Stephen King’s newest novel End of Watch (which arrived in bookstores earlier this month) is the concluding chapter in his Mr. Mercedes trilogy, centered around a demented killer and the retired police officer obsessed with tracking him down. The author spoke to Rolling Stone about his new book, his views on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the inspiration behind his next work and his favorite Dr. Seuss book.
What’s the best part of success and the worst part?
The best part of success is getting paid for what I would probably do for free. I really enjoy the job. I like making shit up. The worst part of the job … this is weird, but I’m going to probably go see the Red Sox play this weekend. These autograph people always show up in front of the hotel and I can’t go out and get a sandwich. I can’t go out to a movie without brushing these people off. It makes you feel like you’re on stage, when you don’t want to be on stage.
The selfies must be annoying too.
Yeah. Selfies are not good. Everybody has a cellphone now. But the autograph people will say, please sign this poster from Firestarter for my sick grandmother who is going to die in two years. You know damn well it’s something they’re going to sell on eBay. I love that I’m able to entertain people and a lot of folks read my books. I’m just saying that the ideal thing would be if nobody knew who the fuck I was. I’d like that. [Pause] You know, a lot of people are going to probably read this and roll their eyes and say, “I wish I had such problems.” I understand that. At the same time, after 25 to 30 years, it gets a little old.
How would your life have gone if you hadn’t become a writer?
I would have been a perfectly adequate high school English teacher, possibly a college English teacher. I probably would have died of alcoholism around age 50. And I’m not sure my marriage would have lasted. I think people are extremely hard to live with when they have a talent they aren’t able to use.
What’s the best advice you ever got?
It boils down to what Satchel Paige said: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” There will be people who like what you do and people who don’t. But if they’re picking over the last thing and you’re working on the next thing, that’s all yours.
Who are your heroes?
David Ortiz [of the Boston Red Sox] is one. He’s great at what he does, and he never lost his common touch. Cormac McCarthy is a fantastic writer, a fantastic entertainer, and he always did things his way. If we’re talking filmmakers, Martin Scorsese. In my new book, End of Watch, one of the characters says most moviemakers make short stories and Scorsese does novels.
“Trump is extremely popular because people would like to have a world where you just didn’t question that the white American was at the top of the pecking order.”
What was your favorite book as a child, and what does it say about you?
At age six, my favorite book was The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, by Dr. Seuss. The idea was so simple: All the guy had to do was take off his hat in front of the king, but every time he took off his hat, there was another hat underneath it. Eventually he was arrested and they were going to chop his head off. It was a real horror story.
What does that say about you?
It probably says I was one sort of weird, fucked-up kid.
What’s your favorite book now?
The Hair of Harold Roux, by a guy who’s dead now, Thomas Williams. I’ve read it four or five times. It’s a couple of days in the life of this guy, Aaron Benham, who’s writing a book about a man who is writing a book. It’s this little house of mirrors. I love it because it tells the truth as I understand it about what it is to be a writer.
What’s your favorite city in the whole world?
New York. That’s because I can find my way around. I am a country guy, and it’s a perfect grid. But there’s something to look at on every block — stores, little restaurants. There’s always a weird old lady walking a little tiny puppy dog and eccentrics all over the place. The architecture is fantastic. Any movie you want to go see, you can go see it. There’s a horror movie out now called Green Room about a punk rock band. I’d love to see that movie, but it’s not playing here. If I was in New York, man, I could see that movie.
Have you ever thought about getting an apartment in the city and spending more time there?
There was a time when my wife and I both considered that. But it’s too cultural for me. I didn’t want to be around a lot of writers. Every block in New York, you kick a writer out of the way. Some of them are really famous guys. I can remember going to a literary guild party after I had published maybe three books. Everybody was there raising a glass and Irwin Shaw was sitting in the corner; he had a cane and was fairly well lit, all red in the face. He looked me up and down and said, “Oh, you’re the flavor of the month.” I just kind of scuttled out of there. I’ve never considered living there, but I like to go there. It’s like that John Mellencamp song: I’m not too much of a hay seed to say who’s doing something in the big town.
What advice about the industry do you wish someone had given you when you started out?
That you don’t always have to take the editor’s advice. Sometimes the way you see it is the way it should be. I assume that every writer was a lot smarter and a lot craftier than I was. That turned out not to be the truth.
At what point did you learn that?
Oh God, it took me a long time. I was probably 45 or something. Around the time I think I wrote It, which would have been about 1985, [the book] came back with a lot of possible cut marks. I just said, “No, these things stay.” My editor at that time, Allen Williams used to repeat something I said: “The kids will understand.” It was the truth.
What do you do to relax?
