Stephen King: The Regular Guy Behind America’s Most Blood-Curdling Novels

Author of “Carrie,” “The Shining” and “It” discusses writing process and his new book, “Revival,” at Lisner.

Stephen King
Stephen King visits Lisner Auditorium in an event sponsored by D.C. bookstore Politics & Prose. (Rob Stewart/GW Today)
November 13, 2014
Most of the time, Stephen King has no idea how his books are going to end. When he’s writing, he follows his protagonists like a looming shadow, quietly observing as they wind their way through the twisted challenges he puts in front of them. 
That meandering, explorative approach has resulted in more than 50 books, making Mr. King one of the most prolific fiction writers of his era. In an event presented by Politics & Prose, he appeared casually at Lisner Auditorium on Wednesday night in a red T-shirt and jeans, looking more the part of a good-natured father than a sinister mastermind known for dropping characters into storylines teeming with terror and gore. The author even started the evening with a corny dad joke: “Two jumper cables walk into a bar…”
The packed audience of screaming Lisner fans made it clear that the slouching 67-year-old with a penchant for silly humor was, in fact, the same cult hero who’s achieved rock-star status in the world of suspense and science fiction. At the mere mention of Mr. King’s 1983 novel “Pet Sematary,” the author’s devotees let out cheers. Someone dropped the name “Dolores Claiborne” and howls of joy followed. When Mr. King breezily told an anecdote about “The Shining,” the room erupted with applause.
“This is like being Led Zeppelin, playing all the hits,” Mr. King quipped.
He’s not exactly Jimmy Page, but Mr. King actually does know a bit about rock and roll. He was the guitarist in a band called The Remainders, a name met with a roar from the audience. (“You wouldn’t be cheering if you’d heard us,” Mr. King deadpanned.) His love for music fueled a lot in his latest novel, “Revival,” which follows 6-year-old Jamie Morton into adulthood, chronicling his drug-addled career as a musician and his reencounter with a preacher he befriended as a child. 
The book draws inspiration from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and the rise of the technological age. Publishers Weekly calls the ending one that “stuns like lightning,” yet the person most surprised by the jolting apex is Mr. King himself. 
“You have to follow the characters and the story where it leads…. I’m not a fan of plot. I’m a lot more interested in character and situation and where it goes,” he said.
Stories pop into his head frequently, often sparked by mundane events. The ideas don’t always pan out. A couple years ago, he was waiting for his wife outside an airport bathroom when a narrative began growing in his imagination. He went home and started a story called “The Ladies Room,” in which women walk into an airport restroom and never come out. The chaos builds furiously: Security guards and policemen follow the women but don’t return. News of the mysterious bathroom blares all over television, and the National Guard storms in, surrounding the airport. As Mr. King prepared to offer readers a grand reveal of what was happening in the bathroom, he put down his pen.
“I couldn’t figure out what…was going on,” he said. “I have no idea where I’m going with most of these things. I just record them as they come through my head.”
When angry readers wrote him letters demanding to know why he killed off a character in his 1981 psychological thriller “Cujo,” Mr. King responded honestly, “I didn’t even know anyone was going to die.” 
His books aren’t always petrifying. His memoir “On Writing” is regarded as a guide for aspiring novelists. But darker stories have shaped much of Mr. King’s reputation. An older woman once told him, “You’re that scary writer. Why can’t you write nice things, like ‘Shawshank Redemption?’ ”—even though Mr. King authored the novella. 
Still, the scarier fare has attracted fans, who formed three snaking lines down the aisles of Lisner to ask Mr. King questions about his books and his favorite characters (“Annie was fun,” he revealed after a pause). Mr. King gave answers nonchalantly but seemed genuinely moved by the enthusiasm, explaining that writing is usually a solitary process until he shares his work. 
“When someone comes up to me and says ‘You got me through a tough time,’ what else can you ask for? Well, a few royalties,” he joked. “But mostly, I do this because I have fun.”
Just before leaving the stage, Mr. King delivered the punch line to his initial joke. “Two jumper cables walk into a bar. The bartender says, ‘I’ll serve you, but don’t start anything.’ ” No matter how circuitous the journey, Mr. King always leaves his fans with the finale they’ve been awaiting.