Stephen King

Queen of Swords in paperback

On September 25, 2007, the paperback edition of Queen of Swords will be released. That is one month minus two days.

I never did open things up for questions about Queen of Swords. For a long time after I wrote it, I was too unsettled to have anwered them, anyway. It’s hard to do bad things to your characters, even when the story demands it. For example, I know many people were sad or even upset with me when a character died in Fire Along the Sky. I was pretty upset with me too, to tell the truth. Continue reading…

sad endings

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories that end badly. And I don’t mean that the storytelling is bad; I mean that the outcome for some or all of the main characters is tragic in some way.

My thinking on this was triggered when Beth (who won a pile o’ books sometime ago) emailed me to say how disturbed she was by the way A Thread of Grace ended for some of the characters. And it’s true. A Thread of Grace is set in northern Italy during WWII, and not everybody survives. Mary Doria Russell is one of those brave authors who can take on a story like that and do it justice. When she was writing the novel she tossed a coin (or maybe she asked her son to toss the coin; I can’t find the email right now where she told me about this) for each character. Fate is just as arbitrary, was her reasoning. And she was right, of course.

People die suddenly, in unexpected ways. Sometimes they are the people you love most and are most attached to. An author is like anybody else with a community of people. You like — even love — some of your characters, and you dislike (strongly, at times) others. The easy way would be to have happy things happen to the people you like, and make all the nasty people step in front of speeding trains. And that may work, but first you’ve got to earn those endings you want so much, by putting the characters through their paces.

So there I was, thinking still about Beth’s discomfort with the resolution of A Thread of Grace when three things happened. Both Grey’s Anatomy and Lost had their season finales, and in both cases we’re talking dark, dark, dark. Grey’s left everybody — and I mean every character — in a bad (depressed, enraged, disappointed, desperate) state. If you haven’t seen it but plan to, you had best set your mind for some serious stuff. Lost was even worse, in terms of dark and truly sad endings.

The third thing is this: I am listening to Lonesome Dove on unabridged audio whenever I’m in the car. I love that novel, I truly do. I think Augustus McCrae is in my top five favorite fictional men. But whenever I think about Lonesome Dove I think about the fact that McMurtry wrote a sequel sometime later, which I was looking forward to and then couldn’t read beyond the first chapter because I hate what he did with the characters who survived the first novel. One of them is summarily dispatched by the kick of a horse before the story ever gets started. That made me angry. Grey’s, Lost, A Thread of Grace — in none of those cases am I angry. I am tense, maybe. But I’m trusting the writers to take the characters — and me — someplace interesting.

Good writers take chances. A good writer challenges the audience. Such writers (or film makers, or whatever) are betting that you’ll come back. And they’re right, if they’ve handled things well.

My point (and I do have one) is that good storytelling isn’t about happy-go-lucky people who never have a problem, or bad guys who always get what they have coming to them. On the other hand, when bad things do happen to good characters, there’s got to be bedrock underneath. A solid story will survive terrible things happening to a major character. That is, the audience will go along with the loss, even if they are put out and unhappy.

If you’ve read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, you know exactly what I mean. King has said that PS is the novel that scares him most, and that he can’t re-read. It’s tragic in the classical sense, and it is scary. But nothing that happens is unfounded or unearned.

At the end of A Thread of Grace I was sad but the Lonesome Dove sequel just made me angry at the author, for the way he tossed a particular character aside. He could have simply left the character out of the story, in which case the readers would be free to imagine a future for him. That would have been acceptable.

So that’s a very long reply to Beth asking me about A Thread of Grace. I was shocked and disturbed by the death of characters I liked and who I expected to survive. One of them was even named Rosina, so sure, it shook me a little. But in the long run the story made both logical and emotional sense, and that’s what counts.

a helping hand

Chicago’s Mayor Dailey (the first one, not his son) was infamous for his bon mots. My favorite: “They have vilified me, they have crucified me; yes, they have even criticized me.” When asked about the fact that pretty much every relative of his was employed by the city, and if that wasn’t nepotism, he looked genuinely surprised and said (in paraphrase): if you can’t help your own kids, who can you help?

Nepotism is one of those things that puzzles me. I don’t know how to feel about it. I do know how I feel about people who get huge book deals on the basis than nothing more than a famous face or name (I’m looking at you, Suzanne Somers) or some horrific crimes (OJ). It stinks, but worrying about it is a waste of time. The famous get book deals easily, because their names and faces are well known and such a book (whether excellent or foul) will sell itself. Those who are attached to the famous can sometimes grab a ride on this train. Sisters of murder victims, friends of serial killers, assistants to actors, lesbian daughters of conservative vice presidents. Whether or not these books will sell is more of a gamble, and sometimes one that doesn’t pay out (as in the case of the book written by Cheney’s daughter).

Then there’s the more direct kind of nepotism: a person established in some field guides his or her child into that profession. And what is wrong with that? The daughter of a master carpenter will most likely have an easier time getting a union card when she wants to start her training; people who own small businesses often bring their kids into the shop or factory so they can learn what they need to know to take over some day. The children of actors have an easier time getting into the business — but whether or not they stay around has more to do with how well they perform.

