(CBS News) Under his own name or pseudonyms, Stephen King has authored dozens of books since the early 1970s, mostly tales of horror, fantasy and the macabre, or of characters oddly out-of-place with their environments.
In this web-exclusive, extended interview with correspondent Anthony Mason, King talks about his writing process; the existence of evil; revisiting the characters of his classic, "The Shining," in a forthcoming sequel; and the aftermath of the 1999 accident in which King was seriously injured, struck on a North Lovell, Me., street by a minivan whose driver has become distracted by his dog. [King underwent five operations; the driver pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor driving-to-endanger charge and received a six-month suspended jail sentence. King subsequently bought the minivan with the intention of taking a sledgehammer to it.]
MASON: "How is your health? You look great. I mean, are there any residual effects from [the accident]?"
KING: "Well, thank you. I'm glad that I look great. Yeah. I mean, I limp on that side. There's a lot of metal and screws and things in there. And I have the ordinary aches and pains that anybody has when they're in their mid-60s. But on the whole, grace of God, I've been pretty darn lucky. So I feel good most of the time."
MASON: "Yeah. So that's the one sort of lingering effect, the limp."
KING: "Uh-huh. And there's pain. But it's manageable, and it's not a horrible thing to live with. I'm used to it. So it's just there."
MASON: "So you don't really think about it much anymore."
KING: "No. "
MASON: "Well, that's good. I love what John Leonard, who used to work for our show, said about you once: He called you 'Walt Disney's evil twin.' Do you feel like that?"
KING: "Yes, I do feel a little bit like Walt Disney's evil twin!"
MASON: "You do?"
KING: "After all, I'm the guy who invented the clown that eats children instead of, you know, making them laugh. In fact, I have an amusement park book called 'Joy Land' that's going to come out in June, and it's got a haunted house, if you will, the fun house. So I'd have to say I've created some dark rides, so, sure. And don't forget, Disney had his Stephen King side -- he was the guy who gave us the forest fire that scared all those children when they went to see 'Bambi.' And there's the Evil Queen in 'Snow White.' And Walt Disney also killed off Old Yeller! (laughs) So, yeah, I would say that there's a certain similarity there."
MASON: "Do you believe in evil?"
KING: "Yeah. I do. I think the real question is where it comes from, whether there's an outside evil. If you take a movie like 'The Exorcist,' there's something comforting about the idea that that little girl pushed the movie director out of the window and killed him because she was inhabited by the demon, Pazuzu.
"It's a little less comforting to look at the guys who hijacked those airliners and drove them into the World Trade Center when you say, 'Well, there weren't demons involved with that, but there was this crazy idea of religion.' So I've always wrestled with the idea of inside evil vs. outside evil.
"And a good example of that is Adolf Hitler -- where did he come from, and how much of what he had just sort of infected the German people for a period of time. How do you deal with evil like that, on a scale like that? So it's a valid question. But I do believe in evil."
MASON: "We talked about 'The Shining' before. You've been working on a sequel?"
KING: "I have. It's called 'Doctor Sleep,' and it'll be out in the fall. Danny Torrance, the little boy from 'The Shining,' and his mother survive in the [original] novel. And I always wondered what happened to that kid, because he came from the original dysfunctional family, you know?
"His father's an alcoholic and an abuser. And a lot of times kids like that grow up to have a very difficult life. And then you throw in the idea of this talent, the shining, the ability to read thoughts and find lost things, and I thought, I'd like to kind of follow this kid and see what happened to him. I got asked a lot, when I went to autographings, like, 'What ever happened to Danny Torrance from "The Shining"?' So people were curious about that, and I thought, Let's go back and investigate him and see what he's doing in his mid-30s.
" I'd be driving in my car and I'd think, Well, now Danny Torrance is 23. And then a few years later I think, He's 27, or he's 28. So question was, what exactly is he doing?
"That's the sort of thing where it's, like, half an idea - okay, he's dysfunctional, he's alcoholic, the way that his father was an alcoholic. But it's only half an idea.
"And then I saw this thing -- it might have been on CBS, but probably it was on NBC because they're the ones who feature the stories about the cute animals and that sort of thing on their news -- about a cat in a hospice, and this cat knew when patients were going to die. And the cat would go into their room and jump up on their bed. And that's how the personnel in the hospice knew that that patient was going to be the next one to step out."
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Hey, CBS features cute animal stories, too, such as Richard Schlesinger's 2007 "CBS Evening News" story about Oscar the cat, whose sixth sense for predicting patient deaths at a Providence, R.I., nursing home was described in the New England Journal of Medicine.]
KING: "And what really interested me about the story wasn't the cat, per se, but the fact that the patients seemed to welcome his visit. And I thought, Well, he's like an angel of death or an emissary of death, and maybe death isn't a bad thing. Maybe it's only sleep. And I put those two things together and for me it clicked. So I wrote the book."
MASON: "Uh-huh. And so you were just waiting for something to click on it?"
