Rats, Writing, and the Nature of Evil: A Night With Stephen King

Stephen King and George RR Martin prove to be a dynamic duo on King's End of Watch tour.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from “A Night With Stephen King” — which sounds amusingly like a reality show with potential horror elements — one of the numerous King author events as part of his tour to promote End of Watch, the final book in King’s Bill Hodges trilogy. The last-minute addition of George R. R. Martin as the moderator left me even more at sea. Would it be a reading from the book? A Q & A where a select few could parse King’s motivations or habits or plot points?

It was actually none of these things, and still managed to be an enjoyable evening. Set at the 2 300-seat Kiva Auditorium at the Albuquerque Convention Center (which looked to be filled at approximately 75 percent capacity), it resembled nothing as much as a two-man, one-act play. The stage was set with two comfortable leather chairs, with King on the left, his long legs stretched out in front of him, while Martin sat to the right, facing King while they traded stories about writing, politics, the nature of evil, and oddly enough, rats.

Fan or not, there’s something utterly refreshing about King’s public persona. In a country where some pundits claim that “wanting to have a beer” with a candidate for public office is a determining factor in casting one’s vote, King’s beer-ability comes across as genuine. His storytelling abilities aren’t limited to the page; he offers a compelling and amusing stage presence.

He and Martin swap anecdotes about how rat tales ended up being their tickets to success (King’s short story “Graveyard Shift” was his first publication that paid decent money; a successful school assignment in which students were asked to rethink the end of Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” stopped a high-school aged Martin from being bullied with his gruesome, rat-featured rewrite), as well as about the adaptations of their works. While King shares a disturbing moment from the mid-’90s adaptation of The Stand — Boulder, Colorado residents freaked out by the arrival of truckloads of fake dead bodies — Martin wins the moment by relaying the accidental inclusion of a fake George W. Bush head featured on a pike, which apparently sent right-wing media into a tailspin; “Rush Limbaugh was having kittens,” as Martin puts it.

Both also touched on Martin’s recent interview with Joe Hill, author of the recently released The Fireman and, incidentally, King’s son. King’s pride in his son’s work was evident, as was the fact that Hill refused to use his father’s connections as a path to publication (“Hill” is short for “Hillstrom”, which is Joe King’s middle name). King also amused Martin (and the audience) by telling him that the only reason he’d started reading Martin’s Game of Thrones series was due to a serious case of sciatica. Unable to get any kind of relief, King tells Martin it came down to distraction — “I’ll try one of these fucking George RR Martin books” — only to discover it “carried him away” and “saved my life”.

It was the more serious moments of their discussion, however, that really resonated for me. Both Martin and King grew up in poverty; King’s father was a failed writer who abandoned the family when King was two years old, which King describes, with his characteristic, self-deprecating humor, as going out for the most difficult-to-find pack of cigarettes in the world (“he’s still looking”). Martin’s father, as he tells it, wanted him to be anything but a writer, yet the discovery of books — which Martin describes as “a ticket to a wider world” and King as the best therapy for both writer and reader (“instead of going to a shrink, you pay us”) paved the way for their futures.

Since the first book of the Hodges trilogy (Mr Mercedes) deals directly with a terrorist act by a fame-seeking villain, their discussion naturally turned to the recent Orlando shooting and the nature of evil. King advocated for greater gun control, and perhaps most importantly, remembering the victims rather than the perpetrators. “We remember the killers long after the victims are forgotten”; his disgust with this state of affairs was palpable.

The evening ended with a laugh, as Martin, a notoriously slow writer, asks the question that many have before: “How do you write so many fucking books so fast?” When King answered that he wrote at least a few thousand words a day, Martin poked fun at himself, asking why King didn’t write a sentence, scratch it out, rewrite it five times, and then crumble the page in frustration.

All writers, it seems, have their own process.