Stephen King: The 'Craft' Of Writing Horror Stories While writer Stephen King was recovering from a near-fatal car accident, he finished a nonfiction book about the craft of writing. In a 2000 interview with Terry Gross, King talked about the demons that haunted him after the accident — and how writing helped his recovery process.
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Stephen King: The 'Craft' Of Writing Horror Stories

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Stephen King: The 'Craft' Of Writing Horror Stories

Stephen King: The 'Craft' Of Writing Horror Stories

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Eleven years ago this month, writer Stephen King was walking along the gravel shoulder of Route 5, a two-lane highway near his home in Maine, when he was struck by a van and nearly killed. As he recovered from extensive injuries, King distracted himself by writing. The resultant book, "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft," was published in 2000. The Cleveland Plain Dealer called it the best book on writing ever. A 10th anniversary edition of the book comes out next week.

King's latest publication, a baseball novella called "Blockade Billy," came out in May and he continues to write his pop culture column for Entertainment Weekly.

Terry Gross spoke with Stephen King in 2000, about 16 months after the accident. King had been hit by a vehicle driven by Bryan Smith, who had several prior convictions for speeding and reckless driving. Less than a year later, Smith was found dead in his home. A toxicology test indicated he died of an accidental overdose, a combination of medication and alcohol.

At the time of the interview, King was still recovering from his injuries. He told Terry, if there was a bone on the right side of my body it was broken, with the exception of my head, which was only concussed.

Terry asked Stephen King to begin with a reading from the last chapter, which was about his accident.

Mr. STEPHEN KING (Author): (Reading) Most of the sightlines along the mile of Route 5 which I walk are good, but there is one stretch, a short, steep hill, where a pedestrian walking north can see very little of what might be coming his way. I was three-quarters of the way up this hill when Bryan Smith, the owner and operator of the Dodge van, came over the crest.

He wasn't on the road; he was on the shoulder - my shoulder. I had perhaps three-quarters of a second to register this. It was just time enough to think, my God, I'm going to be hit by a school bus. I started to turn to my left. There is a break in my memory here. On the other side of it, I'm on the ground, looking at the back of the van, which is now pulled off the road and tilted to one side.

This recollection is very clear and very sharp, more like a snapshot than a memory. There is dust around the van's taillights. The license plate and the back windows are dirty. I register these things with no thought that I have been in an accident, or of anything else. It's a snapshot, that's all. I'm not thinking; my head has been swapped clean.

There's another little break in my memory here, and then I am very carefully wiping palmfuls of blood out of my eyes with my left hand. When my eyes are reasonably clear, I look around and see a man sitting on a nearby rock. He has a cane drawn across his lap. This is Bryan Smith, 42 years of age, the man who hit me with his van. Smith has got quite the driving record; he has racked up nearly a dozen vehicle-related offences.

Smith wasn't looking at the road on the afternoon our lives came together, because his Rottweiler had jumped from the very rear of his van into the backseat area, where there was an Igloo cooler with some meat stored inside. The Rottweiler's name is Bullet. Smith has another Rottweiler at home; that one is named Pistol. Bullet started to nose at the lid of the cooler. Smith turned around and tried to push Bullet away. He was still looking at Bullet and pushing his head away from the cooler when he came over the top of the knoll, still looking and pushing when he struck me.

Smith told friends later that he thought he'd hit a small deer until he noticed my bloody spectacles lying on the front seat of his van. They were knocked from my face when I tried to get out of Smith's way. The frames were bent and twisted, but the lenses were unbroken. They are the lenses I'm wearing now, as I write this.

Smith sees I'm awake and tells me help is on the way. He speaks calmly, even cheerily. His look, as he sits on his rock with his cane drawn across his lap, is one of pleasant commiseration: Ain't the two of us just had the (bleep) luck? it says. He and Bullet left the campground where they were staying, he later tells an investigator, because he wanted some of those Mars's(ph) bars they have up to the store. When I hear this little detail some weeks later, it occurs to me that I have nearly been killed by a character out of one of my own novels. It's almost funny.

GROSS: That's Stephen King reading from his memoir "On Writing."

