I've got a good one for you today, fellow King fans: an interview with Patrick McAleer, who is the author of the books Inside the Dark Tower Series and The Writing Family of Stephen King.
I recently contacted Mr. McAleer via email and pestered him with a bunch of questions; he was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to actually respond to them, and to prove it, here's a transcript:
Bryant Burnette: If my internet-fu has not failed me, you are an English professor at Inver Hills Community College in Minnesota. How long have you been teaching, and do you have a particular focus?
Patrick McAleer: Your “internet-fu” is impeccable. I have been teaching for almost ten years (with a few breaks for graduate studies), and I have been at Inver Hills Community College for the last four years. At Inver, I mainly teach Freshman Composition and courses in Research Writing. Of course, my background is in literature, and, technically, I consider myself to be a generalist as my main studies are varied (my Master’s thesis was on Robert Browning and my Doctoral dissertation was on Gothic literature…but little about Stephen King made its way into either of these pieces). I would say, though, that Stephen King is my specialty. Alas, I have not yet had the opportunity to develop a Special Topics/Major Author’s course with Stephen King as the focus. I do hold out hope that I will have the opportunity to develop such a specialty course—or series of courses, as King’s work cannot be contained within only one semester’s worth of reading—but we will just have to wait and see how this develops.
BB: I wish you success with that; it sounds like a course I'd enjoy taking! Pardon me while I talk about myself for a moment, but it'll make sense in the end: A few years after graduating from college, I went back for a while and took some American Studies courses with an eye toward getting a second degree—my first was in English—and then going to grad school with the intent of becoming an instructor of some sort. I had two major interests that I wanted to eventually pursue: one was developing a course studying Disneyland and Walt Disney World as living works of art; and the other was the idea of examining horror cinema and literature as being revelatory of broader American culture, with a particular emphasis on Stephen King. My plans for all of this fell through, which is neither here nor there, but just within the limited confines of the prospective work I did, I encountered resistance from some of my teachers regarding the Stephen King angle. Sort of a "why do you care about that junk" type of attitude. Academically-speaking, have you experienced anything similar to that sort of negativity?
PM: Absolutely. With my Master’s program, and even my Doctorate program, I wanted to do something associated with Stephen King for my thesis and dissertation, respectively, but I found quite a bit of resistance. There tends to be a knee-jerk reaction to working with any sort of fiction or literature that is deemed “popular,” as if any sort of attention given to popular literature as something that is certainly more than entertainment is a mortal sin. As such, I was, to a degree, pushed towards working with more canonical literatures and more “appropriate” topics. There are many theories about how “high brow” fiction is more respected and revered within academic circles and I will not necessarily dive into those here, but I think you said it best as you paraphrased your former instructors and colleagues as those who look at popular fiction as “junk,” almost indicating that there is nothing worthwhile within the pages of a popular novel. I, of course, disagree.
BB: That makes at least two of us, then! Actually, make it three; King himself has made it clear in his own writing that he agrees with us. I can live with that! Do you use Stephen King's (or any of his family's) work in your courses?
PM: I have always been hesitant to use King in my non-Literature courses as themed Freshman Composition courses somewhat bother me; I tend to envision Freshman Composition courses as a place to actually learn about writing, structure, language, and rhetoric rather than focus on a theme that the students may not find to be interesting. But, for the first time I taught a Contemporary Fiction course at Inver Hills, I taught short stories from King’s family: Tabitha’s “Djinn and Tonic,” Owen’s “I Swear I’ll Jump” and Joe’s “Last Breath.” The students seemed to like Joe the best.
As for actual King texts, I consistently teach Different Seasons as a reader for my Research Writing classes as papers on, say, prison reform (“Shawshank”) and adolescent psychology (“Apt Pupil” and “The Body”). I also teach The Mist as a part of my Contemporary Fiction courses. I have also taught The Gunslinger during the first incarnation of a Contemporary Fiction course that I teach somewhat consistently (folks were not too receptive to this one, sadly, hence the change to The Mist, which seems to intrigue folks, especially alongside the film), The Colorado Kid (folks hated that the mystery in this text is not resolved), and I am currently teaching The Eyes of the Dragon in an American Literature course that I am “team teaching” with a local high school teacher. I also plan on teaching On Writing as a non-fiction piece for an upcoming Introduction to Literature Class.
BB: What other authors do you enjoy, from either a teaching perspective or from a purely personal perspective?
PM: I do not really have any particular authors that I read as consistently, or with as much fervor, as I read King’s work. I will say, though, that I have started to work my way through the works of Clifford D. Simak, a science-fiction writer who King mentions as a key influence on The Dark Tower. To say the least, Simak’s 1982 book Special Deliverance clearly serves King as a foundation for the “doorways between worlds” that he explores throughout The Dark Tower.
