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Reading the George Beahm book Stephen King Collectibles, I was very excited to read about a brand new book from King expert Stephen Spignesi. Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Steve about his new book, the Beatles, and what makes a better Italian.
1. After reading your two long essays in George Beahm’s SK COLLECTIBLES book, I can’t tell you how excited I am that you will have a new book on King coming out. Can you give me a little overview about this new project?
Thanks for the kind words, Kev. The new project is called THE ESSENTIAL STEPHEN KING and it is a comprehensive look at King’s entire body of work – which now numbers over 600 individual works (can you believe it?). In the book I will go where no man has gone before and attempt to rank King’s top 100 works and explain (defend might be a better word) why a piece was placed where it was placed.
2. What makes this news a little shocking is we all expected the long-awaited third SK trivia book to come out. Any updates on that? Yes, we are currently in talks with a couple of different publishers about THE COMPLETE STEPHEN KING QUIZ BOOK, which would combine volumes one and two of my quiz books and add new material updating the book through 2001. We haven’t finalized anything yet but I do hope to eventually do the book as a big trade paperback.
3. Your SK ENCYCLOPEDIA is now seen as one of the standard texts for every serious King fan. Like Douglas Winter’s THE ART OF DARKNESS, it has also, sadly, gone out of date. Are there any plans to update this book?
You know what comes to mind whenever I am asked that question, Kev? The line "I am still living with your ghost" from the song "Santa Monica" off Everclear’s SPARKLE AND FADE album. The ghost being, of course, THE SHAPE UNDER THE SHEET. The publication of that book was one of my proudest moments, and yet now, I live with its ghost simply because the creation of the book was a unique concatenation of circumstances in my life; circumstances that allowed me to research and write it, but which I have not since been able to duplicate. I was still working full-time when I decided to tackle the SHAPE and it took five years of sustained work to get it done. My advance for the book was $1,000. As King has often noted, an advance is meant to tide a writer over until his or her book comes out. I once calculated out the advance relative to the amount of time it took me to write it: 13 cents an hour. But at the time I was working full-time at a well-paying job; my wife was working full-time at a well-paying job, and money was not an issue. Writing the book was an enormous labor of love. Financially, things are different now. I write for a living now. Updating the book would, of course, still be a labor of love, but no publisher wants to pay me the kind of advance money I would need to abandon all other work for a year, possibly two (or more?) to do the research and writing necessary to update the book from 1990 through 2000. I will promise you this though: When the day comes that I can afford to take those two years off and write the update, I most certainly will. In fact, it is on the top of the list of things I want to do when I can afford it. You know the Barenaked Ladies’ song "If I Had a Million Dollars"? Well, if I had a million dollars (speaking figuratively), the first thing I would do is begin work on THE SHAPE UNDER THE SHEET: THE REVISED & EXPANDED EDITION. In the meantime, I hope that the information about the first 16 years of King’s career that the original edition covers is still of some value to King fans.
4. I recently used it to win a trivia contest with a couple friends at the most recent SKEMERs con, so, yeah, it still works!
Okay, in this book you’re listing the 100 "best" works of Stephen King. This seems a daunting, if not impossible, task. What are your criteria?
It is daunting, but I am using certain benchmark criteria for evaluating and ranking King’s work. They are:
- An exciting, irresistible storyline
- Memorable, intriguing, and above all, honest characters
- The beauty, grace, and power of King’s use of language
- Pulse-pounding suspense and a palpable sense of fear
- An engaging narrative voice
- Humor and wit
- The significance of the work’s themes
But in addition to these basic guidelines, I also factor in whether or not I feel an intangible appeal to the work; something that just makes the work so much fun to read that you can’t stop turning pages. This ethereal, indefinable appeal of the "essence" of a work may allow some slack in judging the other elements of the work. And regarding the validity of my rankings, this is, of course, just my opinion, but it is an informed opinion. I have often noted that Roger Ebert’s opinion about a film would probably carry more clout than someone who has no knowledge of, or grounding in, film and film history. So I am hoping that my previous work about King and my study of his lifetime body of writing assigns a bit more credibility to my ranking than one by someone who is not as informed. I do have my first-pass top 100 list compiled and now I am rereading selectively and moving things around. I am certain about my top 3 slots...the rest of the top 100 is still "a livin’ thing" that I’m sure will undergo a great many modifications before I say, "This is the final ranking."
5. What gave you the idea to tackle a project like this?
A couple of years ago I did a book called THE ITALIAN 100, which was a ranking of the most influential Italians and Italian-Americans in world history (Galileo was number 1; Madonna was number 100). That book was an enormous amount of fun to research and write and it was also a great conversation starter. In a wonderful instance of synchronicity, much the way my "Andy Griffth Show" encyclopedia, MAYBERRY, MY HOMETOWN, inspired me to write my STEPHEN KING ENCYCLOPEDIA; so my ITALIAN 100 inspired me to apply the same approach to the work of Stephen King. Plus I wanted to complete a "Stephen King Trilogy" of sorts – three books about King’s work that say pretty much all I want to say. THE ESSENTIAL STEPHEN KING and its all-encompassing approach to King’s work seemed like the perfect final book of the trilogy, following the ENCYCLOPEDIA and THE LOST WORK OF STEPHEN KING.
