For years, my mom was a member of a book club, a club that still exists, but not like it did when I was a kid. Back then, they would send a little postcard to members every month with a designated book, a “title of the month,” and if you wanted the book, you did nothing–simply wait ten days or so, and they would mail you the book and bill you later. If you didn’t want the book, you just checked the appropriate box and mailed back the postcard. It was an ingenious business model back in the day, and if you were ever a member, you probably know, members got a lot of books they would normally never purchase simply because they forgot to return the postcard.
It was through my mom’s failure to return one of those postcards that I got introduced to Stephen King. Like many twelve year olds at the time, I was a voracious reader of Archie & Jughead comics, and I was outgrowing my Encyclopedia Brown books, but I didn’t know it yet. One day, Cujo showed up in the mail, an automatic shipment from the book club, and since my Mom didn’t read that kind of material, I took it down into my room and started reading. In truth, it wasn’t really appropriate for someone my age in places, but that was probably part of the appeal. I continued to read Stephen King’s books in the ensuing years, and have become a lifelong reader, entranced by his vivid characters and imaginative, high concept stories.
After a twenty year career in radio, I managed to make the transition to independent publishing a few years ago when I started a company with a former co-worker, and I’ve found the non-fiction stuff I’ve read from (and about) Mr. King over the years, has helped me with my own writing, and has inspired me on countless occasions. So, I’ve decided to start a series on this blog, Saturdays with Stephen, in which I plan to highlight some of my favorite works and advice from one of the world’s great authors.
In this first post I’d like to share an excerpt from Mr. King’s memoir, On Writing. About a third of the way into the book, after having told us about the struggles of a married teacher and unpublished writer (without a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, my Grandma would have said) with two kids who had to be fed and sometimes needed a dose of expensive PINK STUFF when an ear-infection got out of control, Stephen describes the moment when he got the phone call from an executive at Doubleday, Bill Thompson, to tell him the paperback rights to Carrie had been sold. It’s an inspiring moment, and one of my favorite passages in the autobiographical portion of the book.
“Are you sitting down?” Bill asked.
“No,” I said. Our phone hung on the kitchen wall, and I was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. “Do I need to?”
“You might,” he said. “The paperback rights to Carrie went to Signet Books for four hundred thousand dollars.”
When I was a little kid, Daddy Guy once said to my mother: “Why don’t you shut that kid up, Ruth? When Stephen opens his mouth, all his guts fall out.” It was true then, has been true all my life, but on that Mother’s Day in May of 1973 I was completely speechless. I stood there in the doorway, casting the same shadow as always, but I couldn’t talk. Bill asked if I was still there, kind of laughing as he said it. He knew I was.
I hadn’t heard him right. Couldn’t have. The idea allowed me to find my voice again, at least. “Did you say it went for forty thousand dollars?”
“Four hundred thousand dollars,” he said. “Under the rules of the road”–meaning the contract I’d signed–“two hundred K of it’s yours. Congratulations, Steve.”
I was still standing in the doorway, looking across the living room toward our bedroom and the crib where Joe slept. Our place on Sanford Street rented for ninety dollars a month and this man I’d only met once face-to-face was telling me I’d just won the lottery. The strength ran out of my legs. I didn’t fall, exactly, but I kind of whooshed down to a sitting position there in the doorway.
“Are you sure?” I asked Bill.
He said he was. I asked him to say the number again, very slowly and very clearly, so I could be sure I hadn’t misunderstood. He said the number was a four followed by five zeros. “After that a decimal point and two more zeros,” he added.
It’s a moment I can only imagine, and every time I re-read On Writing, I get inspired just thinking about it. Sometimes people really do get rewarded for the hard work they’ve put in.
Next week, I have a list of five horror movies that Mr. King once named as the best of all time.