I guess I would also say I like “reading” the comedy of George Carlin, and I love re-reading the entire Calvin and Hobbes collection usually once every year or so. In short, I tend to be all over the map, so to speak, regarding my reading tastes. All I know is that my “must read” list is constantly growing and I am always saddened by the likelihood that I will never read everything that I want to read.
BB: That thought's a real bummer, isn't it? The older I get -- I'm 38, so I'm nowhere near the end (I hope!), but far enough from the beginning that I can at least imagine the end being near -- the more I seem to be whittling down my interests. I long ago came to the conclusion that it was necessary for me to devote my energies either to discovering and appreciating new books, or to revisiting and appreciating ones that I already love. Same goes for movies and music. That's not to say that I'm closed off to the idea of discovering new artists to love; I just don't make it the focus that I used to. Speaking of discovering new artists, how did you discover Stephen King's books? In comic-book terms, what's your King-fandom origin story?
PM: My origin story regarding Stephen King mainly begins in 10th grade (1995). Although I had read a handful of King’s works during my late elementary school years and throughout junior high, I remember first picking up a copy of The Gunslinger in 10th grade to read during the fifteen-minute period each day that the school had set aside for “sustained silent reading.” After about thirty pages, I was hooked by the story of Roland Deschain. I have always loved fantasy, and the originality of the story (a cowboy in a post-apocalyptic world that once had been a thriving futuristic society that was eerily similar to Earth) equaled a fascination with a text that wonderfully bombarded my senses through the use of many genres.
BB: Where did that copy of The Gunslinger come from? Your school's library, or elsewhere?
PM: I actually found a copy of The Gunslinger at home. My mother is quite the Stephen King fan and had me start to read him when I was in my early teens, but she actually never got into the Dark Tower books, so the copy of The Gunslinger that I first read was my father’s as he was the first in the family to begin reading the Dark Tower books. Indeed, I have both of my parents to thank for starting me down this path. Further, I think that the paperback copy of the original Gunslinger that I have and keep for reading/research is the same exact book I first picked up almost twenty years ago. (And I do not plan on ever letting it go!)
BB: I'm assuming that reading The Gunslinger led you to pick up The Drawing of the Three next...?
[Bryant's note: the next few sections contain some heavy-duty spoilers for the final Dark Tower novel; if you want to avoid, skip down until you see the cover for the seventh book. It's safe after that.]
PM: Throughout the rest of the year, I would read, in fifteen-minute increments, the first three books of the Dark Tower series. Afterwards, as I had to wait for about a year for Wizard and Glass, and I felt such a high level of anticipation for this volume (and, of course, the three that would follow six years later) that I realized I cared for the story and the people that populated the pages. Above all else, once Eddie Dean entered the story, his wise-cracking ways and ultimate transformation/redemption from a junkie into a “warrior of the light” led to a real bond that I felt for the work and its characters. To be sure, I almost ruined my copy of The Dark Tower VII with tears upon reading of Eddie’s death.
BB: Yeah, King wrung a whole bunch of tears out of me with that book. Not just the bit with Eddie, either; Jake's death just crushed me, and Oy's was even worse. Brutal! In a good way, but still; brutal. I'm guessing I already know the answer to my next question, but I'll pose it anyways: are you satisfied by the way the series was concluded in Book VII?
PM: I am absolutely satisfied by the ending—like King says, it was the “right” ending. As King took years to build up this huge world in The Dark Tower and pointed the entire series to the powerful yet mysterious room at the top of the Tower, it seems appropriate that he did not attempt to provide a clear answer as to what is really at the top of the Tower. To “put a face to a name” in this instance would have likely been quite the disappointment. Further, as I believe I said earlier, I loved The Colorado Kid, and the lack of resolution at the end of this book, which is similar to the lack of resolution at the end of The Dark Tower, is, to me, just perfect. The lack of clarity and surety allows the reader to fill in the gaps as he or she sees fit—we can speculate as to what the Dark Tower and its topmost room really is, and we can hold on to the hope that Roland, with the Horn of Eld, will find an end to his journey during the latest cycle of his quest for the Dark Tower, just like we can imagine part of the mystery of the Colorado Kid may be solved by the “doorways between worlds” in that the dead man who appears on Moose-Lookit island could have easily traveled to Maine from Colorado in short time via a doorway similar to those we find spread throughout the Dark Tower series.
