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Rocky Wood interview

by David Carroll, April 2009

Rocky Wood is one of the hardest working of that dedicated band of Stephen King scholars. His previous works include The Complete Guide to the Works of Stephen King, an exhaustive reference tool on CD-ROM, and Stephen King: Uncollected, Unpublished. Now he has had released (with co-author Justin Brooks) his latest book, Stephen King: The Non-Fiction. I caught up with him to talk about the book, exploring Maine, and working in the horror genre in Australia.

Rocky Wood photograph

Tabula Rasa: Most casual fans will probably know Stephen King's non-fiction work from Danse Macabre, plus some baseball writing and pop culture reviews. What do you think are the main surprises for those people in Stephen King: The Non-Fiction.

Rocky Wood: I really don't think most casual fans will have any idea that King has written over 600 pieces on Non-Fiction, nor the range of his interests – the movies, music, censorship, politics and so on. Most won't know much, if anything, about his lengthy series of very interesting columns written while he was at university. They probably will be surprised by the sheer power of most of this writing (I know they think he is a great novelist, and a master of the short story, but that doesn't necessarily make one a good writer of factual material). They may also be surprised to learn he has been published and been paid to write non-fiction since his early teenage years.

I wrote at the end of Stephen King: The Non-Fiction, that one of the great themes of his canon is morality: 'Throughout his career King has proven been a truly moral writer – exposing issues of good and evil (the White vs. the Red, if you will); faith; cowardice and bravery; and the ills of child-abuse, spousal abuse, racism and intolerance in all forms. Stephen King's non-fiction, as do his stories and characters, simply ask of the Constant Reader that we each take a stand.' That may also surprise some, but really shouldn't.

TR: What surprised you when researching the book?

RW: Well, we all know King is very prolific but I was also surprised by the sheer amount of non-fiction he's written. I was not totally surprised that Justin and I discovered many the King community was unaware of – but I was delighted that we uncovered more than 40, some of real significance to King research. One shows a young King with traditional New England Republican views, before he became radicalised by the Vietnam War campus experience. Another is an important contribution to his rebuttal of the unsophisticated but potentially damaging argument that his books are somehow racist. And to dig up two of the basketball stories he mentions in On Writing and then provide them to him after 40 years was a real emotional buzz.

It is interesting when you read the totality of his non-fiction on a subject – politics, censorship, films, books, baseball – how consistent he can sometimes be over the decades; yet sometimes to find him contradicting himself (of course, we all change our opinions over time, but few of us have a public record ...)

TR: And what do you think is most deserving of being seen by a wider audience?

RW: That's a very interesting question. It is King's right as the author to decide what should be republished or more widely circulated, but there are quite a number of pieces in Stephen King: The Non-Fiction which we indicate could do with wider circulation. And for different reasons – some of them are revelatory of his work, others are opinions that are of great value (for instance his lengthy arguments against censorship, which I have been totally opposed to all my life), and so on.

I'd rate a number of King's Garbage Truck columns in the university newspaper as very important. He has consistently refused any form of republication of any but one of these. His review, at the time it was released, of Easy Rider is a classic; many of the columns inform today's reader of his inspirations and motivations for parts of his fiction, including the Dark Tower, The Shining and 'Salem's Lot.

Other pieces I believe any serious King fan should read include 'I Want to be Typhoid Stevie' (all writers and would-be writers should read this); King's heartfelt tributes to giants of genre fiction such as Ray Bradbury, and even of John Lennon and Stephen Jay Gould, are truly worthy of the effort required to find them; and, if you are into the background of certain novels such as It and Bag of Bones, there are a number of very important articles. In the book we explain how to access all these obscure pieces (where you can).

And, of course, SK kindly agreed to allow us to publish 'My Little Serrated Security Blanket', one of my favourite obscure pieces, in the book.

