Author Interviews
2:58 am
Tue September 24, 2013

Stephen King On Getting Scared: 'Nothing Like Your First Time'

Originally published on Tue September 24, 2013 10:10 am

Remember the first time you felt really terrified — and liked it? "Being scared is like sex," Stephen King says. "There's nothing like your first time."

For a lot of readers, King's 1977 horror novel The Shining may have been their first fictional scare. "An awful lot of the people who read The Shining were like 14 years old, they were at summer camp, they read it under the covers with a flashlight on," King tells NPR's David Greene.

The Shining tells the story of Jack Torrance, the troubled caretaker to an isolated, ghost-ridden hotel, and his son, Danny, a boy with a paranormal gift — and curse. Three years after its publication, the story of Jack and Danny was adapted for the screen by Stanley Kubrick.

Now, nearly four decades later, King picks up Danny's story as an adult in the novel's sequel, Doctor Sleep. King tells Greene that revisiting such a celebrated horror story was no small challenge.


Interview Highlights

On why he decided, after all these years, to return to the characters of The Shining

I wanted to revisit Danny and see what he was like as a grown-up. I think that we all have this ... desire to reconnect with friends from when we were younger — you know, that's the whole basis of high school and college reunions. So, I was also wanting to re-meet some of the people I knew from The Shining. I also wanted to investigate this whole idea about, can we rise above our parents? Can we rise above the mistakes that our parents made or the character flaws that our parents had?

On his approach to writing

As a writer, I've always been confrontational. I've never been cool, I've never been calculating. My idea is to come up to you, grab you by the lapels and say: I have this story. I want to tell it to you, and when you hear it, you're not going to want to cook dinner, you're not going to want to clean the house, you're not going to want to go to your job. You're just going to want to read this story and care about what comes next.

On why alcoholism plays such an important role in Doctor Sleep

I was interested in [alcoholism] for a lot of different reasons. There does seem to be a genetic predisposition to alcoholism — that's the nature part. The nurture part is that if you grow up in a household where there's a lot of drinking, you have a tendency to become a drinker yourself. I wanted to see if it was possible to escape those things.

The other thing that sort of interested me was that Jack Torrance never tries Alcoholics Anonymous. That is never even mentioned in The Shining. He does what they call "white-knuckle sobriety" — he's doing it all by himself. I wondered what it would be like to see Danny first as an alcoholic and then see him in AA.

On whether his own experiences in Alcoholics Anonymous helped to shape the way he represents it in his novel

One of the traditions of AA is, we try to maintain complete anonymity at the level of press, radio and films — and, as you know, we're on the radio right now ...

Knowing that I was a very heavy drinker at the time that I wrote The Shining and that I haven't had a drink in about 25 years now, you could draw certain conclusions from that, but I wouldn't cop to it. Let me just say this ... I've done a lot of personal research in these subjects.

On his prolific production in writing

There are plenty of people who have got lots of talent. This world is lousy with talent. The idea is to work that talent and try to get to be the best person that you can, given the limits of the talent that God gave you — or fate, or genetics or whatever name you want to put on it.

A lot of people have suggested that the stuff that I do may be second-class because there's so much of it. My response to that is: I'm going to quit and be dead for a long time. This is the time that I've got, and I want to use it to the max. I really want to try and mine everything that I've got.

On why he's willing to "get spiritual" in his books, but not in interviews

I let my characters speak for me. ... My main job is to tell stories and to be a storyteller, and what I feel about spirituality, the afterlife, this life, are things that should come through in the book. I don't put up any billboards.

On death

The older I get, the more I think about it because the closer it comes. I'm very interested in the actual act of dying, which is the last great human action that we have in our lives. It's the one event in our lives that no one can describe adequately because nobody comes back to talk about it ...

My feeling is, death is the great mystery, and it's the final act in our lives, and it deserves, if anything ever does, the kind of treatment that a guy like me can give it — which is speculative and imaginative.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Remember the first time you were really, really scared, and you liked it? Maybe it was when you picked up a book by Stephen King, like "The Shining."

STEPHEN KING: An awful lot of the people who read "The Shining" were, like, 14 years old. They were at summer camp. They read it under the covers with a flashlight on. And, you know, in a way, being scared is like sex. There's nothing like your first time.

GREENE: OK. That's Stephen King describing the challenge he has taken on writing a sequel to such a terrifying and memorable novel. "The Shining" - which later became a film starring Jack Nicholson - is the story of Jack Torrance, a man struggling with demons, from alcoholism to writer's block. And to make matters worse, he takes the job of caretaker at an isolated old hotel in the Rocky Mountains. He's snowed in with his wife, his son Danny and a lot of ghosts. Danny, the little boy, was blessed and cursed with the ability to read thoughts and see the future. And King picks up his story in the sequel. It's called "Doctor Sleep." Danny, as an adult, is using his gift to help ease the pain when someone dies.