And, besides, the open-ended conclusion to both of these stories reflects one of my own personal “transformative” moments as a young boy: in one of my favorite nerdy Role-Playing Games from my youth, the Ultima series, a character in the game tells the player, or the Avatar, that “sometimes there are no answers, only questions,” and I have come to embrace this aphorism in my own life, and when reading a work of fiction. To be sure, mystery is oftentimes more interesting than resolution.
BB: A great many King fans seems to struggle with The Gunslinger, and you mentioned earlier that your students didn't respond well to it. Why do you suppose so many people find that novel unappealing?
PM: I think the best analogy I can draw here comes from my teaching. As I teach writing, invariably I have many students with interests in math, science, and computer technology who take my writing courses to complete their general education requirements, and many of them say that they despise English because of the subjective grading process. With math and science, there are firm rules and absolute, definitive answers. And while English does have its own set of rules within grammar—which, I would argue, are often quite negotiable—the students seem to find comfort within definitive answers, almost like Roland Deschain who hates mysteries and “cannot think around corners.” To be sure, there is generally a rather unnerving feeling associated with the doubt that stems from uncertainty, like having an English paper returned to you and you do not know the grade earned.
Still, I wonder if there is a cultural element to the desire for certainty as well. Many students (and people in general) are engulfed in a culture that values and even constructs absolute certainty when there really is none. To continue with the rather general picture here, think, for example, of most political discussions: the people involved tend to be persuasive and offer definitive solutions to particular problems, which is silly because so many variables can disrupt the best-designed plans for anything from economic reform to planning a night out. Argument, as I define it, is concerned with sharing ideas and admitting that absolute knowledge really does not exist (think of your birth date: depending on the calendar you are referencing—the Gregorian calendar, the Chinese calendar, the Aztec calendar—your birth date changes depending on the point of reference); argument is about providing reliable and believable information, but even the best information does not guarantee or “prove” anything, so we have to be careful and consider the possibility that even when certain information appears to create a definitive outcome there is a likelihood that something may come along and derail our projections. But some folks want, or need, solutions and resolutions and find a strange sense of comfort when answers are provided, even if the answers are questionable.
In short, with fiction, some people may think that they are owed an answer, and that anything less is a cop-out, which suggests an inability to consider that answers are really sometimes little more than parlor tricks.
BB: Given that King published a new Dark Tower novel last year, do you think that the series is likely to continue to expand? If so, are there specific elements of the tale you hope to see dramatized?
PM: I am almost expecting constant and continued expansion (and maybe revision…the name “Alan” in The Drawing of the Three is clearly supposed to be “Alain”). In the end of the recent installment of the Marvel adaptation of The Dark Tower, “Sheemie’s Tale,” Robin Furth describes the Dark Tower universe as (pardon my paraphrasing) a fruit tree, and all the numerous spin-off tales that we see in the graphic novels, in The Wind Through the Keyhole, and other tales like “The Little Sisters of Eluria” are the “fruit,” or seeds, that fall from the Dark Tower tree and sometimes receive enough attention and care to grow into a tale. As a reader, I love the idea that The Dark Tower will constantly be expanding.
Indeed, The Wind Through the Keyhole helps us to learn more about Roland’s friend Jamie DeCurry, and also brings us face to face with Randall Flagg once again, and this opens the door to potential tales about Roland’s other “lost” friend Thomas Whitman, or even about his teacher Abel Vannay’s son Wallace (just to name a few potential future storylines). The Marvel adaptation also introduces us to Cort’s “daughter” Aileen Ritter, and I would certainly love to know more about her, especially her relationship with Cort and Roland prior to the events of Wizard and Glass. And speaking of Wizard and Glass, I am still waiting to hear the tale that Roland promises Eddie, Susannah and Jake—the story of how he lost the belt his mother made for him and, essentially, gave to him post-mortem.
But, returning to the question posed, I am open to any element of The Dark Tower being expanded upon as there are just so many loose ends within the entire storyline…which are, perhaps, breadcrumbs of additional stories that Stephen has purposefully left unresolved.
BB: Generally speaking, are you a fan of the Dark Tower comics?
PM: I will admit that I am little torn. The early tales were bothersome for me for several reasons, from a few inconsistencies between the books and the information/images that the comics bring forth to the decision to adapt Wizard and Glass as the first installment. In short, Cuthbert is a blonde, not a dark-haired individual as depicted in the graphic novels (which is a trivial gripe, I will admit). I am also a little bothered that 700 pages of Wizard and Glass was reduced to just seven graphic novels, and that this story was adapted in that Dark Tower readers already knew the story…although there were a few tidbits thrown into this first installment of the graphic novels that provided something new. The later story arcs, however, are a bit more engaging as I love the expansiveness of the Dark Tower universe and I am always interested to see particular sub-stories develop and be presented to the reading public.
