Stars and Stripes Q&A with Stephen King at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
Q: Is this your first USO tour and how did this visit to Ramstein come about?
A: It is my first European tour. I’ve never been overseas before to promote a book because I’m embarrassed at what a typical American I am. They (Europeans) all speak English, and I speak probably primary school level French; no German whatsoever. I can say “alles gute,” but beyond that there really isn’t nothing.
I knew I was coming over and we were setting stuff up in two countries. We were going to go to France and we were going to go to Germany. I’m going to Munich from here, then to Hamburg. I said to Marsha (DeFilippo), my assistant, can we do anything because I knew that Ramstein was here and Landstuhl. I knew there were writers like Harlan Coben, who visited the troops, the wounded warriors, so I asked if we could do it.
Q: What are your impressions so far of military members?
A: Two words: Fantastic dedication. I was amazed at Landstuhl. I saw some wounded soldiers, and I saw the staff that takes care of them. And it looked to me like there was like four staff for every injured guy that I saw and I heard some stuff about how they triage people on the battlefield downrange and how they bring them here and how excellent the chances are for people to get better and I saw that recovery.
I went over to the USO wounded warrior center and man, they had everything there. The guitars weren’t in tune but I took care of that. I tuned the guitars, yeah.
Q: You visited the garrison substance abuse program? Why did you decide to go there?
A: I’m a recovered alcoholic and drug addict myself and so it was a chance to talk to these guys and basically touch base with the problems that I cope with as a recovering person, and that was great
I talked to a bunch of people who are involved with getting military personnel clean and sober if they have drug and alcohol problems, and I talked to some guys that are actually in that program. It was terrific to touch base with that.
Q: You’ve written more than 50 books. What inspires you to write so much and where do your ideas come from?
A: I’ve written a lot because that’s where I have fun, that’s my playground. So I enjoy when I get going on a story. I get involved with it. There’s a craft aspect of it; it’s like making a piece of fine furniture, and there’s an artistic element involved. But mostly it just makes me happy to live in those other worlds for a while. You know, there’s an element of lunacy to that, but instead of having to go to a psychiatrist and pay them, people read what I write and they pay me.
As far as where the ideas come from, the short answer is I don’t know - they just arrive. It’s like a pneumatic tube from my subconscious.
Q: And sometimes you don’t know where that story’s going to go until you get into it?
A: You never know where they’re going to go completely. Sometimes I’ll have an idea, but with a novel, in particular, it’s a little bit like launching an intercontinental missile from the United States and hoping to hit one house in the Soviet Union. You can’t guide it that exactly, but I do the best that I can. And, you know, in the end, the story tells you where to go. It’s not like having a GPS. It’s more like exploring a neighborhood where you sort of know where some of the houses are but not everything, and to me that’s the fun of it.
Q: With your new novel, “Doctor Sleep,” why did you decide to bring Danny Torrance back after so many years, and was it challenging to revisit that character after such a long time?
A: Yeah, it was very challenging, and for a long time I had a piece of an idea of what I wanted to do with the story, but not a complete idea. And I kind of fought the impulse to write that book because “The Shining” scared so many people, but they were younger then and I thought well, it’s one of those things where a lot of people remember it as the scariest book they ever read and no way could I live up to that, but at the same time, that was the challenge.
But when I wrote “The Shining,” the main character, Jack Torrance was this alcoholic who was in what they call ‘white-knuckle sobriety.’ He doesn’t go to like AA meetings or anything like that. He’s just doing it on his own and that’s a lousy way to try to get sober. It’s dangerous and especially for a guy like Jack Torrance with a bad temper, it’s just asking for trouble. And Danny was the child of the classic dysfunctional family, alcoholic parent with tendencies towards abuse because he breaks the kid’s arm.
I thought to myself, ‘I wonder what happened to that kid? What happened to him when he grew up?’ And not only that, people would ask me sometimes. They didn’t do that about any of the other characters in the books. Nobody ever came up to me and said, ‘Well, what eventually happened to Paul Sheldon in Misery?’ But Danny, people would ask about it and I was curious myself, and I wanted to kind of show redemption in action, because Jack kind of gives in to the Overlook Hotel and to his tendencies. And I wanted to see what would happen if I had Danny be an alcoholic who actually got recovered from that.
