Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Writing with the King

First off, big thanks to everyone who commented on my post earlier this week. The question, can you get away with a character who doesn’t change? drew many interesting responses. And this may be one of these things where I have to take another look at the story and character in question, and see if he does, in fact change on a level that I don’t notice, or not. And if not, can I get away with it? This story is firmly on the backburner. Parallel Lives is still in query mode, and my second book is ‘finished’ in a rough drafty sort of way, so I may be looking for something to work on, and that story could be it. Although there is something else that has been bubbling on the stove in the back room of my mind for a while, and the aroma has been wafting out into the main room at times, so I may have something else to start soon, we’ll see. I appreciate the comments, as always.

Last weekend I found myself spending forty minutes in front of a Youtube video of Stephen King giving a talk at George Mason University last fall, when he was honored with received the Mason Award for “extraordinary contributions to bringing literature to a wide reading public.” King was funny and self-deprecating, had some interesting tales of life on book tour, talked a little bit about his process, and poked fun at the audience—but in a good way. “You don’t get out much, do you?” he asked at one point. And then, later, “You’re out on Friday night because of books. Clap! Books! The most potent weapon against the assholes of the world – books!”

He also read an excerpt: not from what was then going to be his soon-to-be published novel, 11/22/63 (which I recommend, by the way), nor for his Dark Tower 4.5: The Wind Through the Keyhole, but from what will be his next novel (or maybe the one after that), called Dr. Sleep. This is the continuation of the story of Danny Torrance, last seen as a six-year old being chased around the Overlook hotel by ghosts and his insane father in The Shining. The story picks up with Danny as a middle-aged man, and is scheduled for a 2013 release.

During the reading, King showed exactly what makes him so good at what he does. At least in my opinion. I realize not everyone likes him. The piece he read was about the antagonists of his story, a group he called The Tribe (and, from reading the description of Dr. Sleep on King’s website, I think this name may have changed since then. Ah, the drafting process). There are two things about this piece that I love so much. First, King has a way for delving deep—into the ordinary. He goes on at length about The Tribe, also known as the RV people, a group of mostly old people who roam the countryside in their Recreational Vehicles. He goes on for several pages describing these people, and it’s perfect, because we’ve all seen them, anyone who’s traveled on the turnpikes and interstates of this country have seen them, and you know them. Consider this passage:

“Gas hogs driven by bespectacled Golden Oldies hunched over the wheel, gripping it like they think it’s going to fly away”…. “The men wearing floppy golf hats or long-billed fishing caps. The women in stretch pants—always powder blue—and shirts that say things like ‘Ask me about my grandchildren’ or ‘Jesus is King’ or ‘Happy Wanderer.’ You’d rather go half a mile down the road to the Waffle House or Shoney’s because you know they’ll take forever to order, mooning over the menu because you know they’ll always want the Quarter pounder without the pickles, or their Whoppers without the sauce.”

And you know these people! You’ve seen them! You’ve gotten stuck behind them, on the highway and in the rest area. You’ve seen them ‘mooning over the menu’, and paying separately, each one reaching into their little change purses and counting out to the penny while the line builds up and you think about how much time you’re losing while you’re stuck here.

And then, because King is King, he turns it on its head: 

“And, if you happen to be one of those unfortunate people who has ever lost a kid–nothing left but a bike in a vacant lot down the street, or a little cap lying in the bushes at the edge of a nearby stream–you probably never thought about them, did you?” 

Brilliant. With that twist, the entire tone of the piece changes. It starts as a slightly mocking—but affectionate—poke at elderly travelers and veers into the land of horror. You can hear it in the room, too, the way it goes even quieter than before. That sort of hush that comes over people when something heavy goes down.

This is what King does so well. He takes the ordinary and describes it in minute detail, makes us nod our heads and say, “Yeah, that’s right, I’ve been there.” The little chuckles from the audience as he read was because they’ve all seen it. They’ve experienced the RV people. This is a case of tapping into a truth of the human experience, and shining a light on it, and, when King is on his game, he does it brilliantly. He made his bones as a horror writer, but including those familiar details is part of what makes him so good at writing, period. Think non-horror, like The Body (Stand By Me), or Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, or even 11/22/63, whose paranormal elements are more like a framing device than the focus of the book. And even in his horror books, quite often the most gripping passages are ordinary things we’ve all experienced: Kids walking through the woods at night, or having to get something out of the scary basement. One of my favorite bits all-time is Larry Underwood’s journey through the Lincoln Tunnel in The Stand—horrors of the mind, which are often far worse than reality.

I’ve talked about The Truth before. This is another example of The Truth in action. Check out the video, one on Vimeo, produced by GMU, the other a ‘bootleg‘ from an audience member, which cuts a little off the beginning and ten minutes or so after King finishes reading (the reading begins at about the 26:45 mark and runs about 15 minutes). I’m looking forward to Dr. Sleep.

Now, in another note, Robin Kristoff at Bends in the Writer’s Road has written an interesting piece on her blog today (last night, I guess) that builds off of my Unforgivable Sins posts. Take a look at what she has to say. Thanks for stopping, have a great weekend, all.

8 Responses

  1. King is brilliant. The funny thing is that I know he is but I'm not a fan. I've only read a handful of his books and while they were clearly great, they just didn't resonate with me. But I don't generally like horror so that's probably why. It's a weird thing when you can read someone's work, clearly see that it is great but not actually enjoy it. Anyway, what I did read of his over and over again was his On Writing. It is positively brilliant. And I have always hated how literary folks do not take him seriously. We're talking about someone is who is one of the most widely read authors on the planet. You really don't want to hear what he has to say about writing? That's just silly! Anyway, that's my rant about Mr. King who I think can be aptly named The King. This post was great! I love how you broke down what he does so that we can learn from it!

  2. King is pretty amazing. I'll tell you he's certainly sucked me into his stories. I quit reading them when I was a widow with two small children. Couldn't handle being scared to death to go down a dark hallway to an crying child.

  3. I love those passages. I don't read King because I'm not into horror, but I might start, because it looks like he's a good writer.

  4. King is brilliant. No doubt about it. It's just a shame I'm too chickensh… er, scared to read most of his stuff. 🙂 Have a great weekend, Jeff!

  5. 'On Writing' is a terrific book. Part of what I like about that one, and his style in general, is that it's got a very conversational feel to it. You don't feel like you're being lectured at or talked down to. Interestingly, he did win the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award in 2007. When I read 'Duma Key' I thought that one, despite its 'ghost story' trappings, had a real mystery feel to it. Thanks, Lisa!

  6. Great passages, and I liked your note about delving deep into the ordinary. I haven't read much King, but I agree that is something he does extremely well. And thanks for linking back to my blog!

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