The horror master looks back on his four-decade career
Stephen King’s office building sits on a particularly dreary dead-end road on the outskirts of Bangor, Maine, just down the street from a gun-and-ammo store, a snowplow dealership and, appropriately enough, an old cemetery. From the outside, the anonymous building looks like a new branch of Dunder Mifflin, a very deliberate choice meant to keep King and his tiny staff safe. “We can’t be on a main road because people would find us,” says one of his assistants. “And it’s not people you want to find you. He draws some weird people.”
Once buzzed in, a visitor enters a sort of Stephen King nirvana – rooms decorated with fan-created artwork populated with characters from his novels, a Stephen King Simpsons action figure, a freakish bobble-head doll of the demented clown from his 1986 book IT, and piles and piles of books. He keeps an old Gothic house (complete with spiderwebs and bats on the front gate) just a few miles away that draws bus loads of tourists, but he’s virtually never there. Most of the year, he lives two and a half hours away in Lovell, Maine, and now with his three kids grown, he and his wife, Tabitha, head down to Sarasota, Florida, at the height of winter.
King himself only comes into the office about once a month, but today he stopped by and, as usual, he’s juggling a lot of projects at once. He just polished off a final draft of his upcoming serial-killer book Finders Keepers (a sequel to his recent work Mr. Mercedes), a pretty astonishing feat considering he will also release two books this year, write a screenplay for the new Joan Allen/Anthony LaPaglia film A Good Marriage and continue to fine-tune Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,a musical he wrote with John Mellencamp.
But right now, the 67-year-old is hunched over an easy chair in his office, chomping on a doughnut that’s leaving a growing pile of powdered sugar on his black turtleneck shirt. He’s excited about the upcoming publication of Revival, a modern-day Frankenstein story about a preacher who’s obsessed with the healing powers of electricity and his 50-year relationship with a drug-addled rock guitarist. It’s basically guaranteed to land at Number One on The New York Times bestseller list.
Since 1974, when Carrie hit shelves, King has sold an estimated 350 million books, and he’s now worth hundreds of millions of dollars. John Grisham and Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James may outsell him these days, but it’s hardly a problem. “He’s not competitive,” says his longtime agent Chuck Verrill. “The only guy he ever cared about was Tom Clancy. They were both at Penguin once, and it was made clear to King that he was seen as the second banana to Clancy. He didn’t like that, but he’s very content where he is right now.”
King hasn’t done many recent in-depth print interviews since a van accident nearly killed him 15 years ago, but he decided to sit down with Rolling Stone to discuss his life and career.
The vast majority of your books deal with either horror or the supernatural. What drew you toward those subjects?
It’s built in. That’s all. The first movie I ever saw was a horror movie. It was Bambi. When that little deer gets caught in a forest fire, I was terrified, but I was also exhilarated. I can’t explain it. My wife and kids drink coffee. But I don’t. I like tea. My wife and kids won’t touch a pizza with anchovies on it. But I like anchovies. The stuff I was drawn to was built in as part of my equipment.
Did you ever feel shame about that?
No. I thought it was great fun to scare people. I also knew it was socially acceptable because there were a lot of horror movies out there. And I cut my teeth on horror comics like The Crypt of Terror.
By writing horror novels, you entered one of the least respected genres of fiction.
Yeah. It’s one of the genres that live across the tracks in the literary community, but what could I do? That’s where I was drawn. I love D.H. Lawrence. And James Dickey’s poetry, Émile Zola, Steinbeck . . . Fitzgerald, not so much. Hemingway, not at all. Hemingway sucks, basically. If people like that, terrific. But if I set out to write that way, what would’ve come out would’ve been hollow and lifeless because it wasn’t me. And I have to say this: To a degree, I have elevated the horror genre.
Few would argue with that.
It’s more respected now. I’ve spoken out my whole life against the idea of simply dismissing whole areas of fiction by saying it’s “genre” and therefore can’t be seen as literature. I’m not trying to be conceited or anything. Raymond Chandler elevated the detective genre. People who have done wonderful work really blur the line.
