Learning from Stephen King

Last month I had the great pleasure of reading Stephen King’s Misery to my 15-year-old son. Actually, I read only about a quarter of the novel to him; he read most of it on his own, devouring the chapters while he rode the subway to his cross-country team practices. I’d never read Misery before. I saw the movie when it came out in 1990 and loved it. In fact, that’s why I didn’t read the novel for almost a quarter-century. I doubted it could be better than the movie.
But the book is better. It’s even more disturbing and gruesome. In the movie, the insane nurse Annie Wilkes (played so wonderfully by Kathy Bates) punishes her bedridden captive Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan) by breaking his ankles with a sledgehammer. But in the book she chops off his left foot with an ax and cauterizes the stump with a blowtorch. Then, for good measure, she cuts off his thumb with an electric carving knife. But she’s also careful enough to apply a coat of Betadine antiseptic to both the knife and the ax blade. One of the most memorable parts of the novel is the image of the carving knife in motion, flinging drops of Betadine every which way as it saws back and forth. As my son put it: “That picture really stays with you.”
What’s more, King uses the novel to make several interesting points about writing. Paul, the narrator, is a bestselling novelist (like King) who’s loved by millions of readers but disliked by many reviewers (again like King, at least back in the 1980s). Annie is Paul’s deranged “number one fan.” At the start of the novel, before all the torture and amputations, Paul tries to explain some of the techniques of fiction to Annie, but she has no interest in them — she’s strictly a reader, not a writer. And yet she’s passionate about the books she reads and gets furiously upset at implausible plot twists. (“HE DIDN’T GET OUT OF THE COCKADOODIE CAR!”)
King explores the issue of plausibility by having Paul recall a childhood memory. He remembers a grade-school class where the teacher encouraged Paul and the other students to play a game called “Can you?” The students would collectively tell a story, with each boy or girl contributing a few twists and turns, and when the story reached a point where the hero faced an impossible dilemma, the teacher would challenge the students to come up with a way out of the fix. She would ask, “Can you?” and the student who accepted the challenge would propose a solution, and then the other students would vote on whether it seemed plausible.
This reminded me of a different game my wife and I still play with our kids during long car rides: the Fortunately/Unfortunately game. The kid playing the Unfortunate role thinks up terrible disasters while the Fortunate kid thinks of ways to escape death and ruin. Both of these games are good exercises for budding novelists. (In our family’s case, though, the games usually go downhill fast. We don’t do well on long car rides.)
Halfway through Misery’s plot, Paul realizes that only writing can save him from his own impossible dilemma. He starts writing a novel that rivets Annie, preventing her from killing him until he finishes the book. King’s descriptions of the writing process are spot-on. Paul talks about seeing a hole in the piece of paper he’s typing on, and through the hole he can see what’s going to happen next in his book. On some days the hole is big, on other days it’s tiny. He also talks about ideas that pop up from the unconscious mind, which he refers to as “the boys in the sweatshop.” Just the other day I was having some trouble with the book I’m working on — I was out of ideas, I didn’t know what would happen next — and my son reassured me by quoting from Misery: “Don’t worry, Dad. Sooner or later the boys in the sweatshop will send up a flare.”

After my son and I finished the book, we rented the movie (he’d never seen it before). The screenwriter (William Goldman) and director (Rob Reiner) made a few smart tweaks to the plot, and Kathy Bates’s performance was just as good as I remembered, but I missed the intimacy of being inside Paul Sheldon’s head and seeing all the fear and despair and cleverness in there. That’s the picture that really stays with you, the one that can’t be filmed.
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How Things Have Changed

