Seven years after a van ran into him, leaving him with a dislocated hip and 25 broken bones, Stephen King still aches. His gait is stiff and awkward. His lank frame is still a little hunched. But it seems to suit his manner: a curious combination of languor and frustration.
He will be 60 next year and this looming milestone has got him worrying about his legacy, his place in the canon of literature. In some ways this might seem perverse. He is, arguably, the most popular novelist in the world – the 50 or so books he has written have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide. He is also, probably, the world’s richest author – according to Forbes magazine his annual income is about $US50 million ($A65 million).
And as if this wasn’t enough, some of his stories have been turned into classic films, including The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption and Misery. The trouble is, his particular genre – the gothic thriller – has worked against his critical reputation. He tells me wearily that he is bound to be described as a ‘horror writer’ in the first line of his obituary. He wants to be taken more seriously, is that it?
‘That doesn’t bother me,’ he says, ‘it’s never that I’ve felt that much need for respect. My family has been eating. My house is paid for. And, in the end, after you’re gone, the work finds its own level. The critics don’t have much say in that. Some of the books which everyone sneered at for being disposable, such as Agatha Christie, have actually survived the longest on the bookshelves. No, what drives me crazy is when I am treated as a sociological artefact. No one wants to be reduced to a human beetlewig or a Halloween mask.’
His point is that when you are a famous author ‘everyone wants a piece of you’, even when you are dead. This is, in part, the subject of his latest novel, Lisey’s Story.
Lisey is the widow of an award-winning author. Two years after her husband’s death, she is going through his personal effects. Scholars are circling like vultures wanting to know if there are any unpublished manuscripts left in his study, any memorabilia, any incunabula. Lisey, hearing this as ‘incuncabilla’, begins to think of them as ‘incunks’.
‘I sent an early draft to an academic who has written a lot of books about my work,’ King says with a lugubrious grin, ‘and he didn’t get back to me. I think he took it personally. I think he thought I was suggesting he was one of the incunks, one of the crazy academics …’
King’s relationship with the academy is uneasy. When, in 2003, he was awarded a National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters – one of the highest honours an American writer can be accorded – he gave an ungracious acceptance speech in which he accused the literary establishment of ‘tokenism’.
‘You can’t sit back, give a self-satisfied sigh and say, ‘Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop-lit question. In another 20 years or perhaps 30, we’ll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the bestseller lists.’ It’s not good enough.
‘Nor do I have any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they’ve never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer. What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?’
The literary establishment declined to be cowed. Harold Bloom, one of America’s most distinguished scholars of literature, declared the award ‘another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls,’ he said, ‘but perhaps even that is too kind.’
It sounded like intellectual snobbery. Equally, King’s sense of injustice sounds like an inferiority complex, despite the staggering superiority of his book sales.
‘That award nearly killed me,’ he now says. ‘I was determined I was going to accept it and make my speech. It needed saying. Two days later I was in hospital.’ He stayed there for two months with pneumonia. ‘The whole thing was an outgrowth of the road accident. My lung had collapsed and the bottom part of it had not re-inflated, but no one knew that. It stayed collapsed and got rotten and infected the rest. I had the thing with the tube in the chest. I thought I was going to die.
‘My wife Tabby came into the hospital and said, ‘I want to use this time to re-do your office.’ At that point I was so full of dope and tubes, I didn’t care. But when I got back from the hospital she said I shouldn’t go in there, to my office, because it would be too disturbing for me. So of course I went in there and it was like the Christmas Carol, the ghost of Christmas yet to come. It was like having a vision of the future. I was standing there thinking this is what it will be like, not this time but within the next 20 or 25 years. I will be in a coffin and Tabitha will have rolled up the rugs and will be going through all my effects, all the papers and unfinished stories. This is the final act. The clearing up after a life. I remember my brother and me doing it when my mother died of cancer.’
Stephen King married Tabitha Spruce in 1971. He had met her in the library at the University of Maine, where they were students. They live in Maine to this day – in Bangor – and have three grown children. She is also a novelist. Although he insists that the character Lisey in his new novel is not his wife, he does acknowledge that his book is a homage to the ‘invisible’ wives of famous authors.
‘The book is a celebration of monogamy, in a way,’ he says. ‘It is also about how even in the most intimate relationships we are always holding something back.’
We can never be wholly known? ‘Exactly. I think of my wife as holding a deck of 52 cards – if you ask me how many she is showing me I wouldn’t know. We are as close to each other as two people can be, but one can never be sure how much you do and do not know about another person.
‘I’ve been married 35 years so I guess we know more about each other than a lot of couples do. But even we don’t know everything. Some couples, I guess, give up trying to know. They give in and their marriage ends in divorce due to lack of interest, or the other partner straying outside the marriage. But sometimes creative people get creative about their marriage and find ways to revitalise it.’
