Stephen King and John Irving give The Manchester Journal a rare dual interview and talk about charitable foundations, critics and lost manuscripts
Masters of the craft discuss writing
By Sarah M. Grant
EXCLUSIVE TO THE MANCHESTER JOURNAL
MANCHESTER - I had a fortunate childhood, I'm the first to admit it. My parents strongly believed in the value of a diverse education, and had the means to follow it through. Growing up in a tiny suburb north of Pittsburgh, there were a number of adequate local schools I could have attended, but my parents chose to send me to an independent inner-city school downtown. The decision formed who I became as an adult. A strong focus on respect, tolerance and social equality helped form every single student in my small school. We were taught to value words versus clothes, appreciate art instead of cars, and study history rather than television.
I loved my school for this, and the encouragement I received in my English classes drove me to pursue a career in writing. I was fortunate, because my parents had a choice of where to send me. But there were many students in my school who would never have been able to attend these classes without financial assistance through the form of scholarships. Funny should I find myself a few decades later, on a late summer afternoon at the Maple Street School in Dorset, discussing the importance of independent schools, charitable foundations, and the art of writing with two of the most well-known novelists in the world.
John Irving is the author of 11 books, including his international bestseller and American Book Award (now National Book Award) finalist, "The World According to Garp," as well as "The Hotel New Hampshire," "A Prayer for Owen Meany," "A Son of the Circus," "A Widow for One Year," and "The Fourth Hand." In 1999, Irving won an Academy Award for his screenplay of "The Cider House Rules," based on his book of the same name.
This summer, his latest novel, "Until I Find You" will be released, and deals with very personal life events which Irving has never before discussed publicly.
Stephen King has written over 40 books, and is considered the world's best-selling novelist. In 1994, King won an O. Henry Award for his short story, "The Man in the Black Suit," in 2003 he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Book Awards. He recently finished the seventh and final novel of his 20-year magnum opus, "The Dark Tower" series. A lifelong Red Sox fan, King partnered last fall with Stewart O'Nan to write "Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season."
This fall, King will release a 40s-era crime novel entitled "The Colorado Kid." On June 24, King made a rare guest appearance at the Maple Street School to read a passage from another upcoming novel of his entitled, "Lisey's Story."
"An Evening with Stephen King" raised nearly $40,000, and was a benefit fundraiser for the Maple Street School Scholarship Fund, which has raised over 1.4 million dollars since the 1998 inception of the independent school. The school is dedicated to supporting one-third of their students through financial assistance, and for the 2004-2005 school year, 31 out of 96 enrolled students at Maple Street were awarded financial aid.
Over the years, requests for scholarship aid has grown at almost twice the rate of enrollment, and the money raised for scholarships keeps Maple Street's K-8 enrollment economically diverse. Many of the students who have received scholarship aid have not only thrived in the educational surroundings found there, they have gone on to some of the country's top high schools and boarding schools.
The school raises funds for the Scholarship Fund in a variety of ways, including holding bi-annual auctions, grant support from foundations and appearances from some of the country's best authors (past guests have included Norman Mailer and George Plimpton). This year's guest reader also happens to be a good friend of Irving, who co-founded Maple Street School with his wife, Janet Turnbull Irving.
Through special arrangement with the Irvings and Maple Street School, I was granted a rare and exclusive interview with Irving and King on the afternoon of the benefit. Their dedication to their literary work is matched by their commitments to charitable foundations. It was during a benefit for a fellow writer when the two authors began their unique friendship.
As a fan of both writers, I had the easy task in the interview - sit back, relax, and let two masters of the craft discuss what was on their minds. The conversation ranged from charitable work to lost manuscripts and the craft of writing.
ON CHARITABLE ORGANIZATIONS
John: Do you remember the circumstances under which we met?
Stephen: Well, I think it was when we did the reading for Andre Debus.
