NASHVILLE, TN — Stephen King doesn’t let his scary side out. Instead, when he hits the road to meet and greet fans or to talk about his newest book, End of Watch, it’s Public Steve who shows up.
Fans typically want to see Scary Steve, the mind behind such classic novels as It, Carrie, and Salem’s Lot. But Scary Steve doesn’t travel. He works three to four hours a day holed up somewhere in the wilds of Maine coming up with ways “to scare the shit out of you.” If you’re Scary Steve, it’s what you do.
Home Steve is just a regular joe, hanging out at the house, watching ballgames on TV, going to the market, or cleaning up after the dog. Home Steve, as you might surmise, stays at home.
Public Steve is far better suited to book signings and lectures. He’s surprisingly entertaining, light-hearted, and fun. As King puts it, “Public Steve does a lot of deflection so that you don’t look for Scary Steve.”
King talked about the “three faces of Steve” while making a stop at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on his End of Watch book tour in June. The venue – known as the church of country music and birthplace of the Grand Ole Opry – was crammed with 2,300-plus of his constant readers on a night when downtown Nashville was abuzz with the annual CMA (Country Music Association) Festival and nearby Manchester was overrun with ‘Roonies (short for Bonnaroo fans), a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the 68-year-old author.
“Everything is happening in Nashville this weekend,” he said, “and look at this place — full of people who read books.”
“If you have a gift, at some point it wakes up and it speaks to you and says this is what you’re supposed to do.”
— Stephen King
King received a standing O as he stepped on stage, remarking, “Well, it’s all downhill from here.”
In actuality, he was just getting started. Given the setting, King fittingly regaled the audience with stories about his own musical talent as part of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a group of authors able to play a limited number of musical chords and sing a few cover songs.
“I’m going to talk about writing, but I’m in the Ryman so cut me some slack,” he joked.
King is a country music lover at heart.
“For me, country music was shit-kicking music,” he said about growing up. “There was nothing on the radio but country music and Rush Limbaugh, so I started listening to country music.”
Thankfully, he didn’t hop on a bus and come to Nashville all those years ago to pursue some dream of being a country music star. Instead, he found his calling in writing horror fiction. In a box. In the attic.
“If you have a gift, at some point it wakes up and it speaks to you and says this is what you’re supposed to do,” King said.
For King, the writing bug inside him awoke upon reading some of his dad’s pulp novels found in that attic, specifically H.P. Lovecraft’s The Thing From the Tomb. “Whatever it was, awoke in me.”
Over the course of 40-plus years since then, King’s writing has resulted in countless bestsellers and sleepless nights for avid readers. He knows what scares you, as the saying goes. The secret, he explained, boils down to two things: One, make readers care about the characters, and two, make it real.
To drive the point home, he let Scary Steve out of the box for just a moment. He noted that many people in the crowd were probably so excited about being there, they’d forgotten to lock the car door. That maybe while they were sitting listening to him, some stranger was trying the door to their car. That some stranger was perhaps slipping into the back seat of the car.
“I guarantee when you go to your car tonight, you’ll look in the back seat first,” he said. In order to scare people, “you have to plant the seed first.”
King admitted he sometimes even scares himself.
“People ask me if I ever scare myself,” he said. “I get scared, but when I’m writing I feel in control. I’m behind the scenes.”
That’s not to say writing is easy.
“The voice I have on most days is, this is great, keep going,” he said. “But you also have days where you feel like you’re wearing gloves and nothing has texture to it. The trick is to keep going. Writing a novel, it’s no job for sissies.”
Quotable Stephen King:
- On fans: “People sometimes tell me, ‘you’re on my bucket list.’ That’s so goddamn weird.”
- On critics: “The critics initially hated me. I decided, I’ll just keep writing and pretty soon they’ll all be fucking dead.”
- On politicians: “Listen, you politicians, you oughtta thank God you can flush after you go to the bathroom.”
- On TV: “TV is in a place it hasn’t been in in years. They are doing things that movies can’t.”
- On what you should read next: The Fireman, written by his son Joe Hill
- On what he’s writing next: King is working on a book with son Owen, Sleeping Beauties, due out in 2017. The book will be published by Scribner.
- On advice to writers: Secrets to success
- New short story: “Cookie Jar”
- More from the tour: An entourage of one