Stephen King, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And it's so great to still have you with us.

Mr. KING: It's nice to be here. But I tell people, nowadays it's nice to be anywhere.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. Did Smith say anything to you - anything else to you, as you were laying there drifting in and out of consciousness after he hit you?

Mr. KING: He said, I've never had so much as a parking ticket in my life, and here it is my bad luck to hit the bestselling writer in the world. And I think he said I loved all your movies.

GROSS: Did he really say that?

Mr. KING: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, I that reading, you say that it made you think that he was like a character in your fiction. Were there other things that made you think of him that way?

Mr. KING: Well... God knows that I've lived in rural Maine for a lot of years. It's where I grew up and it's where my wife and I live now, in a town of about 900 people. And we don't want to say that Bryan Smith is or was a type, because I don't necessarily believe that there are types. But he had a certain backcountry quality, with the Rottweiler dogs and the old van. And it's really tough, Terry, to talk about Bryan Smith without making him sound like a sort of Faulknerian stereotype, and so maybe I'd just as soon steer clear of the whole issue. He was like a character in a Stephen King book, but only because he seemed like a real Maine type to me.

GROSS: In an interview in Salon magazine before the accident, you said, as a kid my mother used to say when we were scared, whatever you're afraid of, say it three times fast and it will never happen. And that's what I've done in my fiction. Basically I've said out loud the things that really terrify me and I've turned them into fictions and they've made a very nice living for me and it seems to have worked.

Did you ever feel that this time the horror stories jinxed you - that something that you feared and had written about was coming true?

Mr. KING: No. It never even crossed my mind. It's strange because, off and on in my career as a writer, I have certainly written about car crashes and about characters who have been hurt or injured in car crashes. There's a little boy who is killed by a truck in "Pet Sematary." But I only use those things in my stories because cars and traffic accidents are a part of our lives. They're something that unfortunately most of us relate to, probably at a rate of three or four times as much - that is to say, three or four times as many people either have been in a car accident themselves or know somebody who has, as has been injured with gunshots. So it's a part of the American experience and as such, of course, I've written about it. But I never felt that I jinxed myself. No.

GROSS: I had read that you were going to buy the van that struck you and smash it. Did that actually happen?

Mr. KING: It never did happen. The van has been cubed. When I was in the hospital, mostly unconscious; my wife got a lawyer who's just a friend of the family. My son and his son went to school together, so we know him really well. And she got in touch with him and said, buy it so that somebody else doesn't buy it and decide to break it up and sell it on eBay, on the Internet.

And so he did. And for about six months, I did have these, sort of, fantasies of smashing the van up. But my wife - I don't always listen to her the first time, but sooner or later, she usually gets through. And what she says makes more sense than what I had planned. And her thought was that the best thing to do would be to very quietly remove it from this plane of existence, which is what we did.

GROSS: Oh, and you can't say how?

Mr. KING: Sure I can. It went through a car crusher. It's a little cube somewhere.

GROSS: Oh. Oh, so rather than you attacking it yourself - I got it. Oh that's...

Mr. KING: Yeah.

GROSS: And did you keep the cube?

Mr. KING: No I didn't. I don't really know what happened to the cube. But my idea about the van had always been to sort of smash it up the way that, in the carnies of my youth, sometimes somebody would put a car up on in the back of a flatbed truck and charge a quarter for three smacks with a sledgehammer, and I thought we could do that for charity. And it still at times seems to me like a good idea, but I have sort of a carnival mind and my wife is a little bit more sober.

GROSS: You know, in "Misery," the main character is a writer who is seriously injured and the woman taking care of him, his number one fan, is really torturing him and not giving him therapy. Did the nurses and therapists who you worked with make zillions of "Misery" jokes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: You know, they'd all read "Misery," but - and they worked for an outfit called the Bangor Area Visiting Nurses. These are nurses who go into the home and give home care. And I think one of them told me toward the end of the period where I needed full-time nursing that they had all read it, and they had all been called into the office by their superior and told in no uncertain terms, don't make any "Misery" jokes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And did they restrain themselves?

