Stephen King, circa 2009

A little introduction here. When Stephen King released UNDER THE DOME, he actually did a speaking tour to a lot of places. One of them happened to be in Toronto. King’s only “officially” been to Toronto twice, and I missed him the first time. I was bound and determined not to miss him the second time. And I didn’t.

These were my thoughts, captured the next day, Friday November 20, 2009. Enjoy.

So I went and saw Stephen King last night in one of his rare trips to Toronto.

The first thing you notice is that he has fans in virtually all age ranges, equally male and female, mostly white. The next thing you notice is, these people could be the ones that populate his stories.

Nerds and sharp dressed people. Ridiculously earnest and ridiculously laid back. A few that could be his villains (I saw a couple of great contenders for Randall Flagg, the “Walkin’ Dude” of THE STAND) and many that could be one of his everyday heroes.

In the lobby, you could buy the various incarnations of UNDER THE DOME. There’s the regular version of the hardcover, a beast in its own right at $35, then there’s the collectors’ edition (printed on better paper and 27 character drawings) at $95 (which I have since got on sale for $19.95 at my local Chapters), the 30-CD audiobook at $99 and the MP3 version of the audiobook at $49.

After waiting in the lobby, the doors finally opened and we were allowed into the beautiful Canon Theatre, a setting that seemed far too posh for “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries” as King has referred to himself. What grabbed my attention first was the projected image of his 51st novel, UNDER THE DOME in all its photo realistic glory. To me, it perfectly encapsulates King’s stories–some small Norman Rockwell town, but where, when you start lifting the rocks, bad things are revealed.

Below the projection, to comfortable leather chairs and a small glass table with water glasses. Off to the left, a Plexiglas lectern.

I wondered if, 35-ish years ago, King could have, in his wildest imagination (and, having read the vast majority of what he’s written, I can say the man does have one hell of a stellar imagination) ever think it would all come to this? Considering I paid about100 times for this evening ($31 for the ticket and $18 for parking) than I did for his first novel (CARRIE, 50 cents for a used copy at Morgan Self Books in downtown Oshawa), I sincerely doubt it.

I think I got some confirmation of that, or at least of his self-deprecating wit when he first came out on the stage. His first words in response to the standing ovation? “HOLY SHIT!”

He then went immediately into a quick story about Chet Atkins (the country music legend) being on stage and trying in vain to tune his guitar. He continued on for a time, then, when it seemed obvious he couldn’t get it tuned, he turned to the mike and said, “Y’know, by the time I figured out I was not good at this, I was too rich to quit.” Then King spread his hands, smirked, and said, “here I am, rising to the level of my own incompetence!”

He read from UNDER THE DOME for a few minutes, again tucking in a few self-deprecating comments, then stood back to allow David Cronenberg, Canadian director of several movies, including THE DEAD ZONE.

There was an interesting dichotomy between the two men. Cronenberg was the more seemingly cerebral of the two, King the more like your favourite uncle who’s not scared to throw out his opinion…then make fun of it. He was the one that kept up the running “play Freebird!” joke about the audience response to him being the one on stage. Cronenberg was in a suit. King was in baggy jeans, a loose t-shirt and running shoes. Cronenberg was the one that asked the long, rambling questions that were actually more commentary than anything. I think it would have been hard for anyone to answer the multilayered questions that were lobbed King’s way. One of the funniest moments was when King did his best to answer a question that slid from ghosts and spirits and optimism to politics. When he finally finished up his answer, he looked over at Cronenberg and said, “that had fuck-all to do with your question, didn’t it?”

There was a touch of Canadian pride when Cronenberg referred to himself as one of those stereotypical calm, polite Canadians. King said he loved Canada, and had spent some time in BC during the filming of KINGDOM HOSPITAL. He said he got what he considered the “perfect Canadian response” at a restaurant where he’d asked for a steak, rare and was told they couldn’t do it that way. “‘Oh yeah,’ he said, ‘because of the Mad Cows?'” The waitress said, “yes, they’re mad, but we’ve got them in therapy.”

The second point of Canadian pride came when King referred to Maine as “the extra province.” The man’s a crowd pleaser, that was obvious.

Over the course of the interview, several interesting opinions came out…

Writing is “like being God,” King said. But then followed it up with a knock at plotting as an artificial device in storywriting. Turning to audience, he said, “Does your life have a plot? Mine doesn’t–shit just happens!”

On writing versus writing for the screen, King said, “the novel is like swimming, it’s full immersion. A script is more like skating, it’s all surface.” He said he had a long apprenticeship with scriptwriting, and finally figured out that it was much more a collaborative effort. He can write the words, but had to realize that a director would come in with his own ideas and vision, as would the actors. He said in his first scripts, he wrote far too much dialogue because he didn’t trust anyone else to fill in the details.

When asked why he hasn’t directed another movie since MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, King said, “because it was the world’s most expensive film school” for him, but also because the movie was “so fucking horrible.”

Cronenberg asked him if he agreed with the statement that all writing comes from anger. His point was, King had killed hundreds of people on paper over the past 35 years. King said he was a lot less angry now than he used to be, but could still “build up a good head of steam” on certain topics. What seemed to irk him lately was what Americans put up with during the Bush/Cheney years.

When Cronenberg asked him if he wrote from anger, King responded with, “That’s like being asked if you still beat your wife! If you say yes, you’re a bastard. If you say no, well, then, you used to be.”

When asked if he ever revisited any of his older works, he said he was interested in Danny Torrance, the five-year-old from THE SHINING. He said he wondered what had happened with him, having survived the Overlook, his father’s murderous rampage. When we last saw Danny, he was with his mother, and some healing had begun. Then he went on to describe where he saw Danny now.

“You’ll be interested to know Danny’s 40 now,” King said, to audible gasps. Had it really been that long? King said he was working in a hospice now, making some money on the side from betting the horses, using the shining to pick the winners. But where the story seems to pick up is in the hospice where the staff would call on him when a patient was near the end. Taking the idea he’d heard on the news of a cat that seemed to be able to sense when a patient was dying, he put Danny in that role. Danny would hold their hand and seemingly painlessly move them from life to death, all the time whispering, “don’t worry, it’ll be okay, don’t worry…”

I’d love to see where he took this, especially since he’s said in other interviews that he’d also like to have Danny and Charlie McGee, the little girl in FIRESTARTER meet up.

What he said, though, was, “I’m hoping if I keep talking about this, I won’t have to write it.” Less talk, more ass in seat, fingers to keyboard, Steve!

The night wrapped up to another standing ovation, and where King graciously accepted some of the applause, but also seemed to be trying to deflect it over to Cronenberg. The overwhelming sense I got from the man was that his “aw shucks” attitude was genuine and that he was more comfortable in deflecting any adulation over to someone else.

In the end, he closed the night by thanking us once again and then stating, “I was scared shitless, but I’m better now.”

Kind of sounds like how I feel after finishing a Stephen King novel.

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