Stephen King celebrates his 70th birthday today, so in honor of the milestone EW is presenting tributes to the man whose Constant Readers think of as “Uncle Steve.”
Today: Tananarive Due, author of The Good House, My Soul to Keep, and the short story collection Ghost Summer. She teaches Black Horror and Afrofuturism at UCLA and in the creative writing MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles.
Here’s her story about playing with King in one hell of a band:
I first got a copy of Stephen King’s The Shining for my 16th birthday — a paperback with a shiny silver cover I can see when I close my eyes — and I was trapped with the Torrance family at the Overlook Hotel. I still write REDRUM with backward Rs like Danny Torrance on every steamy hotel bathroom mirror.
My love affair with King’s work didn’t stop there. I was sick in bed when I read The Stand, and I felt every symptom of Captain Trips. I gave my cat the side-eye the whole time I read Pet Sematary. King scared me time after time by creating characters I believed in.
As an aspiring writer since the age of four, I paid attention to the way King used characterization and the real world to draw us into his stories of magic and horror, where human flaws invited malevolent supernatural forces.
As a student in my first undergraduate creative writing workshop at Northwestern University, I listed my two favorite authors as Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison and Stephen King. My classmates seemed a bit taken aback when I mentioned King’s name (a commercial writer?), but I felt vindicated years later when he received his Medal of Arts from President Obama. The lasting value of King’s oeuvre is already apparent.
I never expected to meet him. Or to play in a rock band with him. But I did. That’s how he happened to blurb my second novel, My Soul to Keep — which is still my most popular. And it all happened because of my day job.
Before I became a full-time writer and then started teaching, I was a reporter for The Miami Herald for 10 years. One of my co-workers was humor columnist and novelist Dave Barry, who played with a band of writers organized by the late Kathi Kamen Goldmark called the Rock Bottom Remainders. A few of the band members happened to be literary titans Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, Carl Hiaasen, Ridley Pearson and… Stephen King.
One day in the mid-90s, I ran into Barry in the newspaper cafeteria and not-so-casually mentioned that I played keyboard and I’d heard that the Rock Bottom Remainders were performing at the upcoming Miami Book Fair. “It would be a dream come true,” I said, “to be on deck to play with you one day.”
I expected that to be the end of it, with a polite That’s sweet. But instead, Barry mused, “Well…Mitch Albom, who usually plays keyboard, will be doing vocals during the Elvis number. Do you know ‘Jailhouse Rock?’”
“Yes!” I blurted, although, to be truthful, at that moment I couldn’t have remembered the melody to “Jailhouse Rock” at gunpoint. Had I heard right? Had he just said I could play with his band?
I’d never played in a band. I rarely played my piano or cheap Yamaha keyboard for anyone. I didn’t know the song. And I was a newly published author who’d just committed myself to sharing a stage with some of the best-known writers in the world.
To prepare, I bought an Elvis songbook and pleather short-shorts to look the part. Before I left for the gig, I debated whether to ask King to autograph one of his books from my shelf…or to give him an autographed copy of my first novel, The Between. I decided to give him my book instead of bugging him to sign mine.
The night was a dream come true. The “backstage” was a boat docked beside the stage at Miami’s Bayside Marketplace. Everyone was gracious and welcoming, including King, who posed for a photo with me. He was wearing bats on his T-shirt. Of course.
On the stage, I became someone else; someone fearless. I played fine. No one laughed at me. I had a blast. Afterward, King accepted my book signed to him, and he noted that my author photo looked “so serious” compared to my stage persona. I wish I could say we talked about writing, life, and the universe, but I was too tongue-tied to say much. (This happens to me a lot.)
But based on that meeting, I had the nerve to look up King’s contact information through the Horror Writers Association. Since miracles were apparently possible, I sent King a letter reminding him of where we’d met, asking if he would be willing to blurb my forthcoming second novel, My Soul to Keep.
I considered it a long-shot. I figured he must get hundreds of blurb requests. But hey—what the heck? I’d be crazy not to ask.
One day soon after, I pulled up to my mailbox in my car and found a letter postmarked from Bangor, Maine. BANGOR, MAINE! Stephen King had written me back. Holding my breath, I held the letter up to the light to see if it was good or bad news.
Only about three lines. All the signs of a polite Sorry.
But when I opened it, the letter said:
“Dear Tananarive, if I may—
I really enjoyed The Between, and I would be happy to read My Soul to Keep.
I screamed right there in my car, for any of my neighbors to hear.
King faxed the blurb to my editor the day it was due. His quote was so long that they chopped it down, but in the unabridged version, he complimented what I considered the greatest lesson his work had taught me — my characters.
During my book tour, I asked a man waiting for an autograph how he’d heard about my book. He said he’d been a stand-in on The Green Mile, and Stephen King recommended me to him.
In response to my thank-you note, and some kitschy small gifts (I think it was bubble gum shaped like a guitar), King later mailed me a precious signed limited edition copy of a short story collection called Six Stories — so I got my signed book after all.
“For Tanana Due—Thanks for your letter…and for writing such an utterly cool 2nd novel. Here’s some short stories—hope you like. Best wishes from your old rock ‘n’ roll buddy.
I performed with the band a couple more times — once, I sang Tina Turner’s version of “Proud Mary” solo. Yes — sang — the first and last time I sang for an audience. (Goldmark produced a recording of me singing “Proud Mary” with Warren Zevon singing Ike Turner’s part on an iTunes album called Stranger Than Fiction.)
Along with this long, strange trip, in 1997, I also met another amazing writer, Steven Barnes, so at my next Rock Bottom Remainders concert, King posed for a photo with me, my new husband, Steve, and my 11-year-old stepdaughter, Nicki. (Years earlier, long before I met either of them, my husband had arranged for King to sign a book for newborn Nicki too: “Welcome to life, sweetheart.”)
I’ve had many peak moments as a writer: meeting Toni Morrison and Octavia E. Butler, winning an American Book Award, signing movie and TV options that have come and gone, watching my MFA writing students publish their own work and shine—and yes, if genre is what they love, encouraging them to write horror without shame.
But it always makes me smile to remember the crack of drumsticks counting down, the bright blast of guitar and bass rhythms, and the rising joyful voices from the stage during my unforgettable experiences with Stephen King and the Rock Bottom Remainders.
Happy Birthday, Steve King — my old rock and roll buddy.