I read, I watch TV. There’s too much TV now – it’s like being on Pleasure Island in Pinocchio. I also play guitar. I try to learn a new song once in a while. I can’t sing or play worth shit, but it does relax me.
You’ve been married to your wife, Tabitha, for 45 years. What have you learned about relationships?
That the best thing you can do sometimes is to shut your mouth and let the other person do what they need to do. It takes a lot of acceptance to make a marriage work, and you have to keep talking. And you have to like the other person, too. That helps an awful lot.
How do you avoid distractions when you write?
It’s pure habit. I write from probably 7:30 till noon most days. I kind of fall into a trance. It’s important to remember that it isn’t the big thing in life. The big thing in life is being there if you’re needed for family or if there’s an emergency or something. But you have to cut out the unimportant background chatter. That means no Twitter. That means not going to Huffington Post to see what Kim Kardashian is up to. There’s a time for that – for me, it’s usually before I go to bed. I find myself sitting hypnotized and looking at videos of funny dogs, that kind of thing.
Tell me the most Maine thing about you.
I’m basically just a country man. I have a four-wheel-drive truck. You need it in the winter because a lot of the roads are crap.
What’s the biggest life lesson you learned as a result of the 1999 van accident [in which King was hit while walking on the side of the road]?
That you can live with pain and be productive. After a while, you take it for granted. You live with it. There are certain things you can do. Exercise, keeping the weight off of the things that have been broken and never quite healed right. It just becomes part of background noise.
In the first few weeks after the accident, did you think maybe you couldn’t live with the pain?
Yeah. It wasn’t even the first few weeks — probably the first six months. Eventually it started to have an accumulative effect and you’d say, “If it’s going to be this way for the rest of my life, I would rather not live.” And then after awhile, there’s a down trending graph, where the pain goes down a little bit and there’s an up trending graph where you just start to accept it. Eventually they cross and that’s your life and it’s OK.
What do you hope people say about you after you’re gone?
It would be nice if people said, “He worked hard. He left a rich legacy of novels and did the right things in the community.” Beyond that, I don’t expect much of an afterlife. I think there’s more for singers and songwriters and musicians than writers.
You don’t think people in 50 years will be reading The Stand?
That would be really nice. They might read The Shining. They might read ‘Salem’s Lot. I think horror novels and fantasy novels have a longer shelf life than other kinds of books. I think of big bestsellers from when I was a kid, like Seven Days in May and the novels of Irving Wallace. You get a blank look if you mention those names. That’s what happens to most writers. People move on.
What music moves you the most?
The first thing that comes to mind is a song by [Scottish band] Del Amitri called “Always the Last to Know.” It’s so goddamn sad. If you’re talking about artists, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran and other guys who were real rockers in the 1950s. Wanda Jackson, “Let’s Have a Party.” “Rocket 88,” man. [Jackie Brenston] said, “Everybody in my car’s gonna take a little nip.” It’s not very politically correct today, but I love it.
Do you think the Internet has been a net gain or a net loss to mankind?
I think it’s a push. This morning I needed an Indian name. I was able to go on Firefox and get it, boom, just like that. You get that instant research. It means that you don’t have to go get a book and maybe you can’t find the book. The Internet is like a magic eight ball of the 21st century. You can always get an answer there. It may not be true, but you can always get an answer.
On the other hand, it’s perpetuating political correctness. The trolls are always out there. If you make a misstep or you say something they don’t like, they fall on you like a ton of bricks. It has become a real intellectual crutch for everyone. You have to imagine that it’ll all crash down. I think for a long time, people would find themselves to be helpless.
Are you disappointed in your country that Donald Trump has proven to be so popular?
I am very disappointed in the country. I think that he’s sort of the last stand of a sort of American male who feels like women have gotten out of their place and they’re letting in all these people that have the wrong skin colors. He speaks to those people. Trump is extremely popular because people would like to have a world where you just didn’t question that the white American was at the top of the pecking order.
Do you think he might win?
I saw a poll the other day that said, Hillary Clinton is only leading him by three points. If that’s true, you have to go back to that time when he rode that escalator down and announced the presidency, and everyone thought that it was a joke. The press thought it was a joke. Rolling Stone thought he was a joke. Jon Stewart said, “Oh please, let him continue to run; he’s the best joke material that we’ve had.” Well, nobody is laughing anymore.
Of all the candidates who ran this year, the only one who is remotely qualified to do the job is Hillary Clinton. There’s a lot of prejudice against her, just because she’s a woman. Having been raised by a woman and lived in a family where my wife has, like, six sisters, I hate that.
Finally, I notice the bad guy in your new book End of Watch resides in room 217 of a hospital. I take it it’s no coincidence that’s the same number as the haunted hotel room in [the book] The Shining.
No, it’s no coincidence. It goes right back to the Overlook Hotel.