A few weeks ago, President Obama draped a National Medal of the Arts around the neck of novelist Stephen King. “One of the most popular and prolific writers of our time,” the President said, “Mr. King combines his remarkable storytelling with his sharp analysis of human nature.”
The next day, King took his literary “bling,” as he called it, to Stephen Colbert’s show. During the interview, Colbert pointed to a stack of King’s books. The author of Carrie (own the classic film, now on Blu-ray, here), The Shining, The Stand, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and numerous other volumes has been publishing books since 1973. Stacked up, his collected canon is taller than the author himself.
While King’s work has been part of national life – both on the bookshelves and through film adaptations – for the past four decades, the man himself remains a quiet, unassuming persona, a broad smile beneath a thick set of glasses. His super-fans may know most of the thirteen facts to follow, but for someone who’s just read a couple of King’s terrifying tomes, here are a few surprising things but about the writer behind all the books.
1. He may have seen a childhood friend violently die, but his subconscious blocked the memory.
When he was four years old, Stephen went out to play with a friend, and the other boy climbed onto a train track at the wrong time. He was hit and killed. Stephen may have seen it happen, but as he writes in his non-fiction collection Danse Macabre, “I have no memory of the incident at all; only of having been told about it years after the fact.”
2. He did his first “published” writing for his brother’s junior-high newspaper Dave’s Rag.
Stephen’s older brother put together a newspaper with opinion columns, jokes, and short stories that he sold around school. Stephen contributed serialized stories ripped from the plotlines of the sci-fi and horror movies he was watching during those years.
3. He wrote Carrie during his spare time between teaching high-school English and working summers at a laundromat.
King had already been publishing short stories in porn magazines, but he had his big literary breakthrough with Carrie, a short novel about a high school girl whose menstrual cycle unlocks supernatural powers of revenge and terror. He was teaching classes like “Living with English” at a local school and spent summers washing sheets for extra money. He and his wife couldn’t afford a telephone. Carrie originally sold for $2,500, but the paperback rights went for $400,000. King had broken through.
4. He was so drunk and high in the early 8os he can’t remember writing some of his books.
King collapsed into alcoholism quickly upon achieving success. Jack Torrence’s addictions in The Shining are semi-autobiographical. In his memoir, King says he was drinking a case of tallboys every night and can’t remember writing his novel Cujo. His family confronted him, and King went sober – and has stayed sober since.