John: Right. A writer named Andre Debus Sr., who now has two sons, I knew in Iowa, stopped by the road to help a motorcyclist one night back in the mid-80s. A motorcyclist had gone down in the road, and Andre was trying to get the cyclist out of harm's way when a car came along and ran over him. He lost his legs, and I discovered that he had no medical insurance of any kind. So I called a bunch of writers in New England and the Northeast areas, and asked people to do readings in Cambridge, Mass., as a fundraiser for Andre's medical expenses. Stephen was one of the writers I called, and we ended up reading together in the winter of 1987.
Stephen: It was fun.
John: But we had corresponded before that. Isn't your principle charity now connected to the same idea?
Stephen: Wavedancer. It is, and it's connected to motorcycles in a way, too. A friend of mine calls motorcycles "Orthopedic Resident Training Devices." The man who read "The Dark Tower" books on tape; Frank Muller ("The Wolves of the Calla" is dedicated to him; it says, "To Frank Muller, who hears the voices in my head"). It was dedicated to Frank before the accident because he'd read the books on tape and he's a genius. The material is very odd, and Frank always nailed it - he nailed the voices and was just perfect.
When I met him, he'd done "Different Seasons." The readings for that were spot-on, and that was back in the days when recorded books (books on tape) were small and just beginning. There was a little storefront in New York that asked me if I'd do an interview with Frank to put at the end on one of the tapes, because they were light on the last tape.
We went in and met, and he was a terrific guy. Frank had gotten the job at NYU - there was a notice tacked up on the board in their drama department looking for readers for this start-up company, Recorded Books.
One of the guys who now helps to support Frank is the guy who founded that company, who actually got out of the business, sold his stock in recorded books and retired a millionaire. Frank and I got together with our families for Thanksgiving dinner three years gone now. We had a wonderful meal. Frank had just married and had a two-year-old daughter and his wife had just found out she was pregnant again. Frank spoke of how he and his cousin were going to go on a motorcycle cruise in California across to Reno and then come back.
While on the motorcycle cruise, Frank lost track of his cousin along part of the interstate, and they got into part of the road where the rubber pylons are set up in the middle of the road to help in repaving. Frank looked over his shoulder to see if he could see where his cousin was, and ran into those pylons. He lost control of his bike at about 55 miles an hour, and went headfirst into a cement bridge abutment.
His helmet cracked right in two; he suffered catastrophic frontal brain injuries. The person behind him happened to be an EMT driving in their car, and saved his life. Frank had a coronary along the side of the road while they were waiting, and even though he lived through it, he's catastrophically damaged. He can't really talk, he's got a child who's now one and a little daughter who's four, and he's just . . . not there.
Frank's in extended care rehab in North Carolina. He was at a very expensive rehab in California, and he had nothing. He was one of the top readers at the top of his game, but he was always $60,000 ahead. At the end of the year, he'd be $60,000-$70,000 ahead and they owed IRS money.
The thing is, Frank is not alone in this situation. There are all kinds of artists: there are writers, actors, and performance artists who don't have any kind of a safety net or anything, so we founded Wavedancer Foundation to help. Wavedancer is the name of Frank's sailboat.
We had one reading at Town Hall in New York two years ago when we had myself, Pat Conroy, John Grisham and Peter Straub read, and we raised a bunch of money there. Also, the most unlikely people have stepped in - one of the big supporters here has been Jerry Jenkins, who co-writes the "Left Behind" books.
John wanted me to come and read at the Maple Street School, and I didn't make it a quid pro quo. John said, "I will read for you, if you read for me," so I'm going to try to get a bunch of people together in November or December, and I've been working on two different projects, or I would have done this already. If it's not this year, John, it will be next year, and I'm going to hold you to it.
John: I promised I would, and I'm happy to do it. In addition to asking Steve to do this scholarship program, when I do public readings now, I ask to have the checks for those events to be made to this school for the scholarship committee, for the scholarship kids. . .
Stephen: He takes cash under the table.
John: No I don't. I think one of the great things, and there's a lot of things I love about this school, is in the seven years since its inception, we've raised more than 1.4 million for scholarships alone. Last year, we had a scholarship fund of $270,000. From the school's inception when we had 36 children to now when we have 92, to next year when we have 98, its always been as many as a third of our kids who are on scholarship, and I think that's essential for an independent school.
