Author Stephen King at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in December 2012

Novelist Stephen King at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in December 2012.

By Michael Ollove

I couldn’t bring myself to speak to Stephen King. That Stephen King. The Titan of Terror. The Behemoth of the Bestseller List.  Maine’s Master of the Macabre.  I had him in my sights, and I let him get away. Over and over again.

I was a Baltimore Sun reporter at the time, assigned to write about whether King’s creations qualify as literature or merely pulp.  That was a debate brewing at the time. That I couldn’t summon the gumption to talk to the man I was writing about is something that has tortured me for decades. How, I’ve asked myself countless times, could a newspaper reporter,  a very experienced reporter at that juncture, just wilt like a parched orchid?

During more than four decades as a journalist, I interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people, many in the midst of experiences as painful as any faced by human beings. I interviewed the parents of murdered children. I interviewed devoted parents of a murderer. I interviewed people who had been involuntarily sterilized by the state of Virginia when they were youngsters. I interviewed the mother and friends of a rugby champion believed to have been among those who stormed the cockpit of Flight 93 on 9/11. I interviewed a pain-wracked, cancer-ravished octogenarian begging for the right to accelerate her death. I interviewed a Black veteran who had been sentenced to be hanged during the Korean War by a U.S. Army suffused with racism.

When someone asked me what my specialty was in journalism, the best answer I could devise was that I wrote about people facing the worst moments of their lives.

It often surprised me that any of these people were willing to talk, to allow me to trespass into territory that for them represented unalloyed anguish. Here comes this complete stranger asking them to unpack that agony in excruciating detail. More than that, they were also granting that stranger liberty to reconstitute their stories for tens of thousands of other strangers.

Often I girded myself for the figurative slap in the face…

Often I girded myself for the figurative slap in the face that part of me felt I deserved just for making such a request. I was surprised that it never came.

I should make clear that this ambivalence didn’t surface in much of my reporting. Certainly not when dealing with public officials or those suspected of wrongdoing or those with information about such things. The former know that journalistic inquiry comes with the territory. As for the latter, it’s self-evident that the public has a right to expect accountability and look to reporters to help supply it.

Those situations are different from the experiences of private citizens who have no obligation to satisfy the curiosity of the public, no matter how much illumination, wisdom or consolation they could supply.

I recognize that people spoke to me for different reasons. Some seemed to find catharsis in being able to voice their suffering. Perhaps they felt a duty to fix a lasting, truthful impression of a lost loved one. Others told me they felt a responsibility to have their experiences serve as a cautionary example or to demonstrate to others in pain that they were not alone.

In my early years on the job, I would raise these reasons to convince reluctant subjects to speak to me. Sometime around mid-career, I stopped trying to lobby them. It’s not that I didn’t believe they could profit from speaking to me, but I came to believe it was disingenuous of me, who did stand to benefit, to lure them into revealing themselves. I could explain to them why I wanted to do the story, but once I did, I felt it was only fair to leave the decision to them, without any persuasion. Besides, I knew, from experience, that it was next to impossible to fully prepare them for what it would be like to see their stories plastered on the front page of a newspaper — and for what might follow.

To be sure, some regretted speaking. That Korean war veteran, for example, was devastated to see the headline atop my story, which I didn’t write, but, to be honest, failed to catch: “A Soldier’s Disgrace.” An enormously open-hearted woman in Havre de Grace, Maryland, who invited a homeless man to live with her during the last weeks of his life, was heartbroken to read in my lengthy account of her remarkable generosity my clumsy description of one of her dogs as “mangy.” The son of the inventor of the Dalkon Shield, the infamous 1970s-era intrauterine birth control device that harmed hundreds of women, hated my story portraying how his father’s obsession both ruined the father’s reputation and family’s well-being. It was that son, a brilliant man in his own right, who, through hours of interviews over weeks, had provided me with much of the material that enabled me to write the story. Understandably, he was not prepared for what it felt like to see his family’s dysfunction spread across newspaper pages.

And I remember Peter Angelos, a feisty plaintiff’s attorney who later bought the Baltimore Orioles, turning his back on me on a downtown street corner because of a single word in a lengthy story and sidebar that had run on the front page and two inside pages the previous Sunday.

A single word.

The main story was about how asbestos and the fatal illnesses it had spawned had ravaged a neighborhood filled with steelworkers from nearby Bethlehem Steel. Angelos had successfully represented many of those workers in civil lawsuits and had talked to me at length for the story. In the sidebar about Angelos and the legal case, I mentioned that he had run for mayor in 1964. He won less than 10% of the vote, so I felt it fair to characterize him as a “failed mayoral candidate.”  Despite the sympathy with which the stories treated Angelo’s clients and the portrayal of him as a tenacious champion for their cause, in all that verbiage, Angelos saw only one word: “failed.”

…no matter how well you believe you are capturing someone else’s story, you are not telling it the way they would.

