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The King of the classroom

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ORONO - A handful of University of Maine students were recently given a wonderful opportunity to engage in discussion with a master of his craft, the one and only Stephen King.

On October 4 and 5, King visited his alma mater to speak with small groups of English undergrads about two of his projects: his memoir and stylebook “On Writing,” and his recent miniseries adaptation of “Lisey’s Story.” I was given the opportunity to attend both discussions. 

“What I do is a mystery to me,” said King, by way of introduction. “I’m just an ordinary schlub who happened to luck into this fabulous job.” Throughout Monday’s discussion of “On Writing,” King was insistent: he may understand how to write, but he doesn’t understand why he understands.

(I’ll mention that King is well over six feet tall, with hands big enough to crush coffee cans. He sported a Bangor High jacket and a Sox cap.  It was disarming. If you’ve read King’s work, you’d expect it to spring from some wiry, diaphanous little fellow, not a man who could be a football coach on an episode of “Happy Days.”)

One student asked King about writer’s block. “Writer’s block?” King paused. “I’ve had it once, and it was really terrible.” After three months of stagnancy, he began a story about a rain of carnivorous frogs in a Maine town, which, he laughed, “was less silly on paper than it sounds.” He wrote one scene set on the porch of a general store. He had the sudden inspiration to make the dog lounging there lift its tail and fart. “And I thought, I’m back!” said King.

(A roomful of young writers made a note: cure for writer’s block = fart jokes.)

King answered our questions with such grace, it was hard to believe he was speaking extempore. When it comes to words, he doesn’t believe in premeditation. Rather than plotting his novels beforehand, King explained, he puts a few characters in a situation and “let[s] them work their way out of it.” How, you might ask, does one funnel enough life into characters that they start to figure things out on their own? King can’t say. That’s among the mysteries.

Adapting “Lisey’s Story” for the screen was a different ballgame. King was not formulating a new story, but bringing an existing one to a new medium, and – as he noted during Tuesday’s discussion – it presented a new set of challenges. A screenplay is necessarily compressed, with fewer words and less description than a novel.“There are certain things in the book, things that aren’t in the miniseries, that I miss,” said King.

The fantasy world of Boo’ya Moon is a major setting in “Lisey’s Story,” and it offered a chance for striking visuals. The set was huge: “You could wander around in there for an hour and never come back to the same place,” said King. Director Pablo Lorrain’s eye for visual contrast made Boo’ya Moon come alive onscreen, though Lorrain did have some trouble wrapping his mind around its fantastical nature, King recalled. “‘I had to tell him, ‘Pablo, Boo’ya Moon is real. It’s a real place where [character Scott Landon] really, really goes.’”

You have to admire a guy who can play the “ordinary schlub” before an audience that knows he’s anything but; it’s easy to recognize a gifted storyteller, even when they’ve hidden their cranium under a Sox cap. Sure, his stories are remarkable when they’re crystallized on the page, but to be in the room while one is being born - that’ll wake you up. I hope that King realizes the good that he did those thirty-odd English undergrads. 

I’d guess he does. After all, he used to be one.

Personal story time: My mother once saw Stephen King in Angelo’s Pizzeria. She was waiting at the end of the long counter for a couple of pies when King strolled in, carrying a small book. He ordered spaghetti with meatballs. The cashier asked for his name. After a small, ironic pause, he replied, “Steve.” Mom – who’d just finished King’s “On Writing,” and was witnessing living proof that yes, he really did bring a book everywhere – was too flabbergasted to ask him the title. King left. If there’d been a bell above the door, it would have given a sad tinkle.

That’s where deathbed regrets are born, I guess – pizza shops.

Plenty of folks in the Bangor area have their own “I saw Stephen King” story. King gets around. When he’s not hanging out in local pizza shops, posing as your average jamoke, he’s attending author talks and interviews, crafting stories by the dozens … and sharing his experiences with the next generation.

(And yes, I asked Stephen King what book he was reading. For my mom’s sake. It was “Damnation Spring,” by Ash Davidson, and King had high praise for it. Add it to your queue.)

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 October 2021 08:19

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