STEVE BERTRAND: Whether you have read all of his books, or none of them Constant Reader, Stephen King has had an impact on you. He is one of the few American authors who not only writes about pop-culture: he's helped form it, and he joins us now. Stephen, welcome.
STEPHEN KING: Thank you.
BERTRAND: Tell me about Under the Dome. Uh, a couple starts and stops, right? Mid-70's when you first started it?
KING: Right. Yeah. Yeah, around the time of The Stand, I originally had the idea for Under the Dome, which is basically a novel about a whole town that's caught under a...an invisible- almost like a bell-jar. They can't get out. People can see in. Uh, you can only the dome when the pollution starts to build up on it. Uh, or if there's a...an explosion. They shoot a missile at it- uh, the military does, in an effort to bust through.
So you can sort of see it, but basically it's this transparent thing where you can't get through. And I was sort of fascinated by that, and by a lot of the ecological, um, ramifications, because we're really all under the dome. We live on a little blue world, and I thought, "well, let's put it in a little, uh, context that people can grasp, where it's just a town, and we'll see what happens."
BERTRAND: When I talk to my friends about Under the Dome, and give them the first sentence, they almost all say, "Oh, like the Simpsons Movie."
KING: Yeah, I know.
BERTRAND: Which must also be a little annoying.
KING: Well, um, it's certainly- I'm aware that it's a question I'm going to have to answer on the tour over and over again, but there are two things to know. The first thing is: if I'd actually ever seen the Simpsons Movie, this book might not exist, because I would have said, "Oh, man, I don't want to write that. It's too much like the Simpsons Movie."
But I...I wasn't aware of it until the book was actually in galleys, when my sister-in-law read it and said, "You know what? This reminds me of the Simpsons Movie." And I kind of went, "Oh, no, geez." It's an idea that's, uh, that's been around for a long time. This force-field thing, where you're trapped.
But it's really not a question of whether or not something's been done before, or the basic situation's been done before, but what you can do with it. And I've always maintained that if you haven't seen another, uh, movie on the subject or read another book on the subject, these things are never alike. They're like snowflakes. Every snowflake is a snowflake, by definition, but there are never any two alike.
BERTRAND: It seems, too, that this book is a little bit about collective guilt or shame.
KING: One of the things that, uh, you learn from novels like Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson or Peyton Place by Grace Metalious is that, in small towns, everybody thinks they know everything, because you meet these people every day and you exchange information. "Hey! How's the kid?" "Oh, they're fine." Or: "Did you hear about Shirley, whatever her- her little girl's got spina bifida," or whatever. So people talk; there's a lot of neighborliness. But everybody has a secret or two.
BERTRAND: Which maybe applies to all of us?
KING: Well, Barbie has a history in Iraq, um... Dale Barbara's the main character in the book, and, uh, he has left the military and he wants to leave all this stuff behind. In fact, Barbie wants to leave conflict behind, because when he's faced with, uh, problems and, uh, trouble with four of the young men in town, his response isn't to, um, face up to these guys, but to leave town in order to avoid the confrontation, because of the Iraq situation.
There's also a Selectman, uh, who is pretty much under the thumb of the book's, uh, main antagonist, because she has a drug problem that she's concealing, uh, an OxyContin thing. So there are secrets. There's a minister who's a flagellator. Now that sounds like something even dirtier than it is, but it just means that you beat yourself up to get rid of your sins.
I never know what I'm writing about until I'm well launched on a book. I'll have a situation or I'll have an idea for a story, but I feel like if you're going to spend, in the case of Under the Dome, almost a year writing a single draft of a book, it damn-well ought to be about something that's more resonant than just a story to pass the time. I mean, I want people to have a good time, but I also want them to think about some other things, and a lot of what I was writing about was how life is in a small town, and how people interact.
BERTRAND: A lot of artists have found themselves sort of lost until they find their art.
BERTRAND: I talk to a number of musicians who, you know, were in trouble until they found a specific instrument that worked with them. Was that the case with you?
KING: Uh, I would say, probably, my writing saved my life.
KING: Several times. Uh, certainly I was an angry adolescent, uh, in full rebellion. I was angry at my place in a lower-class town, and, uh, living in a- in relative poverty, and- and, uh, I was not happy camper.
BERTRAND: There’s a story that you were in an attic somewhere and came upon stories by H. P. Lovecraft.
