The Salon Interview - Stephen King

The horror master talks about the latent violence of males, childhood terror and an "odious little man" named Kenneth Starr.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 24, 1998 8:46AM (EDT)

Stephen King spoke with Salon Wednesday afternoon, via telephone, from his publisher's office in New York.

There's a relationship in "Bag of Bones" between a middle-aged man and a much younger woman, and it's presented in strongly unfavorable terms. I was wondering if that reflects your views about that, and how it relates to current events.

You're the first person to ask me that question, about Mike's relationship with Mattie. And I'd say that what I presented, I presented from the viewpoint of a 50-year-old man who's been happily married and happily monogamous for the entire course of that marriage. But certainly, we'll be driving along the street and my wife will say to me, "What are you looking at?" And she knows perfectly well what I'm looking at. There'll be some cute little girl on the other side of the street, maybe 22 years old, wearing shorts and a mini-top. And I'll always tell her what my brother used to tell me: "A man on a diet can read a menu." But there is a real attraction in guys my age to women who are younger. It's a male version of the body clock, where women start to look at babies and want one as they get older. Because you get to a stage in your life where it just becomes a biological imperative. It's probably your body's way of saying, "You've only got so many years left where you're viable as a reproductive entity. Hurry up!" And that comes later with men than it does with women, because we last longer as reproductive entities.

As far as it applies to the president of the United States, which I assume is what you're intending, the man has clearly got serious problems with controlling his sexual urges. I don't think that this is a substantive issue in his presidency, and basically there are a lot of right-wing groups in this country that want to see him impeached for adultery. I'm sorry, adultery is not an impeachable offense. The lying that he did was the sort of lying that anybody does when they've been caught in an embarrassing sexual situation. And that's not substantive in terms of his constitutional duties. Ken Starr is an odious little man who is trying to justify all the money that he's spent by finding anything that's dirty on this guy. And God knows, sexually speaking, Clinton's hands are not clean. But the American people knew what he was when they hired him. The crucial difference between Mike Noonan -- a 40-year-old man who's attracted to a 20-year-old woman -- and Bill Clinton is that Bill Clinton was a 50-year-old man attracted to a 21-year-old girl. But even that, I don't exactly have a problem with. They're both consenting adults. They didn't catch Clinton with a 9-year-old, did they? The problem is that Bill Clinton is married, simple as that. The man is married. But whether he's married or whether he's single, it's not an impeachable offense. It's not the end of the world.

To get back to "Bag of Bones," you seem to be suggesting that the kind of attraction Mike feels for Mattie, and that she feels toward him, creates an imbalance that presents the opportunity for bad things to happen. Do you think that happens in real life?

I don't think it really happens. I think that what Mike feels, particularly in this case ... Here's a guy that's been grieving for four years. It's been raining in his life for four years. And she's the first ray of sunshine that he sees. He's sexually attracted to her -- she's young, she's beautiful, she's vivacious, she has all of that energy. What he sees in her is a kind of joyfulness. And I certainly react very positively to that.

Mike says to himself that just because you want something, you don't necessarily have the right to have it. Not every thirst should be slaked.

That's the married man's philosophy. It's gotta be.

That's an interesting thing to appear in a novel now, when there is almost a guiding ethos that you're supposed to take whatever you want from life.

Well, we have a problem both ways. The foreign press around the world will look at the situation we're going through right now and their reaction -- and that of a lot of American people, including myself -- is to throw up your hands and say, "Oh, please -- get over it. This is a juvenile preoccupation. People are starving in Africa. People are killing each other in Africa. Stop worrying about Monica Lewinsky's thong panties."

I won't give away how you resolve the issue between Mike and Mattie. But in the book Mike sees the resolution of this dilemma as an unsatisfying novelist's trick. How do you plead to that charge?

I plead guilty and not guilty at the same time. The situation that Mike is in is a melodramatic one. You have to ask yourself, What happens to these relationships when, say, the man is 60 and the woman is 40? Or when the man is 80 and the woman is 60? In several of the reviews of "Bag of Bones," people have said, about Mattie, that she's an unformed character -- that she's not as satisfying as some of the other characters in the book. Well, I'm sorry, but when you have a 20-year-old girl who lives in a trailer, who's been married since the age of 17 and widowed a couple of years later, who's trying to sort of scrape by -- that is not the stuff of which fascinating, paradoxical, bewitching characters are made. So, I did the best with it that I could. What I'm saying is, you get married, or you have a relationship, you have weeks, months, maybe a year of delirious sex. Then one morning you come down at breakfast and you look at each other and you say, "What do I talk about?" In the course of "Bag of Bones," as you say, we won't give this away, but that situation is resolved. I have a lot of questions about the way the situation is resolved, and I think I express them in the book.

One thing that happens in a lot of your books -- it happens in "Bag of Bones" perhaps less dramatically than in other books -- is that the vector for the evil in the universe, or in the situation, is a man. Very often a husband or a father. I wonder to what extent you really think that inside every normal man, normal husband, normal father, there's a monster, a wife-killer, a child-killer sort of waiting to come out.

