Master of Macabre Interview
30 August 1998
By Randor Guy
He has been called by many alluring epithets.... The Master of the Macabre.... King of Horror... Wizard of Weird.. and Artist of Darkness and such. More than 80 million copies of his scare- raisers have sold around the world and continue to sell. Recently he sent sizzling shocks of shivers up the spines of New York publishers when he demanded an unheard-of mega buck of $17 million for his work in progress, "Bag of Bones." His books have topped the List of Best-Sellers for months. "Carrie". "The Shining"... "Salem's Lot"... "The Eyes of the Dragon".... "Different Seasons"... "Night Shift"... "Skeleton Crew"... "Wizard and Glass", all these and many more have been best sellers around the world. As a professor at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles, told this writer,"Stephen King found dollars in the darkness of the human mind!" Many of his novels have been filmed with much success. The list includes, "Carrie".. "Salem's Lot"... "Cujo", and "The Shining". "The Shining" was filmed by the noted filmmaker Stanley Kubric in 1980 with the Hollywood superstar Jack Nicholson in the lead. He hit the bull's eye with "Carrie" in 1974. Since then he has never looked back. He received many awards, like "World Fantasy Award", "Nebula Award" and "British Fantasy Award." But his success had never been easy. It rarely is. As his biographer, Douglas Winter put it, ".... there were more than two thousand pages of unpublished manuscripts, years of collecting rejection slips and publishing short fiction in obscure and unnoticed magazines." During his recent stay in Los Angeles, RANDOR GUY spoke to Stephen King in Bangor, Maine where he now lives in a sprawling Victorian mansion. Here goes the tele-chat....
Guy: Hi! This is Randor Guy from Madras, now in Los Angeles...
King: Hi! It is very nice to speak to you, Randor.
Guy: Thank you, Stephen for sparing me the time.
King: I have been reading a lot of Indian fiction lately as I felt that it would be sort of fun. Are your calling from L.A.?
Guy: Yes...So I thought I could talk to you...
King: Fine.. fire away, Randor!
Guy: What drew you to this genre of horror fiction, Stephen?
King: Nothing! (laughs)
Guy: Nothing? How did you start then?
King: I just loved it. I mean, Randor, it's a question of something that's pumped into your system. You couldn't ask a compass needle why it turns to North. It just does. That's all! My father who I never knew, deserted my mother when I was two. He just disappeared. I don't remember him at all. Well, he left behind boxes and boxes of books They were all, you know, H.P. Lovecraft writings (of horror fiction), and scary stories of the Forties and Fifties. Apparently he had the same taste as huine in stories. I love supernatural stories. I loved all of Rudyard Kipling for instance, the stories I particularly like are those of India.
Guy: We have very scary tales in our country... About man-eating vampires, ghosts, demoniac beings.. and the lot... I wrote a tale about a vampire, disguised as a midwife who eats a pregnant woman with the foetus and all. It scared readers so much that the series was abruptly stopped by public demand.
King: Congrats! (laughs) Very interesting. The object is that you are supposed to scare people. But they should not allow pregnant women to read such tales. (laughs).
Guy: But women love to read such scary stories more than men in India. You know, a woman police officer in Madras read that vampire tale and got so scared she nearly went mad with sleepless nights! Her husband stopped talking to me.
King: Good for you, Randor, keep it up! (laughs)
Guy: Now.. those boxes of books...
King: I read all of them. Everything that he had and left behind.
Guy: When did you start writing?
King: I think when I was 12-years old.
Guy: That's catching it quite early! You enjoyed it, did you, Stephen?
King: I enjoyed it. It helped me to pass time usefully as a child. It was more like play than work, you understand, Randor. So I wrote as much as I could. I started to send stories to magazines when I was around 16 and I published my first story when I was 20.
Guy: So it took you four years to get grounded.
King: Yeah, I got the usual rejection slips.
Guy: Yeah, it happens always to all writers. I think rejection slips, as they say, are the stepping stones to success or somewhere.
King: Right, I think so.
Guy: When did you hit big time?
King: Well, I sold a novel, called "Carrie" in 1974. It wasn't big time. It was very small time in terms of money I got from that book but there were very large paper-back sales after that. I got an advance of quarter million dollars and I guess at that point I had been teaching and I retired from teaching and became full-time writer.
Guy: Wonderful. A full-time writer. Great!
King: (Laughs) Randor, are you a full-time guy too?
Guy: Yeah... I write in Indian languages besides English. Crime, and film history... I also write movie scripts.. I make TV series and movies too, short films. I try to work in mass media! I am known as a crime writer and film historian.
King: Good! I am very interested in Indian cinema. I have never seen any but I have read lot about the film music. There's this book I read called "A Suitable Boy" by Vikram Seth. He wrote some very funny things about Indian cinema and people. Very interesting stuff he wrote, I enjoyed reading all that about your films. I love to see a couple!
Guy: Indian cinema is music oriented. It derives its strength from Indian theatre which in the past was all singing and some dancing like the Hollywood movies of early decades of talking pictures. It has a charm of its own which is very unique in world cinema. An average film has all emotions, like comedy, tragedy, sex, violence, music and what not. If you mix the elements well in right parts you have a winner! We make nearly 1000 movies every year!
King: Yeah, it's a huge film industry.
Guy: It's entirely privately financed. No banks.. no bonding houses. Individuals back it all!
King: Wow! I would like to see one or two of your films.
Guy: Maybe in Maine you don't get a chance.
Guy: But in L.A. and New York you get chances to see them. Maybe sometime when we meet I could show you one or two!
King: Absolutely, thanks!
Guy: Reverting to your work, where do you get the material for your stories?
