There are several reasons why I wasn’t planning to attend Stephen King’s closing address at the Savannah Book Festival last Sunday.
First, it sold out five months ago in two hours, presumably to rabid King fans with wicked speed dialing skills and basements full of animal bones.
Also, with a few exceptions, writers on a stage make me nervous. When authors with well–selling books start talking about “process” and “discipline,” I get dizzy.
The open–mawed specter of the Book I Am Not Writing starts tap–dancing on my head, spawning an overwhelming urge to curl up in the fetal position in the backseat of my van.
It reminds me of the old fable about John Steinbeck, who supposedly once addressed an audience by calling for all the writers to raise their hands.
He then asked pointedly, “Then why aren’t you at home writing?”
Of course, the biggest reason I wasn’t going to hear Stephen King speak is he scares the crap out of me.
As an impressionable young reader in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I chowed down on King’s classics, which probably caused far more paranoia than any pot–smoking behind the bleachers.
He is the reason I cannot be in the same room as a clown, and why I will never trust a Saint Bernard, no matter how friendly. I won’t go near a red–and–white Plymouth Fury for fear it will start following me.
And burying pets is an absolute no–no — cremations only, and the urns stay on a shelf in the living room, where I can keep an eye on them.
So much creepitude has come from this man that going anywhere near him in person would be asking for nightmares for the rest of my life.
But I was graciously gifted a pair of these sought–after tickets by local writer and consultant Hartford Gongaware, who had already braved the Book Festival crowds for most of the weekend and following Steinbeck’s advice, chose to stay home and write. So I stuffed my skeletons back into the closet and rode downtown.
On the way I remembered King’s other, less terrifying works that had also left an indelible impression: The short story collection Different Seasons, which included the masterpieces “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body,” adapted into one of the finest coming–of–age films of all time, Stand By Me.
I still refer to King’s nonfiction books on craft, 1981’s Danse Macabre and On Writing, written while he was convalescing after being hit by a car in 1999. No ordinary pulp fiction superstar or commercial plot–generating machine, King has contributed tremendously to the literary landscape of these times, satanic clowns and all.
His presence in Savannah undoubtedly signifies, as SBF president Stephanie Duttenhaver put it in her introduction, that our little book festival “has hit the big time.”
I was loitering outside Trustees Theater 15 minutes before the event, attempting to bestow my extra ticket like a Grateful Dead hippie proffering a miracle, when I looked up to see the King himself strolling by in jeans and a black baseball cap.
Stooped and graying but immediately recognizable from decades of publicity photos, he nodded to the few surprised stragglers that hadn’t fought their way inside yet.
As he passed close enough for me to see the silver threads in his beard, he looked me straight in the eye and said “Hey there, nice to see ya!” then disappeared with his small entourage into the box office entrance next to me.
I missed the photo op, paralyzed as I was with shock that I hadn’t burst into flames.
I did finally give away the extra ticket and found a seat in the balcony. Next to me were some hardcore fans who’d had their tickets since October and had waited in line since early morning to buy one of 400 copies of 11/22/63, King’s latest release, so they could have them signed later.
Allen Beall and his sister, Cindy Gay, were sporting custom King–themed T-shirts made by Cindy’s son, Timothy Gay, sitting a few chairs down with his wife, Jenilee.
Asked about their favorite King books, they eagerly recommended King’s Dark Tower series. They all seemed like lovely, normal people, but there wasn’t enough time to ask what they keep in their basements.
King slouched onstage, flashing that unmistakable lopsided grin that seems affable enough but definitely exhibits a mischievous undercurrent of “I’m gonna gitcha!”
In fact, he creeped everyone out immediately by quoting research that one in 50 people leave their cars unlocked, but the chance that anyone would hide in the backseat to attack you later was probably unlikely. Then he cackled and confessed that “those are what my wife likes to call ‘facts out of Steve’s ass.’”
That kicked off an hour of charm, candidness and enough profanity to staff a truckstop. Peppering every anecdote with F–bombs and “gawdamns,” the author of 56 books described himself as a regular joe who does his own grocery shopping, insisting “I’m just some guy who’s spun bullshit into gold.”
He prescribed Lord of the Flies as required reading for high school students (how’s that for creepy?) and shared a chapter of his work–in–progress, Dr. Sleep, a sequel to the ultimate mind–messing novel for writers, The Shining.
Thankfully, he made no mention of process or discipline other than to shrug and say all he does it sit in the chair and type:
“It’s not creation, it’s like dictation.”
He joked that he should move to Savannah, probably a fantastic idea for him, since he could probably write a thousand eerie novels based on Factor’s Walk alone.
The thought made me shudder.Nice as he seems and glad as I was to score a ticket, I don’t think I could handle living in the same town as this maestro of the macabre. Could you sleep, knowing he was nearby, tap-tap-tapping on the keyboard, weaving his nightmares?