Transcript: Nightline's Interview With Stephen King

"The Mist" is a novella written by Stephen King in 1980. In the book, an abnormal, supernatural mist takes over a small town in Maine, revealing vicious unworldly creatures. Next week a film version, written and directed by Frank Darabont, hits theaters.

The following is a transcript of Jake Tapper's interview with Stephen King for "Nightline." The transcript has been slightly edited for clarity and narrative flow.

JAKE TAPPER:

The latest "Stephen King" movie, which opens later this month, is "The Mist," about a small town in Maine enveloped by a dangerous fog. It focuses on the townspeople stuck in a supermarket, facing a new threat, their world having changed forever in an instant, turning on one another, disagreeing on how to deal with the threat. In one very pointed line in the film and the novella, a character says, "If you scare people badly enough, you'll get 'em to do anything. They'll turn to whatever promises a solution." It is all so evocative of 9/11, and yet amazingly, the novella on which the film is based was first published in 1980.

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STEPHEN KING:
Keep in mind that I also wrote a book called "The Running Man" that was made into a movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie is nothing like the book. But the book ends with a passenger jet into hitting a skyscraper. And blowing the top off it. And after Sept. 11, I thought of that, and I thought, "Geez, I published that book around 1978." There's another one called "Rage," that I've withdrawn from publication, because it was about a school shooter. It had been part of the scenery in a couple of shootings, and so I thought it seemed better to pull it than to leave it around.

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If you tell the truth, within the scope of a fantasy, people will hear those reverberations. Because a story like "The Mist" is a nightmare. But anybody who's ever had a nightmare knows that every nightmare has a basis in actual anxiety. It's a place where you can take your real anxieties, and park them for a while, and not worry about them anymore.

But the story of "The Mist," in the background, there's this idea that the military has been fooling around with something that's too big for them, and has torn an actual hole in the fabric of reality, and these awful creatures from another dimension have come through.

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In another part of the story, there's a religious zealot, Mrs. Carmody, who's in the market, and to begin with she's sort of a figure of fun. Because everybody's pretty well solemnly grounded, and nobody's worried about anything. But once the disaster strikes, Mrs. Carmody gets a weird power. And certainly we've seen this time and time again in our own lives, that as the situation worsens, in various parts of the world, the religious fanatics have a tendency to become more and more powerful.

So all of this stuff has resonance. That's one of the things that I've always liked about horror fiction, and about fiction in the fantastic, is that it does have a resonance. But as far as 9/11 or the things that happened, I think that with a movie like "The Mist" people will mention that sort of resonance and they're going to conjure up 9/11. But the fact is, that was simply uh, a great big old dent in the fender of the American psyche. That changed the way we think about things and in a way, it's what my brother used to call "the blue car theory." You buy a blue car, you see blue cars everywhere.

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After the 9/11 apocalypse happened in New York City, people, particularly New Yorkers, who breathed in the ash, or saw the results of that, have a tendency to keep seeing echoes and having flashbacks to it. But that's one of the things this kind of story's supposed to do is to help you deal with that a little bit.

TAPPER:
Religious characters don't fare very well in your books, I've noticed. Whether it's Mrs. Carmody or others. You are not a religious man?

KING:
I am a religious man. Well, I'm a spiritual man. I certainly believe in God, and I meditate on a regular basis, and try to stay in touch with the God of my understanding. But I haven't been through the doors of the church, I don't think since my mother-in-law died. And I certainly don't have anything against churches per se. I'm not a vampire type, when somebody shows me the cross or something like that. But organized religion gives me the creeps.

TAPPER:
How did the idea of "The Mist" come to you?

KING:
"The Mist"? (Laughs) I answer these questions and I always sound totally mad, barking mad. There was a market, it is an actual market in Bridgeton, Maine, where my wife and I lived at that time. And I'd been blocked for some time. I'd written a very long novel called "The Stand," and I'd finished it. And I couldn't seem to get anything else going. And about four months went by and I would try things, and they would die, and uh, I'd crumple up pages, and the wastebasket was full of paper, and the desk was bare. It was that kind of a situation. It was a writer's block.

So I was in the market one day, and uh, I was shopping, and I looked toward the front, and I saw the whole front of the market was plate glass. And what I thought of when I saw those big plate glass windows was, "What if giant bugs started to fly into the glass." (Laughs)

TAPPER:
That's what you saw?

