Discovering the Relevance of Words
Stephen King’s Joyland leads our roundup of the season’s most thrilling reads. Watch behind-the-scenes video from the author’s photo shoot and read the PARADE cover story below.
There are authors who write best sellers, and authors who write literary fiction; those who become celebrities, and those whose books make the leap to film, TV, and the stage. Very few authors achieve all of this, butStephen King is one of them—the king of them, in a way. Before his breakthrough novel, 1974’s Carrie, horror was a dank subgenre of publishing. What King showed the world was a new way to scare people: By writing in clear, compelling prose incorporating twists on everyday life (the tribulations of an unpopular high school girl in Carrie; a troubled family in The Shining), he made the fright genre more emotional and universal.
He also began to transcend that genre. In tales like “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” King extended his range to become, simply, a first-rate storyteller. It’s a skill that deepens in his new novel, Joyland, a paperback original due June 4 from the highly regarded small press Hard Case Crime. (It has already been optioned for the screen by the director ofThe Help.) Set in the early 1970s, Joyland follows lovelorn college student Devin Jones, who, while working at a small-time amusement park, learns the secret history behind a shocking murder. “I loved county fairs when I was a kid,” King says. “There’s sort of a cheesy, exciting feel to them, and I decided that’s what I wanted to write about.”
King, who divides his time between his native Maine and a home in Florida, is slim and fit at 65, flashing a frequently boyish and mischievous grin, though he still has a slight limp from the 1999 accident in which he was hit by a minivan while taking a walk. He continues to write accessible stories at a remarkable rate: A sequel to The Shining, titled Doctor Sleep, will be published in September, and he has “more or less” completed his first hard-boiled detective tale, Mister Mercedes. A series based on his 2009 novel Under the Dome will air on CBS later this summer, and his musical-theater collaboration with John Mellencamp, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, will begin what King terms a “road show tour” of American cities in the fall.
On this spring day, King settles in for a chat after completing his daily regimen. “I wrote 1,500 words this morning,” he says. “Five pages a day, that’s usually what I get through. It’s obsessive-compulsive more than anything. I’m scared to death that if I leave it alone, the color will go out of it; it’ll start to look fake.” As always, he is full of strong opinions, recommendations, and good humor.
PARADE: Hard Case Crime publishes paperback novels, both new work and reprints of 1950s and ’60s thrillers, complete with retro-art covers. Was this why you offered them Joyland, which is set in an earlier era?
Stephen King: Yes. They reminded me of the books that I cut my teeth on, so to speak, the ones that were on the paperback rack at Roberts drugstore in Lisbon Falls, Maine, while I was going to high school. I thought, Joylandis perfect for Hard Case Crime. It’s not a huge, fat book. It has a mystery, but it has another level, too, where it’s kind of a coming-of-age story, this kid finding his feet after a heartbreak. And because it was so retro, I said to myself, “Let’s sell it as a book. Let’s hold back all this [e-book] stuff. You know, audio, fine. But if people want it, they go to a bookstore and buy it.”
Joyland has supernatural elements, but it isn’t a horror novel.
I’ve been typed as a horror writer, and I’ve always said to people, “I don’t care what you call me as long as the checks don’t bounce and the family gets fed.” But I never saw myself that way. I just saw myself as a novelist. With Joyland, I wanted to try my hand at the whodunit format.
I’m a situational writer. You give me a situation, like a writer gets in a car crash, breaks his leg, is kidnapped by his number-one fan, and is kept in a cabin and forced to write a book—everything else springs from there. You really don’t have to work once you’ve had the idea. All you have to do is kind of take dictation from something inside. But a novel like Joyland has to have a MacGuffin. There has to be a line of logic that leads you to who the murderer is. It’s almost like constructing crossword puzzles.
I’ve been typed as a horror writer … but I never saw myself that way.What other books do you think our readers would enjoy this summer?