HEMINGWAY SUCKS. IF I SET OUT TO WRITE THAT WAY, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN BEEN HOLLOW AND LIFELESS BECAUSE IT WASN’T ME.
A lot of critics were pretty brutal to you when you were starting out.
Early in my career, The Village Voice did a caricature of me that hurts even today when I think about it. It was a picture of me eating money. I had this big, bloated face. It was this assumption that if fiction was selling a lot of copies, it was bad. If something is accessible to a lot of people, it’s got to be dumb because most people are dumb. And that’s elitist. I don’t buy it.
But that attitude continues to this day. Literary critic Harold Bloom viciously ripped into you when you won the National Book Award about 10 years ago.
Bloom never pissed me off because there are critics out there, and he’s one of them, who take their ignorance about popular culture as a badge of intellectual prowess. He might be able to say that Mark Twain is a great writer, but it’s impossible for him to say that there’s a direct line of descent from, say, Nathaniel Hawthorne to Jim Thompson because he doesn’t read guys like Thompson. He just thinks, “I never read him, but I know he’s terrible.”
Michiko Kakutani, who writes reviews for The New York Times, is the same way. She’ll review a book like David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which is one of the best novels of the year. It’s as good as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, has the same kind of deep literary resonance. But because it has elements of fantasy and science fiction, Kakutani doesn’t want to understand it. In that sense, Bloom and Kakutani and a number of gray eminences in literary criticism are like children who say, “I can’t possibly eat this meal because the different kinds of food are touching on the plate!”
Film critics can look at a popular movie like Jaws and heap praise upon it, then in another section of the paper, the critics will bash you for The Stand.
By its very nature, film is supposed to be an accessible medium to everybody. Let’s face it, you can take a fucking illiterate to Jaws and he can understand what’s going on. I don’t know who the Harold Bloom of the film world is, but if you found someone like that and said to him, “Compare Jaws with 400 Blows by Francois Truffaut,” he’d just laugh and say, “Well, Jaws is a piece of crappy, popular entertainment, but 400 Blows is cinema.” It’s the same elitism.
Switching gears, your new book Revival talks a lot about religion. Specifically, one of the two main characters is a reverend that turns on God when his family dies but also delivers a sermon about why religion is a complete fraud. How much of that sermon mirrors your own beliefs?
My view is that organized religion is a very dangerous tool that’s been misused by a lot of people. I grew up in a Methodist church, and we went to services every Sunday and to Bible school in the summer. We didn’t have a choice. We just did it. So all that stuff about childhood religion in Revival is basically autobiographical. But as a kid, I had doubts. When I went to Methodist youth fellowship, we were taught that the Catholics were all going to go to hell because they worship idols. So right there, I’m saying to myself, “Catholics are going to go to hell, but my aunt Molly married a Catholic and she converted and she’s got 11 kids and they’re all pretty nice and one of them’s my good friend – they’re all going to go to hell?” I’m thinking to myself, “This is bullshit.” And if that’s bullshit, how much of the rest of it is bullshit?
Did you relay any of your doubts to your mother?
Jesus, no! I loved her. I never would have done that. Once I got through high school, that was it for me. When you see somebody like Jimmy Swaggart and he’s supposed to be this great minister touched by God, and he’s paying whores because he wants to look up their dresses, it’s just all hypocrisy.
All that said, you’ve made it clear over the years that you still believe in God.
Yeah. I choose to believe in God because it makes things better. You have a meditation point, a source of strength. I don’t ask myself, “Well, does God exist or does God not exist?” I choose to believe that God exists, and therefore I can say, “God, I can’t do this by myself. Help me not to take a drink today. Help me not to take a drug today.” And that works fine for me.
Do you believe in the afterlife?
I don’t know. I’m totally agnostic on that one. Let’s put it this way, I would like to believe that there is some sort of an afterlife. I do believe that when we’re in the process of dying, that all these emergency circuits in the brain take over. I base what I’m saying not on any empirical evidence. I think it’s very possible that when you’re dying, these circuits open up, which would explain this whole white-light phenomena – when people clinically die and they see their relatives and stuff and say, “Hello, it’s great to see you.”