KING:
That's what I thought. That's what I thought. And I had no idea why. Probably because I saw too many movies when I was a kid.

TAPPER:
You see a plate glass front of a supermarket and you think, "What if giant bugs were trying to get in."

KING:
Yeah, right. I did in that particular case. Not every time.

TAPPER:
Well, it's pretty terrifying. What was Stephen King's childhood like? Was it dark and depressing and full of horrific events?

KING:
No. It was normal. We were raised by my mother, who was a single mom, so we were latch key kids in the '50s before latch key kids actually existed. Um, so in that sense there was no dad around.

TAPPER:
You and your brother.

KING:
Yeah, my brother Dave and I. And we knocked around a lot of places, because my mom would get a job, and then either she'd lose it, because she got laid off, or something would happen, or the babysitter wouldn't show up, and my brother, who was two years older, is the babysitter, and somebody would see him crawling around on the roof of the apartment building after his ball, and we'd get evicted from that place, and we'd go somewhere else. And we finally settled in Maine, came back to Maine in 1957, and my mother took care of her grandparents, her parents, rather, my grandparents, until they died, and she worked at a place called Pinewood Hospital, which was a home for special needs children. Uh, kids with hydrocephalic big heads, and kids who were you know, mentally retarded, that sort of thing. And that's where she was when she died.

TAPPER:
There are a lot of high school kids, and especially in some of your early literature, who are loner types. But that wasn't really your experience completely, it sounds.

KING:
No. It really wasn't my experience. But I certainly observed kids who were loners, and kids who were at the bottom of the social pecking order, which in high school is fairly cannibalistic. Let's face it. No kid in high school feels as though they fit in. The smartest thing that I ever heard anybody ever say about high school was that, "If you look back upon that as the happiest time of your life, I don't want to know you!" High school was not the happiest time of my life, but I fit in.

TAPPER:
What was it like without a dad?

KING:
I had nothing to compare it to, so it was fine.

TAPPER:
But now you are a dad, and you can see what you didn't have.

KING:
Well, I can and I can't. I kind of play the dad business by ear. I found out that it wasn't like "Father Knows Best" and "Leave it to Beaver." Those were my ideas of fatherhood, and the way it was supposed to work. It was like "Honey, I'm home!" And the kids would all sit around the table and eat their peas, and they would have interesting little adventures. And I wasn't prepared for the realities of fatherhood. I think that Naomi came along when I was 23, so I was young.

And Joe came along a couple of years later. So I ended up writing a lot of books about fatherhood to try and understand it better. Because in some ways that's what fiction writers do. We write to try and figure out how we feel about certain things. "The Shining," for instance, with the homicidal father, I had feelings of anger about my kids that I never expected. I had never been led to believe by sitcom TV, or movies like "A Wonderful Life" that it was ever possible to think, "Won't this darned kid ever go to bed and let me write?" And Jack Torrence came out of that experience. An attempt to understand that experience.

TAPPER:
You were writing about your alcoholism with the Jack Torrence character as well.

KING:
Yeah. I wrote about the alcoholism a lot in those early days. But I never had a clue. I was pretty numb. But then I've never been the most self-analytical person in the world. Which is why interviews are tough for me. Because people ask you to parse out meaning from the stories, particularly in my field, when I write horror stories a lot of the time. They want to relate that back to my life, and I've never denied that they don't have some relationship to my life, but at the same time I'm always puzzled to realize years later, that in some ways I was delineating my own problems, self psychoanalysis.

TAPPER:
I guess I just wonder, being Stephen King, having seen and read so much of your work, it just seems like it would be, with a few exceptions, such a ... such a dark place. There's always something out to get you, in a horrible way. And it could be anything. It could be a monster in the mist, it could be a car, it could be a little girl. How does that manifest itself in your everyday life?

KING:
It doesn't bear much relationship to my real life. And part of the reason why is because I have this very nice channel, this slough-scape where I'm able to get rid of a lot of the things that do worry me, a lot of the things that scare me, that ... that uh, upset me, by way of the stories. And I ... I've joked about it before, but the fact is that people pay me in a way to write these things that scare me, and I get rid of them, somebody else buys them, and gets a chance to park their emotions for awhile.

