Interviews, Page I

[stephen spignesi] [ed gorman] [kathi goldmark] [peter straub] [michael collings]
[interviews, pg 2] [interviews, pg 3] [peter straub interview w/ tenebres]

Ten Questions for Stephen Spignesi


Stephen Spignesi is the author of The Stephen King Encyclopedia, The Lost Work of Stephen King and The Stephen King Quiz Books. In this interview, we talked about his upcoming work, The Essential Stephen King, coming out soon!

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 Like Douglas Winter’s THE ART OF DARKNESS, it has also, sadly, gone out of date.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!

Ten Questions for Ed Gorman



Ed Gorman is the Shamus-award winning author of over thirty novels. He’s won a Shamus award for best detective story (for his short story "Turn Away"), been nominated for a Stoker and an Edgar, and continues to write with such fecundity he rivals Stephen King in terms of sheer output. Gorman's new novel Voodoo Moon (St. Martin's Press $22.95) just appeared. Fangoria said " simple but incredibly compelling prose...Gorman gives us a mess of semi-inbred monsters of the human kind, dark secrets locked away in the attic and a general nastiness that make this a very unsettling ride. It's his portayl of a dark and damning world that cements his place as an entertaining writer and Voodoo Moon a worthwhile read." Masters of Terror said "The story is a powerhouse...adrenaline-stirring entertainment...and atmosphere that is more sinister than in most horror novels." A writer of many styles and many genres, Ed Gorman seems to have mastered them all. Recently, he took some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of my questions.

  1. First off, congratulations on "Out There in the Darkness" being selected for 1999’s Best American Mystery Stories (even though, oddly, "Darkness" was originally published in 1996.) Working mainly in genre fiction for most of your career, is it odd to suddenly have your work anthologized with such "mainstream" writers as Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike?
  2. I was recently asked to share a stage with John Updike at a local college and I declined. I told the woman booking the evening that it'd be like having Lawrence Olivier and Bobcat Goldthwaite on the same ticket. I don't belong in the company of Oates and Updike and I'll be damned if I know how I got there. I'm a pulp writer and know my place. This isn't aw, shucks self-effacement. Just the simple truth. And I'm damned happy being a pulp writer, I should add.

  3. In your most recent "Gormania" column (Cemetery Dance, Issue #33) you discuss the future of e-book publishing. With the number of downloads of Stephen King’s "Riding the Bullet" and The Plant, it seems that e-books are becoming more popular. Is this just a case of name-driven success, or are e-books about to take the publishing world by storm?
  4. There has been a rush to judgement (in my opinion) on e-books. Certainly, they'll play a major role in future publishing but I think we're still a few years away from that. My grandkids will grow up with e-books. They'll be a natural form to them. Downloading books is still alien to Boomers like me.

  5. Your earlier books (from 1985’s Daddy’s Little Girl to 1992’s The Serpent’s Kiss) were all published under the name Daniel Ransom. Pseudonyms have a long history of giving authors freedom to write on subjects they wouldn’t under their own name; do you have a similar story?
  6. Except for The Fugitive Stars, which is an adequate Fifties invasion-type novel; Zone Soldiers, which is my OK Keith Laumer sf adventure novel; and The Serpents Kiss, which I think is a good, solid horror novel, all the Ransoms (I'm not even sure how many there are) are crap and not worth reading. I didn't know any better/desperately needed the money.

  7. Your recent short story "Angie," (in the anthology 999) scared the crap out of me. This story seems to confirm the Jerry Springer mentality of the late 1990’s – a lot of glittery surface, with no moral fiber to back it up. This type of horror story is becoming more and more prevalent, the terror of dire actions without remorse. Any idea why?
  8. Very perceptive. Jerry Springer exactly. That kind of floating sociopathy endemic in our society today. We know that serial killers are secretly proud of their bloody work; so, apparently, are beer-swilling fatsos who rape their nine-year-old daughters. I think if I was humping my first cousin, I'd probably keep it to myself. I wouldn't go on Springer and have a fist fight with my other first cousin, who was also humping her. Even perverts should show some discretion for God's sake.

  9. Your fiction often focuses on small town America, especially in Iowa and the surrounding states. Is this a case of "write where you live," or is there something more intrinsically magical or mysterious about small towns?
  10. Writing what I know. I'm one of those folks who live in little Midwestern burgs and pass through life pretty much without notice (except for my drinking days when I attracted far too much notice). I think small, I dream small, I don't want fame or fortune, I just want some kind of peace and when my time comes to pass, to pass over without undue terror. My favorite noir actor wasn't Bogart or Mithcum but Robert Ryan--that kind of nervous Catholic grief. There are millions and millions of me and I write about us because, if I don't always admire us, I think I at least understand us. My loved ones are my utmost concern. They give me joy and wisdom. Kissing my wife, holding my grandkids, making my mother laugh--those are my true pleasures. The rest of life is largely abstract and bullshit.

  11. The story you won the Shamus award for, "Turn Away," isn’t your typical detective story. It’s not often the tough-talking P.I. is allowed to grow old, let alone face questions of slow mortality. What prompted you to write this unique and moving story?
  12. I've written my share of "typical" detective stories, I suppose, but I try not to. Old men have always fascinated me, especially the tough working-class old men of the various neighborhoods I grew up in. My Dad had a lot of factory friends like that and in the early Fifties they'd sit on our porch at night and drink Falstaff and swat mosquitos and catch fireflies in their hands and tell all kinds of stories about women and the war and the things that scared them and the things they held dear. I'd sit on the porch and listen and long years later a lot of those tales found their way into my fiction. "Turn Away" could easily have been a porch story.


  13. You’ve been successful in so many genres (mystery writer, horror writer, anthology editor, screenwriter … the list goes on and on), is it difficult to secure a place in the literary world? Is it better or worse to be a "brand name?"
  14. I've mismanaged my career from the start but I've done a number of things I'm proud of so fuck it.

  15. Your Sam McCain series has been referred to as "a Bob Greene newspaper column set inside a mystery" (Publisher’s Weekly). Much of your fiction takes place in "bygone days." Is it difficult to capture a sense of nostalgia in this type of fiction without sounding stodgy?
  16. I'm not sure most of my fiction takes place in bygone days unless you mean my westerns. The McCains I write just because now, in my Fifties, the emotional truths of my youth (and I mean small truths, nothing cosmic) have come clear to me. I don't think of it as nostalgia so much as a kind of retroactive therapy.

  17. As the editorial director of Mystery Scene magazine, you must constantly see new and exciting talent emerge (my newest favorites are Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben.) Any standout writers you’d recommend?
  18. I never answer this question. I'd leave somebody out and hurt his/her feelings.

  19. Okay, because this is a Stephen King web site, I have to give you the requisite Stephen King question: name your top three favorite works by King, in any category.

Night Shift, The Shining, Pet Sematary/Misery. Plus all kinds of other stuff. The funny thing was, I didn't care much for him at first and made a negative comment in Twentieth Century writers that I've always regretted--to the degree that I literally cringe every time I think about it. Then my then-girlfriend was reading Salem's Lot and I picked it up one night and stayed up all night reading it (literally) and it proved to be one of the two or three most influential books I've ever read--like Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. It changed my whole approach to writing. I re-read King now constantly.