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Novelist Stephen King is best known for his works of horror, but he says what scares him the most is not being able to write. Jeffrey Brown spoke with him at the Library of Congress National Book Festival about his latest novel, “End of Watch,” the last in a trilogy, and about writing itself -- how he lets the story go where it takes him, his writing routine and his dread of a blank slate.
He is the author of "Carrie," "The Shining, "Misery," and so many more classic and frightening tales.
In the latest addition to the "NewsHour" Bookshelf, Stephen King, master of the supernatural and suspense, reflects on the art of writing and his latest novel, "End of Watch."
He spoke with Jeffrey Brown recently at the National Book Festival here in Washington
"End of Watch," the end of a trilogy, right?
STEPHEN KING, Author, "End of Watch": Yes.
Does a trilogy start life as a trilogy?
That's a very good question.
Actually, no. I thought that the first book in the trilogy, "Mr. Mercedes," would be the only book. And I kind of didn't want to let the characters go, the main characters. So I had an idea for another book, and realized when I was working on that that I had unfinished business from the first book. So I had a nice rounded quality, the three of them.
So you didn't know where you were heading, right? I mean, did you know — even when you start a character in the first book, Mr. Mercedes, do you know where that was going?
No, I didn't.
… with you? You don't know where — you don't know?
I very rarely — sometimes, I have an idea of how the book will finish up, but it very rarely finishes up the way that I think it's going to. You have to go where the book leads you.
And what about a character?
There is a novelist called Thomas Williams, who's passed on now, and he said that the idea for a novel is like a little tiny fire in a dark night. And, one by one, the characters come and stand around it and warm their hands.
And I have always thought that's the perfect metaphor for how it works.
Come around together and warm their hands.
They stand around the fire. And little by little, the fire grows. And you see them more clearly. And that's the novel.
And the story grows.
You wrote a very lovely book that I read years ago on writing about your own life and the craft of writing. And you wrote in there, "The writer's original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader's."
So, this is the sense of what you're talking about.
Here's an example of that. There's a character in "Mr. Mercedes," the first book of the Hodges Trilogy, a woman named Holly Gibney. And as far as I was concerned, she was just going to be a walk-on character. She's going to come on. She's going to be a little neurotic, and there is going to be some discussion with him. And then she was going to disappear from view, a minor character.
And, instead, she came in and took over the whole book. And I let her because that's what needed to happen. The worst thing you can try to do is to steer the story once it gets going. You just kind of follow along and see where it goes. That's the fun.
That's the fun of it.
That's the fun of it, yes.
And it still is fun for you?
Not every day, but most days, it is, yes.
I go where the story leads. And, sometimes, it is a little bit outrageous. And I relish that. I sort of want to be as much on the edge as I can. And I want to engage the reader. I'm an emotional writer, in the sense that I would be happy if you re-read a book for the intellectual or the mental part of it, but, the first time, I just like to reach out and grab you, pull you in.
You know, another thing that struck me, again going back to the book on writing, you say: "Let's get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no idea dump, no central story, no island of buried bestsellers," which is to say that stories almost come from just out there, right? And your job is to, what, find them?
I don't think you find them, exactly.
I think what you do is, you keep your sensors open. And it's — the more that you do the job, the more you come to understand in a kind of intuitive way that you're always — you know, your radar is on. And the thing is going around and around and around. And it's not picking up any blips.
And then something will happen, and it will click, and you will say, this is an idea for a story. And, for me, I'm usually working on something, so that's kind of got to go to the end of the line. And the best thing about that is, is that the bad ideas kind of just drop out of the mix. You forget about them. The good ones stick around. So…
So, does that mean writing can be taught, can be learned?
It can be learned, but I'm not sure it can be taught.
It's a self-taught kind of thing. I think the best writers are voracious readers who pick up the cadences and the feel of narration through a number of different books. And you begin by maybe copying the style of writers that really knocked you out.
I mean, as a teenager, I read a lot of H.P. Lovecraft, so I wrote like H.P. Lovecraft. And in my 20s, I read a lot of Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler, so I wrote like those guys. But, little by little, you develop your own style.
You describe in "On Writing" book about learning the discipline, even the place where you want to write, things like that?
Yes. There's a kind of self-hypnosis involved with it, too.
If you start at the same time every day — most writers have little routines they go through. I like to always stop with a couple of pages that I haven't — that are just raw copy, where I haven't touched it, I haven't tried to revise it, I haven't tried to polish it.
It's like having a little bit of a runway. The next day when you sit down, you have the comfort of saying, well, I have got a little bit here, used to be in the typewriter. Now it's in the magic box, the computer.
I see. So, it's not an empty slate as you start the next day?
Cold start is a hard start.
So, let me ask you one more thing.
Can you imagine stopping writing, not writing?
Well, when people say, what scares you, because I have written a lot of horror novels.
You have written some scary novels.
I say, what really scares me is Alzheimer's or premature senility, losing that ability to read and enjoy and to write. And you do it, and some days maybe aren't so good, and then some days, you really catch a wave, and it's as good as it ever was.
So, it's tough to imagine giving it up.
Stephen King, thank you very much.
Thank you. Pleasure.
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