6. It seems as if the mainstream critics are finally coming around to your point of view, that King is actually an important, literate author. What are your ideas on that? What do you think prompted the change? I think critics are actually reading King in depth now instead of making judgements about his work based on a pop culture perception of him derived mainly from his public persona and his movies. King’s longevity, prolific output, and literary awards, combined with the frequent, increasingly praising reviews from highly-respected fellow writers, seemed to have forced previously dismissive critics to "take a second look." And when they do, they find gold. Anyone who appreciates fine writing simply cannot read something of King’s and not see a profound talent at work. Here, read this:
"The house itself looked toward town. It was huge and rambling and sagging, its windows haphazardly boarded shut, giving it that sinister look of all old houses that have been empty for a long time. The paint had been weathered away, giving the house a uniform gray look. Windstorms had ripped many of the shingles off, and a heavy snowfall had punched in the west corner of the main roof, giving it a slumped, hunched look. A tattered, no-trespassing sign was nailed to the right-hand newel post."
This is a passage from ‘SALEM’S LOT and it is as good as anything by Poe or Hawthorne (and better than a lot of contemporary writing that routinely makes the best-seller lists). And this was only King’s second published novel. His writing has been of equal caliber, if not better, in the intervening years and in later works. A recent review of HEARTS IN ATLANTIS by the respected literary journal "January" compared King to J. D. Salinger. King has ALWAYS been better than his critics have given him credit for...but the critical and popular perception of King – thanks in no small part to the movies – is that of a schlockmeister who only writes about haunted cars, rabid dogs, and showers of pig’s blood. That interpretation of King was wrong when it first came into fashion, and it is still wrong today.
7. This new book is sure to be a point of debate with many King fans - one man’s opinion versus a fan base of millions. Are you prepared for angry letters saying, "Why is ‘The Beggar and the Diamond’ at #90?" or such? Yes, I have had some experience in that area! When THE ITALIAN 100 came out, I had to answer precisely those types of questions. One of the most common was "Why wasn’t Frank Sinatra ranked higher? My answer was always that, when it came to ranking influence, I worked from a template. It seems that most experts agree that scientists and inventors have had the most influence on our world; followed by explorers, philsophers, theologians, and then artists. This usually sufficed in explaining THE ITALIAN 100’s ranking system. For the King book, because we will be dealing with something as ineffable and subjective as writing, the judgments will be a little bit more arguable, but I am beginning with a criteria that establishes certain parameters of excellence, particularly in the aforementioned categories, including narrative voice, writing elegance, characterization, tension, thematic significance, etc. and then proceeding from there. And, as I mentioned earlier, I hope that my credentials lend a little more weight to my opinions in the eyes of King’s fans.
8. In THE SHAPE UNDER THE SHEET, you had planned to reprint King’s prologue to THE SHINING, "Before the Play," until King pulled it at the last minute. Any similar surprises for this book?
Possibly. I recently asked King for permission to reprint something extremely rare in the book. I have not received a reply as of the time of this interview, but I am hopeful. Stay tuned.
9. What other projects, King or non-King, do you have in development?
In the period from August 2000 through May 2001, I will publish seven new books:
- HOW TO BE AN INSTANT EXPERT – a book about how to do research for nonfiction projects, including books, magazine articles, speeches, and term papers.
- THE USA BOOK OF LISTS – a fun compilation of lists of American trivia, history, lore, and information, including an exclusive guest essay by Paul Revere.
- SHE CAME IN THROUGH THE KITCHEN WINDOW: Recipes Inspired by The Beatles & Their Music – Real recipes (mostly Italian) whose names are a pun on a Beatles song, including Sgt. Pepper’s Peppers, We’d Love To Take You Home With Hummus, All My Linguini, I Want to Hold Your Ham Pie, Ticket To Rice, and more.
- THE UFO BOOK OF LISTS – a fascinating compilation of UFO information, legends, trivia, photos, stories, and more, including for the first time ever, a complete listing of unexplained UFO sightings made by US military personnel, drawn from the recently-declassified Project Blue Book files.
- GEMS, JEWELS, AND TREASURES (for QVC) – the authorized guide to gemstones, diamonds, pearls, gold, silver, and platinum, written especially for QVC. (I was a jeweler for almost twenty years before I turned to full-time writing in 1990.)
- THE CAT BOOK OF LISTS – a fun look at everything and anything to do with the greatest animal ever to walk the earth.
...and, of course, THE ESSENTIAL STEPHEN KING.
I am also beginning work on a major book called THE FORGOTTEN about the victims of serial killers. (Not sure who will publish this one yet.) Plus, I have recently completed my first original screenplay, WOMEN IN BRAS, and a novel called ORCHIDS. I am working on a second screenplay and a new novel called SHELTER STREET. (An excerpt from SHELTER STREET appears in HOW TO BE AN INSTANT EXPERT.)
10. Thank you for taking time to answer my questions! Now, one for the road: What’s Stephen King’s number one best work?
You’ll have to wait for the book for that answer, Kev, but I can tell you one thing about my choice for the top slot: it’s a winner!