(or I Guess It’s in Bad Taste to Say I’m His “Number One Fan”…)
I read my first Stephen King novel at around 12 years old. Although my parents were relatively strict about some things (curfew, in particular), I was always given the freedom to read whatever I wanted. After tearing through The Shining, I read Carrie, Firestarter, and It (well, the first quarter of it before I got way too scared) in quick succession.
I’ve continued to love his work throughout the years. Much like with favourite songs, I associate his books with the places I read them: I wandered the woods with Trisha McFarland during a summer vacation in Muskoka; I found my way to the Boulder Free Zone after the kids I was babysitting were asleep; Pennywise made me terrified to turn on the faucets at a friend’s cottage; Annie Wilkes held me captive during slow times at the reception desk during a summer job; and I reunited with a now-grown Danny Torrance during my daily commute on the TTC.
The most powerful memory I have of his novels was my most recent rereading of The Shining near the tail end of my therapy for PTSD. For over a year, I’d shied away from anything remotely scary–just getting up and getting through the day was all the horror I could face. But one day, I saw my battered old copy sitting on the shelf and decided, what the fuck, I might as well try.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but being scared by a novel whose ending I already knew helped me become more comfortable confronting the horrors I wasn’t as sure about. It was like being scared in a controlled environment helped increase my tolerance for the fear I was feeling day-to-day. I’ll always be grateful for that.
Given the history I have with his writing, I was excited to hear that (1) he was releasing a new novel with his son Owen, and (2) he’d be coming to Toronto on his book tour. (There was also (3) the event was just two days after my birthday, making it a pretty sweet birthday gift to myself.) I promptly purchased a ticket and began counting down the days until my childhood dream would become a reality.
That night finally came last Thursday, and it was beyond anything I could have imagined.
Stephen and Owen are both hilarious and exceptionally quick-witted. They seem like the kind of guys you’d love to hole up with for hours in a diner booth, sharing cup after cup of coffee (or maybe I’ve just been watching too much Twin Peaks). Stephen’s humour extended to his wardrobe: the t-shirt he was wearing featured one of my favourite quotes: “If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”
They each read excerpts from their new novel, Sleeping Beauties. The premise is that the women of the world mysteriously fall asleep and are covered in cocoons. When awakened, they become intensely violent. Indeed, the book does seem quite violent, but both excerpts also feature the King brand of comedy, including a dig at Donald Trump and fantastic use of the word “rutabaga”.
In discussing their writing process, the Kings mentioned their “donut method”, where they would each write sections, but leave paragraphs within the section blank for the other to complete. This approach allowed them to “knit together” their two writing styles, so that it didn’t read too much in either style. I’m looking forward to enjoying the results, just as soon as I’m done re-reading Misery.
Beyond their collaboration on this project, both the elder and the junior King (as one audience member called them) told interesting stories about their father-son relationship. My favourite was the story of how Owen made money as a child. Unlike most parents, who would assign chores like mowing the lawn or washing the car, Stephen gave Owen–then only eight years old–a tape recorder and had him record books on tape. Owen says he occasionally protested his assigned book by giving the main characters goofy voices. He later recorded the entirely of War and Peace as a gift for his father.
In discussing his body of work, I enjoyed a story Stephen told about hitting a slump while writing The Stand. It was about halfway through the book, when our band of protagonists had reached the Boulder Free Zone. Instead of writing his usual fare, he found himself writing about meetings and wasn’t sure how to get back to the adventure. Then he remembered the Raymond Chandler quote about the man with the gun, and thought to himself, “You know what? I think I’ll blow a bunch of these guys up.”
The most meaningful part of the night for me (which is saying something because the entire thing was… is “transcendent” taking it too far…?) was when Stephen gave advice to aspiring writers:
“Write for yourself, and be brave.”
Those are two things I struggle with. Whenever I write a new piece, I worry that nobody will like it, or that they’ll think I’m an idiot for even having tried. I often (ok, constantly) wonder if I’m just writing nonsense that nobody cares about. I reject myself before anyone else can, which, yes, prevents rejection–at least the kind that comes from external sources–but it also prevents success.
I’m going to heed his advice, not only to honour him, but also to honour the 12-year-old girl who dreamed of becoming a writer just like her hero, Stephen King. She and I were both pretty stoked to discover that he’s just as awesome in person as we built him up to be in our imaginations.