Stephen King talks thriller Billy Summers and why the pandemic isn't that different from The Stand
Stephen King's latest novel started with a single question: A killer for hire is on a high floor of a building, poised to shoot a victim; now, how does he get out? The answer to that conundrum occupies much of Billy Summers (out Aug. 3). A nerve-rending thriller rather than a nightmare-inducing tale of terror, the book still offers plenty to delight the Master of the Macabre's army of fans. Here, King, 73, offers a peek inside.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The lead character of Billy Summers is a hitman who is pretending to be an author and writes about his time as a sniper in the Iraq War. Was that a subject you'd been wanting to tackle?
STEPHEN KING: Not really. It's all a question of what follows what. You've got this kid, and he's had to go to a child-welfare situation. What does he do? He joins the military. I started to read about the battle of Fallujah, and the more I read, the more interested I got. It's horrific stuff — street-to-street and house-to-house [combat].
This is not the first time you've created characters who are writers. Who is the most talented of your fictional authors?
[Laughs] Maybe Thad Beaumont. He was in The Dark Half. And Mike from Bag of Bones. Although Mike in is a blocked writer, that was part of the idea.
Did you always plan on writing a "straight" thriller?
I knew from the jump that it wouldn't be a supernatural book, and that was okay with me. I'm not wedded to one particular genre. I don't even like that word, "genre"; I think it's a lazy word. The thing is, my interest is still the same. You see characters you like, that you care about, that you're interested in, and most of all that you believe.
Billy Summers is set in 2019 and the Trump presidency is repeatedly referenced. Were you tempted to foreground that?
No, I don't think so. The thing is, I have a soap box on Twitter. I don't use it all the time. I tweet about books that I like, and movies that I like, and TV shows that I like, and funny things that happen. I talk about my dog Molly, "The Thing of Evil," and people like all those tweets. But I am also interested in politics. I was horrified by Trump as president for all kinds of reasons, but number one was, as president, he was incompetent and lazy. So for that reason I had a real problem with him and I used to tweet about that quite often during the whole Trump presidency. But when I write books I try to get down off the soapbox.
The thing about this book was, it was supposed to be set in the year 2020. I was writing it in, I think, 2018 and maybe the early part of 2019. I had a couple of characters, minor ones, the people who live upstairs [from Billy Summers] in the apartment building. I said to myself, well, I've got to get rid of these people so [Billy Summers] has the building to himself, what am I going to do? I thought, ah, they get an inheritance and they go on a cruise. Then coronavirus hit and I said to myself, no, because the cruise lines are shut down. I decided the safest thing to do was to slide the book back to 2019, where none of that was a problem.
Your 1978 novel The Stand is about a flu pandemic — what would you change if you wrote it today, having lived through an actual pandemic?
I'm not sure that I would change that much. There was some effort by the Trump administration early on to downplay the seriousness of [COVID-19], and that really was like The Stand. Just the fact that Trump refused to wear a mask cost tens of thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of lives.