Let me give you an example. There's a story that's written, it's been accepted for publication by a magazine. It's called "A Very Tight Place." And we live part of the year down in Florida, and I have a walk that I go on every day, that's fairly isolated. Which is good, because people don't bother me or anything. I get a chance to read a little bit, to think a little bit. And one day while I was on that walk, I saw one of these Porta-Potties. You know what I mean? They stand up, and I thought you know what? There's nobody around ... the house that it belonged to was under construction, and the workers had all gone home for the day, and I still had a mile to go to get home, and I thought, you know what? I'm going to go in there and I'm going to take a leak. That'll be good. Why not? It's there. I'll get comfortable.

And I did. I went in, and the thing had been undercut, not a lot, just the tiniest little bit. So that when I stepped into the Porta-Pottie, I could feel this thing rock a little bit on its base. And I thought to myself, you know, if ... if one of those things fell over on its door, and a person was inside, that person would be in trouble. And immediately I'm thinking Poe, The Premature Burial, I'm thinking about all the buried alive stories that I've ever read, and I'm thinking, but I've never read a story about anyone trapped in a Porta-Pottie. And there are so many interesting things that you can do with people who are in tight places, people's feelings of claustrophobia are easy to bring out. I'm not a particularly claustrophobic person myself, but I thought, "Oh, my God, this is wonderful!" So then I go online ...

TAPPER:
"Wonderful." (Laughs)

KING:
Yeah, yeah, it's wonderful! Totally wonderful, when you just think about a whole panoply of the closeness of it, not being able to stretch out your arms, the purpose for those Porta-Potties ... it was just right there. And of course I'm smiling about it, and you're smiling about it, because humor and horror, they're like this! They're very, very close. There's a reason that those comedy and tragedy masks in the theater are usually seen side by side. I like to kid people and say, "It stops being funny when it starts being you." You know? So that a pie in the face may be a riot, until it actually happens.

TAPPER:
You mentioned going for a walk in Florida. You went on a walk eight years ago that ended up lasting longer than you thought it was going to. Tell me about that.

KING:
A guy hit me. I was walking along the side of the road, and he came up over the rise, and he had a couple of Rottweilers in the back of his little minivan and they were fighting over some meat that was in a cooler. And uh, he turned around to try and separate the dogs. Instead of pulling over, he was still driving. And he went off the road. I never had a chance to get out of his way. He came up over the rise and hit me going 40 miles an hour. And I went out like a light. When I came to, my lap was kind of on sideways, and there was this great big lump -- made me think of the character Louis in "Deliverance," you know, after the canoe tips over -- and I thought "Oh, boy, I'm in trouble here." That's it. I was pretty well banged up. I can remember asking he guy, who sat there with me and waited for the ambulance, if I was moving my toes, and he said, "I don't know, you've got your shoes on!" (Laughs)

TAPPER:
How long did it take you to recover?

KING:
I'm going to say probably three years. I'd say about three years all told. There was a lot of different surgeries, and a lot of uh, therapy. The new book, "Duma Key," deals with some of the issues of trying to recover, and trying to cope with the idea that if you left the house ten minutes earlier, or ten minutes later, it wouldn't have happened. And I'm really very fortunate, because my head collided with the guy's windshield, and I had a concussion, but no fracture. My spine was chipped in three places, right down to the cord, in one place. But luckily, you know, it's like Mohammed Ali used to say, "I'm still pretty."

TAPPER:
What happened to the driver?

KING:
He died. Died of a drug overdose a year later. Fentinol.

TAPPER:
On your birthday.

KING:
He did die on my birthday as a matter of fact. He hit me on June 19, 1999, and I believe he died September 21, 2000.

TAPPER:
It all sounds like something out of a Stephen King book. Right? The guy with the Rottweilers?

KING:
In some ways I suppose. But that's almost a compliment to say that I could think of something that odd and that bizarre. He was quite a character anyway.

TAPPER:
How did it affect you do you think? I know there was a time that you were talking about not writing anymore.

KING:
Well, what happened was there was a lot of pain, and there were a lot of drugs for pain. A lot of Oxycodone ... Oxycoton ... Percoset ... and I'm not saying that I would take any of that back, because the pain was intense. But you put it all together, and you don't seem to have the serene environment for writing. I've been very lucky.