I don't think it's in every man, but I think it's in most men. I think most men are wired up to perform acts of violence, usually defensive, but I think that we're still very primitive creatures, and that we have a real tendency toward violence. Most of us are like ... well, most of us are like most airplanes. Remember TWA Flight 800, the one that exploded over Long Island Sound? That was an electrical problem, or at least they feel that it was probably an electrical problem, and a fire started in the wiring. And when you see a guy who suddenly snaps, a guy who goes nuts, a Charles Whitman, who goes to the top of the Texas tower and shoots a whole bunch of people, when a guy goes postal -- that's the current slang -- that's a guy with a fire in his wires, basically. That's the exception rather than the rule. But of course, we get a lot of press on that sort of thing. I remember saying to a girl that I went out with in high school ... well, we dated until we were in college and we stopped dating because we wanted to "see other people" -- we always say that -- but she wanted to see other people, and we broke up, essentially. And I saw her a while later and she had a bruise under her eye. And I said, "What happened?" And she said, "I don't want to talk about it." And I said, "C'mon, let's go get a cup of coffee." Because she was clearly upset. So we did. She'd been out with a guy, and the guy wanted to do some stuff that she didn't want to do, and he punched her. And I never forgot that. And it became the basis of things in a number of different fictions that I've written. I can remember saying to her that day, "It takes courage to go out with a guy, doesn't it?" Maybe you're sort of attracted to him, you're sort of interested in him, but basically you're saying, "I'm going to get into your car, I'm going to go somewhere, and I'm going to trust you to bring me back in one piece." It takes courage. And she said, "You'll never know." Men are dangerous. We're big animals. I'm 200 pounds on the hoof, and I can hit. So don't make me mad. And if you do make me mad, I'll try to smile and everything, but if I didn't I could probably do some damage.

Aren't you also often playing on what must be the worst fear of being a father -- being a parent -- is that your kids will come to some terrible harm and it will be your fault?

Of course. I mean, it's a dreadful responsibility. I think a lot of people who say no to parenthood, and a lot of men who say no to fatherhood in particular, do so because they're daunted by that responsibility. It's like saying, you're in charge of these lives and you're the only thing that's standing between this little person and this little person's death. You have to be the protector. In terms of "Bag of Bones," you have to be the big guy because they're the little guy. So it is a challenge, and it's a huge responsibility. My own feeling ... as a kid, my mother used to say, when we were scared, "Whatever you're afraid of, say it three times fast and it will never happen." And that's what I've done in my fiction. Basically, I've said out loud the things that really terrify me and I've turned them into fictions, and they've made a very nice living for me and it seems to have worked. Because as of today, as far as I know, the kids are all fine.

You do such a good job capturing the feeling of vulnerability and strength that can come from childhood. The confidence, as well as the fears. Do you have especially vivid memories of your own childhood?

Well, I don't know if they would otherwise be more vivid than anyone else's, but I've certainly mined them a lot. The act of writing is very hypnotic. It's like dreaming awake. In fact, when those scientists, those sleep researchers, hook up their EEGs to the heads of people who are composing, they get those big delta waves that they associate with dreaming. It's like regressing somebody in a hypnotic trance. If I say in a book like "It" or a book like "Stand by Me" ("The Body") that I want to write about what it was like to be a kid, when I was a kid, my first thought is, "Gee, I really don't remember that much." But if you start, little by little you are able to regress, and the more you write the brighter the images become.

Another thing that is always important in your books is a sense of place. Often you use Maine, which you know very well, and often you use other locations, too. Colorado. And in something like "The Green Mile," there's a sense that a given location has a spirit that can be good or bad. I wonder if you could talk about the importance of that sense that places have memories.

Well, in any work of the imagination, the more real you are able to make the characters and the setting, the easier it is for readers to buy the narration. That's just a basic. But places do have spirits. Some places have a kind of eerie resonance that really sort of amplifies the quality of a scary story. You can hear a scary story in an apartment building and it's one thing, but it's a whole other thing to hear it around a campfire, with the wind howling. It brings in another dimension of reality that's entirely new. So for me, when I use Maine ... I grew up in the country, and to me it really does feel as though reality is thinner in the country. There is a sense of the infinite that's very, very close, and I just try to convey some of that in my fiction.

Does your evocation of the Maine landscape owe anything to the fiction you read as a kid -- H.P. Lovecraft in his books set in the woods of Massachusetts?

No, not really. I mean, it did at the time, when I was 13, 14, 15 -- which I maintain is the perfect age to read Lovecraft. Lovecraft is the perfect fiction for people who are living in a state of sort of total sexual doubt, because the stories almost seem to me sort of Jungian in their imagery. They're all about gigantic disembodied vaginas and things that have teeth. And that sense of the ancient New England landscape ... very kindly, Lovecraft was a lot less interested in using the landscape as a place where reality was thin and sort of deserted in the New England community as he was in trying to express that kind of feeling of ancient life. So I had a tendency to copy that when I was a kid, and I think later on I just tried to go back and find a more realistic way to talk about the quality of that landscape. For instance, you know, when Lovecraft writes "The Dunwich Horror," about Dunwich, Mass. I mean, in a way it's a lot of idealized crap -- he was a city boy. He didn't live in the country. And what he knew about it he saw from the windows of buses going between Providence and New York City.

The other thing about the landscape in your books is that it almost seems to have a sense of political and social history -- the legacy of genocide against the Indians and of slavery, of race relations. These things crop up in various forms. Is there a real sense to you that this history haunts America?

I have a sense of injustice that came, I think ... My mother was a single parent. Her husband deserted her when I was 2, and she went through a lot of menial jobs. We were the little people. We were dragged from pillar to post, and there was none of this equal opportunity stuff going on at that time. We were latchkey kids before there were latchkey kids, and she was a female wage earner when, basically, women did scut work and cleaned up other people's messes. And she never complained about it a lot. But I wasn't dumb and I wasn't blind. And I got a sense of who was being taken advantage of and who was lording it over the other people. A lot of that sense of injustice stayed. It stuck with me, and it's still in the books today.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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