Stephen King Q&A: Pennywise's creator on scaring the hell out of 2017
The author, one of EW's Entertainers of the Year, even raised the hair of the president
Stephen King Rules.
That’s what’s emblazoned on a T-shirt the young hero of Monster Squad wears in that 1987 kid-classic. It could also be the motto of 2017, and it’s one reason EW has named him one of the Entertainers of the Year.
You could practically fill another book with what a powerhouse year King has had. He’s currently on the best-seller list with Sleeping Beauties, a novel he co-wrote with his son, Owen King, a mystical plague story in which all the women of the world succumb to a cocoon-shrouded slumber, leaving the men to their own unfortunate devices.
King had another hit novella with Gwendy’s Button Box, a return to his fictional, unlucky town of Castle Rock, which he penned with friend and Cemetery Dance publisher Richard Chizmar. But several titles from his back catalog also rose up the charts thanks to some unsettling new adaptations.
It was the resurrection of Pennywise the Clown in It that truly quickened the pulse of fans around the world, minting a lot of new Constant Readers in the process. Add to that a pair of acclaimed TV series based on Mr. Mercedes and The Mist, and the Netflix adaptations of Gerald’s Game and his novella 1922, and even the lackluster reception to The Dark Tower can’t take the shine off this King renaissance.
King, who received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2015, even got some more White House recognition this year when Donald Trump blocked the author on Twitter after he bombarded the president with barbs.
EW caught up with Uncle Steve to talk about how it all went down – and what’s coming next.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are you sick of talking to me? I feel like we’ve chatted so much this year.
STEPHEN KING: No. No. We have chatted a lot, but that’s okay. [Laughs] I like talking to you.
You’re always prolific, but this seemed like an especially intense run.
Yeah, this one’s a lot different. There’s never been anything like this and I think some of it had to do with the adaptations. And that’s been a great thing. I knew all this stuff looked like it going to pop up around the same time, but that was just coincidence. It just turned out that way. I’m glad.
Why do you think there is this sudden spike in attention?
Luckily, you know, most of the stuff turned out. Obviously there were some people who didn’t really dig The Dark Tower that much, but it still made an impact on my life and it made an impact on the books. The whole series kind of picked up in terms of sales because people got interested. The other stuff was all pretty terrific.
It seems like you’re at a stage where you’re enjoying collaboration more.
I’m not a hard guy to work with because basically, my attitude is: I’m doing stuff. I’m writing books. I’m involved with my own head, my own imagination, so [filmmakers] can go on and do the best job that they can.
But the two books you had this year were co-written and although you’ve done that a time or two in the past, it seems like now you’re just enjoying the storytelling version of playing catch.
I’m not a collaborator by nature. I can do it. I can be a team player. I’m not a mean guy to deal with, but when your son comes along and says “I got this idea,” and it’s a terrific idea, that was ano-brainerr, almost. You know I couldn’t wait to get into [Sleeping Beauties] because everything about that idea just said: You can go anywhere with this, and its just really lively.
How did the novella Gwendy’s Button Box come about with Rich Chizmar?
Gwendy was a real surprise to me. I had started this story Gwendy’s Button Box and I had, man, I don’t know, maybe 12,000 words. Then I just came to a place where I said, “I don’t know how to complete this,” and I just let it sit on the computer. Then Rich comes along and says to me in an email, “If you ever want to do a round robin story or want to collaborate …” It wasn’t even a pitch. I said in the same casual way, “Well, I have this story that I can’t finish. I’ll send it to you and if you can do anything with it, go ahead.”
Worked out nicely.
The book gets published. It turns into a moderate best-seller, and Book List just picked it as one of the best young adult novels of the year. And it kind of renewed my interest in Castle Rock. I hadn’t thought about that place in a long time, and I think Rich knew more about the backstory of the town than I did, but he got me interested in it. Now I’ve written another novella called Elevation, which is also a Castle Rock story and, in some ways, it’s almost like a sequel to Gwendy. Sometimes you seed the ground, and you get a little fertilizer, and things turn out.
Now J.J. Abrams and Sam Shaw (the nuclear bomb drama Manhattan) are using Castle Rock as the backdrop for an original Stephen King-themed TV series on Hulu.
I’m as much in the dark as anybody else. I don’t know anything about it so I just hope it turns out really well. It must be going okay. It’s typical J.J. There’s been nothing that I’ve seen in the press, or anything, about it.
Clearly, the new Pennywise and It shocked everyone. It was bigger than even director Andy Muschietti hoped.
I knew when I saw it a year ago in Florida in a rough cut that it was going to be a hit, but I don’t think anybody knew it was going to be, you know, like $700 million dollars worldwide. I had no idea of that, but it sold a lot of books, man. You know what they say: A rising tide lifts all boats.
