'What scares me most? Losing my ability to write' - Stephen King tells all
Published 21/08/2014 | 08:20
His work is the stuff of nightmares, but horror writer Stephen King tells Susan Griffin he still loves his job.
There aren't many people who can say they survived their teenage years without being terrified by reading one of Stephen King's novels, or watching one of the many movie adaptations.
A child-eating clown in It, and a deranged fan - willing to kidnap and torture to keep the object of her obsession close by - in Misery, are just two of the chilling figures created by the author, who has sold in excess of 300 million books since his debut novel, Carrie, was published in 1974.
You might expect him to project some dark, brooding force but, in the flesh, he couldn't be more charming, laughing often as he reflects on his illustrious career - one he continues to forge.
At 66, he says the challenge is "to try and stay fresh and engaged and have something in your heart that you want to say feels important to you".
"It's not always easy to do that, but every writer gets a room to explore and to write stories about and I think to myself, 'You've pretty well explored this room'," he said.
"But then there are all these secret compartments and other places to look," adds King, who was born, raised and continues to live in Maine, the American state often used as inspiration in his stories.
And in that search, he's uncovered even more macabre material for Revival, due to be published later this year.
"Revival is something I think would make people think of Pet Cemetery," says the author, referencing his 1983 novel which was turned into a movie six years later. "There's some scary, scary s**t there," he notes, grinning.
He's never been solely focused on the horror genre though, and continues to mix things up with the publication of the suspense story Mr Mercedes, the first in a trilogy of books about a retired policeman being taunted by a murderer.
"My publishers would love nothing but horror novels, because they feel it's a place they're comfortable, but I've always wanted to try new things."
Ideally, however, he likes working on one at a time.
"It drives me crazy to have to work on two or three different things at the same time, because it makes you feel like you're schizophrenic, like your brain is split into different parts."
Another of his ongoing projects is Under The Dome, his 2009 book which was turned into a TV series last year. King executive produces the series, with Steven Spielberg, among others, and it's more sci-fi than scare-fest.
It follows the residents of Chester's Mill after an impenetrable clear dome falls from the sky and cuts them off from the rest of civilisation.
"My original concept was that these people would be trapped for months," reveals King, who has three children with his wife Tabitha. But his writing process doesn't work like that.
"I have a situation, and then I like to see where it goes. It's like following a thread, you just reel it in and reel it in and you go wherever that thread leads," he added.
And in this instance, the thread only covered three weeks in time.
"I've been faced with a certain amount of purists on Facebook saying, 'The TV series is not like your book! It was like your book at first, but it changed', and I'm like, 'We've extended the timeline'," he reveals in mock exasperation.
"I was really excited by the idea of seeing what would happen over an extended period of time."
As with much of his writing, there's a sociological aspect to Under The Dome.
"I wanted to make Chester's Mill a microcosm of the world where there are diminishing resources, and where people feel pressed for space, and the environment itself seems to be degrading," explains King. "Because we're all under a dome, we're all stuck on a little blue planet."
He admits that while it wasn't his idea, he's "totally down with" the second series exploring what happens when you discover your population is too great for your resources.
Big Jim, the self-appointed leader of Chester's Mill, played by Dean Norris, begins to talk about euthanising some of the people who are not contributing, or who can't contribute.
"It's that lifeboat question; if the lifeboat is loaded, who do you throw overboard?" notes King.
When the second series was commissioned, he was asked if he'd like to take "a more active role", and he requested to write the first episode.
"To write the first episode gave me the first footprint, and it gave me a chance to set the course of the rest of the series, so that was a great thing for me. I also got a chance to kill off a couple of loved series regulars and that was fun," he adds, laughing, though he won't divulge who.
Although an avid reader since childhood, in recent years he's embraced the evolving TV landscape, as a viewer, as well as a producer and storyteller.
"Where I used to read and raid the refrigerator for snacks when I'd done my work for the day, now I watch TV. I have as much of a tendency to binge-watch as anybody else."
King's made no secret of his dark days of drink and drug addiction but, following a family intervention, he's remained sober since the late 80s. He experienced another murky phase in 1999, after he was hit by a car while out for a walk and "was busted up pretty bad".
He was still recuperating when he made comments in 2002 that suggested he was contemplating retirement.
"I was in a low place mentally and then I got better, and when you get better, I think your mind turns to work again, and my imagination started to work," he says now.
So, what does it take to give King the heebie-jeebies? His own great fear, it turns out, is being diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
"My brain is my main tool and I don't want to lose it," he says, though he admits writing's "harder than it used to be".
"I don't think I have as much to say as I used to, so I write less. But it's still what I'm good at and what I like to do, it still makes me happy. When I was in my 30s and 40s, it made me happy every day. Now, it makes me happy every other day."
Pondering the future, he believes the biggest challenge will be "knowing when to shut up".
"I would like to leave people wanting a little bit more, and not saying, 'This guy's become an ageing bore', or, 'He's not relevant any more'. I would hate that," King adds. "But I want to entertain people. It's what I'm built to do."