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

JP: I don't know. I think if you drive into a reader that hard, they're going to be left with all sorts of things to think about and process, right?

SK: Yeah, but when fiction works for me it works on an emotional level first and an intellectual level second. If you say that tears jumped to your eyes, even if they were metaphorical tears --

JP: They weren't. They were physical tears.

SK: Oh ...

JP: I sniffed a little bit.

SK: (laughs) That's good. Well, James, it was all made up.

JP: Martin Amis has that line about how the writer dies twice -- first the talent, then the body, or however it goes. This story would seem to deny that. Herman Wouk's still writing!

SK: Undoubtedly. And that's why the poets are old in the story, because I wanted to be able to say: These are people who were young and roistering --

JP: That, I really liked. The fact that he was a broad-shouldered dude, I loved that detail.

SK: Kinda like some of the Beats that came out of San Francisco, I really kind of wanted that, and the idea of the passage of time and now he's this skinny old man and she's had all these lovers. But the thing is, though, they're still working, and Herman Wouk is still working. And you know, I remember very clearly, probably10 or 12 years ago, I was at a bookstore in my hometown in Maine and I walked in and there on the new-novel table was this book A Hole In Texas by Herman Wouk, and I was just... I was slain, James! I thought to myself: "What a hero! He's still working!"

JP: More generally, are you still as pessimistic about the short story as you seemed to be in that New York Times essay that you wrote?

SK: Ah well ...

JP: Or was that like a cranky moment?

SK: Well it wasn't really a cranky moment. I mean, it's a question of who reads them. And I've got a perspective of being a short-story reader going back to when I was 8 or 9 years old. At that time there were magazines all over the place. There were so many magazines publishing short fiction that nobody could keep up with it. They were just this open mouth going "Feed me! Feed me!" The pulps alone, the 15- and 20-cent pulps, published like 400 stories a month, and that's not even counting the so-called "slicks" -- Cosmopolitan, American Mercury. All those magazine 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. And I've always felt like I wanted to write for a wide audience. And I think that that's an honorable thing to want to do and I also think it's an honorable thing to say, "I've got something that will only appeal to a small slice of the audience". And there are little magazines that publish in that sense -- but a lot of the people who read those magazines are only reading them to see what they publish so that they can publish their own stories.

JP: Right.

SK: It isn't a general thing. You don't see people on airplanes with their magazines folded open to Part 7 of the new Norman Mailer. He's dead of course, but you know what I mean. And all of these e-books and this computer stuff, it kind of muddies the water and obscures the fact that people just don't read short fiction. And when you fall out of the habit of doing it, you lose the knack, you lose the ability to sit down for 45 minutes like you can with this story and get a little bit of entertainment.

JP: Get a little buzz.

SK: A little buzz! That's great.

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.

JP: Are you still listening to music when you write?

SK: I listen to music when I rewrite now. I don't listen to music when I compose anymore. I can't. I've lost the ability to multitask that way!

JP: You used to listen to Metallica, right?

SK: Metallica, Anthrax. I still listen to those guys ... There's a band called the Living Things that I like a lot. Very loud group. I never cared for Ozzy very much.

JP: I'm obsessed with Black Sabbath.

SK: No, no. They don't really work for me. "I AM IRON MAN!"

JP: That doesn't do it?

SK: No. Judas Priest, now ...

JP: I love Judas Priest.

SK: Did you ever hear their cover of "Diamonds and Rust"?

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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