All of this taught me that no matter how well you believe you are capturing someone else’s story, you are not telling it the way they would. The blunt reality is that it’s not even their story: It’s yours. Which is why, as the years went by and I continued to do these long-form explorations, I stopped trying to convince people to speak to me. What was good for me was not necessarily good for them, and I didn’t want to pretend otherwise. When given the choice, if they didn’t want to grant me access to their innermost thoughts, that struck me as a decision I could respect.

Refusing to accept “no interviews”

All of this was swirling around my brain when the idea for a story about Stephen King came to me.

By the mid-1990s, King had established himself as the party guest who would not leave the bestseller lists he had first crashed with his1974 novel, “Carrie.” So popular had he become that numerous colleges and universities were offering courses on his works. When the National Book Foundation in 1996 awarded him its annual award for “distinguished work,” it kicked off a heated debate in academic circles: Did King deserve to be included in the literary canon, a list populated by such writers as Shakespeare, Joyce and Hemingway? (And, as many rightfully chide, mostly dead, white men.)

The thought of King rubbing shoulders with such august figures struck some as deeply offensive, none more notable than the formidable critic Harold Bloom, who characterized the award to King as “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life.”

I knew a fun story when I saw it.

As it happened, King’s alma mater, the University of Maine in Orono, just a few miles north of his Victorian house in Bangor (my own hometown, BTW) was about to host a weekend conference on this very subject. It had tapped as its opening night keynote speaker none other than the subject of the conference itself. (If that combination of facts suggests where the conference would come down on the question of whether King belonged, you’re onto something.)

I resolved to fly up for the conference, but first I called King’s office in Bangor to arrange an interview. That’s when his assistant told me in no uncertain terms that Mr. King had elected not to give any interviews around this event and topic. None. Zip.

Fine. Fair enough. His decision.

I flew up anyway.

Missed opportunity No. 1

The kick-off event that Friday evening was a dinner in a hall not far from the auditorium where King would speak. I was led to a seat at one of about 20 circular tables that were quickly filling up. There was a stir soon after I sat down, and I looked up to see a smiling King in a black Harley-Davidson t-shirt greeting attendees like a president at the State of the Union as he was escorted to his table.

That table turned out to be adjacent to mine. We were practically back- to-back.

Thus, my dilemma. Sure, I’d been told King didn’t want to give interviews, but he was right there, a few feet away. Maybe, faced with a flesh-and-blood reporter, he’d relent.  But then, I had received a firm denial. Did I have any reason not to honor that? Then again, his very presence a taunting and tempting specter. Then, and then again.

I wrestled with myself all through the roast chicken, trying to will myself to my feet, and imagining myself interrupting King mid-bite to pepper him with questions about what made him think he should walk alongside such luminaries as Toni Morrison and John Updike. Caught up in this internal crisis, I glanced back toward my quarry and there saw…an empty chair. Gone. Vamoose.

I’d missed my chance.

I cursed myself for my indecision, absorbing the lessons of He Who Hesitates. There was nothing to do but mope my way to the auditorium to join others in anticipation of King’s speech. A faculty member gave a fulsome introduction and King commenced to give a most entertaining speech.

While not directly addressing whether he belonged in the literary canon, King made a strong case that his novels and short stories aspired to do more than deliver terror. He said he also layered his writing with symbolism, metaphor, literary references, allegory and broad cultural and sociological themes — exactly the ingredients that elevate popular works of fiction into something grander and more lasting. Those elements, King insisted, kept his books from being disposable, or as he said, “”the mental equivalent of a stick of gum.”

For me, it was a great speech as it addressed the subject I was writing about. Still, as King spoke, I replayed the same internal debate as before. Should I try to nab him after the speech?

As everyone headed for the exits, I stood watching as King left the stage. My legs were frozen. Another opportunity lost.

As prone to self-loathing as the next guy — or at least the next writer — I berated myself as I filed out of the auditorium into the autumn night with an otherwise contented crowd. Then,  in rounding the corner of the building, I spied striding toward me three figures. The rather large, bespectacled one in the middle was, of course, the evening’s star attraction.

What? Now? I’m supposed to dragoon him out here??

I slowed my steps, searching for the right words that would unlock my paralysis. They wouldn’t come. The three brushed past me without a glance and vanished into the cool night.

I’d let my last chance slip away. King’s role at the conference was over. He was in the wind. I drove my rented car to my hotel and the mirror reflecting the face of a loser that I knew would be awaiting me.

Missed opportunity No. 2

The next day, I attended the rest of the conference. I spoke with other attendees and conference speakers. With that material, along with King’s speech and interviews I had already logged with Bloom and other scholars and critics, I felt I had enough for my story. The conference ended late that Saturday afternoon, but with my flight home the next morning, I had time to kill. I headed to the movies, which in Bangor meant a multiplex — the multiplex. I bought my ticket for the film, “2 Days in the Valley,” notable as one of Charlize Theron’s first movie roles.