After that opening weekend, producers vaulted into production on some other long-gestating remakes, like Pet Sematary. Did you notice a sudden uptick in interest?
Well, [film rights] on everything are basically taken. I think just about everything I’ve written was in some kind of development, or under option. I’m not bragging, I’m just…you know. It ain’t bragging if it’s true!
What about the new ones, like Sleeping Beauties?
There was a big competition for who was going to get that, but I think that was before It dropped. Then there was Mr. Mercedes, and Audience Network renewed that for a second season, which just sort of has happened on its own. I don’t know how to explain it, but it has fed itself.
How do you account for the It phenomenon, though? The book has never really gone away. But why do you think it came back so strong?
I think one of the things that really happened was that 1990 miniseries. A whole generation of kids between the ages of 8 and 14 were scared sh—less by Tim Curry and when the new one came out it was a chance to revisit that particular experience in their childhood. Then there was this weird viral bulge in stories about creepy clowns. That was in the press all over the place. So it was a number of different things. It was the right movie at the right time.
There are also a lot of new projects, like Stranger Things, that are tapping into the vibe you originated years ago: good kids fighting unspeakable evil. Did that prime the audience?
I think that Stranger Things might’ve had something to do with it, but that’s kind of an incestuous thing because so much of Stranger Things reminds me of stuff that I’ve written. But I think that played a part. Obviously the idea of a bunch of kids fighting a supernatural terror just sort of appealed to people, and they saw a chance to root for the good guys, which doesn’t always happen in horror movies.
I also think the Losers element was a huge draw, the fact that each one of these kids is an outcast. When you’re feeling powerless, or fearful, here’s this story of the powerless uniting and becoming bigger than the thing that scares them. It’s weird to say that a killer clown movie is hopeful, but I think it really is.
Yeah, I do too.
It makes you feel like you stand for something.
Yeah, a lot of people relate to them. There’s a lot of excitement when they’re having this rock fight against the bullies and they’re trying to save another kid. The monster part of it is adventurous and scary. It has all the things you go to the movies for. It’s a really good movie.
That brings us to The Dark Tower. I wrote a lot about this movie, and, well, it just didn’t work for me. And it clearly didn’t connect with people. But there was so much anticipation for it. Why did this thing that people love in book form fail to grab hold as a movie?
I liked everybody involved with that movie and I liked some of the casting choices for it. I liked Modi Wiczyk, the producer, the director, everybody. So you know I’m always careful what I say about it.
But I will say this, okay? The real problem, as far as I’m concerned is, they went in to this movie, and I think this was a studio edict pretty much: this is going to be a PG-13 movie. It’s going to be a tentpole movie. We want to make sure that we get people in there from the ages of, let’s say, 12 right on up to whatever the target age is. Let’s say 12 to 35. That’s what we want. So it has to be PG-13, and when they did that I think that they lost a lot of the toughness of it and it became something where people went to it and said, Well yeah, but it’s really not anything that we haven’t seen before.
I agree. I think they tried to make it too much like other things, rather than embracing the strangeness and originality of it.
There was a decision made, too, to start it pretty much in the middle, and when they actually made the movie I had doubts about it from the beginning, and expressed them, and didn’t really get too far. Sometimes when people have made up their mind, the creative team that’s actually going to go and shoot the movie, it’s a little bit like hitting your fist against hard rubber, you know? It doesn’t really hurt, but you don’t get anywhere. It just sort of bounces back. And I thought to myself, Well, people are going to be really puzzled by this, and they were. So there was some of that problem, too.
I hope someone takes another shot at The Dark Tower. Whenever I hear cable or streaming services say ‘We’re looking for the next Game of Thrones,’ I think: here’s this series of books, man. They’re right there, just pick them up …
That might happen. It might happen.
So after all this, any downside to this year?
A downside…? Hmm…
Were you heartbroken to be blocked by Donald Trump? I hope you’ve gotten over that.
[Laughs] No, I wasn’t heartbroken to be dumped by Donald Trump at all. I’ve enjoyed Twitter quite a bit.
What else is on the horizon for you? I know you have The Outsider coming up next year. That’s about the murder of a little boy, and a father and coach who is prominent in the town being accused …
Yeah, The Outsider is in May. I’m looking at the page proofs now. I love that book. I’ve got another book that doesn’t have a title yet and that’s done, and a novella that’s longer than Gwendy that’s called Elevation that will come out in some form.
A while back you told me you and Peter Straub were considering another return to The Talisman territories. Is that still a possibility?
Yeah, we’ve kicked it around a little bit. I’ve just got to get clear on some of these other things. Really, I don’t want to collaborate at all for a little while. I want to, you know, run my own railroads.
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