15 June 2007

King, For A Night...(Updated)

Last night's gala for Stephen King was certainly a rewarding and long-overdue evening for fans, a good many who, like me, feel vindicated now that King is at long last being recognized as a serious artist. It's about damned time.

CBC's George Stroumboulopoulos introduced the evening's special guests (while David Cronenberg--who adapted King's "The Dead Zone" to the screen in 1983--was present, he remained anonymous). First up was Margaret Atwood, no stranger to fantasy-themed fiction herself ("Oryx And Crake", "A Handmaid's Tale") who spoke affectionately about the wide-ranging appeal and longevity of King's tales, and credited him for turning on her two teenage sons, and millions of males around the world (presumably we read less...okay...), into readers. She then spoke more academically on one of her favorite subjects--recurring mythological imagery and themes in fiction--and lauded King on incorporating "Sibyl of Cumae" into 1995’s “Rose Madder”.

Clive Barker followed, looking a little worse for wear since the last time I saw him, his once impassioned voice now a painful croak. He spoke of the concept of parallel universes, a timeworn sci-fi theme, and of how in one, tonight, at this very location, his allotted chair is empty. No one knows who he is. His first collection of short stories--"The Books Of Blood"--were published in the early 80s in the UK, and were greeted, in both universes, with the expected oh-so-British indifference. He writes a few more years, eventually, takes a job as a teacher in his hometown of Liverpool, and spends his remaining years thinking about stories and maybe, one day, putting something down again. A possible fate, had King not embraced his early works and proclaimed him, publicly, "the future of horror". There would have been no "Damnation Game", no "Weaveworld", no "Hellraiser" films (c'mon, the first one, while flawed, is excellent).

“A few words from Stephen and lives are changed forever…mine was.”

Barker closed with a simple, heartfelt "thank you", and a warm embrace from his mentor.

Chuck Klosterman owes something to King as well: he was one of the first to champion Klosterman's "Fargo Rock City", a biographical account of growing up a stoned, 80s-Metal obsessed journalist who somehow became one of today's wittiest authorities on pop culture. Klosterman sat opposite King (their first meeting) and kept things light, riffing on the man of the evening from the get-go: "If you had to, could you write a book in a night? If we had a typewriter here right now, could you do something by midnight?"

King, ever cheeky about his success, summed up his philosophy with "I just like to make sh*t up".

He talked of the burden of celebrity, of being a public figure where when you think people are stalking you, they generally are. Although sometimes, he happens upon someone who doesn't have a clue as to his rep, such as his encounter with a rich dude with a flat outside of a Florida movie theater. King and his family were off to a screening, when a well-dressed man offered him 10 bucks to change his tire. King complied: "It's the only honest money I've ever made!" he laughed. And when the fellow asked if he could work faster, King thought "Great, another f*ckin' editor!"

On a more serious note, when asked of what he thought was the universal appeal of his stories and the secret of his longevity (few authors have 30+ year careers), King replied "It's the voice, I think--it's a voice they wanna hear." He made an analogy to the music of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, who were distinctive (although King's mother, upon hearing Dylan for the first time, thought he sounded like "a pig caught in a barbed-wire fence") musicians who polarized critics and listeners alike.

Klosterman wondered: "Why do humans crave scary stimulation? This is not something you see in the animal kingdom." "Denial", King offered, denial of death and tragedy, and yet at the same time, a means of being prepared for something we subconsciously know is inevitable.

King's favorite works of his own? "'Lisey's Story'. 'I like 'Cell'. 'Misery'--that's a good one." Although he is fine with the idea that for his readership, ' The Stand' will likely endure as his legacy work. He confessed he found tributes such as these a little odd, "like going to your own funeral", he quipped.

Klosterman pushed him on his love of the hard rock band AC/DC (who scored his lone directorial effort, the loopy "Maximum Overdrive"). King cited their "purity". Their music says: "We're gonna clear out your head". In his books, King "wants you to burn dinner. Not think about work or your bills". He views writing as "an aggressive act" and each time aspires to eliciting a purely emotional response, to make the reader feel something. He feels to much "literature" is too self-consciously intellectual, and fails to provide that connection with the reader. Ditto 'story'. Narrative is too often at the bottom of the list of literary concerns, he laments. As he once wrote in the intro to a short story collection: it is the tale, not he who tells it.
And he's more or less recanted his well-publicized 2002 "retirement" plans. At the time, he wasn't doing well from the accident and addicted to painkillers, but that too, has passed.

Accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award from The Canadian Booksellers Association President Steve Budnarchuk, King (the first American author to receive the honour) suggested that his home state of Maine would become Canada's 11th province in a perfect world. It'd offer a new "southern destination" for cold Canadians ("and you guys know cold"). And there'd be fewer people to whom he'd have to explain: "Look, I didn't vote for him, okay?"

King praised Canadian authors such as Margaret Atwood, Alistair McLeod, and Yann Martel, but reserved his most impassioned sentiments for Robertson Davies ("You don't need to take any creative writing courses. Just go to a bookstore and buy "The Deptford Trilogy"), his delight in being able to stand on soil that served as part of Davies' locations, and of the late author's signature "long, white beard."

He said that the next day, he planned to go shopping for Canadian books he can't get back home (according to his publisher, Susan Moldow of Scribner, the first thing King did when he landed in Toronto was scout local bookstores).

The event was recorded for television, but no broadcast dates or details were provided. Keep checking this spot for details. King’s latest, the lost “Richard Bachman” manuscript “Blaze”, comes out Tuesday. Here's a photo of King accepting the award, courtesy of Canoe and AP.
Updated June 14, 2007:
George Stroumboulopoulos' interview with King on his CBC show "The Hour" can be viewed here.