I’m sorry,” Stephen King says, “I went off on you there.” It’s not every day you get one of our greatest living novelists, a bestselling master of horror and suspense, ranting in your ear and then apologising for doing so. But there’s no need for alarm. The literary-horror maestro behind such classics as The Shawshank Redemption, Carrie, The Shining, Salem’s Lot and countless other book-to-screen adaptations is coming from a place of enthusiasm. Although that, to be fair, is before we broach the subject of Donald Trump.
“I get excited,” says this relentlessly creative author and grown-up fanboy who shows no sign of slowing down, even at the age of 68.
The reason for the rant? King had embarked on an answer as proportionately lengthy as the latest of his books to be adapted for TV, the 849-page time-travel thriller 11.22.63. Although the question is a simple one – does the broad canvas offered by the new TV drama landscape suit his writing better than cinema?
“Yes, absolutely,” comes the firm reply from a man with staunch views on his stories’ various transfers to the screen. Famously he hates Stanley Kubrick’s cult 1980 adaptation of The Shining. Similarly, possessing power of veto over the fate of 11.22.63 – his 2011 bestseller about a high-school teacher who goes back in time to try to prevent the assassination of JFK – King opted not to pursue the vision of Oscar winning director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) for a film interpretation.
Instead he partnered with streaming service Hulu and JJ Abrams – King loved his desert island plane-crash series Lost – to make a nine-hour “event” TV drama. James Franco plays the hero, a young high-school English teacher (as King once was) charged with changing the course of history.
“The thing about the new TV…” King continues, before his patently voracious viewing habits cause him to turn sharp left. “Of course, I’ve seen a lot of Brit TV that I love. ’Cause the British have been doing this for a long time. You understood it before we did it. Broadchurch is a good example, where you have that novelistic experience – where you get involved with the characters, where they have real texture.
“But if you take a movie like – and it’s a good movie – that one that was done last year about the Kray twins – Legend, that’s it,” he says. “The film feels to me like a short story. Whereas even something that is not technically as good – I’m thinking about that show Peaky Blinders, with Something Murphy,” he rattles on, meaning Cillian Murphy, “it has a novelistic feel because it’s longer, there’s more background.”
King is a breathless interviewee, a tireless writer, and a dauntless man. Seventeen years ago, while out walking near his home, he was almost killed by a van. The driver broke “everything down the right side of my body and he fractured my skull and he left me with two years of rehab and an OxyContin habit that I had to kick”.
But kick it he did, just as he’d previously kicked addictions to alcohol and cocaine. But there is one lifelong habit that he has no interest in weaning himself from. King still writes every day. After breakfast and a three-and-a-half mile walk, he’s at his desk by 8.15am, entirely focused on a four-hour commitment to write between 1,200 and 1,500 words, or “six pages of hard copy.”
But say one morning a rabid dog traps him in the porch, or an angry adolescent girl with strange powers caves the roof in, or a murderous clown has other plans – what happens that morning when Stephen King can’t write?
“Well,” he laughs, “I’m between [writing projects] now. I’m collaborating on a book with my son Owen,” he says of the younger of his sons (the other, who uses the pen name Joe Hill, is also an author; King and his wife of 45 years, Tabitha, another writer, also have a daughter, Naomi, a church minister). “The book goes back and forth. We’re almost done with it, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do next.
“But it’s like, OK, doing interviews isn’t my favourite thing. But I had a bunch of foreign interviews to do today, and it was something that would fill up an hour where I could actually engage my brain.
“When I’m not working, I’m like a ghost in my own house,” he continues. “My wife says, ‘Get outta here! Go do something!’ ’Cause I don’t really know what to do with myself.”
The Kings’ main home (they have another in Florida) is located in one of the poorest counties in Maine, the northeastern US state where he’s set many of his stories. Despite the fabulous success and wealth, King prides himself on maintaining a common touch. Given those circumstances, does he understand the appeal of Donald Trump to the average American?
“Yeah, I understand it, but I don’t go along with it,” states this committed Democrat. “There are a lot of people that are p***ed off with the system here. It’s kinda like everything’s come to a stop. And the American people feel that the body politic needs a strong laxative, and they see Donald Trump as that laxative – something to get things moving again.
“Unfortunately,” he adds, a grim note in his voice, “the sort of things that he says he’s going to do appeal to the worst in the American psyche. The idea that we’re not going to allow any of those nasty immigrants into the country, and we’re going to build a wall between the United States and Mexico – which is ridiculous!” he exclaims. “I mean, how well did that work for the Communists in Berlin? Not so good, right?”
Still, this writer with his finger on the pulse of blue-collar America can offer the cultured Britain of Broadchurch and Peaky Blinders some reassurance. “Believe me, man, most Americans think he’s awful and he’s not going to be elected president.”
Nonetheless, can he imagine writing a political horror novel about a ludicrous but scary figure – a property magnate, say, turned reality TV star – who becomes the leader of the free world?
“Oh, I already did that book! It’s called The Dead Zone,” he says of his 1979 pageturner, later filmed by David Cronenberg, about a secretly psychopathic politician who seems destined for the White House (only a young teacher-turned-clairvoyant can stop him). “No,” he concludes with an audible shrug, “guys like Trump come along in politics. I mean, it isn’t just us – you guys had Oswald Mosley back in the day!”
Of course, the leader of the fascist Blackshirts never got close to the levers of British power in the pre-war years. But just imagine he did… Sounds like a great premise for a time-travel thriller. BBC2, over to you.
11.23.63 is on Sunday at 9pm on Fox