Through most of that period I continued to write, but I was working on the "Dark Tower" books, and it was a tough slog toward the end. And I remember thinking, you know what? Maybe I've just sort of reached the end of this. But little by little, you start to turn a corner. I started to feel better physically. I was able to kick the drugs. And it's no joke! You know, the narcotics, the Oxycoton.

You do kick like a junkie, kicking heroin. You know, you tremble, you shake,, you have a physical reaction, you have insomnia, all those things. And uh, then two years after that I had pneumonia, because I had a collapsed lung from the accident, and they reinflamed it, the bottom of it. This is a Stephen King story, okay? The bottom of it never reinflated, so it's down there, and little by little, it's getting infected, and there's no sensation down there at all. So I didn't know.

And I wound up with pneumonia, and that almost killed me. because I caught one of those hospital infections. And so I was about three months with a bug, and whew! By the end of it I weighed like 160 pounds, and I was kind of a skeleton on feet. And not able to walk right, and not able to breathe right. And when you get to a point like that, sometimes you say, "You know what? Maybe it's time to hang it up." But I did start to feel better.

TAPPER:
And then you started writing again.

KING:
And I started to write again. And I started to like what I was doing too. Which was good.

TAPPER:
You're a man who has written about death so often. How did coming so close personally to death affect you?

KING:
Well, I just took it a day at a time. And what I tried to cope with was the ... the pain, and the ... the discomfort. I don't recall after being hit by the side of the road, I don't recall ever asking anybody am I going to die? I can remember asking people if I would be able to walk again . I could remember asking people if the pain was going to continue at the level that I felt.

And I ... I can't remember asking if I was going to die. And in some ways, once pain reaches a certain level you think, "Well, if I die, you know, this is going to go away. This is going to be better." I can't remember whether that actual thought ever crossed my mind or not. I do remember after I got the pneumonia, which was very bad, having trouble breathing, and thinking this could be it. But there was no real sense of fear or a sense of "Oh, I still have so much to do." It was just a situation that I was in.

TAPPER:
Speaking of your writing career ending, it almost might not have begun. Your big break as a writer was "Carrie." But that almost didn't happen.

KING:
I threw it out. What I was focused on at the time when I was writing "Carrie" was short stories that would sell to the men's magazines. A lot of them were horror stories, there were a couple of them that were mystery stories. But there was a pretty stringent word length. You could get away with 3,000 words. The only time that I got away with 5,000 words was once. Um, so I tossed this away, because it clearly was going to have to be a longer story.

And it was a tough story, and it was about girls, and it was about girls' locker rooms, and it was about menstruation. A lot of things that I didn't know anything about.

I got to a point where these girls are in this locker room, and they're chucking tampons at Carrie White and I had heard somebody tell me in high school that some girl got her period, and didn't know what it was, because her parents were super-religious, and they'd never told her any of the facts of life.

She thought she was bleeding to death. And I thought, "Oh, my God, this could be a good story." Particularly you know, if you give her a wild power and let her get back at the girls. So I get her in the locker room, and these girls are chucking these tampons at her, and I'm going like "Now wait a minute! Isn't this like coin op? Don't you have to put in a quarter or something to get a tampon?" I didn't know. How would I know? For goodness sakes. So I asked my wife, and she just laughed, and she said, "They're free, Steve!" And I'm like "I don't know if they're free, I don't know anything!"

TAPPER:
That's why you'd thrown it out?

KING:
I threw it out because that was the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg was a lot bigger. It was women! It was girls! Women are bad enough! Girls are even more mysterious.

And so I tossed it away, and my wife fished it out of the waste basket. (Laughs) She uncrumpled the pages, about 15 or 20 single spaced pages, and she read it, and she said "You oughta go on with this, this is good." And I said, "I don't know anything ... " I'd only been in a girl's locker room once in my life, and that was when my brother David got me a job janitoring with him, one summer at Brunswick high school where he went. So she said, "I'll help you."

TAPPER:
God, Stephen, what if it had been thrown out? I mean what if it hadn't survived? (Laughs) That was your break! And the timing was impeccable, because that was the time that all these other horror novels were breaking through!

KING:
Yeah, there was "Rosemary's Baby." That was the big one at that time. And there was Tom Tryon's book, "The Other," which really wasn't a supernatural book.

