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The Stephen King on 60 Minutes

Stephen King on 60 Minutes
Sun Feb 16 1997

Stahl: There is hardly anybody in America who hasn't read a Stephen King novel or seen a Stephen King move. Let's face it, he's the world's best-selling novelist, the most successful horror writer in history.  Even among entertainers, he's the 12th highest paid in the country, earning more than $30 million in a single year. That's all because his mind works this way: a man screams...

King: ...and this rat jumps into his mouth and gets halfway down his throat.  And if you can imagine, okay, not just the taste of it, and the rear legs sort of kicking in the air, but the feel of the whiskers way back in your throat as it sort of gobbles away at your soft palate.

Stahl: You know what? I'm completely grossed out. You've accomplished...

King: I'm sorry..

Stahl: No, you're not. That's what you wanted to do. Yes, this is..

King: No, I'm not sorry.

Stahl: Have you ever gone to a psychiatrist?

King: No. No, I've never gone to a psychiatrist, because I don't feel like... what you do at a psychiatrist is you pay $75, $90 an hour to get rid of your fears, where as I write them down, people pay me.  It's good.

Stahl: Since 1974, people have paid good money for 32 novels, five collections of short stories, nine screenplays, and one non-fiction study of horror. Except for his birthday, the fourth of July, and Christmas, King writes for at least four hours every day.

King: The ideas come and they have to be let out. That's all. They just have to be let out.

Stahl: All that stands between those ideas and the rest of the world are these wrought- iron gates. King can afford to live anywhere, but the hometown of horror is Bangor, Maine.

King: Bring me the ball!

Stahl: A vicious canine beast also lives here.

King: Oops! He stole the ball!

Stahl: In Stephen King's world, Welsh Corgis play basketball, and Saint Bernards become demons, as in the movie "Cujo." He wants to scare us. But what scares him?

King: Everything that scares you, everything that scares anybody. That's part of the reason for my success.

Stahl: Well, for instance, is it true, or is this kind of part of your humor to tell us that you sleep with a night light?

King: So what if it is true? (laughing) It's not hurting anybody. I tend to keep a night light on, but, like anybody else, particularly if you're in a strange place, you don't want to stub your toe if you have to go to the bathroom.

Stahl: It's not like anybody else. Trust me.

King: No, no. It is like anybody else, or else I wouldn't be as successful as I am.

[She is now sitting at a table talking with his wife, Tabitha King]

Stahl: Is this a story that he sleeps with a night light...

Tabitha King: no, it's not true.

Stahl: Not true.

Tabitha: Not. No.

Stahl: Tabitha King is certain because she and her husband Stephen have been married for 26 years.

Tabitha: there's a lot of mythologizing.

Stahl: Yeah, but he created...

Tabitha: And he encourages it. Yes, he does, he does. He encourages it.

[Back with King & Tabitha in a restaurant]

King: Tabby keeps the monsters away when I'm around. That's true. Over the years, you have kept a lot of monsters away.

Stahl: They met and dated at the university of Maine at Orono. Tabitha is also a writer, whose seven novels take place in Maine and concern the war between the sexes. They have raised three children. They understand each other. Steve, we're here in a Chinese restaurant. What if this were a Stephen King place?

King: Well, actually, we...

Tabitha: Well, we know...

King: ...We know...

Tabitha: We know, don't we?

King: Yeah, 'cause I wrote a scene.

Tabitha: The fortune cookies would bleed.

King: Right, the fortune... And eyeballs would come out of them, and flies, and deformed... I wrote the Chinese restaurant scene in It, yeah.

Tabitha: It's been done, yeah. I don't find what writes weird, and I don't find his characters weird.

Stahl: You don't?

Tabitha: I really... I think one of his tremendous appeal to people is that he puts you in a world that you recognize, among people that you know. And then, if bizarre things happen to them, well, the world is a very strange place.

Stahl: When you were a kid...

King: Let's stop right here.

Stahl: Where is all of this coming from?