Q: Do you have a favorite among all your novels?
A: Yeah, I would say probably, there’s a novel called “Lisey’s Story.” It’s about marriage – long-time marriage. They say write about what you know. I’ve been married for a long, long time - 42 years. We were kids when we got married. Our kids are all grown up and there are grandkids now. I’ve always been interested in the way a marriage builds a secret world for the people inside it. Even their kids, they love their mother and father, but it’s different with a man and a woman, that’s a secret. And so I wanted to write about that and I was happy about what I got. And it’s not the sort of book that was a runaway, crazy best seller like “11/22” or “Under the Dome” or “Doctor Sleep.” It’s a book that means a lot to me.
Q: Who of all your characters would you least like to meet in real life?
A: Annie Wilkes. The nurse from “Misery.” Because she’d be my No. 1 fan.
And make me write what she wanted, I mean, that’s the real nightmare.
Q: Have you changed as a writer over time?
A: Sure, I think I have but I’m inside of it, so I don’t really see the arc. It’s a little bit like looking at pictures of yourself as a child and then looking at yourself as an adult and you can see that there’s a quantum change in the way you look but it’s so gradual and you’re so much inside of it, you don’t really see it happen on a day by day basis. I think that I’m a better prose stylist now than I was when I was younger but probably not quite as fiery. I just think as you get older, a little bit of the urgency gets lost along the way and what you’re left with more and more isn’t the passion that you had as a young writer and more the craft. I still like it. Sometimes that still breaks out, I’ll feel that passion.
Q: Which of your stories are you the most passionate about?
A: Probably, if I had to pick one, it would be “Under the Dome.” It’s about a little town that all at once, boom, one day nobody can get out. There’s a clear dome, like a force field that surrounds the whole town and the people inside are cast on their own resources. They can see the people on the outside, but they can’t talk to them; they’re on their own. It was a way for me to say this is what our whole planet is like. We are under a dome. So far as we know, we’re the only planet where there’s intelligent life … so we can’t go and rape and pillage some other poor creature’s world. We’re stuck with the resources that we’ve got, and we’re stuck with the climate that we’ve got.
We’re stuck with this thing that we have as human beings, which is these brains that can create all sorts of technological wonders, and our hearts that can be really primitive and angry.
Q: What drives you to continue writing and is the best yet to come?
A: I hope it is. I’d like to think it is. One of the things, as you go along as a writer, is you say to yourself ‘I haven’t finished my best work yet’ and you live day to day with the idea that maybe you have. And you hope as a writer that you’re not just going to embarrass yourself and write stuff that isn’t very good as either your will diminishes or your intellect diminishes. What drives me to write? It’s fun and I’m aware too that a human life is short and a creative life is very short. I’ve been in the biz since 1974 as a freelance writer. That’s 40 years next year if I make it one more year. That’s not a lot of time in the course of human endeavors, so I want to do the best that I can for as long as I can, because it’s a race against time, really.
Q: What current writers are among your favorites? Who do you look forward to reading?
A: I’m reading a Sue Grafton now. She writes detective novels and I like hers. I always read the Lee Child books when they come out. On the literay side, Jonathan Franzen. There’s a woman named Meg Wolitzer. She just wrote a book called “The Interestings.” That’s terrific. I read across a pretty wide spectrum. People ask me for my favorites, people that I just have to go and get. The one name that stands out, the one person that I don’t miss, there’s a novelist named John Sandford who writes detective novels about Minnesota. I really connect with his view.
Q: What terrifies you?
A: Big audiences. I’m a shy person; I’m a quiet person. If I was built to be a public speaker, I’d probably be a politician or a stand-up comedian, but I’m not built that way so I write stories and I’m very comfortable on my own and when there are a lot of people, I always feel a little bit nervous.