KING: "It has to click. There has to be, like, two or three moving parts to make it go. It can't just be one. So sometimes they all come together, and sometimes you'll get one piece and you have to wait a little while to get the rest. "
MASON: "Do you wait, or do you try to work it?"
KING: "Never try to work it, just wait."
MASON: "Why? 'Cause that forces it?"
KING: "Yeah. It's like if you have a piece of furniture that you want to get into your house. And if it's too big to fit the door straight on, you have your choice: either you can wait until you get somebody to help you and tilt that piece of furniture so that it goes through, or you can just ram it and scrape the sides up. So you don't try to force it. It's a little bit like a batter at the plate; if you try to force base hits, you're going to strike out a lot. So I have a tendency to wait until I get the pieces together."
MASON: "Have you ever abandoned a book?"
KING: "Oh, yeah. I work in a very ineffective way. A corporation would fire me! Because if I get an idea, I will sit down. As soon as the pieces seem to be in place, I'll start to write it. And a lot of times it just won't come up.
"I had this wonderful idea, probably 20 years ago, for a long novella called 'The Ladies Room.' It was set in an airport. 'Cause I got this thing in my head about the one place not even Superman can go is the the ladies room. And then I got the second piece, which was the idea of almost like a chain of men, so that you focus in on this man and his wife, who are going to their departure gate. And the woman says, 'I just wanna use the ladies' room for a minute.' Okay, so she goes in and the door shuts, and he's waiting the way guys do. And pretty soon somebody else comes along and his girlfriend goes in, and then a daddy comes along with his little girl, and she goes in.
"And these men slowly gather, and they suddenly realize that none of them are coming back out. Their flights are being called and this sort of thing, and it's kind of like this, Well, I wanna go in and look, but I don't really wanna go in there, because people will think I'm a perv or something.
"Finally one of them who maybe has had a drink or two [goes], 'Well, I'm not gonna put up with this.'
"And he opens the door and he goes in. The door starts to close -- and he starts to scream.
"And he doesn't come out.
"And I thought, This is really going really well, but I couldn't figure out what was going on in there. So I just dropped the story."
MASON: "Does that happen to you a lot?"
KING: "No, thank God! But it does happen."
MASON: "I remember talking to Dennis Lehane, and he'd just abandoned a book. He's like, 'I got 200 pages in and I didn't know where it went.' "
KING: "Uh-huh. Yeah, that's exactly what happens. Sometimes that'll happen, or you say, 'This is just not working.' It's like, I can push it, I can shove it, and it still won't work.
"I have one book that I really sort of regret. It's called 'Rose Madder,' and I had a terrific idea going into that book. And it just kind of shriveled on me, and I kept pushing. And I published the book and it didn't get very good reviews. And it didn't deserve to get good reviews, because it felt like something that had been shoved through the door."
MASON: "All of your books are still in print except one, correct?"
KING: "Yeah. 'Rage,' yeah."
MASON: "And that's not in print, why?"
KING: "Well, it's not in print because it was a novel about a kid who goes to school one day and shoots his Algebra teacher and holds his class hostage with a gun. And he's got this whole back story about his abusive father and a lot of teenage angst and a lot of problems.
"I started it when I was in high school, and I finished it when I was in college, and I published under the Richard Bachman pen-name, and it didn't garner a lot of attention. It was certainly never a bestseller, but it was found in the effects of several different kids -- well, I won't say several, but two, at least, who were involved with school shootings, one of, thank God, nobody was hurt or killed. The kid just surrendered.
"But with the other one, there were deaths, and there were injuries. And that was enough for me.
"I don't think that books or movies are ever the cause of this sort of violence, and I don't think that's true of video games, either. I think that of all the kids who play these things, somewhere among them are kids upon whom a certain violent scenario will act as an accelerant or give them a path that they might not have figured out on their own, and they'll do something that's violent. I think in most cases, if they don't find that book or that movie that they want to act out, that they will do something else.
"For instance James Holmes went into a showing of the Batman movie, a midnight showing, and he was dressed as the Joker. If that movie doesn't exist, does that mean James Holmes lives a perfectly normal, constructive life? The answer, I think, is no. He finds another outlet, some other trigger that causes there violence. But the violence is part of that person's character.
"The trick is to find these people before they do it, but I didn't want 'Rage' to be one of those accelerants, so I pulled the book."
MASON: "Even though you didn't think it caused it, you didn't want the book to be there?"
KING: "I felt that it became a part of a fantasy scenario with these people, and I didn't want it to happen with anybody else. So it was not gun control, it was book control in this case.
"I think a lot of pro-gun people like Wayne LaPierre could take a lesson from that, and show a little more responsibility. I have no patience with people of the LaPierre stripe who say the deaths of innocent children or the deaths of unarmed bystanders is just part of the price we pay for our Second Amendment freedoms."
MASON: "Interesting. You've written more than 50 books now?"
KING: "Yeah, about 60, I think, all told."
MASON: "Some more meaningful to you than others?"