TAPPER:
That novel launched you. And then it also came at the same time as the big cinematic horror explosion of "The Omen" and "The Exorcist."

KING:
Mm-hm. "The Exorcist" ... that's true.

TAPPER:
What would you be doing right now if you hadn't saved that manuscript?

KING:
Well, I'd be doing what I'm doing. But if things had fallen differently, it might have taken longer. I might not have had success at the same absurd level that I've had. Things might be a lot different. There wouldn't be the fans down there, or whatever it is they are! But, yeah, things would probably be different. But on the other hand, we could point to your life, and say, there are places where if you'd turned left instead of right, you know, you might be working in a bowling factory now in Washington! Or you might be married to a different woman. Or you might not be married at all.

Or you might have been in the World Trade Center. My goodness! I was there for a Bat Mitzvah, not a long time before that. Came down in an elevator with Kareem Abdul Jabar, and I turned to him and said, "These are the slowest elevators in the world!" And he said, "Man, I hope nothing ever happens up here." So different day, different time. Nobody knows. It's a crap shoot. But here's the thing. If things had gone a different way, I would never know about this life would I?

TAPPER:
What film of yours do you think has been the best adaptation?

KING:
Oh, I think "Shawshank Redemption" and "Stand By Me" are the two best ones probably. And uh, they're also the ones that people seem to love. They're almost like R-rated Hallmark cards in a way, where people go to them, and they come out feeling good. Uh, I loved "The Mist" because it's just an all out balls-to-the-wall horror film. And at the same time, it's a horror film that was made by a grown up. You know, Frank Darabont, who cares about people before he cares about the monsters.

TAPPER:
And he also directed a couple of the other films --

KING:
Yeah, he did. He did "Shawshank" actually. Frank is extremely good, and he's brought a real good sensibility. He and I kind of harmonize in terms of the way that we look at the world. And for that reason he's had more success adapting some of these things. But "Misery" is a good picture. Rob Reiner directed that one. "Cujo" is a terrific picture. You know, that one often gets overlooked.

If I have a resentment, it's that Dee Wallace Schneider never got nominated for an Academy Award. She did a terrific job as the woman who gets stuck out there with the rabid dog who's menacing them. "Carrie" is a good movie. It hasn't aged as well as some of the other ones. But it's still pretty good. I've been fortunate on the whole. And even some of the other movies have provided entertainment value. And I've done my own share of movies that I've written that haven't been terribly successful, like "Silver Bullet." But I'm always interested to see what's going to happen.

TAPPER:
Yes, it's a very faithful adaptation of the novella. "The Mist." Though the ending of the novella is ambiguous. The ending of the movie...you don't walk out of that movie feeling good, let's just put it that way so as not to spoil it. How did you feel about that ending being added?

KING:
I thought it was terrific. It jarred me. I knew what was coming the first time that I looked at the movie, in a rough cut, and it still jarred me. It took a second viewing to get used to the idea that it was probably the only ending in terms of the world that had been created in that story. The way that it came about was that Frank had wanted to do "The Mist" for years and years and years, and he and I had talked again and again about putting an actual ending on the movie, because the ending of the novella is ambiguous.

And the thing that really haunted me was that my mother loved a good story, and she had nothing but contempt for what she called "Alfred Hitchcock endings." And what she meant by an Alfred Hitchcock ending was one where you were more or less left to decide yourself what was going to happen.

TAPPER:
Although in the novella, in "The Mist," the protagonist mocks stories that have endings.

KING:
That's right. And in real life endings aren't always neat, whether they're happy endings, or whether they're sad endings.

TAPPER:
This one's bleak.

KING:
What I liked about the ending of this was that it's the sort of ending that's very rarely allowed in pictures that are financed by Hollywood. Usually you have an ending in a movie that is kind of almost preordained. And in other words, and I'm not trying to say what the ending is to this movie. And your characterization of it is bleak. Well, that's your characterization of it. Mine might be a little bit different.

TAPPER:
How would you characterize it?

KING:
I'm not going to characterize it. That's not my job. My is to write stories, not to critique. I'll just say that the thing that I like about it is, back when I was a kid, sometimes you'd see a newspaper ad that would say, "You must not give away the final five minutes of this shocking movie!" And usually it wasn't that shocking. But this one really is. And I like that because part of the job that the writer of horror has, the writer of comedy ... is to be almost physically assaultive. And as a writer, one of the things that I've always been interested in doing is actually invading your comfort space. Because that's what we're supposed to do. Get under your skin, and make you react. This does.

