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Horror icon Stephen King doubts it's possible to 'gross out' the American public

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Stephen King is out with a new collection of short stories. As you might expect from the reigning King of horror, some are terrifying, some creepy, others laugh-out-loud funny, and one of them took him 45 years to write. The book is "You Like It Darker." Hello, Stephen King.

STEPHEN KING: Hello. How are you, Mary Louise?

KELLY: I am well. Thank you. I want to start by asking you about this story I just nodded to. It's titled "The Answer Man." You began it when you were 30. You finished it when you were 75. What the heck happened?

KING: (Laughter) Well, I lost it. What happens with me is I will write stories, and they usually get done, and they don't always get done. And the ones that don't get done go in a drawer, and I forget all about them. And about five years ago, these people started to collect all the stuff that was finished and all the stuff that was unfinished and put it in an archive. And my nephew...

KELLY: So they were going through your desk drawers, where you'd stash the stuff. Go on.

KING: They were going through everything, you know - desk drawers, wastebaskets, underneath the desk, every place that I just - I'm not exactly a very organized person. So anyway, my nephew, Jon Leonard, found this particular story, which was written in the UN Plaza hotel back in the '70s, I think. And he said, you know, this is pretty good. You really ought to finish this. And I read it, and I said, you know, I think I know how to finish it now. So I did. And, you know, I don't think that I ever decided it was a bad story. I just think that I left that particular hotel and forgot about it.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, give people a taste. This is the first six or so pages that you had written back in the hotel. It becomes a 50-page story. What was it - what's happening that you decided it was worth returning to?

KING: Well, I like the concept - the idea that this young man is driving along and he's trying to figure out whether or not he should join parents' white-shoe firm in Boston, a law firm, or whether he should strike out on his own. This is in the '20s, I think, or the early '30s. And he finds this man on the road who calls himself the answer man. He's sitting at a little table on the side of the road underneath an umbrella. And he says, I will answer three of your questions for $25, and you have five minutes to ask these questions. So I thought to myself, I'm going to write this story in three acts, one while the interlocutor, the questioner, is young and one when he's middle-aged and one when he's old. And really, the question that I asked myself is, do you want to know what happens in the future or not?

KELLY: Yeah. The answer man has answers - whatever you ask him, which gets to - you know, the story, like many of your stories - but this one is in particular is about destiny, whether some things are meant to happen no matter what we do, no matter what choices we make. Do you believe that's true?

KING: I don't know. The answer is I don't know. And, you know, when I write stories, I write to find out what I really think. And I don't think there's any real answer to that question.

KELLY: Yeah.

KING: One of the things in the story that interested me was the young man - name is Phil - he thinks, I should ask this answer man, how long am I going to live? And then he thinks, I don't want to know that. And now they have tests - don't they? - where you can pretty much find out how long you're going to live. And I don't think that most people want those tests.

KELLY: What a way it would be to live life if you knew that. Yeah. You do write...

KING: Yeah. I mean, would you want to know how long you're going to live?

KELLY: Only if the answer were a very long time, but I suppose, by definition, you can't know.

KING: Yeah.

KELLY: Yeah.

KING: But you wouldn't know that.

KELLY: Exactly. I mean, you do describe in the afterword of the book that going back in your 70s to complete a story you had begun as a young man gave you - and I'll quote your words - "the oddest sense of calling into a canyon of time." Can you explain what that means?

KING: Well, you listen for the echo to come back. When I was a young man, I had a young man's ideas about the answer man, and I could see the course of this story. But now, as a man who has reached, let us say, a certain age, I'm forced to write from experience and just an idea of what it might be like to be an old man. So, yeah, it felt to me like yelling and then waiting for the echo to come back all these years later.

KELLY: Are there stories, are there subjects you shy away from, Stephen King, where you think about it and think, you know what; that might be one step too creepy, too weird?

KING: Well, I had one novel called "Pet Sematary" that I wrote and put in a drawer because I thought nobody will want to read this. This is just too awful. I knew what it was going to be about, and I knew that it was going to be about a father who lost his little boy and had to dig him up and rebury him in a different graveyard. And I thought to myself, this is awful. I wanted to write it to see what would happen, but I didn't think I would publish it. And I got into a contractual bind, and I needed to do a book with my old company. And so I did, and I found out, to sort of my delight and sort of to my horror, that you can't really gross out the American public (laughter). You can't go too far.

KELLY: It was a huge bestseller, as I recall, right?

KING: Yeah, it was. It was a bestseller, and it was a movie. And...

KELLY: Yeah.

KING: The same thing is true with "It," about the killer clown who preys on children. And yet it was a very popular book and movie.

KELLY: Who still haunts my nightmares, I have to tell you. You've written how many books at this point?

KING: I don't know.

KELLY: Really? I was trying to...

KING: No. I don't know.

KELLY: ...Look, and we - in our recent coverage of you, we've said everything 50 to 70. Is that ballpark - that, like, dozens and dozens?

KING: Yeah. I think that it's probably around 70 if you count the collections of short stories and the nonfiction and the novels - all that stuff. But I don't keep any count. I remember thinking as a kid that it would be a really fine lifetime to be able to write a hundred novels.

KELLY: Oh, my gosh. Yeah.

KING: And I'm not there. There are others that have managed to do that, so it can happen. But I'm - you know, I guess I'm not that ambitious. What I really want is...

KELLY: I'd say you're...

KING: ...To spend my life...

KELLY: ...Doing alright (laughter), I would say.

KING: Yeah. I wanted to spend a life telling stories. That's all.

KELLY: Yeah.

KING: And being able to support my family and do what I love - that's a win-win.

KELLY: Well, you sound like you're still having a lot of fun. So I hope you have quite a few more novels for us to come.

KING: That would be good.

KELLY: Stephen King. His new collection of a dozen short stories is called, "You Like It Darker." Thank you.

KING: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHEL ELKIND AND WENDY CARLOS' "THE SHINING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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