(NYTimes, By Motoko Rich)
Stephen King clearly has little trouble invoking his muse: with more than 40 books to his credit, he appears to have no problem churning out the words, despite having famously said four years ago that he planned to retire.
But Mr. King, 59, best known for gripping horror fests like “Carrie,” “The Shining” and “The Stand,” says that writing a book is different from writing a truly good book. And that is what Mr. King believes he has done with “Lisey’s Story,” a novel that is being published by Scribner on Oct. 24.
“It’s like surfers and the seventh wave,” he said in an August interview a day after playing host for a charity reading with the authors J. K. Rowling and John Irving at Radio City Music Hall in New York. “You ride six waves that are O.K., and then the seventh one is really great.” But with every seventh wave, you mess up the ride, “so really it’s only every 49th wave that’s really a great, great wave, and I felt that way with ‘Lisey.’ ”
This time out, Mr. King, one of the few true rock stars of the book world, has written a novel that like “Bag of Bones,” from 1998, or the novellas of “Different Seasons,” published in 1982, does not entirely forgo horrific elements, but certainly transcends them. At its heart, “Lisey’s Story” is a book about a marriage and the journey through grief that a widow — the title’s Lisey — makes after the death of her husband, Scott Landon, also a rock star of the book world.
Told from her point of view, the novel is a vibrant celebration of language, particularly the shared patois of marriage. The book is peppered with vivid words like “Incunks” (the couple’s name for the professors who study Scott’s work, and then, after his death, pressure Lisey to donate his papers) or “bad-gunky” (Scott’s reference to the madness that sometimes overtakes him and other members of his family).
And those horrific elements? Scott, and later Lisey, travel back and forth to an alternate world, both beautiful and monstrous, known as “Boo’ya Moon.” Mr. King’s name on the spine of a book generally guarantees a best seller. But in what has become a long-running theme for him, Mr. King wants readers, and critics, to recognize that he isn’t a hack.
“You get a reputation as a best seller, and you immediately get hung with a label” that you must write for the lowest common denominator, he said, sitting easily in a chair in his Upper East Side hotel suite, wearing a blue T-shirt, jeans and a pair of Merrill suede moccasins. “All I’ve tried to do is to work hard and get better.”
With “Lisey’s Story,” he added, “I’m not saying that it’s deathless prose, or it’s a classic, but I’m saying that I’m surprised I had this book in me. It’s a lucky book.”
While his publisher is planning an initial print run of about 1.1 million copies, it has pushed the novel almost as if it were written by an up-and-coming author on the verge of a breakout book.
Early in the spring, Scribner sent out 7,000 galleys to booksellers and people in the press, the most it has distributed since “Bag of Bones.” In fact, the publisher did not send out any advance reading copies of Mr. King’s “Cell” when it was published earlier this year because it figured most of them would end up on eBay before the book went on sale in stores; Scribner has already asked eBay to remove at least a dozen copies of “Lisey’s Story” from the site.
Susan Moldow, Scribner’s publisher, said the company courted independent booksellers, some of whom tend to ignore Mr. King’s books because they assume that the discount chains will sell most of them. “We wanted to convince them, both because of the content of the book and because Stephen King’s readers are all over, that they should highlight it and take their own market share,” Ms. Moldow said.
The sales push intrigued Margaret Maupin, a buyer at the Tattered Cover, an independent bookstore in Denver. The store ordered about one-third more copies than it usually does for one of Mr. King’s novels, Ms. Maupin said, hoping to attract new readers. In what sounds like a pitch for a challenging novel in translation, Ms. Maupin said she wanted to sell “Lisey’s Story” to people who had previously spurned Mr. King’s work. “We’re saying, ‘Stretch yourself a little bit,’ ” she said.
Mr. King started writing “Lisey” three years ago, while recovering from a severe bout of pneumonia that landed him in the hospital for nearly a month, his second brush with mortality after being hit by a van in Maine in 1999. The seed of the novel, he said, came after he had returned from the hospital and his wife, Tabitha, had started renovating his office. When he walked into the room, in a converted barn, the rugs were gone, and most of his books and papers were boxed up.
“I went in there, and I could barely walk, and I could barely breathe,” he recalled. “I thought, this is what places look like when somebody’s died. I thought to myself, this is what it is like to be a ghost.”
But what he really wanted to do, he said, was “write a book about a woman who was the actual driving force of a marriage to a famous man.” Although his own wife is an obvious role model, Mr. King is quick to point out the differences: Tabitha King is a novelist in her own right, while Lisey doesn’t work. The Kings have three children, and the Landons have none. Still, he said, “Lisey’s supposed to be about finding somebody who understands what it’s like to live that life of the imagination.”
He added, “Not everybody is comfortable with that, and when you find somebody who is — in that sense Tabby is like Lisey.” Because he was writing in a woman’s voice, Mr. King asked Nan Graham, the editor in chief at Scribner, to edit the book instead of Chuck Verrill, Mr. King’s longstanding personal editor. Ms. Graham said she helped with pacing and honing the title character. “Lisey became a little more complex and compelling,” she said.
In the novel Scott Landon is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award who writes blockbuster best sellers. Mr. King has never won either prize, although he was awarded, somewhat controversially, a medal for distinguished contribution to American letters by the National Book Foundation in 2003.
“It’s a way of saying to the reader, ‘Don’t start out with the idea that Scott Landon is Stephen King,’ ” he said, “because that’s not the case.” Nevertheless, such details can make a reader wonder if he might, just a little bit, be writing an insouciant kiss-off to the literary establishment. Mr. King insisted that wasn’t his plan, but then proceeded to rant about critics who, he said, had “made their ignorance of their own popular culture a virtue.”
He said he was more concerned about underrated authors he has championed than for himself. “For myself, I’m read, I’m feeding my family, so I feel pretty good,” he said. “In the end, it doesn’t matter, because either the books survive, or they don’t. I’m going to be dead, and God, I hope that they will survive, but it’s out of my hands.”
The intense focus on language in “Lisey” comes as something of a shift for him. In his early days Mr. King confessed that a story’s concept superseded the language. In an interview in The New York Times Magazine, Mr. King once said: “Love of the word wasn’t first. It was second.” Now, he said, language is “more important than it used to be.”
Part of that change, he said, was that he was reading more poetry. Among his favorites are D. H. Lawrence, Richard Wilbur and James Dickey.
“You get older, you find out time is shorter, and you read stuff that you’ve missed before,” he said. “You say, ‘I can’t wait forever anymore to read Eudora Welty.’ I finally got to Eudora Welty, so maybe I’m just meeting a better class of literary person.”
Mr. King spooked fans with his threat of retirement a few years ago. “I didn’t feel good,” he said. “I was in a lot of pain from the accident.”
But somehow, he couldn’t stop writing. “When I started to feel better, I felt like I wanted to work,” he said. “What else am I going to do? I don’t parasail.”