But, there is always a little twang of regret as the written word gives the reader the opportunity to create images and hear voices of their own imagination, and the graphic novels, to a degree, infringe upon the reader’s imagination. (I also thought that the illustrations we found within the Dark Tower series were a bit burdensome…to finally see Randall Flagg’s face in the seventh book of the series was both exciting and frustrating). This is not to say that I dislike the graphic novel medium—as noted earlier, I absolutely love Locke & Key—but since the written word of the Dark Tower series came first, I find that any other manifestations of this story beyond the written word will find some hesitation within me. To be sure, as mean as it may sound, I am actually happy that, for the time being, the Dark Tower movie is a no-go. This gives me just a little more time to keep the Dark Tower characters alive in my imagination and imagined in the way that I see fit, so I hope you pardon my selfishness within this response to your question!
BB: You've written two books about the work of Stephen King: Inside the Dark Tower Series, which is obviously a Mid-World-centric work; and The Writing Family of Stephen King, which focuses on the fiction written by Stephen's wife and children. I've got several questions to ask you about The Writing Family of Stephen King, but first I'd like to ask what, specifically, caused your Stephen King fandom to turn serious enough that you felt the need to begin writing about his work?
PM: This is a great, and tough, question. I think I must first begin answering this question by saying I never really felt the need to write about Stephen King’s work. Reading has always been a treasured pastime (surprise, surprise), and as I realized that I could eventually find work (an English teacher) that paid me to read and talk about what I read, I also realized that part of the job would be to share thoughts, ideas, analyses and interpretations about literature. However, I found that, as an English major, I must take classes on canonical writers—Shakespeare, Milton, Hawthorne, Melville, etc.—and that much of my studies and scholarship would push me into readings for which I did not have as much interest or passion compared to my love of Stephen King. So I started to write—mostly through conference presentations—on Stephen King so that I could discuss literature that I wanted to discuss rather than rehash old interpretations of, say, the character Satan from Paradise Lost. And as the years went by, I realized that there was a bit of a market for academic writing on Stephen King, so I decided to gather some old writings and presentations on The Dark Tower and some other obscure writings of the Stephen King universe—like the largely unknown writings of his family—and see what might result. Indeed, the result is two books that, I hope, expose people to the value and joy that one may find within the pages of a Stephen King book not titled The Shining or some other cornerstone that most people have read (or saw in the theaters).
BB: What triggered your desire to write a book about the non-Stephen members of the King family and their own writing?
PM: I think curiosity is the main reason why I wanted to write a book about Tabitha, Joe and Owen. I have read just about all of Stephen’s work, and I always felt that I was missing something by just focusing on Stephen’s writing. These three writers are part of the larger Stephen King story, and I was curious to see if their writings were similar to Stephen’s, but, most importantly, I wanted to expand my own reading horizons. Moreover, with writing, it is often a painful process, but one that calls for more, almost like getting a tattoo, and the pleasure of reading along with writing (or at least finishing a longer work of writing) compelled me to start my investigations and see what I could discover.
|Tabitha King author photo from Survivor|
BB: Let's talk about Tabitha King for a moment. I should confess that I've never read any of her books. I've got copies of almost all of them, though, and I intend to read them all at some point, starting with Small World and working my way forward. I would tend to assume that the vast majority of Stephen King fans have never read any of Tabitha's books. What would you say to persuade them that they should give her books a shot?
PM: I would say this to folks who are hesitant, but perhaps willing, to read Tabitha’s work: she is able to do many things that Stephen cannot do. Above all else, I find her ability to be ruthless and gritty with personal strife and sexuality much stronger than Stephen’s. To be blunt, there is a rape scene in Tabitha’s book The Trap that carries such visceral detail and heart-wrenching narration that I am upset and fascinated by the scene. In other words, when King writes of rape in, for example, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” the details of Andy’s encounters with the Sisters are brutal, but they are also limited. I do think that King is purposefully reserved with the disturbing details in this story and many others, but I also think that King just may not have the stomach to write on issues of sexuality and sexual violation. Tabitha, however, is bolder with her writing on sexuality, and I appreciate this “signature” in the sense that she is not attempting to create a gimmick or simply shock her readers—she is communicating a dark aspect of life that her husband has attempted to examine but just does examine as well as his wife.
Further, for those who like extended stories, the bulk of Tabitha’s writing is a series of five books that examine a few select character’s from a fictional Maine town called Nodd’s Ridge, and the lush history that Tabitha creates within these stories is compelling and captivating, at least in my opinion.