Mr. KING: They did. They were great.

BIANCULLI: Stephen King speaking to Terry Gross in 2000.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: A 10th anniversary edition of Stephen King's "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" will be published next week. Here's an example of that craft and its inspiration from the first interview Terry Gross recorded with Stephen King in 1992. They discussed his then latest novel "Gerald's Game." Terry summarized its creepy premise.

GROSS: As the book opens, a married couple is in their forest cabin. They're ready to play their S&M sex game. She's on the bed; her wrists are cuffed to the bedpost. He's undressing. She realizes she's tired of this game. It seems stupid, ridiculous and corny, but she can't get her husband to stop and that makes her furious. As he forces himself on her, she kicks him where it hurts most. He collapses, suffers a heart attack and dies, and she is alone, cuffed to the bed in the middle of the woods. Now the horror really begins.

I asked Stephen King what made him think about how corny sex games could be?

Mr. KING: Actually, "Gerald's Game" started with the concept of the woman being chained to the bed. I'd written a book before, where a woman and a small child were stuck in a car that was sort of surrounded, if you will, by a rabid St. Bernard. That book was called "Cujo." And essentially, what a lot of that book was, was two people in a very small room, although it did have a shifting perspective so that it went to other characters. And I thought, originally, this was the takeoff point for the book, wouldn't it be interesting to see what would happen if you had one character in a room?

The question then became, what caused this woman to be in this room by herself? And the answer that I came up with was bondage. She's handcuffed to a bed. And that forced me to sort of consider what causes people to do this sort of thing. And so once I'd set up the situation, I knew what it was going to be, I went in and read a little bit about it and thought a little bit about it, and the whole thing struck me as a little bit Victorian. There was something very Snidely Whiplash about the whole thing and I tried to get that into the book.

GROSS: Well, you do it in a very funny way. I mean the husband says to his wife as she's handcuffed to the bedpost, he says, I will teach you, me proud beauty.

Mr. KING: Yes. Exactly.

GROSS: Pronouncing beauty the way the landlord in a bad Victorian melodrama might.

Mr. KING: You can almost see him waxing his mustaches, can't you?

GROSS: Right. Right. Right. So you got the corniness and the danger of this kind of S&M sex play. In an interview a few years ago, you once said that one of the major reasons that you've been left alone is that your books are fairly asexual.

Is this a change for you?

Mr. KING: Well, it is and it isn't. You know, Peter Straub, with whom I collaborated on a book once, called "The Talisman," once joked and said Stevie hasn't discovered sex yet. But actually, I never saw any particular reason to go into sex unless it formed an integral part of the plot. It never had before and here it does. You know, it's a little bit like that story that you sometimes hear about the little kid, everybody assumes that he's mute. He doesn't say anything until he's four years old. And then one day in perfectly articulated English he says to his mother, "Mother, may I have a glass of water?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: And she says you talk. Why didn't you ever say anything before? And he says, all my needs were met. I never had to. This is, you know, the first time that it came up. So for me this was the first time that sex came up in the course of, you know, as it being a main element in terms of driving the plot. And it gave me a chance to take a look at a wide range of, not only sexual material, but, I don't know what you call it, stuff that ranged from the pornographic to the merely titillating, and a lot of what I saw through the considering eye of somebody who was planning to write about this or use this as a building block, was a little disturbing. It seemed to me that there was a lot of stuff about men wanting to be empowered, to be in control in a way that struck me, at least, as essentially unhealthy, which in turn kicked off a whole sort of subplot, a center of the book that has to do with child molestation and maybe where some of these things come from.

GROSS: There's a scene in "Gerald's Game," your new novel, that I'd like you to read from. This is a scene in which the wife is still handcuffed to the bedpost. Her husband is laying dead on the floor and a stray vicious dog from the area has walked into the house and has started dining on the woman's dead husband. Would you read it for us?

Mr. KING: I sure will.

(Reading) Gerald's widow's peak was in disarray - probably as a result of the dog's licking the blood out of it - but his glasses were still firmly in place. She could see his eyes, half-open and glazed, glaring up from their puffy sockets at the fading sun ripples on the ceiling. His face was still a mask of ugly red and purple blotches, as if even death had not been able to assuage his anger at her sudden capricious - had he seen it as capricious? Of course, he had - change of mind.