When we finished writing the book I came to the view that perhaps the most valued of all King's non-fiction are his thoughts and advice on writing. They will stand any test of time and are sure to be read by those of us who love to lay down something of value on that blank white page for generations to come. Writers and would-be writers who never read a single King piece of fiction could do well to study On Writing and SK's shorter pieces in this area.

TR: Just to pick one subject he covers, have you gained an appreciation for baseball thanks to King's writing?

RW: For sure! I have actually had been a baseball fine-lite for many years. As a cricket player and fan I find the sports similar in pace and of course the respect for history and stats. I went to my first MLB game in Chicago in 1978 in fact. Knowing King was writing Faithful I decided to follow the entire Red Sox 2004 season much as he would so I could appreciate the book later. Sure enough, by following every game I could on and watching the playoffs live on Fox Sports I am now part of Red Sox Nation! I took the time to learn the history of the game, and to read up on the rules, terminology and so on and that helped a lot, particularly when reading Faithful, although I'd say this is not critical to enjoying that book. David Ortiz and Curt Schilling have joined my (long) list of sporting heroes, as well. And, like any good Red Sox Nation member, I am a confirmed Yankee Hater!

TR: You are keeping the Complete Guide up-to-date. What's the procedure when a new King novel is released?

RW: As each new King novel or short story is released David, Norma and I have a standard process we follow. Firstly, we each read the story - no surprise there, we are just as eager to enjoy King's work as our own readers. This is also to familiarise ourselves with important characters, events and so on. If it's a short story then I do a word-by-word read compiling each character, business, place, timeline and so on into our standard data sheet. If it's a novel either David or Norma will do it – usually in turn as it is a huge and exhausting task that normally takes two-three months! Then I edit the whole data sheet for English, consistency and so on – looking for errors of our own, things we have to check and so on. I also double-check any Links to other King stories that we have compiled, and the same for any Errors we have identified. I then circulate that final draft back to David and Norma and we all do a final read. Once we are happy with the 'final' product we can proceed to adding each entry to its own Index – Characters, Timelines and so on.

As to Under the Dome, summarising it for a future edition of The Complete Guide is a daunting task indeed. This book is going to be as big as the uncut version of The Stand, although perhaps not as complex. It will be great to read yet another large King tale of Maine but after the joy of the first read will come the hard work.

Of course, there's much more to keeping the 'Guide' up-to-date, such as keeping the Timelines of King, Audio and Film Adaptations and so on live at all times. We find it is better to do this as we go, rather than trying to do it all once-a-year or whatever. It is a huge task overall but critical to a 'Complete Guide' and to our overall research.

TR: Speaking of the adaptations, King has had a enormous number of movies, plays and other material based on his work. Some go on to have their own spin-offs. As completists, how do you treat that mass of related material?

RW: Well, I only regard something written by King as 'by' King, if you know what I mean. For instance, the minor changes made to The Green Mile by Darabont in his screenplay do not exist in my 'Stephen King' mega-verse. Some of it is interesting, but in that context, no more than interesting. Separately, I do really enjoy the films, but as completely different entities to King's books. There have been some classics – The Shining, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me, Misery, Dolores Claiborne – and some shockers, of course. But they are only films, not books.

TR: What about the Dark Tower comics being released by Marvel? Are they being treated as King books?

RW: No. He didn't write them but just thought up the storyline and approves it. However, I notice that all hardcore fans are collecting them and I believe they will be regarded as part of the 'Dark Tower canon', if they aren't already. I do appreciate the beauty of the work and the care they have put into making it consistent with SK's vision. And I am appreciating the addition to the DT mythos.

TR: Australia seems to be somewhat of a haven for King fandom – yourself and some of your co-writers in particular. We are apparently the only country to reprint his Pop of King columns, and have even had our own flying visit by the man. Has this made any difference to your work?

RW: Not really – by the way, it wasn't just one flying visit by SK, he's actually toured the country by Harley twice, both for a period of many weeks. By all accounts, he loved the place. We are the only country to reprint the Pop of King columns; and I am very grateful that SK has allowed three of his pieces to be reproduced in my two hardcover books.

