His wife encouraged him to keep at it, and in those early days, King says, he was highly motivated by "this gush of image and story and words. It was like somebody yelled, 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre and everybody's trying to crowd through the door at the same time - that was ideas and work." By their mid-20s, they had two children and were very stretched.
Most of his friends weren't even married. Why have kids so young?
He bursts out laughing. "Because they came! Naomi was about nine months old when we got married. Tabby was 21. And then it seemed like a great idea to give Naomi a brother or sister. I can remember being home one day and there was a knock at the door - a guy selling something - and he said, 'Hon, is your mommy home?' And Tab said, 'I'm the mommy.' We had two kids by then."
Every scrap of free time had to be put to good use. During one particularly frenzied period, King bashed out The Running Man in a week. A week! "February vacation week. I was white hot, I was burning. That was quite a week, because Tabby was trying to get back and forth to Dunkin' Donuts and I had the kids. I wrote when they napped or I would stick them in front of the TV. Joe was in a playpen. It seemed like it snowed the whole week, and I wrote the book. Couldn't sell it."
In King's 1986 novel It, the character Stuttering Bill stands in for the author as a highly successful horror writer, who corrects journalists when they ask where he gets his ideas from. The better question, Bill says, is why do they come in that particular form? Why horror? King has always recoiled from glib readings of a childhood rift in his psyche: a father who left when King was an infant, never to return. But it was through his father that he discovered writing: a book he found in the attic, which his father left behind. It was a collection of short stories by HP Lovecraft called The Lurker In The Shadows and had a demon on the cover. King read it as a boy and something pinged in his brain.
Everything changed with Carrie, the story of a telekinetic teenager and her sublime rage at her fundamentalist mother and bullying schoolmates. It was picked up in 1973 by Doubleday, for an advance of $2,500. That was enough for the Kings to buy a new car. A year later, when the paperback rights went out for auction, King expected to make something in the region of $60,000, half of which would go to his publisher. Since $30,000 was more than he earned in a year as a teacher, he planned to take a sabbatical and write two more books. "But the advance turned out to be $500,000."
King notes with some amusement that he has been around so long that kids who read and loved him in the 1970s now run publishing houses and newspapers; he is revered, these days, as a grand old man of American letters. The experience of reading King young - "Under the covers with a flashlight at summer camp," as he puts it - doesn't leave one, and although he says, casually, that "it's pretty easy to scare a 14-year-old", the pleasures of his books endure. There is a lightfootedness to King's prose, a quickness of thought and expression that over the course of decades has somehow always seemed modern. It's partly a function of speed: his books err on the long side - a casualty of quick turnaround - but the action rattles along at a pace that is mimicked in the snap and verve of his language. In Dr Sleep, the serial killers appear with "faces like old apples and the moon shone right through". Danny, in the hospice, observes of a dead patient, "inside was all the clockless silence of death". It's what King does best, matching dim fears with indelible images, and it is recognised these days as a rare talent.
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