Do you hope to go to heaven?
I don’t want to go to the heaven that I learned about when I was a kid. To me, it seems boring. The idea that you’re going to lounge around on a cloud all day and listen to guys play harps? I don’t want to listen to harps. I want to listen to Jerry Lee Lewis!
Do you wish you had stronger beliefs? Would that give you comfort if you had more certainty?
No, I think uncertainty is good for things. Certainty breeds complacency and complacency means that you just sit somewhere in your nice little comfortable suburban house in Michigan, looking at CNN and saying, “Oh, those poor immigrant children that are all coming across the border. But we really can’t have them here – that isn’t what God wants. Let’s send them all back to the drug cartels.” There’s a complacency to it.
How about evil? Do you believe there is such a thing?
I believe in evil, but all my life I’ve gone back and forth about whether or not there’s an outside evil, whether or not there’s a force in the world that really wants to destroy us, from the inside out, individually and collectively. Or whether it all comes from inside and that it’s all part of genetics and environment. When you find somebody like, let’s say, Ted Bundy, who tortured and killed all those women and sometimes went back and had sex with the dead bodies, I don’t think when you look at his upbringing you can say, “Oh, that’s because Mommy put a clothespin on his dick when he was four.” That behavior was hard-wired. Evil is inside us. The older I get, the less I think there’s some sort of outside devilish influence; it comes from people. And unless we’re able to address that issue, sooner or later, we’ll fucking kill ourselves.
MISERY IS A BOOK ABOUT COCAINE. ANNIE WILKES IS COCAINE. SHE WAS MY NUMBER-ONE FAN.
What do you mean?
I read a thing on Huffington Post about a month ago that stayed with me. It was very troubling. It was a pop-science thing, which is all I can understand. It said we’ve been listening to the stars for 50 years, looking for any signs of life, and there’s been nothing but silence. When you see what’s going on in the world today, and you have all this conflict, and our technological expertise has far outraced our ability to manage our own emotions – you see it right now with ISIS – what’s the solution? The only solution we see with ISIS is to bomb the shit out of those motherfuckers so that they just can’t roll over the world. And that’s what’s scary about that silence – maybe all intelligent races hit this level of violence and technological advances that they can’t get past. And then they just puff out. You hit the wall and that’s it.
So you think humanity’s destiny is to someday wipe itself out?
I can’t see the future, but it’s grim. The depletion of resources – we’re living in this dine-and-dash economy. I love the Republicans, too. Whenever it comes to money – the national debt, for instance – they yell their heads off about “What about our grandchildren?” But when it comes to the environment, when it comes to resources, they’re like, “We’ll be OK for 40 years.”
I want to talk about writing now. Walk me through your typical day when you’re working on a book.
I wake up. I eat breakfast. I walk about three and a half miles. I come back, I go out to my little office, where I’ve got a manuscript, and the last page that I was happy with is on top. I read that, and it’s like getting on a taxiway. I’m able to go through and revise it and put myself – click – back into that world, whatever it is. I don’t spend the day writing. I’ll maybe write fresh copy for two hours, and then I’ll go back and revise some of it and print what I like and then turn it off.
Do you do that every day?
Every day, even weekends. I used to write more and I used to write faster – it’s just aging. It slows you down a little bit.
Is writing an addiction for you?
Yeah. Sure. I love it. And it’s one of the few things where I do it less now and get as much out of it. Usually with dope and booze, you do it more and get less out of it as time goes by. It’s still really good, but it’s addictive, obsessive-compulsive behavior. So I’ll write every day for maybe six months and get a draft of something – and then I make myself stop completely for 10 days or 12 days in order to let everything settle. But during that time off, I drive my wife crazy. She says, “Get out of my way, get out of the house, go do something – paint a birdhouse, anything!”
So I watch TV, I play my guitar and put in time, and then when I go to bed at night, I have all these crazy dreams, usually not very pleasant ones because whatever machinery that you have that goes into writing stories, it doesn’t want to stop. So if it’s not going on the page, it has to go somewhere, and I have these mind dreams. They’re always dreams that focus on some kind of shame or insecurity.