The same is true of insanely successful writers. Ann Rice has a son who writes novels and has made a name for himself, though in a quieter way than his mother. And now Stephen King’s son has come out with his first novel. Joe Hill (as he calls himself) has written a horror novel called Heart-Shaped Box. I noticed it when I was in the bookstore today, because it was in a stand-alone display, and the blurbs were from really big names. That is unusual for a first novel, so I picked it up and read the flap and the back cover and the blurbs.

Something fishy going on, is what I thought. The author blurb says only that Joe Hill lives in New England, but … definitely something odd about this.

When I got home I started checking, and I wasn’t exactly surprised to find out that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son — though that information is not to be found anywhere on Hill’s website.

So here’s the thing. You’re the son of the most popular and successful living author on the continent, and you want to write novels in the same genre. Your choices range from one extreme to the other: cash in on the connection, use your own name, allow the publisher to put a metallic sticker on the front cover proclaiming the new generation of King horror masters, use all the power of your connections to get whatever you can to place your novel in the public eye. Because marketing is pretty much everything, at least for a first novel.

Or you could go to the other extreme. Change your name. Don’t call yourself Joe King when looking for an agent, or when working with your agent to negotiate a book deal. Struggle along like most people, fighting for a decent marketing budget, trying to get the word out there.

I don’t know what I would do in this situation. I don’t know what I’d do if one day in the imaginary future I found myself consistently on the best seller lists and the Girlchild wrote a novel of her own. My urge — of course — would be to help. Introduce her to the right people, make sure she got an excellent agent (say, my agent, for example). Would she want that? Would it be a good idea? I have no answers. What I do know about the Joe Hill situation is this: he’s torn. He changed his name, but he used the connections he had to get a stupendous marketing deal, and high-flying blurbs. What other explanation is there for the kind of five star treatment he’s getting at Amazon, where they’ve buttonholed big name authors to do comparative reviews of a first novel?

I can understand that he would feel both ways about this: he wants to make it on his own, but trudging up a hundred flights of stairs when you’ve got a key to the express elevator, that must be a tough decision.

Joe Hill may have written an excellent novel. I hope he has. I’m going to read it, and I’ll let you know what I think. About the novel, not about the deal he got from his publisher. Because I just don’t know what to think about that.

Edited to add:

Just a little more about Joe Hill.

In a comment to yesterday’s post, Alison Kent provided a link to an interesting post by Jason at Man in Black. According to Jason, they really did manage to keep Hill’s connection to King a secret when they put the book up for auction. Jason seems to have solid footing for this claim, so good. Good for Hill. On the other hand:

Now here’s the Catch-22: Publishing the son of a famous bestselling novelist essentially assures that the book will get more publicity than 99.9% of debut novels. So a publisher would have to have some real brass cojones to simply ignore this incredible opportunity. Yet if all the coverage focuses on the father-son link and ignores the book–which, unfortunately, has happened in a few instances for Hill–you’ll get a ton of coverage and no sales. It seems Morrow has been trying to have their cake and eat it too, distancing Hill from King while “bashfully” conceding the relationship. Basically saying, “We don’t want the guy to be known only as Stephen King’s son, but come on, he is Stephen King’s son.”

So Morrow bids on a first novel they like, they win the bidding, and then they find out that the author is Stephen King’s son. Something like buying a lovely antique writing desk at a fair price and then finding a dozen long letters from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra in a secret compartment. Jackpot.

The thing to remember is that the auction is only the first part of the equation. After that, Hill’s agent went to work negotiating the fine points, and Hill’s connections played into that process. Obviously. Every year there are a couple of first novels that go for a lot at auction, and then get good marketing packages — but what’s going on for Heart-Shaped Box is way beyond even that standard. If they were really serious about playing down the connection, my advice (if anyone cared, or asked) would have been to cut back on the high profile blurbs. That’s where the connection to King jumps out and grabs you.

you can’t get there from here

One of those projects I thought would take an hour, tops, sucked me in and I just now came to remember something basic: you can’t get there from here.

The saying originated (it seems) in Maine as an example of typical downeast humor. If you’re my age or older, you might remember “Burt and I” — two dyed in the wool Mainers who recorded their bone-dry humor skits. They actually have a website, with audio clips. Here’s a good one, but unfortunately they don’t have the “you can’t get there from here” skit up.

All that long backstory comes down to something simple: a tourist asks how to get someplace, and after long discussion he’s told sorry, you can’t get there from here.

Which sounds nonsensical, but really what they’re saying is: there’s no direct route. In fact, it’s such a difficult round about route that you might as well just sit here and have something cold to drink instead.

All I wanted was a webpage which listed, in some kind of organized fashion, all the editions of all the books. If I were as widely published as Stephen King, sure, that would be a big project. But I’ve got seven novels in print. Yes, there are multiple editions and languages, but I thought, how hard could it be?

I’ve already done this in part, by way of Amazon (the link in the nav bar above), but I wanted a page with a simple list including cover images, publication data, and short remarks without a mercantile link. You’d think I was asking for the moon. Not even LibraryThing will let me do it, because the widgets work by means of Javascript, and you can’t customize what data gets pulled. Besides that, LT’s links go to Amazon, too.

So phooey. I don’t even want to go there, so I’ll stay right here. With a cold drink.