Hi. Barb here.
First of all, there were more than 3,000 people there. For most writers, a more common occurrence is giving talks to the three homeless guys who sleep at the library, along with one real attendee whose first, last and only question always is, “How do you get an agent?”
King is one of the few real rock stars in the writing world, and that’s what the event felt like. It was held at the Tsongas Center, which is an arena-style venue complete with hot dogs, fried dough and beer. “It’s like a Red Sawx game!” one woman yelled as she climbed over me to get to a seat.
The crowd was young, old, male, female, and dressed in ways that showed a breadth of income, interests and attitude rarely seen in one place. The audience whooped and applauded when the titles of King’s books were mentioned (a wild cheer went up for On Writing). King got into the spirit himself. “I feel like Lynyrd Skynyrd,” he said. “Play Freebird!”
King and his wife Tabitha, famously altruistic, donated the evening’s take, over $100,000 from the tickets and the sale of autographed books and tchotkes, to a scholarship fund for English majors at UMass Lowell, which, of course, warmed the cockles of this English major’s heart.
The program was in three parts. For the first third of the evening, author Andre Dubus III, a UMass Lowell faculty member, had a conversation with King about writing and life. King said he starts writing with a little bit of an idea, then a situation, then characters who are fueled by the “what if?” The characters develop like a film plate during the writing. He eschews plotting, because “plotting and real spontaneity/creativity are incompatible.” King spoke of taking two unrelated ideas and putting them together in a new way. For example, in Carrie, the combination of the meanness of teenagers toward unpopular girls, which he’d observed as a student and a teacher, and a report he’d heard that psychokinesis is most most often reported in disturbed young women.
King spoke about the oddness of being so recognizable, because “writers are the secret agents of the arts. We cruise around reporting on what you all are doing.” Though he did tell with relish a story about a lunch in New York with Bruce Springsteen. “(“His people called my agent and asked if I’d like to have lunch. ‘Hell, yes.’”) A girl of about sixteen came into the restaurant, all dressed up, obviously in the city with her parents to celebrate a special occasion. She looked over at their table, didn’t squeal, but instead started to cry. As she floated toward them, Springsteen reached into his jacket pocket for his pen. “But she never even looked in his direction. She said, ‘Mr. King, I’ve read every one of your books and it would mean so much to me…,’” King finished as the crowd went wild.
King told the story of being alone at home, broke, with a non-functioning car in need of repairs, when the call came that the paperback rights for Carrie had sold for $400,000. And how in his confusion and elation, having no car and no idea what to do, he ran to the pharmacy and bought a hairdryer for his wife to thank her for fishing the manuscript out of the trash.
The third part of the evening was for audience questions. The first person up was Adam Renn Olenn, which is one of those weird things because I was, in that very moment, thinking of him. He wrote a brilliant story last year for Best New England Crime Stories: Dead Calm, called “Coronation,” wherein a young writer travels to Maine to ask a famous author about the source of his inspiration. And then I looked across the arena and there was Adam, standing at the microphone.
The next questioner was 11 year-old Vaughan Supple, who jumped three feet in the air multiple times and yelled, “I’m talking to Stephen King!” before he asked his excellent question, “What was the greatest a-ha moment in your writing when you had the best idea?” The crowd went crazy. King thought it was when he came up with the idea for The Stand.
The questioners came from as far away as Chicago. One woman was given tickets to the evening by her children as a birthday gift. A man spoke about reading 11/22/63 in the days he was without electricity or heat in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and how the book lightened the ordeal. Audience members asked King how he creates such compelling female characters, (“In 11/22/63, I wanted male readers to think, ‘I’d love to have a girlfriend like that.’”), why he so often tells stories from the point of view of adolescent boys, (“There are plenty of books about kids for kids, but I wanted to write stories about kids for grown-ups.”), what he thought about the Red Sox re-signing David Ortiz, (“Management owed it to the fans after such a dismal season.”) and whether he ever fixed that car after Carrie. (“We bought a Ford Pinto. We loved that car!”)
“Show compassion for the people no one pays attention to,” King advised the writers in the audience. Though come to think of it, it’s not a bad sentiment overall.