King: Let's stop right here and just say, whenever an interviewer says, "so, when you were a kid..." What they're doing is basically saying, "what screwed you up so bad that you're doing what you're doing now?" Nothing happened. I didn't use to light fires when I was a kid, anything like that.

[King crosses his fingers]

Stahl: Did you light fires when you were a kid?

King: No, I didn't. Really, I didn't.

Stahl: But he did keep a scrapbook about Charlie Starkweather, a serial killer in Nebraska in the 1950's.

King: And it disturbed my mother. She said...

Stahl: I wonder why.

King: and I said to my mother, "I'm studying his face so I'll know it if I see it, and know to get out of that person's way." That's the... That's the stranger. That's the other. And you could see it in his eyes, to a degree. There was something gone in there. But I also understood that that was in me, and it was in a lot of people.

Stahl: King says that over the years, he has found ways to deal with what he calls his antisocial impulses. And playing the Troggs' "wild thing") since 1992, Stephen King has performed with the Rock Bottom Remainders, primarily a group of writers, like Amy Tan and Dave Barry, who sing... Sort of.

[music] Whenever you're in trouble won't you stand by me... [music]

Stahl: He also loses himself in baseball. He even built a million-dollar little league ballpark behind the house, affectionately known as the Field of Screams.

[King sitting on his motorcycle]

King: Goose it, Lesley!

Stahl: And he loves his Harley.

King: It's got two speeds, you know? It's got stop and gone.

Stahl: You're kind of a kid.

King: Yeah.

Stahl: Yeah, you kind of... You kind of got arrested back there. What age are you, do you think, back there?

King: I don't know. If I had to pick an age, I'd say probably a lot of me is 19.

(SINGING) [MUSIC] Hey, little girl... [MUSIC]

Stahl: Did you ever seriously wonder about your sanity?

King: As a kid, I worried about it, my sanity, a lot.

[Again talking with Tabitha alone]

Tabitha: I think he worries about it excessively much.

Stahl: More than you?

Tabitha: Yeah, a lot more than I do. There's a movie called "the snake pit" that he apparently watched when he was a child. In that movie, a woman goes crazy. She is insane, and I think it may have infected him with a belief that you can go insane quite easily.

Stahl: King was born in Portland, Maine, in 1947. He remembers his childhood as being normal, if you consider his father's behavior normal.

King: He just left. I was two, and my brother, David, was four. And he told my mother one night, he said, "Ruth, I'm going to go out and get a pack of cigarettes." And that was the last she ever saw of him.

Stahl: You never, ever heard from him again?

King: Never heard from him again.

Stahl: Did you ever try to find him?

King: No. I really never did. I've thought about it from time to time.

Stahl: Do you hate him?

King: No, I don't hate him. Maybe if I had him around now, and he wasn't really just totally decrepit, I'd kick his ass for him a couple of times.

Stahl: at the age of 12, King began submitting stories to publishers, but he received rejection slips until college, when he earned a few extra dollars by writing for gentlemen's magazines like "Dude" and "Swank." After he and Tabitha married, they lived in a rented trailer. She worked at Dunkin' Donuts, he at a laundry. But he kept writing, and one Sunday morning in 1973, his editor called. Paperback rights for "Carrie" went for $400,000. And he said to himself...

King: I have to get my wife a present. The only thing I found open was the Rexall Drug store, so I bought her a hair dryer.

Stahl: Hair dryer. (Laughing) did we get her something on Monday?

King: We got her the news that we were going to retire and become full-time writers.

Stahl: Today the kings have enough money to rebuild the library in Bangor. He says he has always loved to read. Do you like Jane Austen?

King: I've never read a Jane Austen novel in my life. Seen a couple of the movies. Ha! You don't put that on the air!

Stahl: Tolstoy? Did you...

King: I've never read Tolstoy.

Stahl: You've never read Jane Austen or Tolstoy?

King: Never read Jane Austen or Tolstoy.

Stahl: The greatest novelists.

King: I've read most of what Dean Koontz has written, though.

[King grins big]

Stahl: Later, he remembered that he had read Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." Here you are, one of the best- selling authors in all of history, and the critics cannot find much that they like in your work.

