Monday, May 05, 2008

Writing with the Kings

I’ve written about it before, but one of my writing influences is Stephen King, and more specifically, his book for aspiring writers, On Writing. Hence, it was with interest that I noted BookTV’s programming notes, mentioning that Stephen King, along with wife Tabitha, and son, Owen, would be featured last night. Given my long day of book prep, as well as wanting to try to hit the week running, I decided to tape the 10 PM segment.

I was up early this morning (4 AM) and decided to watch the 90 minute program, while going through my morning workout of exercises, interspersed with free weights.

The program was taped from April 4th, when the three Kings were featured at The Center for the Book, at the Library of Congress, DC’s oldest cultural institution. The program was part of an effort to promote reading, and was sponsored by PEN Faulkner’s Writers in Schools Program.

It was interesting to see the faces of the students, from four area DC high schools, as John Cole, who is the director of the Library of Congress, spoke about some of the history behind the Library. The gulf between most of the students, and a 70-ish white male, steeped in a culture that’s changed in the past 30, or 40 years, was apparent. History, as appreciated by Cole, and people of my generation, is often lost on high school age students, even more so with inner-city students like these.

Each one of the Kings spoke about their writing and read a piece of their own work. Tabitha spoke about how she came to be asked by the family of the late writer, Michael McDowell, to finish his manuscript for a horror novel called, Candles Burning. She was given McDowell's manuscript and asked to complete the work. King spoke about what that process was like, the liberties she took, and why, in finishing a novel that has a strong southern gothic orientation.

When King asked her audience, if anyone had read books that would fall into the southern gothic genre, one, or two hands, out of an audience of 60-70 went up. Not a charismatic speaker, like her husband, or even son, her segment, which was much longer than son, Owen’s, plodded at times.

Owen King spoke about his work, We’re All In This Together, which is four short stories, and a novella. He spoke about one of his characters, a superhero, based in Cleveland that is part meerkat. He has his father’s odd sense of humor, and seems at home in front of an audience.

The star, of course, was Daddy King. He spoke of how pleased he was to be at the Library, as this was the first time that he’d been there with Tabitha, and Owen, together. He connected with his audience by engaging in some banter about the crime drama, The Wire (which has been highly recommended to me by my son, Mr. Everyday Yeah), which takes place on the nearby mean streets of Baltimore. King was quite upset about the killing off of one of the characters, and mentioned that he was so put out by this that he called the writer, Dennis Lehane, to voice his disapproval.

King talked about why he writes—he likes to write, and he wants people who read his writing to like it—it wasn’t anymore complex than that, according to this writing superstar.

“I want people to be late for appointments because they’re reading a book of mine,” said King.

I feel connected to King in many ways, yet, I also recognize the huge chasm that exists between us.

We are similar in that we both went to Lisbon High School, graduating from the school, although a decade apart. I live about a mile from his childhood home. On Writing was a seminal influence in launching my own writing career, especially developing the habit of writing.

I think King instilled in me the understanding that the difference between a poser that calls themselves a writer, and someone who actually feels called to write, is that the poser writes when he/she feels motivated to write, which will be very infrequent, and sporadic. The writer who develops a body of work is characterized by doggedness, possessed by the need to write, early in the morning, late at night, and often are distracted at family gatherings, with ideas for a story, an essay, or the outline of a future book.

I have always wanted to meet King, and spend an hour talking about Lisbon Falls, life in the area, the Red Sox, and his wonderful essay about his son, Owen, and the Bangor Little League All-Star team he was part of, as a 12-year-old. The essay, which appeared in the New Yorker, and titled, "Head Down," is considered by King to be his best piece of non-fiction writing.

Unfortunately, King isn’t accessible, like a Tess Gerritsen, for a variety of good reasons, I suppose. The closest I’ve ever come to meeting him was in 1981, when he came back to speak at a LHS graduation. I was home from my first year of college, and a group of alumni sat on the bleachers, in center field, at the baseball diamond where I had pitched many of my high school gems. He gave a talk about his writing and ideas and I thought, “this dude’s weird.” I had no clue that 20 years later, his book about the writing process would help me find my life’s calling, after two decades of unrealized potential.

King looked good, and seemed to be in really good spirits. I know that after he was hit, and nearly killed a few years back, while walking near his summer home, the injuries took a toll on the author. But he seemed energized, and excited about his latest novel, which he said would be one of the longest ones he’s written.

While others might get a charge out of watching a bunch of Hollywood types via reality TV, I enjoyed seeing writing royalty, and his family, interact with a group of high school students. Hopefully a few of them were sparked by something that one of these three very different and immensely talented authors had to share.

1 comment:

Mark LaFlamme said...

If you haven't already, give David Morrell's book "Lesson's on a Lifetime or Writing" a look. Very hard-headed and useful advice in there. I'd give you the Amazon link but it's nine miles long.