King: It just occurs to me, that's all. I get ideas and they have a tendency to be in the general. But I deliberately don't go out and pick up scary things or creepy things to write about. Generally speaking I take every idea as a good idea and shape them in my head. I have gists in my mind and it made my publishers happy because they have a comfortable place to put me in, a comfortable leash so to speak. So that's great but I, do not...
Guy: You don't go affer ideas!
King: Right, I don't know where the ideas come from... No.
Guy: You don't go out like Somerset Maugham did to draw from real life and stuff like that?
King: Well, only in the sense that we see people every day and things happen to us. I was in a bookstore in New York a couple of years ago and there was this fat man who got stuck in a revolving door. He was hugely fat and he just filled the whole segment of the revolving door and the police were trying to fix the door to let him out and he had his face and hands pressed against the glass, he looked just so funny. He looked like fish in an aquarium and I thought I would like to do story about that. I haven't yet but maybe someday I will write. In that sense it comes from real life.
Guy: Some of the crime writers, in fact most of them take their inspiration from actual cases and spin them around filling in all sorts of details, frills and fancies. I think it was Irving Wallace who said, "There is nothing called real fiction."
King: I think it is very true.
Guy: Irving Wallace even wrote a book called "The Fabulous Originals." I am sure you have read that.
King: Yeah, I did.
Guy: Wallace traces all the famous characters in literature in works of Charies Dickens and others who were actually taken from real life persons. After reading Agatha Christie I find she took much material from British crime cases. Even American authors have done it. "The Airport," as you probably know, was taken from a real life crime.
King: I do know that case as a matter of fact. That's the guy who bombed the plane for the insurance money. When they asked him where he wanted his mail sent he said, that for that year you can send it to Canon City, that's the prison in Colorado. And then he said after that you can send it to hell!
Guy: He said it, didn't he? Stephen, what's your interest in movies?
King: I have been a fan of the movies all my life. I grew up on them. That was always the most fun.... to go to movies and we used to look forward to it as a big deal. So I went every chance I got. I think anybody who grows up with the movies, who becomes a writer has the chance to write cinematically.
Guy: That's true.
King: A lot of stuff I have written has been sieved through the movies.
Guy: Yeah, I have read many of your books, like "The Shining," "Night Fire" and others. They have a cinematic base. They scream to be made into movies.
King: It isn't anything I did on purpose, it just sort of happened to me.
Guy: You are a big name in India, in case you don't know!
King: Well, that's good I guess some more books sell there! (Laughs)
Guy: they do! In Indian book stores they have a separate shelf for you. Rows of books of Stephen King.
King: I love that, Randor. (Laughs)
Guy: That's where I found "The Art of Stephen King."
King: I know that book.
Guy: You haven't tried your hand at directing movies and things like that?
King: I did. I did direct a movie.
Guy: Which one is that?
King: It is called "Maximum Overdrive". It is available in video stores and if you see it, Randor, you will understand why I never did it again!
Guy: Why do you say so?
King: I didn't do a good job of it. I am sure I could do a better job if I do it again. I don't say I will never do it again but it is definitely a different world, the movies!
Guy: You said it, buddy! Every director feels that way... One can always do it better the second time but the chance never comes!
King: (Laughs) You said it, Randor! I am sure you felt that way too!
Guy: Of course I did! And still do feel that way! How do you work? Use a computer or write in long hand like Hemingway? Did you know he used a pencil and loved to write standing at a desk? Another writer could never write unless he had a basket of rotten apples by his side! The smell inspired him!
King: (Laughs) We writers have our quirks, Randor! I work with what I have. I have got a computer, it's like a Macintosh. I have a portable like you see people bring on planes.
Guy: Like a laptop? At UCLA here I go almost every day to the library to work on Hollywood film history. I take notes in long hand in my note book. One day a professor sat next to me and worked on his laptop with a book on movies. Just what I was doing! He was so amused by my old world methods and started talking and we became pals!
King: Fine story, Randor. Put it in one of your films (laughs) How do you write?
Guy: Now I work on a computer. Earlier I wrote in long hand and then typed it. I dictated too. Stephen, I wish to ask you something.
King: Shoot, Randor!
Guy: I have heard some people say that when you type the creative juices do not flow as freely as they would when you work in long hand. They say that the pen or pencil in your hand and the brain are in direct contact, or touch and it helps. What do you think about that? According to them the mechanical process of typing interferes with the flow of creative juices and divides the concentration.
King: Very interesting theory, it could be correct but I feel the concentration is disturbed only when you are learning to type but not later. But I know many writers have that view. My collaborator, Peter Straub with whom I did books jointly always wrote in long hand. He has a very bad handwriting that nobody except me can make it out.
Guy: He is in good company!
King: (laughs) His manuscripts are so valuable and after he and I are gone the work will be lost to the world. Very said, but he never bothers to type... Obviously there is something in your theory. Very interesting.
Guy: Stephen, do you have any advice to budding writers starting at the bottom?
King: I never give advice. I don't believe in it. If you have it in you it will come out someday. Meanwhile keep writing. That's the trick, if there is one!
Guy: Now, one more question... they say that crime novels, horror fiction, all such writings corrupt human minds. They have nothing to ennoble and elevate people.
King: I have heard it too but I don't agree. Man always wanted to be entertained and he listened to tales in the firelight since the cave man days. The story-teller in that age was an important person. Books rarely elevate human mind unless they are religious books and such stuff. Man loves to hear stories and the crime and horror fiction helps man to understand the human mind and behaviour better. They do serve a purpose.
Guy: I agree with you. Thanks very much, Stephen, for talking to me and sparing your valuable time. I appreciate it.
King: Randor, I enjoyed talking to you. I wish you all the best in your Hollywood projects. Take care... Bye...