BB: From prompting Stephen to finish writing Carrie to serving as the inspiration for Lisey Landon in Lisey's Story, Tabitha has unquestionably served as a major figure in her husband's art. In what ways, if any, do you see him reflected in her art?
PM: I think the biggest influence that Stephen has had on Tabitha is that of support. He is the one that first passed along her novel Small World to a publisher, and he is also always ready to tout the merits of her writing (and for good reason). When Stephen was on a publicity tour for Lisey’s Story in 2006, I saw him speak in Seattle and he mentioned to the audience that Tabitha had published Candles Burning recently. And this “plug” led me to the novel. Although I must admit that I was not entirely fond of Candles Burning (while I do understand this text was an awkward collaboration between Tabitha and the original author, Michael McDowell, who had passed away while writing this book), I was at least intrigued enough to see what Tabitha had done as a solo artist, and I was quite pleased with what I found. So, I guess you could say that Stephen’s most important role regarding Tabitha’s art is support, especially by way of word-of-mouth.
|Joe Hill [photo by Todd Plitt, USA Today]|
BB: At what point did you become aware that the author Joe Hill was in fact Joseph Hillstrom King?
PM: I think I learned that Joe Hill was Joe King in early 2007, just before Heart-Shaped Box was published, which is really about the same time that the world learned of his identity. I had only begun looking into the works of Tabitha King and Owen King in late 2006/early 2007, and as I began my own investigations into the career of Joe (and also Naomi), I came across an article announcing Joe’s identity. To say the least, Joe did well with hiding his identity for quite some time, and I recall that this was his goal—to see how well he could succeed on his own without the recognition attached to his surname. I would say, especially through his work on the graphic novel series Locke & Key, that his level of fame and notoriety is well-deserved and that he lost nothing by writing under a pseudonym.
BB: He's a tremendously versatile writer, equally adept at both prose (long and short) and comic scripting. He's also a master of the Tweet. Do you see him as being especially strong at one of these types of writing as opposed to others?
PM: I will admit that I do not follow Joe on Twitter, but when I do visit his website from time to time, I find the tweets that he posts there are downright hilarious. As to his other writings, I will say that I am very impressed with his ability to manage longer plotlines, just like his father. Aside from his short-story collection 20th Century Ghosts and a handful of other short stories that he has composed, I am, again, quite impressed with the longer storylines that he crafts. Indeed, I am quite excited to read his upcoming NOS4A2, and I am very much looking forward to reading the conclusion of Locke & Key when this graphic novel comes to a close soon.
Regarding Locke & Key, one of the more intriguing lines that I read in the first story arc came from the villain Dodge who said to young Bode Locke (and, I presume, the reader) that full understanding of the unfolding story was impossible because he/we was/were “reading the last chapter of something, without having read the first chapters.” This particular line, to me, clearly indicated that Joe had a majority of this story planned out, and because of his knowledge of the entire story (as large as it is), he was able to carefully tell his story from the very beginning because he knew where he wanted to take it. Such diligence and meticulous planning indicates to me that he is a careful writer and that his imagination is much like his father’s—quite expansive!
BB: Clearly, comics play a major role in Joe Hill's life, and Owen's Who Can Save Us Now? [an anthology, co-edited by Owen King, of short stories about new superheroes] indicates that he is interested in comics, even if he might have no real desire to write the types of stories that typically appear in them. Are you yourself a comics fan in general? If so, what are some comics or graphic novels that you enjoy?
PM: I have only really dipped my toe into the world of comics and graphic novels. I go to the comic book shop once a month to gather the latest issues of Locke & Key, The Dark Tower, and American Vampire, and, sadly, that is about it. A few friends of mine have loaned me their copies of various X-Men comics and such, and I happen to have five comics based on one of my favorite movie characters of all time, Snake Plissken, that I enjoy reading from time to time, but the comic world is one that I have yet to really navigate.
BB: Joe is following in his father's footsteps in the sense of writing works that fit easily into the horror genre. Apart from that, do you see similarities between Stephen's work and Joe's?
