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Stephen King's new story took him 45 years to write

Stephen King says finishing one of his stories decades after he started it felt like "calling into a canyon of time."
Francois Mori
Stephen King says finishing one of his stories decades after he started it felt like "calling into a canyon of time."

Stephen King is out with a new collection of short stories.

As you might expect from the reigning King of Horror, some are terrifying. Some are creepy. Others are laugh-out-loud funny. And one of them took him 45 years to write.

The book is a collection of 12 stories, called You Like it Darker.

Over the course of his decades-long career as a writer, King has learned there's no taking a story too far.

"I found out – to sort of my delight and sort of my horror – that you can't really gross out the American public," King told NPR.

He spoke with All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly about the book, destiny and getting older.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Mary Louise Kelly: I want to start by asking you about the story, The Answer Man. You began it when you were 30. You finished it when you were 75. What the heck happened?

Stephen King: Well, I lost it. What happens with me is I will write stories and they don't always get done. And the ones that don't get done go in a drawer and I forget all about them. And about five years ago, these people started to collect all the stuff that was finished and all this stuff that was unfinished and put it in an archive. They were going through everything – desk drawers, wastebaskets underneath the desk, every place. I'm not exactly a very organized person. My nephew John Leonard found this particular story, which was written in the U.N. Plaza Hotel back in the '70s, I think. And he said, "You know, this is pretty good. You really ought to finish this." And I read it and I said, "You know, I think I know how to finish it now." So I did.

Kelly: Well give people a taste. The first six or so pages that you had written back in the hotel, it becomes a 50-page story. What was it that you decided was worth returning to?

King: Well, I like the concept: This young man is driving along, and he's trying to figure out whether or not he should join his parents' white shoe law firm in Boston, or whether he should strike out on his own. And he finds this man on the road who calls himself the Answer Man. And he says, "I will answer three of your questions for $25, and you have 5 minutes to ask these questions." So I thought to myself, I'm going to write this story in three acts. One while the questioner is young, and one when he's middle aged, and one when he's old. The question that I ask myself is: "Do you want to know what happens in the future or not?"

Kelly: This story, like many of your stories, is about destiny – whether some things are meant to happen no matter what we do, no matter what choices we make. Do you believe that's true?

King: The answer is I don't know. When I write stories, I write to find out what I really think. And I don't think there's any real answer to that question.

Kelly: You do describe in the afterword of the book that going back in your seventies to complete a story you had begun as a young man gave you, and I'll quote your words, "The oddest sense of calling into a canyon of time." Can you explain what that means?

King: Well, you listen for the echo to come back. When I was a young man, I had a young man's ideas about The Answer Man. But now, as a man who has reached, let us say, a certain age, I'm forced to write from experience and just an idea of what it might be like to be an old man. So yeah, it felt to me like yelling and then waiting for the echo to come back all these years later.

Kelly: Are there subjects you shy away from, where you think about it and think, "You know what, that might be one step too creepy, too weird?"

King: I had one novel called Pet Cemetery that I wrote and put in a drawer because I thought, "Nobody will want to read this. This is just too awful." I wanted to write it to see what would happen, but I didn't think I would publish it. And I got into a contractual bind, and I needed to do a book with my old company. And so I did. And I found out – sort of to my delight and sort of to my horror – that you can't really gross out the American public. You can't go too far.

Kelly: It was a huge bestseller, as I recall.

King: Yeah, it's a bestseller and it was a movie. And yeah, the same thing is true with It, about the killer clown who preys on children

Kelly: Who still haunts my nightmares, I have to tell you. You've written how many books at this point?

King: I don't know.

King: Really? In our recent coverage of you, we've said everything from 50 to 70.

King: I think it's probably around 70, but I don't keep any count. I remember thinking as a kid that it would be a really fine lifetime to be able to write 100 novels.

Kelly: Oh my gosh. Well you sound like you're still having a lot of fun, so I hope you have quite a few more novels for us to come.

King: That'd be good.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.