The one that recurs is that I’m going to be in a play, and I get to the theater and it’s opening night and not only can I not find my costume, but I realize that I have never learned the lines.
How do you interpret that?
It’s just insecurity – fear of failure, fear of falling short.
You still fear failure after all these years of success?
Sure. I’m afraid of all kinds of things. I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing – that it won’t come up for me, or that I won’t be able to finish it.
Do you think your imagination is more active than most people’s?
I don’t know, man. It’s more trained. It hurts to imagine stuff. It can give you a headache. Probably doesn’t hurt physically, but it hurts mentally. But the more that you can do it, the more you’re able to get out of it. Everybody has that capacity, but I don’t think everyone develops it.
Fair enough, but not many people can do what you do.
I can remember as a college student writing stories and novels, some of which ended up getting published and some that didn’t. It was like my head was going to burst – there were so many things I wanted to write all at once. I had so many ideas, jammed up. It was like they just needed permission to come out. I had this huge aquifer underneath of stories that I wanted to tell and I stuck a pipe down in there and everything just gushed out. There’s still a lot of it, but there’s not as much now.
When did you first get the idea for Revival?
I’ve had it since I was a kid, really. I read this story called The Great God Pan in high school, and there were these two characters waiting to see if this woman could come back from the dead and tell them what was over there. It just creeped me out. The more I thought about it, the more I thought about this Mary Shelley-Frankenstein thing.
How long did it take you to write it?
I started it in Maine and finished it in Florida. An actual book takes at least a year. A first draft can be rough, and then you polish it, take out the bad stuff. Elmore Leonard – someone asked him, “How do you write a book someone wants to read?” And he said, “You leave out the boring shit.”
Do you put some of yourself into the character of Jamie?
Yeah, sure. Jamie is a guy who gets addicted to drugs after a motorcycle accident, and I’ve had a drug problem ever since, man, I don’t know. I guess I’ve had a drug problem since college.
You had a major drinking problem, too. When did that become an issue?
I started drinking by age 18. I realized I had a problem around the time that Maine became the first state in the nation to pass a returnable-bottle-and-can law. You could no longer just toss the shit away, you saved it, and you turned it in to a recycling center. And nobody in the house drank but me. My wife would have a glass of wine and that was all. So I went in the garage one night, and the trash can that was set aside for beer cans was full to the top.
It had been empty the week before. I was drinking, like, a case of beer a night. And I thought, “I’m an alcoholic.” That was probably about ’78, ’79. I thought, “I’ve gotta be really careful, because if somebody says, ‘You’re drinking too much, you have to quit,’ I won’t be able to.”
Were you buzzed when you wrote in the morning back then?
Not really. I didn’t drink in the days. Sometimes if I had, like, two things going – which I did a lot, sometimes I still do – I would work at night. And if I was working at night, I was looped. But I never wrote original stuff at night, I just rewrote. It turned out all right.
At what point did hard drugs enter the picture?
It was probably about ’78, around the same time that I realized that I was out of control with drinking. Well, I thought I was in control, but in reality I wasn’t.
That was cocaine?
Yeah, coke. I was a heavy user from 1978 until 1986, something like that.
Did you write on coke?
Oh, yeah, I had to. I mean, coke was different from booze. Booze, I could wait, and I didn’t drink or anything. But I used coke all the time.
You had three young kids at the time. It must have been very stressful to keep this huge secret while balancing all your responsibilities.
I don’t remember.
No. That whole time is pretty hazy to me. I just didn’t use it around people. And I wasn’t a social drinker. I used to say that I didn’t want to go to bars because they were full of assholes like me.
I’m trying to comprehend how you lived this whole secret life of a drug addict for eight years, all the while churning out bestsellers and being a family man.
Well, I can’t comprehend it now, either, but you do what you have to do. And when you’re an addict, you have to use. So you just try to balance things out as best you can. But little by little, the family life started to show cracks.
