Poetry falls apart. In that sense it's not a very cheerful story. The woman is almost saying "There's no language that describes how terrible this is."

JP: But on the other hand, they are still present at the scene, the poets. I mean, they are witnessing to this thing ...

SK: Right.

JP: I mean, that was my takeaway -- that in the instant, there are no words for it, but later, perhaps ...

SK: I'm not very good at analyzing my own work, but I would say that probably this is an event that neither one of these people would ever write about in their own poetry, because it's beyond poetry. It almost negates poetry. But I think it's tough to overanalyze a short story, because they don't stand up to it.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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