Stephen King at 60: Bangor author talks politics, health and his new book

By Dale McGarrigle
Saturday, January 19, 2008 – Bangor Daily News

king2008_turning60As darkness falls and the phone rings, it’s appropriately Stephen King on the line, calling from “God’s Waiting Room.”

“Sorry I’m late,” said the master of horror. “I couldn’t read my own writing.”

King is calling from his winter place near Sarasota, Fla., where it’s 72 and rainy on this recent day. He’s getting ready to fly north to visit with his grandchildren before heading to New York for authorly duties. In this case, that means promoting his new novel, “Duma Key,” which hits bookshelves Tuesday.

In a freewheeling, 20-minute phone interview, King talked not just about his new novel, but also his daily activities, his health, his family and developments on the local, state and national scene.

“Duma Key” is King’s first book set in Florida, although the author and his wife, Tabitha, have been wintering in that state since 1998.

King remembers what first led them to fly south for the winter: “In ’98, during the ice storm, I was walking my dog in our driveway and a chunk of ice dropped off the mailbox, which just missed him. That’s when we asked ourselves, ‘Why are we still here in the winter?’ So we decided to start coming down here.”

In “Duma Key,” Minneapolis building contractor Edgar Freemantle is nearly killed in a construction-site accident when a crane backs up into his pickup. Freemantle loses his right arm, badly damages his right leg and hip and struggles to regain his lost memory. During his recovery, his wife of 25 years divorces him.

His psychiatrist suggests that a change of scenery might be beneficial to Edgar and that he should take up an activity that he would enjoy. So he moves to Duma Key, on Florida’s Gulf coast, and takes up art, which he had dabbled at as a youngster. Supernatural doings soon intrude on Edgar’s new life.

For Edgar’s ordeal, King drew on his experiences after he was struck by a van while he was out walking near his summer home in North Lovell in 1999.

“I’d heard how creativity, how make-believe can help the body heal from physical injuries,” he said. “I also got interested in psychic phenomena connected to phantom limbs. The writer’s dictum is to write what you know, so I started from there. But Edgar shouldn’t be thought of as me.”

King got a central image for “Duma Key” while he was writing the 2006 novel “Lisey’s Song”: “I was out walking on this deserted road, the only kind of road I walk on now, when I saw this sign which said, ‘Caution: Children.’ So I thought, ‘What kind of children do you have to be cautious about?’ Then I got this image of two dead girls.”

In the novel, Edgar paints like a man possessed. King can relate to these bursts of creativity.

“When it’s really going well, the words are there for you,” he said. “I love art and to get lost in that world, but I couldn’t draw a picture of a cat. So I took what I feel about writing and put it in a book about an artist. After all, the last thing I need in my books is another author.”

King spends his mornings in Florida writing and his afternoons taking 3½-mile walks, with tennis mixed in twice a week.

“That seems to keep everything working fairly smoothly,” he said.

Spring training will start within a month in nearby Fort Myers, and King will be there with his beloved Red Sox. His feelings for that team haven’t changed after World Series victories in 2004 and 2007.

“There seems to be this theory that Red Sox fans are masochists,” he said. “But if you can support your team in bad times, you can support them in good times too. The Aaron Boone homer in 2003 seems to put New England psyches in the ICU, but winning the Series in 2004, and again last year, has taken off some of those effects.”

Writing is a family business for the Kings, as sons Owen and Joseph (pen name Joe Hill) have followed Steve and Tabitha’s lead and become authors as well.

“I didn’t offer any advice, just encouragement,” King said. “Everyone does it their own way. I just tell people to read everything within reach and treasure the bad, because that shows there’s hope for you.”

King turned 60 last year and admitted that it was a milestone for him: “When you turn 60, you have to face the fact that you’re no longer middle-aged. I look the same as I ever did when I look in the mirror. I can still see the kid there. But people seeing you see someone who’s older. I went to a movie theater, and the woman asked if I wanted my golden-ager discount. I asked how old you have to be for that, and she said 65. I said, ‘Not yet, dear.’”

King wasn’t sure how his perspective on his art had changed through his life. In fact, he seems uncomfortable with calling his writing “art,” first calling it a craft and later his job.

“I’m like Edgar in the book,” he said. “Just work hard and keep your head down.”

The Kings have lived in Bangor for 30 years. He has seen a lot of changes in his hometown in recent years: a racino, museums, mall sprawl, downtown revitalization, big-box stores.

“A lot of the stuff is a mixed blessing,” he said. “But it’s still a neighborhood town, a great place to raise kids. Bangor is home to us.”

The couple has long been known for their philanthropy in the greater Bangor area. Their current efforts are to help those in need to heat their homes, even though “it’s like pouring water into a bucket with a hole at the bottom,” King said.

King appreciates the good fortune that his talent has brought to him.

“I remember working for $1.60 an hour at Franklin’s Laundry, so it’s great to be able to help out any way whatsoever,” he said.

The politically active author is supporting Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Allen in his run for Republican Susan Collins’ Senate seat.

“We’ve had enough Bush Republicanism to last the country for a long time,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of chickens come home to roost because of Bush Administration policies. You can’t pump billions of dollars into a foreign war without it affecting the economy.”

King’s supporting Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Illinois) among the Democratic presidential candidates.

“We need a big change,” he said. “It’s an amazing thing to see the two frontrunners be a woman and a black man. Obama has the least baggage of the two and is willing to try new things. It wouldn’t be business as usual. Also it would do wonders for us in the world community to have a black man in the White House.”

While all these issues play out, King will stay busy writing. After agreeing to edit “The Best American Short Stories 2007,” he decided to try his hand at the form again. The result is a new short-story collection which he expects to come out this fall or next winter.

The author is now in the midst of writing a long novel set in western Maine.

“So tell folks they can enjoy a short vacation in warm weather [“Duma Key”], then I’m coming back home,” King joked.

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The Stephen Edwin King file…

Born: 1947 in Portland, Maine
Parents: Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King
Education: Lisbon Falls High School, 1966; University of Maine, Orono, BA English, 1970
Married: Tabitha Spruce of Old Town, 1971
Children: Naomi, Joe, Owen
Grandchildren: Three
Professional: Taught at Hampden Academy, 1971-73; taught creative writing at the University of Maine, 1978-79; author and screenwriter 1967-present
Honors: 2003 recipient National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters
Maine residences: Bangor (purchased 1980), Center Lovell (1977)
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