Monday, September 9

Find The Truth Inside The Lie: Stephen King on Writing

Find The Truth Inside The Lie: Stephen King on Writing

I've been binging on Stephen King.

I'm reading Under the Dome (my ereader tells me that after completing ~500 pages I'm 52% through) and watching the TV series. This is entertainment at its best and, as a writer, it's fascinating to see what changed between the book and the TV show (especially given that Stephen King is a writer on the show).

But that's not what I want to talk about.

Yesterday I came across this interview with Stephen King, The Art of Fiction No. 189 on The Paris Review.

The interview is from (as near as I can tell) 2008 and King is remarkably candid about both writing in general and his in particular. For example:

Book ideas, creativity, and connecting unrelated subjects

"When I wrote Cujo—about a rabid dog—I was having trouble with my motorcycle, and I heard about a place I could get it fixed. ... The mechanic had a farmhouse and an auto shop across the road. So I took my motorcycle up there, and when I got it into the yard, it quit entirely. And the biggest Saint Bernard I ever saw in my life came out of that garage, and it came toward me.

"Those dogs look horrible anyway, particularly in summer. They’ve got the dewlaps, and they’ve got the runny eyes. They don’t look like they’re well. He started growling at me, way down in his throat: arrrrrrrrrrggggggghhhhhh. ... The mechanic came out of the garage and said to me, Oh, that’s Bowser, ... Don’t worry about him. He does that to everybody. So I put my hand out to the dog, and the dog went for my hand.

"I remember how scared I was because there was no place to hide. I was on my bike but it was dead, and I couldn’t outrun him. ... But that was not a story, it was just a piece of something. A couple of weeks later I was thinking about this Ford Pinto that my wife and I had. ... I was worried about my wife getting stuck in that Pinto, and I thought, What if she took that car to get fixed like I did my motorcycle and the needle valve stuck and she couldn’t get it going—but instead of the dog just being a mean dog, what if the dog was really crazy?

"Then I thought, Maybe it’s rabid. That’s when something really fired over in my mind. Once you’ve got that much, you start to see all the ramifications of the story."

King on his kind of book

"... I can remember thinking that I wanted the book [Cujo] to feel like a brick that was heaved through your window at you. I’ve always thought that the sort of book that I do—and I’ve got enough ego to think that every novelist should do this—should be a kind of personal assault. It ought to be somebody lunging right across the table and grabbing you and messing you up. It should get in your face. It should upset you, disturb you. And not just because you get grossed out. I mean, if I get a letter from somebody saying, I couldn’t eat my dinner, my attitude is, Terrific! [emphasis mine]"

Interviewer: "What do you think it is that we’re afraid of?"

I don’t think there’s anything that I’m not afraid of, on some level. But if you mean, What are we afraid of, as humans? Chaos. The outsider. We’re afraid of change. We’re afraid of disruption, and that is what I’m interested in. I mean, there are a lot of people whose writing I really love—one of them is the American poet Philip Booth—who write about ordinary life straight up, but I just can’t do that.

I once wrote a short novel called “The Mist.” It’s about this mist that rolls in and covers a town, and the story follows a number of people who are trapped in a supermarket. There’s a woman in the checkout line who’s got this box of mushrooms. When she walks to the window to see the mist coming in, the manager takes them from her. And she tells him, “Give me back my mushies.”

We’re terrified of disruption. We’re afraid that somebody’s going to steal our mushrooms in the checkout line.

King's stories are about "... an intrusion of the extraordinary into ordinary life and how we deal with it."

I’d say that what I do is like a crack in the mirror. ... In every life you get to a point where you have to deal with something that’s inexplicable to you, whether it’s the doctor saying you have cancer or a prank phone call. So whether you talk about ghosts or vampires or Nazi war criminals living down the block, we’re still talking about the same thing, which is an intrusion of the extraordinary into ordinary life and how we deal with it. What that shows about our character and our interactions with others and the society we live in interests me a lot more than monsters and vampires and ghouls and ghosts.

On Planning A Book Out--Or Not

King: "Every book is different each time you revise it. Because when you finish the book, you say to yourself, This isn’t what I meant to write at all. At some point, when you’re actually writing the book, you realize that. But if you try to steer it, you’re like a pitcher trying to steer a fastball, and you screw everything up. As the science-fiction writer Alfred Bester used to say, The book is the boss. You’ve got to let the book go where it wants to go, and you just follow along. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a bad book."
It is a wonderful interview and, if you like Stephen King's work and want a peek behind the curtain, I encourage you to read it.

Stephen King's Acceptance Speech for the National Book Award

Stephen King won the National Book Award For Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003 but I had not read his speech. I did yesterday (as I said, I've been binging) and it is truly wonderful.

Here is one of my favorite parts:
"But the storyteller cannot afford to forget and must always be ready to hold himself or herself to account. He or she needs to remember that the truth lends verisimilitude to the lies that surround it./ ... I've tried to improve myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie. Sometimes I have succeeded." 
That advice was like a tall cool drink of water, "Find the truth inside the lie." Simple, but far from easy.

I'd like to leave you with something disconnected--though not completely so--from the current topic.  A 1968 memo written by Gene Roddenberry to the writers of Star Trek was discovered recently, it details what the creator of Kirk, Bones, and Spock thought were their essential characteristics. Fascinating read.

Photo credit: "SK-4" by Tabitha King, copyright


  1. That was a great interview. Though I have to disagree with King on outlines. I think different authors write differently, and if outlines are how they roll, then that's what they should do. Otherwise, very good advice and things I agree with completely.

    1. I agree with you about outlines.

      I do believe there's a middle way, though. I often do what I think if as a zero draft; a short sketch of my story ideas without considering point of view, person, and so on.

      Then I step back and look at what I have and create an outline while still forming (and reforming) the story. Often my first draft (which is really my second) will differ markedly from the zero draft.

      And, of course, even then the story can shift. It's a bit like the Yin-Yang symbol. (grin)

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. I love what he says about planning a book. I've been fighting the notion that books MUST be planned but it's just not my style. It's very frustrating but at least I can claim to be in good company! Thanks for sharing that.

    1. The best company!

      I think the main thing is for each writer to discover what works for them. The writing experience is going to be different for everyone. And it doesn't stop there, each book is different, at least slightly.


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