Stephen King wrote the Dark Tower series based entirely on one poem, Robert Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. This is my favorite excerpt:
Thus, I had so long suffer’d, in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among “The Band”—to wit,
The knights who to the Dark Tower’s search address’d
Their steps—that just to fail as they, seem’d best.
And all the doubt was now—should I be fit?
I only had enough time to ask Stephen King one question while sitting next to him at the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival. As with all good horror novels, this interview has a twist at the end.
Brightest Young Things: I’ve been reading your books my entire life.
Stephen King: Thank you.
BYT: No, thank you.
SK: Why thank you.
BYT: You know what? Thank you. What is more difficult to write, beauty or horror. I think I would rather battle a supernatural clown with a bunch of my best pals than go on a date. For me it’s way more terrifying to fall in love.
SK: You’re dating the wrong people!
BYT: Say that louder and we’ll play this back for my mom. I know there is a wealth of beauty in the world but I am afraid of most of it.
SK: Well for me, as far as writing goes I just do the narration and I sit down to do each day’s work and I take it all dead level. Sometimes you get something that’s really scary or you get something that’s sort of transcendent. I love it, that’s one of the reasons you do this job because you can have days when it’s horrible and you come back from those three and a half hours of work and you think “I really fucked up.” And then you have days where you say “I did my work,” and you put it aside. Then you have days where you say “I’m on air. I really killed it today. I really caught a wave.” That’s the way I think of it, like catching a wave.
BYT: To put it in somewhat depressing terms it’s a bit like a manic high or a depressing low.
SK: Yes, so it isn’t a question of what’s easier to write or what’s more fun to write. It’s just a question of what catches you on that particular day.
BYT: I think it’s a little unfair to paint you as a horror writer.
SK: I do what I do and people can call it what they want. I know that people want to categorize me like that. If you go to Barnes & Noble and you go to the horror section…to me it’s like I never set out to write a horror novel in my life. That’s just the way my books have been categorized.
BYT: You were never drawn to that? It just happened then it kept happening and kept happening.
SK: I’ve always liked horror movies as a kid and I’m interested in…I’m not primarily an intellectual writer. I’m a visceral writer. I want to grab you. I want to engage your emotions. I want to be on that level. Suspense, horror, mystery…all those things do that. A novel like IT that has all the different monsters in it. What I wanted to write about was childhood belief and what happens to it.
BYT: I often think what would happen in a situation like that, in the real world. For example if I started to tell people I was seeing these things it would never advance the way it does in a book. I would be called crazy and that would be the end of the day.
SK: Well, the whole thing about what’s inexplicable or what’s strange or what’s monstrous…you know the horror novels or the horror movies, what’s safe about it is that it’s divorced from reality. What’s useful about it is that it allows you to channel the things that are inexplicable that happen in real life like car accidents or cancer. When you read a novel about ghosts you say “Well, how can something like that be?” And you say the same thing about the real stuff.
BYT: Nothing is scarier than real life. I have laughed many times while reading your books. What makes you laugh? That’s a hard question. You don’t have to tell me your favorite joke but if you have a favorite joke I’ll listen to it. That’s kind of an odd thing to have nowadays. Folks don’t really have actual jokes anymore…they just know what they find funny.
SK: I’ve been binge watching The Good Wife. There’s a character on the show who’s a lesbian. Her name is Kalinda and she picks up this girl in a bar and the woman says “Make me laugh,” and Kalinda says “What do you call a boomerang that won’t come back…..a stick.” And she says it with a completely straight face. I like jokes. I like funny situations. Listen, humor and horror are two sides of the same coin. It’s funny if YOU get a pie in the face. I laugh like hell. Now if somebody throws a pie in MY face, that’s horror.
Twist: TWO QUESTIONS