KING: "Yeah, I would say so. I have my pets, like anybody who has a large family, I think. But they're all my children, and I worked hard on all of them. And I can remember what goes on in most of them, and I've done my best to tell stories that are interesting.
"The really hard part, when you get that sort of backlist, is to try and tell stories that you haven't told before, and to try to keep challenging yourself with new things. So that's what I do."
MASON: "Do you ever look up on your bookshelf and go, 'I can't believe I've done all this?' "
KING: "(sighs) Well, I do believe I did it, but I don't really remember it! (laughs) It's like I did it in a series of really wonderful dreams."
MASON: "It was an interview with Neil Gaiman, a conversation with him, and you talked about getting a standing ovation [at a book fair], and how sort of stunned you were by that."
KING: "Uh-huh, yeah."
MASON: "Why was that?"
KING: "Well, you don't expect it as a writer. What you expect is to go into a library for a lecture or into a bookstore where there are maybe 20 people, if you're lucky. I can remember doing a signing for 'Salem's Lot' in the early days, and I think I had three takers. And then this fat kid walked up to me and said, 'Hey, bud, where's the Kung Fu books?' (laughs) And I said, 'They're right over there in that third row.' "
MASON: " 'Cause you'd just been in the Kung Fu section?"
KING: "That's right, I checked it out! So then some time goes by and you get used to working in your little room by yourself with all the characters that are in your head. And you go out and maybe there are 800 or 1,000 people there, and they stand up and give you a standing O -- and that's weird enough.
"But then somebody will ask a question, and you'll reference one of the books and say something like, 'Oh, when I wrote "Misery" . . . ' and they all clap, and it's like you're Lynyrd Skynyrd, you just played 'Free Bird.' (laughs) So that's a very odd thing, but it's wonderful. It's wonderful that people read and that people come out and care.
"I feel very fortunate. I don't mean to sound like a baseball player or something, but it's a great gig."
MASON: "Well, the sitting alone in a room all that time, I don't know, that's tough."
KING: "(sighs) I don't know, man. You've been to some crazy places yourself, and that's got to be kind of hard, too?"
MASON: "I don't know. I never forget what Martin Cruz Smith said once, probably ten years ago, he said, 'You sit alone in that room, at some point you want to turn around and believe that somebody else is there, but there's nobody there. It's just you.' (laughs)"
KING: "A lot of times when I'm in that room when I'm composing, I'm not in that room. I'm not there. I disappear completely. If you came and you looked at me, you'd say, 'There's nothing going on here.' That's why writer's rooms are the more boring places on Earth.
"They're a little bit like movie and TV sets. You know, there are long periods where nothing is going on, it's just me sitting there. But I'm gone, and I'm having the greatest time! When I come back, when I've finished and I have to read over my copy or revise the copy, then I pretend somebody's looking over my shoulder and somebody's reading that. I usually pick somebody -- my wife or a friend -- and say, Well, what are they gonna think about this? Is this gonna work? Then I feel a little bit alone, 'cause I'm pretending to have a friend! (laughs) That's sad, isn't it? "
MASON: "We all need a pretend friend now and then. (laughs) You used to always get slotted in the Horror genre, and it was sort of a way of some people, I think, to not treat you all that seriously as a writer."
KING: "I don't know if I want to be treated seriously, per se, because in the end, (sighs) posterity decides whether it's good work or whether it's bad work or whether it's lasting work."
MASON: "Do you feel like yours is going to last?"
KING: "I think that some of the books have a very good chance to last, because fantasy books last. 'Salem's Lot' and 'The Stand,' 'Under the Dome,' and the 'Dark Tower' books have probably got the best chance to last because fantasy, like classic Westerns, has a certain built-in longevity, so they have a tendency to last."
"I think that what you want is for people to acknowledge -- critics, that sort of thing -- that you're working as hard as you can, and you're working up to your full abilities, and that you're not in it, you know, just to make a quick buck."
MASON: "And that's respect enough?"
KING: "Yeah. It's all you get. It's all you get. Nobody gets good reviews all the time. Nobody walks on water. Everybody screws up from time to time. Remember Philip Roth is one of the most respected novelists in America, but he wrote this thing called 'Our Gang' in the '80s. It's horrible.
"So anybody can screw up at any time, and I've done my share because I've written a lot. But you just show up every day, and you do the best that you can and hope people understand. And sooner or later, if you do it long enough and if you work hard enough, they mostly do."
For more info:
- "Under the Dome" (CBS.com)
- "Joyland" by Stephen King (Hard Case Crime); Read a sample chapter
- Scribner Books' announcement on "Doctor Sleep"
- Stephen & Tabitha King Foundation, Bangor, Me.
- Our thanks to the Bridgton Public Library in Bridgton, Maine, for welcoming us into their beautiful space, and letting us take it over for a day for our interview with Stephen King
- Thanks, too, to Bridgton News reporter Gail Geraghty for sharing her deep knowledge of King, and of Bridgton
for more features.