PM: As I noted earlier, I observe within Joe’s writing an excellent eye for detail concerning the entirety of a story. Just like within Stephen’s longer works, Joe’s fiction manages many characters, plots, subplots, and many “twists and turns,” and Joe’s ability to, I presume, clearly map out a plan of attack rather than writing “from the hip” results in rather tight developed storylines that I do not think could be accomplished with a few whimsical sessions at the keyboard.
|Stephen and Owen King [from the back cover of Different Seasons]|
BB: For the true Constant Reader of Stephen King's work, both Joe and Owen were "characters" in his work for many years. Owen was a major part of the essay "Head Down"; Joe was a major part of the essay "Nightmares in the Sky." Owen formed the inspiration for Gage Creed; Joe formed the inspiration for Danny Torrance, and even co-starred in Creepshow. For the Constant Reader, the adult versions of Joe and Owen are, in a sense, Stephen King characters come to life and matured. Of course, they're also much, much more than that, but I can't help making that association when I read their works, and it makes me smile a little bit every time I do so. For example, reading a story like "Wonders" and knowing that it was written by the subject of the Stephen King poem "For Owen" is...well, for lack of a better word, it's just plain cool. Have you had any experiences in which being a fan of Joe's and Owen's work has caused you to look at some of Stephen's earlier work in a different light?
PM: I agree that the connections between Stephen and his sons throughout their written works are, like you said, cool. However, I do not think I focus on Owen and Joe and their relationship to Stephen’s work in the same way that you do (although as I go back and re-read Stephen’s earlier works, I will be keeping his boys in mind!). To the heart of your question, though, and perhaps redirecting it slightly (my apologies), regarding Joe, Owen, and Stephen’s earlier work, the main thing that stems from my fandom of their works and Stephen’s earlier work is that Owen seems to really be following in his father’s early footsteps more so than Joe. Of course, Joe writes within the horror vein like his father, but Owen’s work seems to have a wider range, and when I consider some of King’s earlier works (mainly his short stories), I see a similar range within Owen’s work.
The short story by Owen that you mentioned, “Wonders,” certainly takes readers into the realm of the startling and macabre—a circus “freak” fulfilling the role of a back-alley abortionist is certainly a story that Stephen could have written—but also Owen’s short story “I Swear I’ll Jump” reminds me of Stephen’s short story “The Last Rung on the Ladder” and of the love that siblings have and reflect upon when death comes between them. Joe, too, does not solely write within the realm of horror as his story “Pop Art,” a tale of a fragile Jewish boy who happens to be living inflatable doll, shows the ability and desire to reach beyond a simple well of stories that fall into a single genre.
BB: I loved that story. In fact, I loved 20th Century Ghosts in general, and as much as I love what Hill is doing in comics and with novels, I wish he'd write more short prose; he's seemingly got a real gift for it.
PM: I will also say that every time I read The Eyes of the Dragon I wonder how Stephen’s daughter, Naomi, read this tale that was written for and dedicated to her. Indeed, if this story was successful in capturing her imagination, I wonder what this might say about her reading tastes, and if she may not have been a fan of her father’s more horrific writings. I can only speculate, though…
BB: Speaking of Naomi, it's worth mentioning for those who may not know that while she is not a published author, she is a writer of sorts: she is a Unitarian minister who has written a decent number of blog posts, as well as video sermons that are available for public consumption on YouTube. Have you spent any time checking her work out?
PM: I have not actually looked too deeply into her work. My reasoning is that I look at her work as not necessarily that of a professional writer—I do not say this in an insulting way, but rather to say that her work as a minister, to me, seems to be better left outside the arena of “literary analysis.” For example, as I note in The Writing Family of Stephen King, one individual, Bob Thompson, claims that Naomi “channels her storytelling impulses into sermons,” and I actually take offense at this statement. It seems to me that Thompson is suggesting that Naomi’s sermons are little more than “make-believe,” and I find such a suggestion to be somewhat condescending, convenient, and even rude. Of course, I am likely looking too deeply into Thompson’s commentary, and perhaps being overly critical (my apologies). Yet, for now, I am side-stepping Naomi’s work…although my curiosity will likely open up and prompt me to examine her writing at some point as I think examining her non-fiction writing and rhetoric alongside her father’s non-fiction writing and rhetoric would make for an interesting project.
BB: I'm interested in what she does, but at the same time, I'm keenly aware that my interest is steeped almost wholly in the fact that she is the daughter of Stephen and Tabitha King. Because of that, it would feel maybe a bit like overstepping some sort of boundary for me to spend much time focusing on her work. That said, given that her for-public writings seem designed as ministerial outreach, I imagine that it wouldn't bother her at all if people found her words due to who her father is. Based on the few videos I've seen, she seems like a charming, kind woman; I'd like to keep track of what she does publicly, but at a polite remove, so as not to overstep whatever boundaries might be there.
Moving on, let's turn our gaze back to Naomi's brothers: unlike Joe, Owen has not delved into writing horror fiction. However, there are gruesome elements in at least two of his stories ("Frozen Animals" and "Wonders") that definitely make me nod and silently say, "Mm-hmm... that's Stephen King's son, alright." Do you see similarities between Stephen's work and Owen's?