I was usually pretty good about it. I was able to get up and make the kids breakfast and get them off to school. And I was strong; I had a lot of energy. I would’ve killed myself otherwise. But the books start to show it after a while. Misery is a book about cocaine. Annie Wilkes is cocaine. She was my number-one fan.
Did the quality of your writing start to go down?
Yeah, it did. I mean, The Tommyknockers is an awful book. That was the last one I wrote before I cleaned up my act. And I’ve thought about it a lot lately and said to myself, “There’s really a good book in here, underneath all the sort of spurious energy that cocaine provides, and I ought to go back.” The book is about 700 pages long, and I’m thinking, “There’s probably a good 350-page novel in there.”
Is The Tommyknockers the one book in your catalog you think you botched?
Well, I don’t like Dreamcatcher very much. Dreamcatcher was written after the accident. [In 1999, King was hit by a van while taking a walk and left severely injured.] I was using a lot of Oxycontin for pain. And I couldn’t work on a computer back then because it hurt too much to sit in that position. So I wrote the whole thing longhand. And I was pretty stoned when I wrote it, because of the Oxy, and that’s another book that shows the drugs at work.
If you had to pick your best book, what would it be?
Lisey’s Story. That one felt like an important book to me because it was about marriage, and I’d never written about that. I wanted to talk about two things: One is the secret world that people build inside a marriage, and the other was that even in that intimate world, there’s still things that we don’t know about each other.
Are you done writing Dark Tower books?
I’m never done with The Dark Tower. The thing about The Dark Tower is that those books were never edited, so I look at them as first drafts. And by the time I got to the fifth or sixth book, I’m thinking to myself, “This is really all one novel.” It drives me crazy. The thing is to try to find the time to rewrite them. There’s a missing element – a big battle at a place called Jericho Hill. And that whole thing should be written, and I’ve thought about it several times, and I don’t know how to get into it.
You’ve made a fortune over the years. A lot of people would be living it up, buying houses in Hawaii and the South of France and filling them with Picassos. That’s obviously not your thing, so what does your money do for you?
I like to have money to buy books and go to movies and buy music and stuff. To me, the greatest thing in the world is downloading TV shows on iTunes because there are no commercials, and yet if I were a working stiff, I could never afford to do this. But I don’t even think about money. I have two amazing things in my life: I’m pain-free and I’m debt-free. Money means I can support my family and still do what I love. Not very many people can say that in this world, and not many writers can say that. I’m not a clothes person. I’m not a boat person. We do have a house in Florida. But we live in Maine, for Christ’s sake. It’s not like a trendy community or anything. We have the houses and stuff. My wife likes all that. But I’m not very interested in stuff. I like cars, because I grew up in the country and a car was important. So we’ve got more cars than we need, but that’s our biggest extravagance.
When you look at these hedge-fund guys just living like kings . . .
Totally foreign to me. I saw The Wolf of Wall Street, and it looked to me like this guy was living this sort of exhausting lifestyle. Money for the sake of money doesn’t interest me. There’s a lot of it, and we give a lot of it away.
I’ve read that you make large charitable donations, but you almost never hear about where it goes.
We were raised firmly to believe that if you give away money and you make a big deal of it so that everybody sees it, that’s hubris. You do it for yourself, and you’re not supposed to make a big deal about it. We have publicly acknowledged certain contributions, but the idea behind that is to say to other people, “This is the example we’re trying to make, so we wish that you would do the same thing.”
So if you give away $1 million to Eastern Maine General Hospital here, you’re doing it because you’re hoping that somebody else will chip in. I’m not averse to using whatever celebrity that I have. I’m going to do a TV ad for the Democratic candidate Shenna Bellows this afternoon. She’s running against Susan Collins for Senate. And I don’t know how much goodwill I have in the state, but I think it’s a fair amount, so maybe the ad will make a difference.
Do you worry that being too political will turn off some of your readers?
It happens all the time. I wrote an e-book after the thing in Newtown, Connecticut, when that guy shot all those kids. I got a lot of letters, somebody saying, “Asshole! I’ll never read another one of your goddamn books.” So what? If you’re to a point where you can’t separate the entertainment from the politics, who needs you? Jesus Christ.