Stephen: The most impressive thing has been in community outreach that goes with this program.
John: Especially in a small community without those scholarship kids, without as many as a third of your kids receiving financial aid, you don't have the diversity in your students that you would otherwise have. But it's also so gratifying. To be able to say in any community that yes, we think of ourselves as a pretty challenging place academically, but it's not an elitist school. If you can't afford to come here - there's still a way to come.
Stephen: Because it's in a small community, you get the most bang out of every buck. As someone who's been involved with charity work through foundations - we've got two: The Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation, where we do a lot of work with libraries, and The Barking Foundation, which is all educational scholarships. Something like this (the Maple Street School Scholarship Fund) is just like a cool drink of water.
John: Our parents are also very involved. We have a lot of school trips - including Washington, and Quebec city - and our parents are our drivers and chaperones for those trips as well, so it's a good feeling about people - about everyone. If you can give money, give money, if you can give time, give time. The school has been as gratifying as any book I've written, and it's taken about as long. It's been like a long novel, and to come in here now that it's finished and to know we've raised the money and/or pledges to pay for the building is wonderful.
Journal: John, your latest novel, "Until I Find You," is coming out in two weeks.
Journal: The early buzz on it, from what I've been hearing, has been great so far. With an Oscar under your belt, have people been clamoring for a screenplay, or are you waiting to see how the public response is, and then decide from there?
John: Whether it will be a movie or whether I'll be involved in that, I don't think it has a whole lot to do with the reaction to the novel so much as it has to do with the schedule of events. I'm much more of a micromanager than Steve is. I do try - try - to manipulate my characters and it offends my sense of neatness that I would write a screenplay for this novel while I have three screenplays in various degrees of completion. It just feels right for me that one of them should go into production before I go and adapt a fourth one.
Stephen: I can understand that completely.
John: Although I see the movie that's in the new novel, and my producer sees it too, and we're very excited about the prospect of what that film might be, there's just a sense that at least two of the three screenplays that are very much in progress - I just feel better working on one of them. One of them, the adaptation of "A Son of the Circus," is something I've been working on for almost 15 years. Which is about as long as I worked on "The Cider House Rules" before it was made.
If I had to guess, the decision to do or not to do a screenplay for the new book, I'm a good year or more away from making that decision. In other words, to let it go into someone else's hands, or to do it myself. I don't think I'm going to make that decision for a while, because I have too many choices of what to do next. That may include a twelfth novel, which I almost began before the one I just finished. It's been in the back of my mind for that long.
Stephen: Write both, John. Write both.
Journal: Both of your writing styles are very distinct. Your character development is so well thought out. They are also two completely different ways of writing. Stephen, in your book "On Writing," you discuss how you don't know the ending of a story when you start; and that you shouldn't know the ending when you begin. John, your style of writing is to start from the ending, and then write the beginning.
How would you say your styles have changed over the years, while keeping to the same type of independent yet well-known voice? Have you seen your own writing personality change, as you have aged, as you've gone through different areas of your life?
Stephen: I think I take more care now than I used to. It's so easy to talk about the tools, but I've gotten very wary of some of the technology: the word processor, the computers in my business make it easy for people who have a tendency to escape. People tend to see that from outside, there are changes, and maybe you only change so much. Maybe you just get to the point where you hope to hold on to what you've got.
John: I think I take more care, too. I've always been a re-writer, but I think revision means more to me with each book I write. I think I learn more from them the way I change a novel from what it was in the first draft. I guess as I get older, what I notice is that I used to think that I chose what to write about, but I feel that what I write about has chosen me.
John: I feel that's an obsession. I'm obsessed by something, and the book becomes something that I can't stop myself from writing. The idea that I actually have a free choice in this matter is kind of . . . I don't think like that anymore. I recognize that there's a pattern to my obsessions, that the things I write about in a broad sense are repeated.
