AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Stephen King's latest novel deals in horror - not the evil of monsters and supernatural beings, but the horror that can ensue when people act with the best of intentions. The book is called "11/22/63," and in it, the novelist tells the story of a small-town teacher who goes back in time to stop one of the watershed events of American history: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Author Stephen King joins us from our New York studios to talk more about it. Stephen King, welcome to the program.
STEPHEN KING: Thank you very much. It's great to be here.
CORNISH: First, tell us the story how your hero, Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, actually goes back in time.
KING: Well, he lives in a small town called Lisbon Falls, Maine, where coincidentally I went to high school and worked my first jobs in a mill. And he has a friend who runs the local diner where the specialty, d'la maison, is Al's famous fat burgers, which people in town call Al's famous cat burgers because the price is so low that people can't understand how he can sell it. And it turns out that his friend, Al, has a time - he calls it the rabbit hole - it's a rift in time in the back of his diner that just sort of appeared there. And when you go through, you always come out at the same place - you come out at Lisbon Falls, Maine at two minutes before noon on September 9, 1958. And at first, Al just uses it to buy groceries to sell in his diner, and then later he gets the idea that he could actually go in the past, live in the past for five years and save John Kennedy from being assassinated in Dallas. And he tries to do that. But after four years, he develops cancer and comes back and drafts Jake Epping, who's a high school teacher, to do the job.
CORNISH: What gives the book its creepiness intention is this idea about the past not wanting to change, events literally conspire against these characters. When they go back in time and try and meddle with things, sort of a series of coincidences - they get sick, they get harmed in some way, you know, a tree falls in front of the car, the cars get a flat tire...
KING: Or the car won't start.
CORNISH: Right exactly. Just all these little things kind of get in the way of them in the event that they're trying to change.
KING: Right. And it turns out that there's a reason for that - and I don't want to give away too much. I just want to say that my real purpose in using that time window thing was because I think everybody at one time or another has had an event in their life where they've looked back and said, if I had changed one little thing; if I had gone left instead of right; if I had waited another 10 minutes before I got in the car, this terrible thing never would have happened. We've all got those what-ifs, and "11/22" is very much a book that deals with that what-if.
CORNISH: Why did you want to take on this particular moment in American history?
KING: Well, I originally tried to write this book in 1971. I was teaching school in Maine, and it was actually 11/22, but it was 11/22/71. At that time, 11/22/63 was our 9/11. I'm speaking as a baby boomer now. So, we were sitting around in the teacher's room and it was the anniversary of that date, and somebody said I wonder what the world would have been like have Kennedy have lived. And I thought what a great idea for a book; what if you send somebody back in time and they managed to prevent the Kennedy assassination. But my abilities at that time weren't fully mature. I wasn't ready to take on a project that was that big and that reality based and that depended on research.
CORNISH: Right. And there's enormous amount of writing about the assassination, the conspiracy theories, Oswald himself, right?
KING: Sure. There's a lot of that. But the other thing was in 1971, that event was still fresh. And I think that would have been much too early for someone to write an entertaining novel about a tragedy that great. And in 1971, a lot of the people who were actually involved in the story of the Kennedy assassination were still alive. And I think that the wounds were a little bit too fresh then. So, on the whole I'm glad that I waited. Right now, I think the only one of the major players who is still alive is Lee Harvey Oswald's wife, Marina, who still lives in Texas.
CORNISH: I wanted to ask you about that, because throughout the book, Jake is essentially stalking Lee Harvey Oswald. And you depict Oswald's life with his wife, his relationship with his mother, their community of Russian friends. What kind of research did you find about those kinds of things to create that dialogue?
KING: When I went into this project, I knew very little about Lee Harvey Oswald. I was not even convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone shooter. Of course, I could have picked his face out of a line-up and I watched him shot to death on TV two days after the Kennedy assassination. But I knew almost nothing about him.
So, I started to get books. First, I got the videotapes of all the documentaries that had been done about the assassination, including the Zapruder tape - the movie, the eight millimeter movie. And most of the things that are in the book, the things that Jake overhears or sees with Lee and Marina are documented. They are part of the public record. And one great hurdle was the fact that I wanted Jake, as you say, to sort of stalk Lee Harvey Oswald. And he does that in order to make sure that Oswald is the sole shooter. He wants to prevent the Kennedy assassination long before it goes down to the wire at the Texas School Book Depository. But he needs to make absolutely sure, and so he moves onto Mercedes Street in Fort Worth, which is where the Oswalds live. So, a lot of these people were real but Marina Oswald could speak very little English. And I wanted Jake to overhear them. But what he would overhear, even if he could find some bugging equipment, which he eventually does, is he would hear a lot of Russian.
CORNISH: Does this feel very different from the other books that you've written?
KING: Oh my God, it feels a lot different from the other books because there are so many actual happenings. A lot of the characters in "11/22" are real people. And that was the challenge, but it was also the fun of the book.
CORNISH: Why do you think we are so fascinated with that period of history? I mean, when I think of the popularity of a show like "Mad Men," just it seems like we're having a moment where we're all, pop culture-wise, looking back on that fondly. I mean, in some ways it's ironic but in a lot of ways it seems fond.
KING: There's a degree of nostalgia involved. "Mad Men" is not one of my favorite shows because I think that it takes a view of the '50s and '60s that's strictly upper-middle-class, and I wanted to deal with people that were, you know, not in that citified culture. And people look back and see a lot of bad habits sort of ratified - everything from cigarettes and alcohol to the de facto and real segregation that went on at that time. And people look back on that, I think, sometimes and they see a simpler, happier time. And I think this is something that goes on constantly. We redefine the moment of golden nostalgia in our past, so that in the '50s and '60s what people look back on with that same kind of wouldn't-it-be-nice nostalgia. They look back on the Roaring '20s, you know, the flappers and hip flasks and Pierce Arrow automobiles and all that. So, now for my generation, the '60s have become our roaring '20s.
CORNISH: This is such a big book, and you spend a lot of time in the late 1950s in writing it. And are you going to miss that period now that it's over?
KING: I am. One of the things that happens, when you sit down from the perspective of 2011 to write about the '50s and '60s, my feeling is one of total inadequacy. I'll never remember what it was like, I'll never be able to put the pieces together. And research will take you a certain way but it won't cut it when it comes to the actual feelings and textures of those times. But the more I worked, the more time that I spent in the past, the more things that I remembered. That was a pleasure. It was a nice, almost like vacation in the way things used to be. But I love the present too, so.... It was great. It was a great vacation. What is it they say? It was a great place but I wouldn't want to live there.
CORNISH: Right. A great place to visit.
KING: That's it.
CORNISH: Author Stephen King. His latest novel is called "11/22/63." Thank you so much for speaking with us.
KING: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
CORNISH: You can hear a reading from Stephen King and more excerpts from our interview at NPR.org.
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