KING: I wanted to kind of revisit Danny and see what he was like as a grown-up. I think that we all have this kind of desire to reconnect with friends from when we were younger. You know, that's the whole basis of high school and college reunions. So, I was also wanting to re-meet some of the people that I knew from "The Shining." And I also wanted to investigate this whole idea about: Can we rise above our parents? Can we rise above the mistakes that our parents made, or the character flaws that our parents had?

GREENE: When I went back to re-read "The Shining" before talking to you, and then reading "Doctor Sleep," I was left with this question at the end: Was Stephen King kind of setting us up for a sequel?

KING: No, I had no idea. I got them through the hotel. The hotel burned down. There's a Stanley Kubrick film of the book that most people know, and in that particular version of "The Shining," the hotel freezes solid, which kind of reflects Stanley Kubrick's temperament at that time. And in my version, the hotel burns, which reflects my temperament at the time.

GREENE: Why do you say that this exploding, burning building reflected your temperament?

KING: Well, I was hot. And as a writer, I've always been confrontational. I've never been cool. I've never been calculating. My idea is to come up to you and grab you by the lapels and say: I have this story. I want to tell it to you, and when you hear it, you're not going to want to cook dinner. You're not going to want to clean the house. You're not going to want to go to your job. You're just going to want to read this story and care about what comes next.

GREENE: Well, let's get into the world of "Doctor Sleep," the new book, and alcoholism, a big part of it. Was that a conscious choice? I mean, did you really want to dig into alcoholism and sort of that vulnerability?

KING: Well, I was interested in it for a lot of different reasons. There does seem to be a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. That's the nature part. The nurture part is that if you grow up in a household where there's a lot of drinking, you have a tendency to become a drinker yourself. So I wanted to see if it was possible to escape those things. But the other thing that sort of interested me was that Jack Torrance never tries Alcoholics Anonymous. That is never even mentioned in "The Shining." He has what they call white-knuckle sobriety. He's doing it all by himself. So, I wondered what it would be like to see Danny first as an alcoholic, and then see him in AA.

GREENE: The author's note in this book seems to make it pretty clear that you spent some time in AA yourself, and I wonder if those experiences shape this in any sort of way.

KING: (Chuckling) That reminds me of something that the guy says in the British TV series, "House of Cards": You might think so, but I could not possibly comment. One of the traditions of AA is we try to maintain complete anonymity at the level of press, radio and films - and, as you know, we're on the radio right now. So...

GREENE: Yes, that is true.

KING: You could say, having read these two books and knowing that I was a very heavy drinker at the time that I wrote "The Shining," and I haven't had a drink in about 25 years now - you could draw certain conclusions from that, but I wouldn't cop to it. Let me just say this, David: I've done a lot of personal research in these subjects.

GREENE: Thinking about you as a writer, look back to 1977, "The Shining" is first published. And now, you know, more than 30 years later, you do the sequel. How have you changed as a writer over this time?

KING: Well, I think that I've gotten a little more sophisticated in my writing ability. I want to try to keep what I'm doing fresh. I don't want to phone it in. Let's put it that way. And that in itself makes it possible to work to the top of your abilities. I mean, I don't want to get all spiritual about this or anything, but...

GREENE: Feel free.

KING: No, I don't think so. I don't feel free. But let's put it this way: There are plenty of people who've got lots of talent. This world is lousy with talent. The idea is to work that talent and try to get to be the best person that you can, given the limits of the talent that God gave you - or fate, or genetics, whatever name you want to put on it. So, I think a lot of people have sort of suggested that the stuff that I do may be second-class because there's so much of it. And my response to that is: I'm going to quit and be dead for a long time. This is the time that I've got, and I want to use it to the max. I really want to try and mine everything that I've got.

GREENE: Why do you say you don't feel free to get spiritual with me here? Because you certainly do in your books.

KING: I do. And that's the proper venue for it. And I let my characters speak for me. And the one thing that I don't want to do at all is to get up on a hobby horse, because I don't respect that. My main job is to tell stories and to be a storyteller. And what I feel about spirituality, the afterlife, this life are things that should come through in the book. But I don't put up any billboards.

GREENE: Because I - there's some really moving scenes in "Doctor Sleep" about dying, and I did wonder if you've sort of thought about dying and a possible afterlife, as you get older.

KING: Yeah, I think about it a lot. The older I get, the more I think about it, because the closer it comes. I'm very interested in the actual act of dying, which is the last great human action that we have in our lives. And it's the one event in our lives that nobody can describe adequately, because nobody comes back to talk about it. There are people claim that they've done that, and they've had near-death experiences. And I'm kind of, like, OK, if you say so. My feeling is death is the great mystery, and it's the final act in our lives, and it deserves - if anything ever does, it deserves the kind of treatment that a guy like me can give it, which is speculative and imaginative.

GREENE: Stephen King, this has been a real pleasure. Thanks so much for taking the time.

KING: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: His new novel, "Doctor Sleep," is out today. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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