Stephen King Dreamed Up a Hitman. Then King Let Him Take on a Life of His Own
Stephen King lit upon the idea for his new book, Billy Summers, while telling himself bedtime stories. “I started to think about this problem, of a [hitman] who had to take a shot and get away from the fifth floor, or the high floor, of a building,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I started to ask myself, ‘How is he going to do that?’ And I put myself to sleep, many a night, thinking about different possibilities, different ways that that might work. And little by little, the story started to spin out from that.”
King has a long history of writing books with plots about writing or starring writers, and, despite being essentially a rip-roaring heist novel, Billy Summers is no different. The titular character, a hitman who only kills “bad people,” is an avid reader who often plays dumb to lull his bosses into a false sense of security. We find him accepting his final job at the start of the book, killing another hitman, entering deep-cover as a novelist looking for a bit of quiet in a small city. The bosses set him up in a modest high-rise across from the court where his fellow hired gun will be making an appearance after being extradited on a murder charge. After pretending to be a writer for a few days while casing the courthouse, Summers begins penning the story of his tumultuous background, his time as a Marine during the Iraq war, and how he got into his line of work.
Even after the job inevitably goes wrong — and he teams up with a college student he saved after she’s raped and left in the street — Summers continues to write, eventually passing the mantle on to the student, Alice. Constant readers will appreciate that — spoiler — Summers finishes his book posted up in Colorado across from the ruins of the Overlook Hotel, of The Shining fame, where protagonist/antagonist Jack Torrance wrote himself into madness.
Rolling Stone spoke with King about the writing process, why Trump shows up so often in Billy Summers, and a very expensive copyright clearance leading up to the book’s release.
You have so many writer characters in your books. From Jack Torrance to Paul Sheldon in Misery to this book, with Billy and Alice. I’m wondering how you’re feeling about writing these days — and how that’s changed over the years?
If you read Dick Francis, every book that he wrote was about horses and jockeys, because that’s what he knew; he was a jockey. I’m a writer, and I know about writing. John Le Carre wrote about spies all the time because he knew that world. It’s a place where I’m comfortable.
I didn’t really know that there was going to be so much about writing in this book. You go where the book takes you, mostly. … And here’s the other thing. There are books that I’ve written where writing is seen as sort of a toxic thing, and there are only a couple, Misery is one, and Billy Summers is another, where it talks about writing as salvation. You don’t have to be a professional writer to know that that’s the case sometimes. It’s a doorway into your own feelings and your own view of the world. So that’s a good thing.
I mean, you quoted yourself in there, too, right? Billy hears an interview with a writer where he talks about writing one draft for himself and one for the public. That’s On Writing, right?
I might have quoted myself, I can’t remember. Did I really? Oh, I think I did, once. I don’t think I attributed it to me!
When did the character, Billy, first come to you?
You know, a lot of this stuff is like a dream. And when I’m asked, “How did that come about?” I almost don’t know how to answer. I can remember telling myself that story [before bed at night], but I can’t remember when I decided that Billy was going to be a smart guy who was pretending to be a dumb guy part of the time. And little by little, I knew the whole story, except for the reason that that guy needed to get shot. I knew from the beginning that it would be good if Billy was a guy who only shot bad people. And the more I worked on the book, the more that started to seem like a defense mechanism — that he was probably kind of a bad guy himself, who needed some redemption.
I’m sure the characters kind of tell you where they want to go, as you’re writing.
They sure do. They can be very stern about that. The other thing that I remember thinking… well, what if this guy got himself into a situation where he had to rescue a girl from a situation and he was forced to take her into his hideout? What would he do, and how would that work out? What if this girl needs the morning-after pill and he has to go out and get it? And at that point, he basically gives her a choice, “You can turn me in, but I saved your life,” or, “You can stay here, and I’ll bring you back this thing, and we can go on a little longer?”
So I loved that, I loved that idea. I wanted to write that scene. You know, sometimes, you write a book because there are scenes in it that you just think that you could swat out of the park.