PM: I actually tend to see quite a divide between Owen and Stephen’s work, especially in terms of genre. Like I noted earlier, I do see a similar range of writing in that Owen and Stephen are not necessarily limited to a single genre, but I do agree with Stephen who said that “Owen writes more like Bret Easton Ellis, flavor-of-the-month New York relationships,” and I do like this approach by Owen. The ability to find stories among the varied, interesting, and tumultuous relationships that people have—indeed, our population is anything but cookie-cutter when it comes to relationships—is, I think, a wonderful strength of Owen’s. And I think Owen is certainly good at what he does. The “oddities” of the relationships of which he writes has an endless well from which he can draw, but few people, I would argue, can write of these relationships in an engaging, humorous, and insightful way. In other words, I think that Owen can take the seemingly mundane and nearly-cliché and transform such into a story that people actually have not seen before.
BB: I see some of the same ability in his father's work, although Stephen clearly uses it in a very different way than Owen does. Stephen King is renowned for his ability to write engaging characters, and Owen seems to have developed a similar gift for writing about people believably and engagingly. I suspect that that ability comes only through being really good at observing people.
PM: For me, the best part of a Stephen King or Owen King character is that neither author tries too hard to make a character likeable or despicable. Each writer seems to present a character in a way like “here is the character; take it or leave it.” In other words, I think, and appreciate, how neither Stephen nor Owen really draws attention to the idea that a fictional person is on the page. Each has a wonderful sense of when “too much information” would be a burden and I think that they leave many things unsaid about a character (despite the word counts of some of Stephen’s longer novels), which begs the reader to fill in some of the gaps with his or her own imagination.
At the risk of sounding a bit critical, I think that J.K. Rowling helps to illustrate what Stephen and Owen are strong at as I do not find her characters to be too engaging. To clarify, I found that I was put off by Harry Potter because of how Rowling creates Harry’s aunt, uncle and cousin—they are just so unbelievable mean and heartless towards Harry that they come across as cartoon characters to me. Of course, Stephen and Owen may have some rather dramatic characters within their fiction, with Randall Flagg serving as a good example to consider, but with someone like Randall Flagg, he is not just a simplistic demon who is evil a basic juxtaposition to any “good” character we find in The Stand, The Eyes of the Dragon, or the Dark Tower series—he at least has reasons for being an evil character is not just an evil character because Stephen says so.
BB: What similarities do you see between Joe's work and Owen's?
PM: Both really seem to have a great sense of humor—something I am sure they got from both of their parents. Each creates literal “laugh out loud” moments in their writing. To be sure, in Owen’s story “We’re All in This Together,” I was so amused at the idea of freezing dog turds and training the dogs that had produced these items to fetch their own feces. Beyond this, I am hard-pressed to think of any substantial similarities that they have. Of course, we may have more information to work with when Owen’s forthcoming novel Double Feature is published.
BB: I'm really looking forward to that novel. I recently reread We're All In This Together, and was struck anew by how good -- and, indeed, funny -- that collection is. Now, to wrap up the compare-and-contrast portion of the exam, what similarities do you see between Tabitha's work and her sons' work?
PM: In a general sense, I do not see many great similarities between Tabitha and her sons. I can see that Tabitha eventually entered into the realm of the supernatural, like Joe, with Candles Burning. Of course, had she not been asked to complete this story, I do not think she would have done so as most of her novels before this one were similar to the explorations of strained relationships that we see in Owen’s work. However, at the core of Tabitha’s canon of fiction is five novels—Caretakers, The Trap, Pearl, One on One, and The Book of Reuben—that form a serial collection which immediately recalls Stephen’s serial work in The Dark Tower. Beyond that, I guess the easy answer to this question would be that Stephen and Joe, generally, are fairly similar writers regarding genre, and Tabitha and Owen shy away from the supernatural and supernaturally horrific in favor of “horrific” relationships.
BB: If we can stretch the definition of the phrase "the writing family of Stephen King" a bit, have you read any of the novels written by Owen's wife, Kelly Braffet?
PM: I have her books—Josie and Jack and Last Seen Leaving—on my bookshelf and should be reading them soon. I have read some of her shorter work, though, such as “Bad Karma Girl Wins at Bingo,” which is in Owen’s edited collection Who Will Save Us Now? I will say that I am intrigued as I see a particular sense of humor in her work that I also see throughout Owen’s work, and I must say that I am a fan of comedy…perhaps much more so than I am a fan of horror, strange as it is to admit. I also just learned that she has a new novel coming out later this year, titled Save Yourself, so I will purchase that book and read it relatively soon therafter.
