BANGOR, Maine — Posing for a photograph at home plate at the $1 million baseball stadium he donated to his hometown, Stephen King is too much the writer not to supply his own narration.
“I can see the symbolism,” he says, gripping a Jackie Robinson model bat. “King steps to the plate with his new book. He’s old, but he can still hit it out of the park.”
Tuesday, a day after King’s 51st birthday, 1.4 million copies of his new novel, Bag of Bones (Scribner, $28), hit bookstores. It will test whether the world’s best-selling novelist (300 million books sold since 1974 in 33 languages) is past his commercial prime, as his former publisher whispered after rejecting King’s request for a $17 million advance.
The back cover touts Bag of Bones as “a haunted love story,” King’s own line, part of a marketing effort to dispel his reputation as a mere horror writer, a man readers love to be scared by, or, as biographer George Beahm puts it in the title of his eighth book about King, “America’s best-loved boogeyman.”
King doesn’t look scary. A lanky 6-foot-3, he’s dressed in jeans and running shoes, not unlike some of his most fervent fans, teen-agers who’ve made his scarier novels, from Carrie to It, into a rite of pop-fiction passage.
But King’s mop of hair is turning gray. He ignored his wife’s advice to get a haircut, noting that long-haired Dennis Eckersley, still pitching for the Boston Red Sox at 43, offers “hope for us old guys.”
Bag of Bones, inspired in part by Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 Gothic novel, Rebecca, is about a 40-year-old novelist who suffers a paralyzing case of writer’s block after the death of his wife, then stumbles into a new romance and the old murderous, racist secrets of a small Maine town.
King has never been blocked, writing since he was 7, when he made up stories from words copied out of comic books. At 17, he published his first story, I Was a Teenage Grave Robber. Eight years later, he was living in a double-wide trailer, earning $6,400 a year as a high school teacher, when he sold the hardcover rights to Carrie, a high school horror story, for $2,500. The paperback rights sold for $400,000. Now King is No. 31 on Forbes’ list of the world’s most lavishly paid “entertainers,” earning an estimated $40 million this year from books, movies and TV, down from $50 million in 1997.
Mike Noonan, the fictional novelist in Bag of Bones, is not quite as successful. But like King, he has “taught his mind to misbehave,” crossing easily into “the country of the novelist,” a landscape in which imagination is more valued than reality.
Novelists, King says, are “paid to play, kind of like Michael Jordan and Mark McGwire. The rest of the generation grows up. We’re left behind on the playground with the understanding that we’ll report on how it’s going.”
As for the process of writing, Noonan, echoing King, says, “So-called higher thought is, by and large, highly overrated. ... It’s generally better to just stand aside and let the boys in the basement do their work. That’s blue-collar labor down there, non-union guys with lots of muscles and tattoos. Instinct is their specialty.”
King once said: “I’m a salami writer. I try to write good salami, but salami is salami. You can’t sell it as caviar.” In another culinary metaphor, he called his work “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries.”
He’s reminded of that at lunch, not at McDonald’s, but at Bangor’s finest diner, Nicky’s, where the cheeseburger pie with mashed potato and vegetable goes for $3.95.
“Perhaps I was a little hard on myself,” King says, looking down at his turkey rice soup. He amends his self-assessment, making it “the literary equivalent of turkey rice soup. Nourishing, but not actively offensive.”
His wife, Tabitha King, a novelist herself (they met as students in a poetry seminar at the University of Maine), suggests, “He was trying to say he’s not the literary equivalent of okra quiche,” a sendup of the kind of trendy food absent from Nicky’s menu.
King laughs at the concept of okra quiche. “Okra?” he asks. “Doesn’t she have a book club?”
Although King likes to say, “It is the tale, not he who tells it,” the selling of Bag of Bones has gotten more attention than its writing.
Last year, in a publisher’s version of horror, King’s agent asked for a record $17 million from Viking, his longtime publisher. King now says that was a mistake. [James Patterson & J.K. Rowling.] “It made me look greedy,” even as he adds, “Money is a way of keeping score.”
He ended up signing with Scribner for a mere $2 million but will get half of all profits, not the usual 15% royalty. Scribner plans a publicity blitz, as if King needs publicity, and even conducted focus groups — uncommon in publishing — not to test King’s novel, but to measure his reputation among three groups: his dedicated readers, nonreaders and lapsed readers.
Scribner publisher Susan Moldrow says nonreaders’ perceptions were based more on movie and TV adaptations, sometimes just commercials, than King’s writing. Lapsed readers had enough of being scared by the likes of Cujo and Pet Sematary.
King calls Bag of Bones “a grown-up novel ... with a real arc,” unlike some of his earlier writing, “sort of horror sitcoms.” It is not his first romantic novel. When people say to him, “I’ve never read you. I don’t want to be scared,” King mentions books such as The Dead Zone, a love story, or Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, a prison novella turned into a popular movie.
But King still likes ghosts or, at least, likes to write about ghosts, key characters in Bag of Bones. “You may not believe in ghosts, and I may not believe in ghosts, at least when the sun is up,” he says, “but I think we all understand bad conscience, and if a community has a bad conscience, in a way there are ghosts at work, ghosts of the past.”
The 529-page novel (the $60 audio, read by the author, lasts 22 hours) was written in eight months. “When you’ve written 35 books,” King says, “you can never work too fast.”
Nor, it seems, can he mention too many other writers, moving easily from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Nelson DeMille, from James Joyce to John MacDonald, dismissive of professors and critics who would erect a minefield between serious literature and popular fiction.
If forced to choose between good storytelling and beautiful writing, he says, he’d settle for a good story. “So-called literary critics who praise gorgeous writing without a story are like some guy dating a model, saying she’s dumb as a stone boat but is great to look at.”