Let go of him, she told the dog, but her voice was now meek and sad and strengthless. The dog barely twitched its ears at the sound of it and didn't pause at all. It merely went on pulling the thing with the disarrayed widow's peak and the blotchy complexion. This thing no longer looked like Disco Gerald - not a bit. Now it was only Dead Gerald, sliding across the bedroom floor with a dog's teeth buried in its flabby biceps.

A frayed flap of skin hung over the dog's snout. Jessie tried to tell herself it looked like wallpaper, but wallpaper did not - at least as far as she knew -come with moles and a vaccination scar. Now she could see Gerald's pink, fleshy belly, marked only by the small caliber bullet-hole that was his navel. His penis flopped and dangled in its nest of black pubic hair. His buttocks whispered along the hardwood boards with ghastly, frictionless ease.

Abruptly the suffocating atmosphere of her terror was pierced by a shaft of anger so bright it was like a stroke of heat-lightning inside her head. She did more than accept this new emotion; she welcomed it. Rage might not help her get out of this nightmarish situation, but she sensed it would serve as an antidote to her growing sense of shocked unreality.

You bastard, she said in a low, trembling voice. You cowardly, slinking bastard.

BIANCULLI: Stephen King, reading from his horror novel "Gerald's Game" during an interview recorded in 1992. A 10th anniversary edition of his book "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" comes out next week. One of the essays in that book is about the horrible injuries he sustained after being hit by a van while he was walking near his home in Maine. That was followed by months of recuperation, painful physical therapy and heavy-duty painkillers, which at times caused him to hallucinate.

Let's get back to Terry's conversation with King, recorded in 2000, about that accident.

GROSS: Yeah, I'm thinking your mind is wild enough without the hallucinations. I mean, like, you have all these visions for these great stories that you write all the time and they're kind of, you know, crazy and scary enough.

Mr. KING: In fact, I seemed to be a character in one of my own books and that was a very frightening place to be.

GROSS: Yeah. I would imagine. Do you think that you got any ideas from these hallucinations that you would use in a book?

Mr. KING: From the entire experience and having the broken leg and recovering from the broken leg, those things I've used already in a book called "Dreamcatcher," where there's a character who is a history professor who is struck in Cambridge and has a broken leg and a broken hip and the things that he goes through in the hospital. I would say there's a surrealistic touch to some of that that approaches those hallucinations. But certainly I have not used any of that stuff at this point. And I might, some day. I really might. But those memories are - have faded a little bit for me.

There's this saying that if women really remembered labor pains, every child would be an only child. And I think that whatever sort of serious pain that you have, your mind casts a veil over that, so it's difficult to remember it in any detail. But I also think, as a writer, that a lot of that stuff - in "On Writing" I talk about muses that I call the boys in the basement, because usually when we think about muses we think about these airy-fairy little female sprites that kind of float around your head flinging this inspired happy dust, whereas, I think of them as these guys, these blue-collar guys who live in the basement...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: ...and they sit around drinking beer and, you know, telling dirty jokes. And every now and then you go down and say, do you have any ideas for me? And the guy looks at you and says, yeah I got an idea and yeah, here it is. Now go get to work and don't bother me anymore. I got to polish my bowling trophies. So that's the kind of muse that I see. But I do think of them as people who live in the basement. And in my mind, I equate that with the subconscious mind. And I think that down there, on whatever that level is, I probably still have a pretty good grasp of a lot of the things that I went through when I was, you know, in terms of consciousness, only partly there. So that maybe I could draw on that if I really needed to.

GROSS: So great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

Mr. KING: Thank you for talking with me.

BIANCULLI: Stephen King talking to Terry Gross in 2000. A 10th anniversary edition of his book "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" will be published next week. You can read the first chapter of "On Writing" on our website,

Coming up, critic-at-large John Powers on a new Italian film "I Am Love" starring Tilda Swinton.

This is FRESH AIR.

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