BB: I've read none of her work yet, but the reviews I've read have me interested in doing so. Turning back to Stephen King himself, I'd like to ask something about the broad scope of his work. I've heard from fans on both sides of this particular divide: do you enjoy the interconnectivity that exists between so many King novels, or do you feel that that element takes something away from each work in its own right?
PM: I absolutely enjoy the intertextual elements of King’s writing. I think that while some may see this as a bit of a gimmick on King’s part, I find that he creates a wonderful dual-nature for all of his texts. We can read each story in isolation, and we can re-read the story with information gleaned from other texts to better understand, or perhaps fashion new understandings, of a given text and its characters and events.
For example, in one class I am currently teaching, we have moved from “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” to “Apt Pupil,” and my students were a little confused and surprised to see that Kurt Dussander from “Apt Pupil” knew Andy Dufresne from “Shawshank.” The students did not know what to make of this relationship, or why King might have tied the two tales together through “recycling” Andy’s character. But, the discussion took an interesting turn when it was suggested that Andy’s relationship to Kurt Dussander, no matter how minor and business-like it was, tarnished Andy’s character. In short, some students were appalled that, in essence, a “good guy” like Andy helped a former Nazi officer escape persecution. Of course, Andy’s knowledge of Dussander’s past was likely misinformed, but to see Andy in a different light, or as one who is “guilty by association,” is a fascinating element of reading both of these stories and their intertextual relationship. Further, I have always been a fan of expansive stories—the longer, or more “epic” a story (or even video game series) is, the more I invest in the tale.
BB: There is a brief mention of Derry in Joe Hill's novel Horns that opens the possibility of reading Hill's work as being part of the same multiverse his father has been building for decades. What are your thoughts on the possibility of Hill melding his own creations with his father's in some way?
PM: I think that this is an interesting development within Joe’s growing canon of fiction. As I said earlier, I looked at some of the elements of Heart-Shaped Box as being borrowed from Stephen’s writing, and I am very much intrigued by the growing universe of fiction that Stephen has created and that Joe seems to be adding to. Derry, of course, is quite the “cursed” town, and I think it is only natural for Joe to examine some of the “lost” stories from this strange and fascinating place. Also, Joe and Stephen’s collaborative works, like “Throttle” and “In the Tall Grass,” may be seen as bridges between each writer’s world, and I think that further meshing of the two writers’ works can be seen as quite innovative. Indeed, Joe has already established himself as quite the strong writer, and his writing is far from coat-tailing, and if he and his father decide to “join forces” and expand the alternative realities of their fictions by cross-writing, then I am all for it!
BB: Do you have plans for a third book about King's work?
PM: I sure do. Writing, even the “dry” academic writing that I do, is a bit of an itch that I must scratch. I am currently mulling over a few ideas for a book (or two), namely a collection of essays that I have been working on over the years and presenting at a few conferences. I have done a little work on some “old” issues in Stephen’s canon, like the Apocalyptic theme in his works, and I have been working on a project involving Stephen’s poetry as his “outburst” of poetry a few years back (i.e. “The Bone Church,” “Tommy,” and “Mostly Old Men”) piqued my curiosity and pushed me to look into his earlier works. We’ll see what happens.
BB: As a wrap-up question, I'll toss out this ole standby: what is your favorite King novel?
PM: Such an agonizing question! I am going to have to say that, as of now, The Colorado Kid has to be favorite—as I noted earlier, when I assigned this book in one of my literature classes, I found it amusing that all of the students were angry at the lack of resolution in the story, whereas I side with King who says he was more interested in the mystery and the story rather than the solution; this also mirrors his final words about The Dark Tower as he depicts the ending of a text as, well, cruel. Besides The Colorado Kid and, of course, the Dark Tower series, I am also a sucker for the story “Hearts in Atlantis” from the book by the same name. I may not connect to the characters in the way that readers who lived through the Vietnam War era may have, but the gaggle of college kids learning of the world, themselves, and enjoying some refreshingly hostile games of Hearts makes me look upon my early college years with fond nostalgia.
Thanks aplenty to Mr. McAleer for taking part in this interview!
You can buy his books at Amazon.com (Inside the Dark Tower Series and The Writing Family of Stephen King) or directly from the publisher, McFarland (here and here). What are ya waitin' for, maggot? Get to it!
I've got a copy of The Writing Family of Stephen King on the way from Amazon literally right at this moment; I'll be reading that pretty soon, and will favor you all with a review.
Before then, though, I'll have a review of Robert McCammon's 1980 novel The Night Boat for you. See you then!