- George RR Martin interviewed Stephen King in Albuquerque.
- Their early influences, particularly HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe.
- Stephen King submitted his first story at 12 and got his first acceptance at 19.
- They both believe that true evil is human, not supernatural.
How often do two literary superstars sit down at a public table and talk about how they got to where they are? However often it is, it can never be often enough. Not for those of us who love their work and want to following their footsteps.
In June this year, an audience in Albuquerque got to see it first hand as George RR Martin interviewed Stephen King. The hosts were thoughtful enough to film the conversation for the benefit of the rest of us:
As usual with my greater minds posts, you’ll get more out of seeing what the minds in question have to say than reading my commentary on what they said. It’s even more true with these two that it usually is. Like most of us, they’ve both been writing stories for as long as they can remember but unlike all but a few of us, they’ve both been getting their stories published for over 40 years. They’ve known each other for much of that time as they’ve frequented many of the same conferences where Martin reminisced about his many failed attempts to bluff King at poker.
Much of their conversation revolved around their early influences and inspirations. The conversation was polished enough to give away how many times they had retrodden the subject for various audiences but it somehow makes sense that King identified finding a copy of HP Lovecraft’s The Tomb as a defining moment. Lovecraft had an extraordinarytalent for stories that were truly disturbing, even though his prose is rather cumbersome. King’s writing evokes much the same atmosphere, but does it with prose that nails my attention to the page.
It’s informative to place King’s nod to Lovecraft in the context of Lovecraft’s long essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, describing Lovecraft’s own influences which I pontificated about last year. Lovecraft cited Edgar Allan Poe as his chief influence, so King’s nod to Lovecraft signifies a direct line of influence going back to Poe. The spirit of the American macabre lives on through King, and through any contemporary or future writer who is inspired or influenced by him.
Martin gave Poe a more direct nod when he described a school assignment based on Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. Martin’s teacher said what most people must think on reading the story: it’s a superbly evocative story of torture, marred by a poor ending: the narrator is saved from a horrible death by events that had not been mentioned up to that point. Martin’s teacher assigned the class to come up with something better.
No one familiar with Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, televised as Game of Thrones, will be surprised to know that his version was both the best written and the most gruesome ofhis class. His description of being eaten alive by rats earned him the approbation of his schoolmates and gave him his first taste of being admired for his writing.
King’s quest to be published is an object lesson in perseverance. He submitted his first story when he was 12, and drove a nail into his bedroom wall to spike his rejection slips on. When he was 17, the weight of them pulled the nail out. When others might have taken that as time to give up, King simply took it as a sign that he needed a bigger nail. At 19, he sold his first story for the princely sum of $35. He refers to selling the better known Graveyard Shift a few years later for $200.
The lesson we can take away from that is that neither the level of persistence required to get short stories published nor the level of remuneration for them have been affected by inflation since Graveyard Shift was published in 1970. King’s $200 in 1970 is equivalent to over $1,200 today.King and Martin’s fascination with the macabre probably didn’t set them apart from other boys so much as their ability to corral it into stories. Neither was clear about how that came about. All King had to say on the subject was:
Creativity is a mystery … you have a package inside you that at some point, it’s like live material and it starts to stir.
No secrets vouchsafed there. If he traded his soul for his talent, he’s keeping quiet about it. He went on to say:
We have these sick ideas, George has written his share, believe me. And instead of going to shrink and paying the shrink, we write them and you pay us. It’s a pretty good deal.
The comfort of Sauron
Given their shared interest in the macabre, it’s no surprise that King and Martin fell into a discussion of the nature of evil. King described the incident that inspired the story that became the novel, Mr Mercedes: a woman heard that the woman her boyfriend wascheating with would be in a line of jobseekers outside McDonalds, so she drove her car into the line. It was an act of violence that would have been disproportional even if it wasn’t indiscriminate, illustrating how genuine emotion can lead to evil.
King’s stories may contain monsters that are supernatural in nature, but the evil is contained within the human characters. The theme of choice comes up repeatedly: King gives us people who can choose to embrace evil or to turn away from it. As Martin put it:
The battle for good or evil is waged within the human heart.
King followed it up by comparing Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which heroes fight against an evil personified in the inhuman form of Sauron, with Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire in which the characters must choose their own morals without a clear evil to measure themselves against.
Turning each character into a moral battlefield is far more unsettling, and so more compelling, than providing them with an external evil to join forces against. King said, ‘external evil is a comforting concept’ because if evil is external, it means that we and the people we love and trust do are exempt from it. Yet as King never lets us forget, ‘we all understand that evil is inside a lot of people’. Once we acknowledge that, we can no longer deny its existence within ourselves.
Yet not everything King or Martin write can be boiled down to a cosmic battle between good and evil. Martin points out that sometimes, King would ‘go for gross-out’. Or as King put it as he gave us a sidelong look:
One of the things that’s funny is we do this, we talk about these things, and you guys all laugh and applaud but later on, you know, when you get home and you’re in the dark…it’s not gonna seem so funny then.Thank you for that, Mr King.
Once I put my writer’s hat on, I feel I must raise it to Martin’s teacher. Rewriting the ending of The Pit and the Pendulum sounds like a pretty good exercise to me. If you’re tempted to have a go, feel free to leave your efforts in the comments.