King: Uh-huh.

Stahl: Does this hurt?

King: Well, it does hurt. And it's very hard to defend against, because any writer who sits where I'm sitting now and rebuts critics looks like a pontificating fool. And I can't do that.

Stahl: Here's your own quote: "I'm the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries." Now, that's not Shakespeare.

King: Right. I did... I did say that. I did say that, and I stand by it. All I can say is-- and this is in response to the critics who've often said that my work is awkward and sometimes a little bit painful--I know it. I'm doing the best I can with what I've got.

Stahl: But some readers have taken the worst from King. Did you ever worry, for instance, that somebody's going to go out and do something that is suggested in one of your books?

King: Well, people have.

[Cut to television clip]

News Announcer: The armed teenager may have been acting out the scenario to the Stephen King novel, "Rage," when he walked into a high school classroom and took 11 classmates hostage.

King: If there's anything that I regret in my career, it's publishing the novel, "Rage." It's a story about a kid who's very severely disturbed and brings a gun to school, kills his teacher, and holds his class hostage over the course of the day. My view  when this comes up is that most people who commit crimes of that nature are already so disturbed; that if they didn't do it one way, they would do it another way. It was evil.

[Cut to studio]

Stahl: This is King recording the audio book of his current best-seller, "Desperation," in which evil nearly triumphs, until a small boy prays real hard.

King (reading): "He had found God, that was all. And God had found him."

[Back to interview]

Stahl: Are you religious?

King: I'm not conventionally religious in the sense that I don't go to church. Do I believe in God? Yes. Do I believe in a personal God? Yes.

Stahl: You wear a medal.

King: Yeah.

Stahl: What.. Is it a religious medal?

King: It's a... It's Mary.

Stahl: Oh, it is.

King: Mother of Jesus. And I've worn it... I've worn it for a long time.

Stahl: Why do you wear the medal?

King: It feels comforting. I like the way she has her hands out, like this, as if to say, "you're all right. I accept you for what you are."

Stahl: The medal also gives King a sense of security. He needs it.

Actress: I'm your number one fan.

Stahl: In "Misery," King imagines what might have happened to an author if his number one fan held him prisoner.

[Talking with Tabitha again]

Stahl: You have people who camp out in front of your house.

Tabitha: Yes. And we had a guy come through a window.

Stahl: What happened?

Tabitha: He came in the window, and he said, "I have a bomb, and I'm going to kill you." And I said, "mm-hmm." I went out the door... Nearest door in my pajamas.

[Back with King]

King: The bomb turned out to be a collection of pencil erasers and unwound paper clips.

Stahl: But he read Stephen King.

King: He knew.

Stahl: He knew that this was Stephen King's house. He came directly to it.

King: Mm-hmm.

[Back with Tabitha]

Tabitha: It makes me nervous. I worry about his security, his... The possibility that someone might try to do what was done to John Lennon to him. He is very well known, and there are real crazy people out there.

Stahl: Do you ever get to feel that you are a prisoner of his success?

Tabitha: Oh, sure.

Stahl: But Stephen doesn't feel that way.

[King in a crowd of people signing books]

Fan: I've been waiting a long time for this.

Stahl: His fans can still get as close as they want.

King: Give me five! I've got a fair amount of childishness left in me. I've got a... The world hasn't whopped all the fun out of Steve King yet, okay?

Stahl: Yeah, but Steve King, I'm getting the feeling Steve King is turning 50.

King: Almost. I'm 49 and holding, so to speak.

Stahl: You wear very thick glasses.

King: Yeah, they're pretty thick.

Stahl: Yeah, but is your eye... Are your... Is your eyesight getting bad?

King: I do have a retinal problem that's called macular degeneration. Blindness is the ultimate result. But it... Right now I'm fine. I just don't see very well.

Stahl: As I understand this disorder, the vision that's... that you see straight out gets very weak.

King: Uh-huh.

Stahl: But you keep your peripheral vision.

King: Uh-huh. That's the part I want to keep, as a man and as a writer, is what I see out of the corners.