I never really cared for Tom Clancy’s books, but it wasn’t because he was a Republican guy. It was because I didn’t think he could write. There’s another guy that I sense is probably a fairly right-wing writer. His name is Stephen Hunter. And I love his books. I don’t think he likes mine.
Your father walked out when you were two. How much did his absence shape your life?
I don’t know. I don’t live an examined life, but I can remember when Tabby and I got married, back in ’71. I can remember laying in bed with her and turning over and saying, “We ought to get married.” And she said, “Let me think about it overnight.”
And in the morning, she said, “Yeah, we should get married.” We had nothing. I mean, I was working at a gas station. I was pumping gas. And then when I graduated from school, she was still in school. Then when I got a job working at a wet-wash laundry because I couldn’t get a teaching job, we had jack shit for money. She was working in a Dunkin’ Donuts when I finally got a teaching job. We didn’t have a phone in the house, and we had two babies. Don’t ask me why we did that. I can’t remember what the mindset was there.
Looking back, would you do it all over again?
We must have been fucking crazy, but I love those kids, and I’m glad we did it. She would go to work at Dunkin’ Donuts. She looked cute in the little pink uniform. God, she was so good-looking. She’s still good-looking to me, but oh, my God. And there was something sexy about all that pink nylon.
She would bring home the empty buckets of filling from the doughnuts, and we used them as diaper pails. So I would teach school, come home, she’d work at Dunkin’ Donuts. I would baby-sit the kids and give them the bottles and change them and everything until she came home at 11:00. And then we’d go to bed. And I’m thinking to myself, “I’m not going to leave this marriage no matter what happens.”
Your dad died in 1980. Were you ever tempted to meet him, if only to hear his side of the story?
No. I was curious when I was a kid. I used to think, “I’d like to find him and knock his fucking head off.” And then later on, I thought to myself, “I’d like to find him and hear his side of the story and thenknock his fucking head off.” Because there’s no excuse for it. It wasn’t just that he walked out and left us – he left her holding a whole bunch of bills, which she worked to pay off.
What stopped you?
I was too busy. I was trying to carve out a career as a writer. And when I was teaching school, I would teach and come home and try to steal a couple of hours to write. To tell you the truth, man, I never thought about it that much.
Did you see that new documentary “Room 237” about obsessive fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining?
Yeah. Well, let me put it this way – I watched about half of it and got sort of impatient with it and turned it off.
These guys were reaching. I’ve never had much patience for academic bullshit. It’s like Dylan says, “You give people a lot of knives and forks, they’ve gotta cut something.” And that was what was going on in that movie.
You’ve been extremely critical of Kubrick’s film over the years. Is it possible he made a great movie that just so happens to be a horrible adaptation of your book?
No. I never saw it that way at all. And I never see any of the movies that way. The movies have never been a big deal to me. The movies are the movies. They just make them. If they’re good, that’s terrific. If they’re not, they’re not. But I see them as a lesser medium than fiction, than literature, and a more ephemeral medium.
Are you mystified by the cult that’s grown around Kubrick’s Shining?
I don’t get it. But there are a lot of things that I don’t get. But obviously people absolutely love it, and they don’t understand why I don’t. The book is hot, and the movie is cold; the book ends in fire, and the movie in ice. In the book, there’s an actual arc where you see this guy, Jack Torrance, trying to be good, and little by little he moves over to this place where he’s crazy. And as far as I was concerned, when I saw the movie, Jack was crazy from the first scene. I had to keep my mouth shut at the time. It was a screening, and Nicholson was there. But I’m thinking to myself the minute he’s on the screen, “Oh, I know this guy. I’ve seen him in five motorcycle movies, where Jack Nicholson played the same part.” And it’s so misogynistic. I mean, Wendy Torrance is just presented as this sort of screaming dishrag. But that’s just me, that’s the way I am.
What’s the best movie ever made from one of your books?