TAPPER:
You're not a fan of the adaptation of "The Shining." Why not?

KING:
Cold. Cold. One of the things about what I do is I'm always more interested in the people than I am in the monsters. And I'm interested to see how people react under conditions of extreme stress. In my stories, the most important thing is that you see genuine human feeling in the characters in the books, and I want you to care. Whether it's the writer who's chained to the bed in "Misery," whether it's the woman with her son trapped in the car in "Cujo," or whether it's David Drayton and his little on in the market in "The Mist." I want you to care about those people, and I want you to like those people.

And it isn't even a little bit disingenuous of me to want those thing, and it isn't manipulative, because I like people! I want to like people, and I believe most people are good. And unless you have that, that ... those positive bright feelings, you're not afraid for those people. The problem with James Patterson books is the people who die are just pieces taken off the board. They may bleed, but they're straw dummies. They don't really exist.

The problem with a lot of the so called splat-pack films, is that the victims are so much baloney to be sliced, that's it. There's nothing there. And that walks up to a line that's very close to what they call "torture porn," sadism, that sort of thing. But if I can make you feel for my characters, and if you worry that something will happen to them, instead of rooting for something to happen to them, for their head to be blown off, or for Freddy to get them with his nails, then I got something going. In the case of "The Shining," Kubrick seemed to be in charge of an ant farm. He had turned his people into ants and saying, "Well, what happens if they do this? What happens if they do that?" I didn't care for that.

TAPPER:
In "The Mist" it's a toss up who's worse, the monsters or some of the people. Who are the bad guys in Stephen King books?

KING:
They're always the fears that are inside the people. The bad guy are ruled by their fears, instead of ruling their fears themselves. When fear takes over with people, they do bad things. That's true for Jack Torrence, and it's true for Mrs. Carmody and the people who get on her side in "The Mist."

TAPPER:
Let's talk about your childhood for a bit. I had heard that, or had read, that as a child you came across a dead body on train tracks.

KING:
That's not true.

TAPPER:
That's not true?

KING:
At least I don't think it's true.

TAPPER:
You don't remember it.

KING:
My wife said that I ... I mean my mother said ... there's a Freudian slip right there! (LAUGHTER) My mother said I came home and that I was pale. And that uh, there was a child who was run over by a train on the tracks. She wasn't even sure it was the same day. But what she said, that I never forgot, was she said "They picked up the pieces in a basket." And that stuck in my mind. I was probably three or four.

She loved scary stuff herself. And I can remember one time we were sitting on the porch, my brother Dave and I -- David's two years older -- and I said, I think it was me, I said "Mom, Have you ever seen a dead person?" And she told us two stories

She said that she was there when a sailor jumped off the top of the Graymore Hotel in Portland. 12 stories high. She said, "He hit the sidewalk and splattered." And I never forgot that either. Who would?

My mother grew up in Scarboro, Maine. It's a beautiful seaside town. And she said that she was down at the beach, and there were all these people there, and boats were trying to go out ... a woman had swum out, and the undertow had taken her ... no, not the undertow, the rip had taken her out. And the rip was so strong that day, that the boats that they had couldn't get past it. And she said, people stood on the beach and listened to that woman scream for hours, before she finally drowned. I actually put something like that in the new book. Duma Key. But things like that stick with you.

TAPPER:
I would think!

KING:
But on the other hand, before anybody goes writing letters saying, "Oh, Stephen King is that way because he had a terrible mother" ... uh, Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk and a lot of those stories that children use to get were no powder puffs either. They weren't exactly Sponge Bob Square Pants.

TAPPER:
Right. Monsters, ogres, things trying to eat the kids. There are a lot of fathers in your stories. Do you think the absence of your father has anything to do with that?

KING:
I thought about that a lot of times. I do. I do actually. Um, there are a lot of fathers in my ... in my stories, and uh, there are some that are abusive, but that's totally made up. Because I didn't have a father to be abusive. He was just an absence. What a lot of them are are fathers that try to be loving and supportive, which is like what I had always hoped that I would be myself, as a dad. Or maybe what I missed as a kid. But as I say, you don't miss what's not there.

