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Stephen King in Sydney

by Kyla Ward

First appeared in Severed Head#16, 1998

Ticket to Sydney Stephen King readingWhat are you going to do? You go to the most unlikely country you can think of, buy a couple of Harleys and, with your good friend Joe Floyd, set off cross country. And the damn publicists still manage to catch you and set you up for a one night only at short notice lecture and reading plus question time. Yes, as the newspapers reported with varying degrees of pun, Stephen King was in Sydney on Wednesday the 29th of October, and the grapevine worked well enough to get a number of us there.

Mr King did manage to stipulate no signings. And he circumvented the most inevitable questions by saying, in his address, "people always ask me -- " What scares you, where do you get your ideas, and this is what I think of Australia. And he showed us his sunburn. That is what you get for crossing the Nullarbor in a Harley with Joe Floyd. But mostly, he told stories. He told us the story of how, when he and Joe were buying the Harleys, a man gave King his well-worn leather vest, bearing the legends 'Grow old disgracefully' and 'Mudguard'. All across the continent, bikers are stopping him and saying 'Hi, Mudguard'. He told us the story of how he saw his first kangaroo an hour out of Sydney -- flattened on the road. The only live kangaroo he saw during the whole trip was standing at the edge of the road apparently waiting to cross with this look on its face -- oh dear, if I step out there I'm probably going to die. I mention these just to give some impression -- Stephen King is up there on the podium, telling us stories. I recall an anecdote from somewhere about King saying he has to live in Maine in a tiny little village away from everywhere, so he is forced to write down his stories. If he lived, for instance, in New York, he could call a friend to meet him at a cafe and tell them the story, and he wouldn't need to write it down.

Apparently King came to Australia because it was somewhere he hadn't been, and he'd had a fetish for Australian films ever since he saw Breaker Morant. He loves Peter Weir films; "I even liked the one where the dingo ate Meryl Streep's baby -- that was too bad."

After telling us these stories, he told us another; 'Autopsy Room Four'. This was apparently published in a very expensive limited edition anthology that never made it out here. "This story is pretty gross," he warned. "So, if anyone wants to leave, I'll just say -- are you sure you locked your cars?" The audience was an interesting mix -- a large proportion of people in business suits -- which of course can hide a multitude of sins -- a few slinking goths, twitchy-looking media and academic-types including Rob Hood. But all responded helplessly to a little tale self-confessedly based on the old 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' episode where Joseph Cotton has been pronounced dead but is only paralysed. I don't know it would get accepted by your average fanzine, but of course it was superbly written and wonderfully read and there we are, the audience, jumping and laughing and flinching in all the right places.

"I love stories, " he said, later when someone asked him another inevitable question. "And I love hearing stories -- I think most people do. And I don't know how this process works, of writing; I get an idea and I work on it until I don't know what happens next -- the story ends automatically if everybody dies." Actually, it was because of this question we got to hear Stephen King's Cujo impression: he told us the story where he got the idea when he went out to this garage where there was this huge Saint Bernard -- I can't really do the growl here, just take my word for it.

Stephen King still thinks Clive Barker's Books of Blood are brilliant; he thinks he is incredibly fortunate that there have been one or two good movies made of his work -- spontaneous round of applause here for Frank Darabont -- and he reckons if Dick Francis can keep on writing stories about jockeys, he can keep writing about writers. "Once you hit fifty, you start to lie to yourself." And then Question Time is over, Mr King is given a small token of appreciation which seems to include 'Terror Australis' and out we go into the waiting embrace of Leigh Blackmore's special Dymocks Stephen King stall, featuring paperback copies of Wizard And Glass two weeks before anywhere else in the world.

I think writers, says Stephen King, are like Great White Sharks. "We just sort of swim around with our mouths open and if something floats in we say oh thank you God, and eat it." Nice to know something about Australia made an impression.


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