Probably Stand by Me. I thought it was true to the book, and because it had the emotional gradient of the story. It was moving. I think I scared the shit out of Rob Reiner. He showed it to me in the screening room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was out there for something else, and he said, “Can I come over and show you this movie?” And you have to remember that the movie was made on a shoestring. It was supposed to be one of those things that opened in six theaters and then maybe disappeared. And instead it went viral. When the movie was over, I hugged him because I was moved to tears, because it was so autobiographical.
But Stand by Me, Shawshank Redemption, Green Mile are all really great ones. Misery is a great film. Delores Claiborne is a really, really good film. Cujo is terrific.
What do you make of this surge in sales for young-adult books? There’s a whole school of critics that say too many adults are reading them.
It’s just crazy. I read all of the Harry Potter books, and I really liked ’em. I don’t approach any books in terms of genre saying that “This is young adult,” or “This is a romance,” or science fiction, or whatever. You read them because you read them. Someone asked me recently, “Have you ever considered writing a book for young people? You know, a YA novel?” And I said, “All of them.” Because I don’t see that genre thing.
Do you think you have fewer young readers than you had back in the first few decades of your career?
Yes, that’s probably true. I’m seen as somebody who writes for adults because I’m an older man myself. Some of them find me, and a lot of them don’t. But I came along at a fortunate time, in that I was a paperback success before I was a hardcover success. That’s because paperbacks were cheap, so a lot of readers that I had were younger people. Paperbacks were what they could afford. You do say to yourself, “Well, are the younger readers coming along in terms of the e-books, the Kindles and all that stuff?” And the answer is, some of them are, but a lot of them probably aren’t.
Does that bother you?
Well, I have a drive to succeed. I have a drive to want to please people, as many people as possible. But that ends at a certain point where you say, “I’m not going to sell out and write this one particular kind of thing.” I had a real argument with myself about Mr. Mercedes, which is basically a straight suspense novel.
I had to sit down and have a discussion with myself and say, “Do you want to do what your heart is telling you you should do, or do you want to do what people expect? Because if you only want to write what people expect, what the fuck did you do all this for? Why don’t you write what you want to write?”
Do you worry about the death of print?
I think books are going to be around, but it’s crazy what happened. They’re worried in the publishing industry about bookstores disappearing. Barnes & Noble creating the Nook was like Vietnam; they should have left that alone because Amazon got there first with the Kindle. The death of the music business was insane, but audio recordings have been around now for maybe 120 years. Books have been around for, what, nine centuries? So they’re more entrenched than music.
Speaking of Harry Potter, you’ve become friendly with J.K. Rowling, right?
Yeah. We did a charity event at Radio City Music Hall a few years back. She was working on the last of the Harry Potter books. Her publicist and her editor called her over, and they talked for about 10 minutes. And when she came back to me, she was steaming. Fucking furious. And she said, “They don’t understand what we do, do they? They don’t fucking understand what we do.” And I said, “No, they don’t. None of them do.” And that’s what my life is like right now.
What do you mean?
When someone says, “What are you working on?” I’ll say, “I’ve got this wonderful story about these two families on two sides of a lake that end up having this arms race with fireworks,” but I’m doing this event, and then I’ve got the political ad and all this other crap. So you have to be stern about it and say, “I’m not going to do this other stuff, because you’ve got to make room for me to write.” Nobody reallyunderstands what the job is. They want the books, but they don’t, in a way, take it seriously.
You mentioned watching a lot of TV. What’s the best show of the past 15 years?
Breaking Bad. I knew it was great from the first scene you see him wearing jockey shorts. I thought it was amazingly brave since they look so geeky.
Do you think if you had been born at a later time you would have wanted to work as a TV showrunner?
No. Too much time for too little payoff. I don’t mean in terms of money. Also, showrunning is a thing where you have to work with tons of different people. You have to schmooze people, you have to talk to network people. I don’t want to do any of that.
It’s interesting that mainstream movies are worse than ever, but TV just gets better and better.
Yeah. I mean, we aren’t talking about shows like NCIS and CSI that basically show one story over and over. I’m not even talking about Mad Men, which I don’t like. But Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead, The Bridge, The Americans. Those things are so textured and so involving that they make movies look like short stories. I was watching a show 12 years ago called The Shield. And in the first episode, Michael Chiklis, who played the protagonist, turns around and kills a fellow cop. And I thought to myself, “TV just underwent this seismic change.” That show was the most important show on television. Breaking Bad is better, but The Shield changed everything.