While David (in Lithgow), Norma (in Newcastle) and myself (Melbourne) could not physically be further from Maine in some ways that has helped our research – it has made us very committed to what we do. It costs a lot of money (and time) to do this King research, so we do it properly and with a level of commitment. It constantly amazes me that I can travel to Maine and do research and discover pieces not previously known. Frankly, I love the place and would happily visit over and over again even if it wasn't for King research.

TR: How have your books been received locally?

RW: Pretty well. We have made sales in the 2000+ range for the Australian version of Stephen King Uncollected, Unpublished, which considering the offering was not from a mainstream publisher or distributor, is pretty impressive for a non-fiction title.

I've been fortunate to have some pretty good media coverage – The Australian, ABC radio and online, the Sydney Morning Herald amongst others. King sells very, very well in Australia – possibly more per capita than the US although hard figures are not available – so that helps.

I would like to see more Aussie publishers publishing more Aussie books, as I'm sure we all would, but of course our market is small and difficult to make money in. By being published in the US an author can make acceptable earnings from a book and treat the Australian earnings as a nice bonus.

One thing that surprised me a little is the lack of interest from bookshops in Australia to signings by Australian authors, even in this market. Unless you are a celebrity author they don't think it worth their while – they don't seem to understand the normal retail concept of loss leaders or generating extra foot traffic. I think that's a real shame – so many bookshops are complaining about being driven out by the chains, but they really need to differentiate themselves through signings and other options.

TR: With your encyclopedic knowledge, is there any interesting references to the country in King's work?

RW: Not too many. In both versions of The Stand it is said survivors from Boulder would head here if they heard what Mother Abagail had been saying! Also, King makes some neat little Aussie references in '1408', including one: ' seemed the door to the room the man had come out of was filled with the burning light of an Australian sundown, the hot light of an empty place where things no man had ever seen might live.' And another where he picked up our vernacular in referring to 'the Great Australian Bugger-All'!

TR: And then there's Stephen King country... You have visited Maine a couple of times. How do the locals react to your research?

RW: I've now been five times – I last got there in March last year; and I'm back there in July, doing some lobster fishing, touristing, working on a new book, and catching up with my many Mainer friends.

I've made some wonderful friends there – some of those who I originally met on my research, like Marsha DeFilippo (SK's personal assistant) and Stu and Penney Tinker (of Betts Bookshop), I regard as close personal friends. We spend more time talking about other subjects than we do about SK when we get together!

I've found that people in Bangor and Orono (SK's papers are at the University of Maine there) are always happy to talk about SK, and particularly to tell you of he and Tabitha's generosity; and to share their own anecdotes of coming across him around town.

When I did my research in Lisbon Falls and Durham (where Steve grew up in his teenage years) all the people in the area were very friendly and helpful. SK is regarded very well there and has contributed in many ways to their communities (for instance, funding a children's library). Of course, I am interested in his work and his inspirations and I don't deal with personal questions – I'm not interested in gossip, or trying to pry into his 'life' – biography if you will. So, I think that helps. The people at the Lisbon Historical Society (who I mention in Stephen King: The Non-Fiction) are truly wonderful and have helped my long-distance research on many occasions. Dot and Bill are wonderful – Bill will even drive half way across the State to check things in libraries and so on, for which I am mightily grateful.

TR: Are there any locations that seem particularly familiar (or scary!) to you because of his work?

RW: I've tried to visit as many obvious King settings as I can. On the last trip I went to East Stoneham (scene of a shoot-out in the Dark Tower series) and drove the road along which Jake Chambers made an awful sacrifice (trying not to give away a story-line there). Bangor is, of course, Derry in disguise and you can visit the Barrens, the Standpipe and so on (if your readers ever go they should stop in at Betts Bookshop who provide a free guide-map to a dozen or so Derry locations around town). I've been to some of the islands and the seacoast to experience that Maine.