A lot of the scenes seem to hinge on a decision: to do or not to do?
Sure. I think that’s true. And I think that’s one of the things that makes a book like this readable. And the other thing is that you have to sort of identify with Billy and his view of the world. So, he’s got a very clear view of what he is, and it clarifies as it goes on. I wanted him to make friends with people, I wanted him to be in place, in position, for a while, and be forced to make friends with people who are just good people. That makes his own situation clearer, too, and less tasteful, too.
Trump is mentioned multiple times, as are other modern figures. Why did you want to bring those elements into Billy’s world?
Well, I didn’t, necessarily. Billy doesn’t watch TV all the time or listen to the radio; he’s not a very political person. But when I started writing the book I set it in 2020 [and then] everybody went into lockdown, everybody started wearing masks, there was all this shelter in place stuff. I think I’d actually written a scene where the upstairs neighbors had come into money and they were going to go on a cruise. And I thought to myself, “You can’t do that because the cruise lines are all shut down.”
So, it seemed to me that the simplest thing was to avoid the problem altogether by setting the book a year earlier. Which means there was no election to worry about. But Trump was president, and so, every now and then he comes up. I mean, obviously, he was a presence; he was part of the atmosphere. The same way that there are Walmarts mentioned, several times, in the book. And it’s part of American life, that’s what I’m trying to say.
But I have a position about Trump, and about the Republican Party, and the sort of people who are vaccine deniers and mask deniers. I felt that when Trump came back from the hospital [after contracting Covid-19], [when] he went up on his balcony in the White House and defiantly took off his mask he said to all the people who supported him, “Real, brave American people don’t need these goddamn things.” And he killed a hundred thousand people just with that one gesture; I believe that, to my soul.
I’m getting back to your point, by the way. I haven’t lost the point, entirely. What I’m saying is, those are my beliefs. But when I sit down to write a story, my idea is to write the story and try to leave the rest of it as peripheral matter; stuff that impinges on people’s lives, but doesn’t necessarily dominate those lives.
Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho, once said: “You don’t sell your story for plot message.” And I believe that to my heart. I’m not what you would call a really … a social novelist. I’m interested in people who are ordinary Joes and Jills. But I’m not very interested in writing a book like [John Steinbeck’s] In Dubious Battle. At least, I never had. Maybe someday I will.
I appreciate that you didn’t make “Trump supporter” a shorthand for “bad person” as well.
Right. [Billy’s] upstairs’ neighbor, he’s a Trump guy, and he’s an anti-immigration guy, but he’s also a nice guy. And that’s the case with most of these people. It was certainly the case with my brother, who would have given you the shirt off his back.
Somebody told me about Gerry Ford, who was president for a short time. And said that Gerry Ford was not a terribly intelligent person or a far-seeing person. And if he was walking to the Capitol to vote on federally mandated school lunches for poor children, if he saw a poor kid along the way, he would give that kid his packed lunch, then vote against the bill, and never see the conflict. And I think that’s the case with a lot of the people who support Trump.
The Iraq war features quite heavily in this book. How much research did you have to do on that?
Yeah, I did a lot of research, and I looked at a lot of YouTube videos. I reached out to my friend, Mike Cole, who served, not in the Marines, but he did serve. And he had been in Iraq, and he was able to correct the worst of my mistakes. I read a lot of books and just tried to do the best I can. I mean, I haven’t done so much research since 11/22/63, which was a real shit-pole in terms of how much I had to do. But I learned a lot, and I tried to use it in a way that was fair, and not overblown, or crazy, or anything. I just tried to tell it the way that people told me it.
It seems like everything that you have ever done is being adapted right now. I’m curious, what hasn’t been adapted that you’d want to be adapted?
Well, there was Lisey’s Story, which was one that I did, myself, because I really wanted to. So that was important to me. And I was involved on a mega-level. And in most cases, it’s like sending a kid off to college, you hope that they won’t get into trouble and that they’ll do a good job. You hope for the best. But I have approvals over most casting, and directors, and writers, and stuff like that. I very rarely use it, now. I can’t remember a case where I have. The thing is, you don’t want to be part of the problem. Making a TV show, or a movie, is a tremendous undertaking, so you want to be either part of the solution, or get out of it entirely, stay clear, and let them do their work.