Let’s talk about music. Revival is about a rock guitarist. Do you think that could have been your path if you had a little more natural musical talent?
Sure! I love music, and I can play a little. But anyone can see the difference between someone who’s talented and someone that’s not. The main character in Revival, Jamie, just has natural talent. What he can do on the guitar, I can do when I write. It just pours out. Nobody taught me. In Revival, I took what I know about how it feels to write and applied it to music.
What’s the best concert you ever saw?
Springsteen. I went to see him at the Ice Arena in Lewiston, Maine, in 1977. He played for about four hours. It was fantastic. There’s so much energy, so much generosity in the show, and so much real life in the music. He was totally athletic, and he’d jump into the crowd, lay on his back and spin around. He was a great showman.
Do you respect him as a storyteller?
I respect him as a songwriter and the insight in his songs. My favorite album of his is Nebraska. I knew from the beginning of “Atlantic City” that it was amazing. He had really grown as a songwriter. He’s done stuff in music that nobody else has done. That line in “The River,” “Now I just act like I don’t remember, and Mary acts like she don’t care.” Let’s put it this way, it’s a long way from “Palisades Park” by Freddy Cannon.
I feel like you and Bruce would both be doing what you’re doing, even if you weren’t paid for it.
Yeah, I think it’s fair. And it’d be fair to say that we were both self-taught with a lot of ambition, a lot of drive to succeed, because I have that in me too. I have this one thing that I can do, and that’s something Bruce expresses in a lot of his music.
Do you think President Obama is doing a good job?
Under the circumstances, he’s been terrific. Look at how much improvement there’s been with the job situation. But it’s human nature to care about unresolved issues. And so this business with ISIS, or people breaking into the White House, this becomes, for some reason, Obama’s fault somehow.
Do you think Obama is right to go after ISIS like this?
If they’re as bad as the press says. I mean, they’re cutting off heads in public and blowing up shit – something’s got to be done to those guys. That’s my feeling anyway, and I’m a pacifist. It’s depressing ’cause it’s like 1984 all over again: constant war – it’s never going to end.
Why do you think the country is so divided?
It doesn’t have anything to do with Obama. There’s a fundamental discussion going on in America right now about whether or not we’re going to continue to protect individual freedoms or whether we’re going to give some of them up. And the discussion has become extremely acrimonious.
In the wake of 9/11, we’re searched invasively at airports. There are CCTV cameras everywhere. There’s a whole bunch of people who say that America is for the individual and that we’re all the gunslingers of our own house. Basically, there’s a whole side of the country that’s fearful. They’re fearful that if same-sex marriage becomes legal, then God knows what will happen – all at once, all of our kids will be gay and America’s way of life will die out. They’re afraid that immigrants are going to swamp the economy. And on the other side, there are all of those people who say, “Maybe there’s a way to embrace these things, and maybe we need to give up our right that anybody can buy a gun.” They’re basic arguments.
Do you think much about what your legacy will be?
No, not very much. For one, it’s out of my control. Only two things happen to writers when they die: Either their work survives, or it becomes forgotten. Someone will turn up an old box and say, “Who’s this guy Irving Wallace?” There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Ask kids in high school, “Who is Somerset Maugham?” They’re not going to know. He wrote books that were bestsellers in their time. But he’s well-forgotten now, whereas Agatha Christie has never been more popular. She just goes from one generation to another. She’s not as good a writer as Maugham, and she certainly didn’t try to do anything other than entertain people. So I don’t know what will happen.
You’ve threatened to retire a few times, but you’ve obviously never gone through with it. Do you see yourself doing this into your eighties and maybe even beyond?
Yeah. What else am I going to do? I mean, shit, you’ve got to do something to fill up your day. And I can only play so much guitar and watch so many TV shows. It fulfills me. There are two things about it I like: It makes me happy, and it makes other people happy.
From The Archives Issue 1221: November 6, 2014