The eeriest is Durham, where SK grew up – there you can literally stand and read from entire pages of 'Salem's Lot and look at the actual scene he is describing. You can go to Runaround Pond (from The Dead Zone and 'The Body') but, contrary to rumour, the original Marsten House no longer exists. And many SK graveyards are right there.

The other wonderful King location I visited was the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, where SK was staying when inspired to write The Shining. It was also used to film the mini-series version. You can do a ghost tour and we went to Room 217 and so on. It really does feel like the book and I, for one, don't want to get snowed in there alone (or would I be alone?)

I've been to lots of other sites from the Dark Tower and 'The Mist' (Bridgton) and of course all the smaller towns in the Western Lakes district that, along with Durham, form the template for Castle Rock. So I've been lucky but it really has informed my research also. I have to say I am totally awed by SK's ability to translate that real world of Maine and Colorado onto the written page.

TR: There are quite a few Stephen King collectors and scholars – is there good cooperation between them? Do you ever have any trouble getting access to material that is being hoarded?

RW: I'd say there is great co-operation. Stephen Spignesi and Tyson Blue have been very helpful to myself and my fellow authors, including Justin Brooks. I feel we are all working towards the same goal – a preservation of serious King research for future generations. Some, like Spignesi and Beahm, seem to feel they have said what they have to say, while others like Collings continue to contribute to the pool of research.

As to material being hoarded, I have been fortunate to earn the trust of super-collectors who held material that few had access to. I always credit my sources (unless they wish to remain anonymous) and I never circulate copies of material they provide (same goes with material from King's office). I feel that I have earnt their trust and I believe that helps enormously. In many cases I have been able to provide my sources and SK's office with material they themselves had never seen so it's probably a quid pro quo.

TR: Fans and researchers can get a rough time in King's fiction – the Incunks from Lisey's Story, for example. Does this colour any of his interactions with you and your colleagues?

RW: There is nothing personal in that. SK often reflects reality in his fiction – he has his share of nutty fans and those who 'demand' rather than request his time. Like anyone else he has a life – and he doesn't owe any of it to researchers, readers, academics or fans. Yet, he does share of himself quite liberally compared to most big-name authors – with regular signings, appearances, interviews and his generosity to researchers like myself and academics.

I don't know if the Incunks idea came from any personal experience or something he'd heard from other authors, or just one of his 'what if' moments, but I guess it could happen. As could Misery in the right circumstances.

In my case, I recognise that all SK's stuff is his in totality – if he kindly chooses to allow me to publish a piece, or read his Restricted works, or grant some other favour I am grateful. If he doesn't that is totally his right and should be respected. I haven't seen his response to myself, David, Norma or Justin Brooks affected in anyway by either the Incunk or Calvin view.

TR: Can you aspire to be a Calvin?

RW: LOL. We certainly like to think of ourselves as Calvins – who knows, maybe that idea came from a combination of the work by researchers like ourselves and Robin Furth. I guess anyone who is willing to put in thousands and thousands of hours of work, spends lots of money buying rare King materials and travelling the world, can be a Calvin! The true, hard-core King 'Constant Reader' is probably some form of Calvin without knowing it.

TR: You have built quite a reputation for tracking down new works, and exploring new angles. What other areas remain unexplored, do you think?

RW: Good question – if I told you I'd have to kill you (probably in some King-ian way). Seriously though, there are still some works to be found – if they still exist. Both fiction and non-fiction and we describe them in our books (plug, plug).

TR: Can you say anything else about any of your forthcoming projects?

RW: There are some more King projects on the burner, both for the mass market and for the hardcore King fan. I am writing on an illustrated fiction book with a very well-known illustrator (yet to be announced by the publisher, but we are under contract) for 2010 publication; I'm working on a non-fiction book totally away from the horror genre; and drafting a film treatment for a production company. I've written non-fiction for 30 years now – whoa! – on a number of different subjects. I love the thrill of some serious original research and then writing that up, so I am always likely to keep writing in that vein.


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