But I have to say that it’s been an incredible time for creative people, writers, because the demand for content is amazing, it’s huge. It seems like between Netflix, and Hulu, and the movies, and the networks, and everything, it’s like this maw that you have to chuck material into. So I’m delighted when people do it and they do a good job; it’s wonderful. And then sometimes they don’t do such a good job. Ernest Hemingway said that the best possible situation for a writer was, you sell something to the movies, and you get a lot of money, and then they never make it.
If Billy Summers is ever adapted, who do you see as Billy?
Well, given his age, which is probably mid-forties, there are a lot of actors that could do that part very well. I think maybe the most underrated actor working right now is Jake Gyllenhaal and he’d made a wonderful Billy. But we’re just blue-skying here. There are a lot of people who would be good. It’s interesting, too, who would you pick to play Alice?
That’s difficult. Where did Alice come from, by the way? Was she there in your mind when you started writing the book? I know you don’t outline.
I knew she was going to be there because I wanted that situation where Billy has to make a decision, “What am I going to do with this girl? How am I going to handle this? I can’t give her to the police and I can’t really do much except hope that she doesn’t give me away.” So I knew that that was going to be there. And I knew that they were going to become friends. I had no idea that they were going to become almost like outlaws together, and that was a nice thing to realize.
The story tells itself. You know? So, yeah, she was there from the beginning. But I had no idea that she was going to come into the book halfway through. But that’s the way it turned out.
I appreciate how you wrote their relationship. How carefully it was crafted.
You couldn’t very well have a sexual relationship between them. It would not have worked. It would have been a wrong thing to do, I think, in terms of Billy’s character. Particularly, you’re talking about a rape victim here, and so, no, that wouldn’t work. When she comes to the point where she’s able to say, “I will sleep with you if you want?” That’s her decision to make. That’s a place that she comes to, on her own and not anything that she’s coaxed into. So I think that that part is OK.
And that was a difficult character to deal with, in terms of being a rape survivor. And I read some stuff about that, as well. And I just did the best I could with it, that’s all.
I was going to ask you about that because, obviously, both of them are dealing with their own kind of PTSD?
Yeah. And he gives her coping mechanisms to deal with that, which is a nice thing.
Yes, singing “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” if she was having a panic attack. Was that something you made up? Have you tried it before?
I made it up. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had a panic attack, when I had to. But if I did, I probably would.
I’m sure you know it, by heart, now?
Yeah. God, and who knew that that was copyright protected? I thought it was too old to be, but we had to pay through the nose to get that. Once you’re in it, you’re stuck. I had an epigram from Judas Priest, and it was a song called “You Got Another Thing Coming,” for Duma Key, and they came back and said that they wanted $50,000 plus royalties. And I said, “Fuck that shit! That’s not going to happen.” So I made us a doggerel of my own, instead. But “Teddy’s Picnic” was pretty much baked into the book, before we discovered that. So we paid.
Do you mind me asking, how much that was?
No, I don’t mind you asking, but I’m not going to tell you! Let’s put it this way, it wasn’t six figures.
I wanted to ask you one thing that’s not related to Billy Summers. But I’ve just noticed that it seems like you really like T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It pops up through so many books. Tell me why it had such an effect on you.
Sometimes, for me, in the course of writing some narration, or writing a character’s feelings, that will pop up into my mind. You have to keep in mind that when I’m working, I’m not sitting down with all these words in my head. I’m just sort of going with it, going with the flow. And sometimes that has a particular resonance to me, and then I use it. “Let us go then, you and I… ”
God! Yeah, it’s a great poem, a great existential poem. Yeah. And I think that it appeals to a certain cast of mind, too. Somebody who has a view of a world that’s a little bit despairing, but not immobilized by despair.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.