KING: Well, we had, uh, a crawl-space, um, behind the apartment where we lived in Stratford, when my brother and I were kids, and, uh, my mother had stored a lot of our father’s stuff back there. He deserted her when we were two.
KING: And, uh, among the stuff were a number of pulp paperbacks including one by H. P. Lovecraft called The Lurker in the Shadows, and I knew I’d found home when I read that book. So apparently it was something that moved my father, too, `cause he’d held onto the book.
BERTRAND: There’s also a story that when you were a young boy, you witnessed a friend of yours who was killed by a train.
BERTRAND: And did that have an impact on you later?
KING: Well it’s an apocryphal story. Here’s what my mother said- uh, although it does have a bearing on what I do. My mother said, um, that one day, I went out to play, and I came home and I was white as a sheet, and she asked me what was wrong and I didn’t say anything, I just went in my room and curled up on my bed. And she found out later that a little boy who had been playing on the train tracks had been hit by a- a train, and the only reason that I tell the story- I don’t have any memory of it myself, but I remember my mother saying: "They picked up the pieces in a basket."
BERTRAND: It seems that we don’t try to sort out the minds of romance writers or non-fiction writers, but when it comes to horror writers, we do.
BERTRAND: You get tired of that?
KING: I get a little tired of it. Um, I’m in my early-60s now, so, uh, I’ve heard the question a lot, and I- I know what the subtext is. It’s: what screwed you up…
KING: …so badly that you’re interested in this stuff. But I don’t have any memory of anything quote-unquote "screwing me up." Uh, there’s a saying that, uh- uh, alcoholics have in Alcoholics Anonymous: "you’re only as sick as your secrets." I’m built to try and give reader satisfaction. I like to tell stories, and I like to, uh, make people excited about what I do.
BERTRAND: There’s a sort of friction between what’s literary fiction and what’s popular fiction.
KING: Well, you know what? It’s- in a lot of ways, it’s an artificial, uh, distinction…
'KING: …between literature and popular fiction. I always get a kick out of, when I go into a Barnes & Noble store, I will see, uh- there’ll be sections. There’ll be the Mystery Section. There’ll be the Science Fiction Section. There’ll be the- the, uh- the Horror Section. But when you take a writer like Ruth Rendell, you’re going to find her in the Mystery Section, but really what she’s doing is literature, because it’s not just about who killed Roger Ackroyd. And, in fact, Who Killed Roger Ackroyd isn’t just about who killed Roger Ackroyd. A lot of the Agatha Christie mysteries are about the same thigns that Under the Domes about. It’s about life in small towns, and, uh, how people talk and how people think and how people cover up their secrets. So we use the genres as a bookstore convenience basically, and also as a convenience when we talk about books with our friends. “What do you like?” “Oh, I like to read science-fiction. What do you like?” “Oh, I like to read westerns.”
KING: So that’s the easy way to do it. And in the same way of thinking, we have fiction, uh, that we call literature, which has a tendency to be about extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances, and then we have popular fiction, which is supposedly about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. So they’re just back to front. But it doesn’t always hold true.
BERTRAND: You ever worry that you might not have another one in you?
KING: I don’t worry about that, but what I w- what I think about constantly on some level- and I think this is true of a lot of people- is: I wish I were better. I wish that I had a little more talent, a little more originality. I wish that I were better.
BERTRAND: Which of them do you think will last the longest?
KING: I have no clue. I- I think that stories of horror have a tendency to last longer no matter what the quality is of the book. If I had to guess, I would guess the ones that would last would be The Shining, `Salem's Lot, and The Stand. The S-Books, my wife calls them. But you never know. It’s a crap-shoot.
BERTRAND: How do you measure your success? I mean, is it by books sold? Is it by individual stories?
KING: Whether or not I’m st- I- I measure my success, I think, by how interested I still am in what I do, and how committed I am. Uh, I still think that I’m the luckiest person on Earth to do what I do. And for me, uh, I love to write stories, and I measure satisfaction to some degree in people saying: "That knocked me out."
BERTRAND: Stephen King, it was nice to talk to you.
KING: Nice to talk to you too. Thank you.
BERTRAND: I’m Steve Bertrand. This is Meet the Writers from the Barnes & Noble Studio on BN.com.