Did his accident change his relationship with his wife? ‘It made me appreciate how vulnerable we all are. For a while I became overly protective about my family, especially when they walked on the street. I remember vividly – the way you remember traumatising incidents – the first time they let me out of the hospital after the accident. I couldn’t go out the front because there were all these fans and press waiting. So they took me out the back in a wheelchair to this loading bay. My wife had been able to get an apartment next to the hospital – one of the advantages of money – and I saw her walking towards me down the street and I shouted: ‘Stay on the sidewalk, Tabby! Look both ways before you cross!’ My heart was pounding with anxiety.’
I ask if there was an understanding between them that Tabitha would play the invisible spouse, that she would support his career from the sidelines.
‘No, I don’t think any woman makes that deal, or man in the case of Denis Thatcher. No one writes in their yearbook: ‘I want to marry a man known worldwide as a bestselling author so that my chances of being divorced from him when some famous actress catches his eye go way up’.’
Have any famous actresses caught his eye? ‘There are temptations when you are off on tour and doing the conventions. All sorts of temptations on offer, plenty of groupies. But what I mean is: no wife wants to become a Little Miss Nobody aged 42, traded in for a trophy wife. But what helped me personally in this respect was that my father deserted my mother when I was three and I saw what my mother’s life was like after that – what the consequences were when the man leaves.’
King felt ashamed at school about not having a father, he adds. He also recognised that his mother felt ashamed about being abandoned. But he doesn’t think he has tried to make amends for his father in his own marriage. ‘You mean like making amends for all the wronged women in the world? No, that’s too big a job, even for me!’
It was Tabitha who rescued his first novel from the bin when, in 1973, he threw it away in disgust. The book turned out to be Carrie, his first bestseller. Tabitha has also had to put up with her husband’s stalkers over the years. Once she heard the window break only to look up and see a man standing with what he claimed was a bomb. It wasn’t. He was an escapee from a mental institution who was convinced that King had stolen the plot for Misery from him. Another stalker claimed that King had flown over her house in a U2 plane and stolen her thoughts for The Shining. A third, a man in California, became convinced that King had murdered John Lennon, in a conspiracy involving Ronald Reagan.
It was Tabitha, too, who helped King overcome his addiction to drink and drugs. ‘Cocaine seemed to help at first,’ King says. ‘It seemed like a really good energising drug. You try some and think: wow, why haven’t I been taking this for years? So you take a bit more and write a novel, and decorate the house, and mow the lawn and then you are ready to start a new novel again. I just wanted to refine the moment I was in. I didn’t feel that happiness was enough: that there had to be a way to improve on nature.
‘As an older, wiser and sadder man I realised you can’t cheat nature. You take a hit of cocaine and it makes you a new man, but the first thing the new man wants is a hit of cocaine. Basically, I was an addict. I would take anything. In the daytime I used to be pretty straight, not getting blotto until five in the afternoon. But by the end I was a round-the-clock drink-and-drug addict. I rewrote one book – It – in a blackout.’
With Tabitha’s help he started going to AA and NA meetings in 1988. ‘By the time I had the road accident in ‘99 I had been clean and sober for 11 years. But then the doctor asked me where my pain was on a scale of one to 10 and I said 11, and he offered me a breakthrough, time-release pain killer called Oxycon.
‘So I took the pills until I didn’t need them any more. I continued to take them because pain is subjective. But the addict part of my brain began inventing pain just to get these painkillers so I could have more of the drug. I had to kick it the way a junkie kicks heroin. It was a two-week process. I didn’t sleep for two weeks. My feet twitched uncontrollably – that is why it is called kicking the habit, your feet literally kick out. It was horrible.’
His only addiction these days is to his work. The addiction is to the pleasure he gets from discovering plots, bringing characters to life and seeing what will happen to them.
‘Philip Roth has a great line in Everyman,’ he says. ‘Amateurs wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up every day and go to work. That is a good line in an uncharacteristically bad piece of work. Work is the clear channel I can go to.
‘After that bout of pneumonia back in 2003 I picked up one of those hospital bugs and couldn’t keep food down. I lost 15 kilograms. Yet even in the worst days of that illness, even when I was vomiting, I was still able to write. That was when I started Lisey’s Story, my best book. I think it’s my best book. Even when I felt dizzy and weak, the words were always there for me. The writing was the best part of the day.’
As a writer, he continues, he has to have an understanding wife – because the writing process can be selfish. He has to disappear into a world of his own.
‘I get under her feet. When I’m writing in the morning, she stays out in the garden or does her own writing, or worries about the Republicans getting back into office. In the morning I work for three hours then go for long walks in the afternoon – my thinking time. As I walk, I try to guide my otherwise ungovernable mind back to the story I’m working on, looking for a hook.
‘When I’m not working, my mind doesn’t take kindly to being unhooked from its dope. I get migraines and nightmares. Very vivid. It’s almost like the DTs, like my mind and body is trying to scare me back to work. And once I’ve got back to work,’ he adds with a slow grin, ‘I can pass on my nightmares to everyone else.’