The new Kate Atkinson, Life After Life, is a terrific read. And I go back toAgatha Christie in the summertime; I love those. There’s also a hard-boiled mystery called Gun Machine [by Warren Ellis]. Of course, I have to mention my son Owen’s new novel, Double Feature, which is very, very funny, and it’s a bighearted book. And my son Joe [who writes under the name Joe Hill] has a new [vampire] book out called NOS4A2. It pulls you in and keeps you in.
I’ve heard that your sons show their work to their mom [novelist Tabitha King] before it’s published. Do they show it to you as well?
They show it to both of us, but they take their mother’s criticism very, very seriously. I show her my stuff, too. And she’ll say, “Here, you’ve done this before. This sucks. This is dumb.” There’s no soft landing with Tabby, and that’s fine. [My sons] both dedicated their first novels to her, so it means a lot. She’s a pretty good writer herself, although I can’t convince her to get out of the garden and write another book.
When your kids were young, did you read to them?
Oh, yeah. And they read to me, because I would pay them $10 a cassette tape. They read me books that I just shoved into their hands. I think my daughter, Naomi, must’ve read me all of Wilbur Smith’s novels, one after another. When she was 14, she read me a book called Raven, about the Jonestown thing. You know, the Reverend Jim Jones? Drinking the Kool-Aid?
Wait a minute—you made a 14-year-old read you a book about the Jonestown suicide cult?
[laughs] Yeah, I absolutely did. And at the end of it, she said, “Dad, yuck.” When Naomi was 5 and Joe was maybe 3—Owen wasn’t born yet—sometimes in the afternoon Tabby would say, “I can’t deal with it anymore, Steve. I’m going to lie down.” These kids would be tearing all over the house, and I’d be trying to think of something I could do with them. One day, out of desperation, I got a couple of Spider-Man comic books. I didn’t expect much, but they went nuts for that stuff. All of them read early. Owen and Naomi read at 2 or something. They were amazing that way.
Do you think that reading occupies the same importance for kids today?
No, absolutely not. I think it’s because they’re so screen-oriented [TVs, computers, smartphones]. They do read—girls in particular read a lot. They have a tendency to go toward the paranormal, romances, Twilight and stuff like that. And then it starts to taper off because other things take precedence, like the Kardashian sisters.
I did a couple of writing seminars in Canada last year with high school kids. These were the bright kids, Ken; they all have computers, but they can’t spell. Because spell-check won’t [help] you if you don’t know through fromthrew. I told them, “If you can read in the 21st century, you own the world.” Because you learn to write from reading. But there are so many other byways for the consciousness to go down now; it makes me uneasy.
King, holding a copy of his new novel, ‘Joyland,’ was photographed in April on his property in Florida. (Michael Edwards)
Speaking of screens, what TV shows are you enjoying these days?
Justified, Bates Motel, The Walking Dead. The best show of the year is The Americans. I don’t watch Mad Men. I think it’s basically soap opera, and if I want soap opera, I watch Revenge. That show is crazy, but they have great clothes.
You’ve said you weren’t sure you would be popular beyond your lifetime. What did you mean?
Well, you really can’t worry about it. First of all, I’ll be gone, so it isn’t like I’ll be sitting in the peanut gallery looking to see what people down in the pit are thinking about what I wrote. Fantasy has a better chance of lasting than a lot of other things. The Hobbit and the Narnia books, they seem to get handed down father to son, mother to daughter. Because they’re set in a fantasy world, they can remain relevant. So maybe things like Salem’s Lotand The Shining might last, the Dark Tower books. I don’t know.
Somebody asked Somerset Maugham about his place in the pantheon of writers, and he said, “I’m in the very front row of the second rate.” I’m sort of haunted by that. You do the best you can. The idea of posterity for a writer is poison, don’t you think so?
At this point in your career, what’s the main reason to get up and compose your daily 1,500 words?
The major job is still to entertain people. Joyland really took off for me when the old guy who owns the place says, “Never forget, we sell fun.” That’s what we’re supposed to do—writers, filmmakers, all of us. That’s why they let us stay in the playground.