At the concession stand, I ordered popcorn. That’s when I heard a  familiar, Maine-accented voice doing the same just a few steps away.

Any guesses who it was?

Are you kidding me? I thought. He’s actually torturing me now, like some apparition in “The Shining.” I’m supposed to interview him here in the popcorn line? Forget it.

I stomped down the corridor, passing every other theater until I reached the last one, where my movie was showing. Shoulders slumped, I entered a nearly empty theater, made my way to a middle seat about halfway back from the screen, where I stewed some more.

But for only a minute. Pretty soon I heard the rustle of a group of people entering and making their way down the aisle. Though there were empty seats everywhere, they stopped in the row in front of me and began sidling in.

I don’t have to tell you who was among them, do I?

He took the seat directly — directly! — in front of me. For the next 90 minutes, I had to crane around his silhouette to watch the movie. More often, I simply stared into the back of his head, trying to think of what I could possibly say at the end of this film that would make it acceptable to ask for an interview.

I couldn’t find those words, and when Charlize and company were done, so was I. Back to the hotel, up early for my flight home, full of treasure in my notebook and self-loathing in my heart.

Not a vulnerable story subject

All these years later, I remain perplexed about my paralysis up there in Orono, which never had happened to me before or since. For the longest time, I regarded my failure as journalistic malpractice. What prevented me from approaching King?

I’m not shy. I don’t think it was that I was in awe of him. I’ve interviewed plenty of celebrities. I also don’t think I was afraid of being embarrassed by the prospect of him turning me down. Journalists whiff nearly as often as baseball players at bat when it comes to landing interviews. Rejection comes with the territory. I certainly wasn’t worried that my questions about his place in the literary canon would cause him pain. If we know anything about Stephen King after all these years, it’s that he is not a particularly fragile specimen, either in his books or his ego.

What the hell was going on with me?

I’ve thought about this, literally, for decades. Lately, I’ve come to be more forgiving of myself.

I embarked on the King piece as a break from the heavy, emotionally fraught stories I described earlier, which had sparked in me a kind of existential conflict about how to present myself to the people whose accounts I needed in order to do this work. It’s a conflict that I’m guessing is not uncommon but rarely acknowledged in my profession. On one side was my obligations as a journalist to get the story. On the other was a deference that I could never fully suppress for the prerogative I believed everyone has to decide what, if anything, they’re willing to reveal of what goes on between their ears.

Who, in other words, gets to tell their stories?

Who, in other words, gets to tell their stories?

Over the years, I’d come to believe that journalists have no more right to the contents of someone else’s head or heart than anyone else, If someone says they don’t want to talk to me, that strikes me as their privilege — as a preference to be honored rather than chipped away against.

I have watched reporters pester private figures and law-abiding citizens for interviews and wear away their resistance with repeated entreaties. And I’ve seen how triumphant those reporters feel when their persistence pays off. They got the story they were after. They fulfilled their journalistic mission. I hope it was worth it for them.

Me? I largely stopped doing that, even if letting it go could prove fatal to the potential story.

But with King, I made a mistake. I conflated private citizens in pain with a public figure — King — who was quite capable of telling a reporter that No Means No and not inflicting on himself the slightest bit of psychic harm. I had put King in one bucket when he belonged in another one marked Fair Game.

Recovery, score and … shrug

Some realization about all of this must have occurred to me back then because as soon as I got back into the newsroom that Monday morning, I sat down and wrote a letter to King. Letters, I found, often proved more successful than cold calls, affording a better opportunity to articulate the story I was after and why I was requesting an interview.

But the King letter wasn’t so much that. It was more an epistolary comedy sketch in which I laid out to him the opportunities I, a fellow Bangorian (I shamelessly pointed out), had passed up to try to corral him out of respect for his wishes. This despite his repeated provocations of planting himself directly in front of me.

I began the letter “You mock me, sir” and ended with “In light of my remarkable sensitivity to your privacy, how about a few minutes of your time for an interview over the telephone?”

I FAXED the letter to his office.

Minutes later, the phone on my desk rang. “What did you think of the movie?” a voice at the other end asked.

Let me say that King couldn’t have been friendlier or more gracious in what I remember was a 10-minute-or-so interview. And yes, he did like the movie. And he answered all my questions about whether he regarded his fiction as literature.

But here’s the thing: Nothing he said in our conversation added to what he has said in his superb speech that night. In fact, the interview wasn’t as good as the speech.

I didn’t use any of it in the story.

* * *

Michael Ollove was a long-time journalist at The Baltimore Sun as a reporter and then as the paper’s narrative editor. He worked earlier at the Roanoke (Va.) Times & World-News and the Miami Herald and later at the Pew Charitable Trusts news website, Stateliine. He also has been a freelance podcast editor, including on Audible’s popular nonfiction serial, “West Cork.”

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