Steve and I have had a friendship and correspondence in which we see things in certain black/grey. If there is something that is similar about our writing, it's that we probably need to know what is disturbing about a story before we consider that it's worth doing. If it isn't going to upset someone, why write it? Why do it, if it isn't going to get under somebody's skin?
We may go about it in different ways, but I think we'd agree our reasons for writing fiction are to reach people emotionally and psychologically, not intellectually. You can't write novels as long as most of Steve's and most of mine, if the story isn't better on page 400 than it was on page 40. There has to be something . . . a momentum. You can't keep readers involved in long novels if there isn't something about those novels that doesn't keep getting more compelling to the reader. A reader's got to know what happens, right?
Stephen: Yes. It ought to get up and run in the middle of the night - it really ought to.
Journal: You both have had long novels, but for fans, they don't feel lengthy. Critics tend to see them as such, judge them by weight and call them door stops. Fans see these novels on the same level as the author; they hit their stride through the book once the writer brings them into it, and they race through the novel.
Stephen: One thing I'd like to see made is a computer analysis on correlation. I'd like to see the review of, let's say 2,000 novels, fed into a computer and correlate it in terms of the length of those novels. I'm sure what you'd find is that the longer the novel, the worse the overall critical reception of those books tends to be.
Stephen: My idea is that a critic is going to get paid $75 to review a book if its 400 pages, or if its an Elmore Leonard and its 225 pages, so they're going to definitely look on the side of "Jeez, this is a lot easier to review!", because when you're reviewing, it's a job.
Reading turns into something different than it is if you're sitting on an airplane, or if you've got insomnia in the middle of the night and can't sleep, and you want something to keep you company - you want something that's going to take you away and lift you up.
If you're hitchhiking along the side of the road, and someone comes along and gives you a ride in a Rolls Royce, that's what a good book does. I've seen that correlation time and time again - "Another great long novel, eh, Mr. King? Eh, Mr. Irving? Scribble, scribble, scribble!!"
John: Yes, and similar words are used for both of us: "rambling," "sprawling." That's just a euphemism for: "longer than I'd like."
Journal: That's what I have a hard time figuring out. As your fans, it's what we want.
John: The only time my readers have ever complained to me has been on the occasional time when my book is shorter than usual. They say, "When are you going to write another big book? The last one was too short." I've never had a complaint from readers that my novels were too long - Steve's novels are long, my novels are long.
Look at writers internationally, who also have a very mixed reception, a huge numbers of readers, but very quarrelsome critics: Salman Rushdie, Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco. Their books are very demanding and usually long and plot-driven. By today's minimalist, modernist standards, Steve and I are a couple of 19th-century storytellers. Plot is disparaged by critics almost as much as length. If a novel has a plot at all, it is said the plot is contrived.
John: That usually means, when you hear a critic saying a plot is contrived, what the critic really means is, "I don't like plot."
Stephen: A critic will not believe you can be in an airport in San Diego and meet a childhood friend that you haven't seen for 25 years in that airport, because critics, apparently, don't have friends. It's the only thing I can figure out.
John: Well, it's also beyond their imagination to think of a coincidence.
Stephen: I think so, yea. They don't like coincidence.
Stephen: I'm one thing as a writer: the book is the boss. The writer has two choices when he sits down, he can either say, "I'm the boss of this thing," in which case, he's going to get his ass kicked, or he can say, "I'm going to let this book be the boss and tell the story it's going to tell."
My job when I sit down is to say, "let's see where this story goes, and not try to micro-manage and state, 'this is where I want it to go.'" I sit down and I have an idea of what the story's going to be. Sometimes that's the way it's going to be, sometimes it isn't. I'm happy if I end up somewhere within a yell or a shout of where I thought I'd finish up. That's the way it usually works.
But the thing is, you're supposed to play fair, you're not supposed to force your characters around. I'm not the kind of person who does that in real life. I don't try to manage people, so I pretty much let the characters do what they want to do. As a reader, John gave me his new book. I've got it on the nightstand at home, it's summertime and I can't wait to get into that thing - it's big. It's going to last a while.