A new Stephen King book hit the bookstores this week. It’s titled JOYLAND, and it’s much more like THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON than THE STAND or MISERY or DESPERATION or the Tower series or any of a couple dozen books that I could name. It’s published under the wonderful, indispensable, and at this point venerable Hard Case Crime imprint. The book’s appearance made some major news in those places where books are still news because if you want to buy the book, you’re going to have to buy The Book. There will not be an e-book version of JOYLAND for the foreseeable  future; yes, you’ll be able to obtain an audiobook, but something for your Kindle or Nook or other e-reader isn’t going to happen for awhile, unless you want to buy a copy of the book, tear out each page, paste it on Your Precious and…of course, you are not going to do that. 
There is a bit of irony here, given that one of the first e-books by a mainstream writer to be published solely as an ebook  — not as we know them now, but it was an ebook nonetheless — was a novella entitled “Riding the Bullet,” a chilling little ten-finger exercise that was written by, uh, Stephen King. You had to download some (free) software called “SoftLock” in order to read it. This occurred way back in 2000. There were other ebooks published, including a pay-as-you-go serial by King titled “The Plant,” but the format never really caught on until some smart folks at Amazon came up with what they came up with. King, however, was there at the beginning. There accordingly have been some who have now taken King to task over what they perceive to be his apparent one-eighty, somehow finding him to blame for the popularity of the electronic format since he was one of the first to embrace it with the same fervor that Jack Torrance embraced that rotting corpse in THE SHINING. I would disagree. King has made quite clear that his reason for limiting the format of JOYLAND to physical form isn’t to disown the child he midwifed at the turn of the century; he is doing it to help physical booksellers. This is not something new for King; those of us of some age will recall that King did an unapologetic tour of indy stores in 1994 to promote INSOMNIA, riding his motorcycle from city to city and making appearances to yes, mobs of people. There’s also a more recent model for this. A growing number of musicians are occasionally releasing some new songs only on vinyl, to support independent record stores.  Is he taking a risk financially, by limiting the format to physical books, and cutting out the impulse buyer? Possibly. Is Hard Case Crime? Almost certainly. JOYLAND won’t be available at the press of a button; it’s going to take some effort, and yes, some waiting to get it, maybe even some inconvenience. Some folks may feel it’s not worth the hassle.
But can I tell you something, as someone who loves his Kindle? JOYLAND is worth whatever it takes for you to get it. Let me go further than that: this is a book that should only see the light of day as an actual book. It’s a coming of age novel, with some mystery and romance and a bit of the supernatural thrown in, and it works as a physical book. JOYLAND is set in 1973, at a downheel amusement park on the coast of North Carolina, and I swear that as I turned the pages I could smell — very faintly — popcorn and taffy and ocean water and hear ferris wheel music rising up from between the pages. Am I given to imagining things? Maybe. But isn’t that what reading is all about? I don’t think it would be quite the same on an e-reader.
Let me now ask you: what was the last physical book (and we’ll count audio books in the mix) that you purchased? How long ago was it? And what do you think of what King and Hard Case Crime are doing with JOYLAND? Do you think that limiting its format to a physical product is a good idea or a huge mistake?
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Who Is Reading What

Who Is Reading What

It seems as if I’ve spent the last two weeks doing nothing but driving. That of course isn’t entirely true but for various reasons I’ve had to make two or three round trips into downtown each day for the last fortnight, and while it has been interesting in some ways it has been mind-numbingly boring in others. I don’t have any witty advice (even of the half variety) wry observations, or heartfelt descriptions, sappy or otherwise, of what has occurred recently, at least that I care to recount right now. Maybe next time.

So…I thought I would just cut to the chase and ask a question: what book are you currently reading? I’ll go first. I am reading two books, actually. One is THE BOYFRIEND by Thomas Perry. It may be his best work so far. It concerns a private investigator in pursuit of a man who is killing high-priced escorts of a certain type, though never more than one in any specific city. The other is an extremely sure-footed debut novel by Becky Masterman and which is titled RAGE AGAINST THE DYING. It is narrated by its protagonist, a fifty-nine year old ex- FBI agent named Brigid Quinn. The book will go on sale on March 12; read the first sentence in the book and you will want to read the rest. That first sentence does everything it is supposed to do and more: it draws you in, makes you curious, scares the hell out of you and leads to even better things.

That’s me. My wife is reading ONE DAY AT A TIME by Danielle Steel and  listening to another Steel book. MISERY by Stephen King is being read in fits and starts by my younger daughter (how in heaven’s name do you read MISERY in fits and starts? I read it once a year on a day which I set aside for that express purpose). My older son, for his part, is juggling a couple of John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport novels, as he works his way through the canon with the kind and occasional permission of my six year-old granddaughter, who in turn is reading an issue of Highlights for Children.

And you? And yours?

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