My brother and I had a wonderful mother who had a gigantic sense of humor, which was good. Because she had a hard life. She worked a lot of manual labor jobs, bakeries, laundries, chambermaid, that kind of thing. And she did it, she did it with class. And uh, so that was the parenting ideal that I had.

TAPPER:
Did you ever find out what happened to your dad? Did you ever track him down?

KING:
No. And you know it's odd, about never having tracked down my dad, because you would think that if he had family, or something, he uh, somebody in the family would have seen the resemblance, or picked up on the name, or something, and gotten in touch. But that's never happened.

I do remember back in the '60s ... maybe even 1960 ... '60, '61, coming in one night, to the living room, and my mother sitting there in front of the Huntley Brinkley Report. Remember the Huntley Brinkley Report? Painless death. She said, "I saw your father." And I'm like "What? What do you mean you saw my father?" She said, "I'm pretty ... " Then she backtracked a little bit, and she said, "I think I saw your father." They had had a story about the fighting in the Congo, and about the white mercenary soldiers who were there, and she thought one of them was my dad. Could have been. He was in the Merchant Marine, so he had some familiarity with the services.

TAPPER:
In 2003 you were awarded the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. There was a little controversy about you getting it, having to do with popular fiction versus "literature." Did it bother you? That people said, "Don't give the award to Stephen King?"

KING:
Yeah, it bothers me a little bit. For one thing, I thought it was absurd for them to say, "Don't give this award to Stephen King." It wasn't as though they were giving me a National Book Award for a novel that I wrote. They were giving me a National Book Award in a way that I suppose they give a girl who's not going to be Miss America, the Miss Congeniality Award.

TAPPER:
Oh, it's a much bigger deal than that!

STEPHEN KING Well, it was. But I'm just trying to make some sort of a comparison. But the other thing that disturbs me a lot is the idea -- it's been around since Dickens, but it's never been more clear than it is today -- that there's an unstated prejudice about readers, general readers. And this exists in America, and it doesn't exist in any other country in the world. And that is the unstated idea, postulate, that if it's popular, it can't be good because the reading taste of the American public is idiotic. And it's not true! It's never been true! Quality fiction does not have to be inaccessible to the everyday reader.

Is there a lot of popular fiction out there that's not very good? Yes. There is, there always has been. But there are also any number of writers who are doing absolutely marvelous work, who are also popular writers. One example is Elmore Leonard, and another example is John Irving. They're people who are popular, and they're also people who are extremely good. And it disturb me. And it bothers me, the disconnect bothers me. If I read a list of National Book Award Best Novel of the Year finalists, I say to myself, "My goodness, I read just about everything, and I don't know any of these books!" Because they're obscure, and they're things that in the ordinary course of things would never even hear of. They haven't been advertised. The writers can't get on the talk shows. And the publishers, a lot of times, don't try very hard, because it's sort of assumed that these are almost vanity publications that will sell 5,000 copies.

There's an innate selfishness in the idea for the intelligentsia, where they say, "We're not even going to try to bring good literature to the majority of the American reading public, because it's useless. They're so stupid, it's useless." That kind of elitism drove me totally insane as a younger man. And I'm better now, but there's still a fair amount of resentment toward that.

TAPPER:
How good a writer are you?

KING:
I have no idea. It's not for me to say. And nobody's ever really going to know ... I've heard people say "Oh, God, Stephen King! He writes like Dickens!" Well, bulls**t. Nobody writes like Dickens. Nobody ever did, and nobody ever well. I've been extremely popular. I think given the basis of the longevity of some novels of fantasy, like Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that some of the books may outlive me.

If I had to guess, I'd say that I'll be sort of the Somerset Maughm of Horror. At the time of his greatest popularity, he was very popular and there had been dozens and dozens of movies made from his books. But now nobody really knows who he is. There are a few people who might remember "The Razor's Edge" or "Moon and Sixpence," but not very many. And I would suggest, I would suspect, that after I die or retire, that I'll turn the page and somebody else will come along. And that doesn't concern me. What concerns me, what has to concern me, is that every time I sit down, I do the best job that I can. Because that's all that's in my control.

TAPPER:
What will your epitaph read?

KING:
I hope it will say, "Loving husband and father."