Journal: There's a certain sense for fans of any writer, as soon as they get a hold of the author's newest novel, there's an urgent feeling of wanting to dive into it, to explore all the possibilities of the book. When you first started "The Dark Tower" series, you said you felt as though you were at the controls of a . . .
Stephen: Big machine.
Journal: Yes, big machine, and you didn't know whether or not you had it in you to finish it.
Stephen: I didn't know what all the controls could do. Want to know one of the best things that ever happened to me? When I started that series, I was very young, and I was still finding ways to do things, and I had an outline for that series of books, and I lost it. I'm really glad. I'm really glad I lost it. The story sort of spun itself out.
John: I lost half a novel once. Half a novel I'd already written.
Stephen: Get out.
John: Yes, I lost half of "The Water Method Man," my second novel. I had taken it with me to Europe, hoping that a film I had gone to Europe to write, that if it fell through, or if it didn't occupy me through the course of a year, I had this novel to go back to.
But the film took most of the year, and by the time I went home, back to the United States, I took the novel - I took half of "The Water Method Man" back to the United States with me, and the trunk got lost.
Stephen: Oh my god.
John: You know, people kept saying, "We'll find it, we always find these things." It was lost in shipping (we were taking ships in those days). So I began that novel again, and I hadn't read it in almost a year. I always had a feeling in the back of my mind that it was always much worse than what I had previously written.
Months later, the trunk came back, there was the novel, and what I'd newly written was a hundred times better. I just started reading the old pages, and didn't even finish reading them; I just knew it was wrong.
Stephen: Yea, back when word processors had come in, was about the time of Pet Sematary. I had written it, and it had a very flat ending. I can't remember what the ending was, but my editor for Doubleday was gone, and Sam Vaughn had taken over. I did the book with Doubleday, finished it to get a bunch of books out of this author/management thing - they had basically made it into involuntary servitude for young writers. They would essentially re-write the contracts and I'd get my money from the early books.
Sam said, "Would you do a new ending? Something punchier?"
I said, "What if Louis Creed's wife, instead of just dying, what if you put her in the Pet Sematary and she came back, and that was the end?"
Sam said, "That sounds great!"
I told him, "Let me write that for you, and it will take me about an hour and a half." I wrote it, and it was about nine pages long. And then, I pushed the wrong button, and instead of pushing SAVE, I pushed DELETE, and I sent it all to data heaven. I screamed, and it was the only time I did that. My wife came running. She thought I'd cut my hand wide open (which is what it felt like). Then I wrote it again, and the second time I wrote it, I thought it was a lot better. But then I had nothing to compare it to, so maybe the first one was genius.
John: The novel Ken Kesey was writing between "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest" and "Sometimes a Great Notion" was in Ken's writing shack on Puget Sound, and his wife threw the novel into the Sound. I guess she had issues with things he had been doing.
Stephen: I guess she did.
John: She went into the writing shack and threw the whole novel into the Sound, so Kesey said, "Oh well," and began writing another novel, and he never re-wrote that novel that ended up in Puget Sound.
Stephen: I went to Florida when I was writing "The Dead Zone,"and I had one copy of the manuscript (those were in typewriter days) and I had my wife's blue travel bag. We came back, and the travel bag got checked (I can't remember why), but it looked like a bowling bag. When I got it home and opened it up, my manuscript had morphed into an avocado. It was an avocado. I said to my wife, "What the hell is this?" I looked down at the little tag, and it was someone else's identical bag - it wasn't mine.
I called up the number, and a little old lady answered, and she said, "Yes, I have a bag that has a bunch of writings and papers." I asked, "Could we make the exchange?" And she said, "Well, I never come out if there's a flake of snow."
Finally, there was a day where there wasn't a flake of snow, so we made the exchange. I got my manuscript back. She got her avocados and I got my manuscript.
Here's to many future published manuscripts from both John Irving and Stephen King. Long days and pleasant nights, gentlemen.
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Masters of the craft discuss writing
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