Stephen King: On writing “Joyland”

Does anyone speak as beautifully about writing as Stephen King?
By Alicia Anstead, Writer Editor-in-Chief | Published: July 18, 2013


9781781162644_custom-9fc18d0e5c1a9fc1b704fa58d9797f4294d7e956-s2 Does anyone talk about writing as beautifully and with as much clarity as the novelist, short story writer and essayist Stephen King? Back in my newspaper days, King, who lived in the same city as I did, was my beat. I reviewed his books (Rose Madder, Insomnia, Just After Sunset and The Green Mile, for instance), paid attention to his activity (winner of the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award) and wrote occasional features on him and the novelist Tabitha King, his wife.

I distinctly remember my awe at King’s breadth of knowledge about books. Lots of us have weighty bookshelves. In my memory, the Kings did, too. But King might be the only person I’ve ever suspected of reading every book in his house – and probably in three houses.

When I left newspapers, I continued reading King – most recently 11.22.63 – and my daughter, another King fan — having grown up on The Stand — eagerly read Under the Dome this year.

Not long ago, a young reader asked me to name my favorite Stephen King story. The Shining? Carrie? Dolores Claiborne? Misery? All good options, of course. But my answer was a tie between the novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and the short story “The Man in the Black Suit” which won the 1996 O. Henry Award. As a writing teacher, I also admire On Writing. I may be a dork, but as guides go, On Writing is a good read.

Recently, Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s Fresh Air, interviewed King on his new novel Joyland, which came out in June. Hearing King’s familiar voice and his big thoughts about his approach to writing reminded me of the depth of his understanding of the craft. He is at once an expert and an explorer. For instance, he had no idea who the killer was until close to the end of writing Joyland, and yet, as with many artists, he was comfortable with the mystery until it revealed itself. Here is the exchange with Gross:

 “If you figure out who [the killer] is in advance, you’re doing better than I was because I got near the end of the book before I realized who it was,” says King.

“Uh-oh,” Gross responds. “You might have been in trouble.”

“No, that’s good,” he counters. “I don’t want the reader to feel like this is all a pre-fab creation. I want it to feel organic, to feel like it grew by itself. I’ve never seen novels as built things. I have a tendency to see them as found things. I always feel a little bit like an archeologist who’s working to get some fragile fossil out of the ground. The more you get out unbroken, the better you succeed.”

Shane Leonard/Hard Case CrimeWhen King tells you how to succeed, it’s probably a good idea to listen. The interview with Gross is filled with gems for writers as well as for King fans. (Who knew the original concept for The Shining was a family caretaking at an amusement park instead of a hotel?)

Listen to the interview. What’s your takeaway as a writer? Why do you think King’s stories have been so successful? What did you learn about writing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • cmdrsue

    Now I feel significantly better not knowing a few things about my works in progress. Will try to gently uncover them like precious archaeological finds. You know, rather than blasting them out of the rock.

    I read a lot of Stephen King growing up. One story that stuck with me that no one talks about much is Rage (aka Getting It On).

  • Alicia

    Ah yes, I do remember “Rage” (1977) — one of King’s more controversial books (and, indeed, he took it out of circulation after similar real-life events occurred). You may recall he wrote this one under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.

    Thanks for reading (and writing), cmdrsue. Good luck with your work.

  • mayceegreene

    I must say that this book is really classic King
    – if I had read it without being told the author, I would have quickly
    figured it out! It has everything – love, betrayal, horror and lots of
    joy. If you like Stephen King’s work, then you will definitely love
    Joyland – it’s great!

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