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

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.

JP: Ha!

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.

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.

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"?

JP: Yes. I love it. Now: In your grand maturity ...

SK: (laughs) I don't feel very mature.

JP: ... what is your favorite part of the creative process?

SK: It's still when you sit down and you get a really good day, and something happens that you don't expect and you just take off, you just go off on the material -- I love that, when that happens.

JP: How often does it happen?

SK: I don't knock myself out as often as I used to. But often enough so that you know it when it happens. In the new book, which is called 11/22/63, I was writing about a high-school variety show and I just went off. Terrific. Lot of fun.

JP: And how does it feel to have an unwritten book inside your brain?

SK: I never started a book that I expected to finish. Because it always feels like a job that's much too big for a little guy like me. Thomas Williams -- do you know his work at all?

JP: No, I don't.

SK: He was a wonderful, wonderful novelist. He wrote a novel called The Hair of Harold Roux, which is one of my favorite books, about a writer named Aaron Benham. Benham says that when he sits down to write a book it's like being on a dark plain with one little tiny fire. And somebody comes and stands by that fire to warm themselves. And then more people come. And those are the characters in your book, and the fire is whatever inspiration you have. And they feed the fire, and it gets big, and eventually it burns out because the book is at an end. It's always felt that way to me. When you start, it's very cold, an impossible task. But then maybe the characters start to take on a little bit of life, or the story takes a turn that you don't expect ... With me that happens a lot because I don't outline, I just have a vague notion. So it's always felt like less of a made thing and more of a found thing. That's exciting. That's a thrill.

JP: And how do you keep your energy up?

SK: I don't know. Eat three meals a day and sleep eight hours a night. I read a lot. I'm still in love with what I do, with the idea of making things up, so hours when I write always feel like very blessed hours to me.

JP: Well with that, we come to the end of my questions.

SK: I'm delighted that The Atlantic is publishing the story. It's a dream, because I can remember sending stories to The Atlantic when I was a teenager, and then in my 20s and getting the rejection slips. So this feels like a real benchmark. It's a great thing.