A few questions for Stephen King about his new novel, 11.22.63
Where were you when JFK was assassinated?
When I got the news I was in a hearse. I was a tuition kid in a little town and there was no bus service to the high school where we went. So our parents clubbed together and paid a guy who had a converted hearse, which he turned into a kind of school bus, and we went back and forth in that.
We didn't get the news that Kennedy had been assassinated in school. But when we got into the hearse to go home, the driver, Mike, had the radio on for the first time in living memory. We heard that Kennedy had been killed. Mike, who was kind of silent, spoke up. "They'll catch the son of a bitch who did that and somebody will kill him." And that's exactly what happened.
When and why did you decide to write a novel about the Kennedy assassination?
I tried to write this novel in 1973 when I was teaching high school. At that time it was called Split Track and I wrote fourteen single-spaced pages. Then I stopped. The research was daunting for someone who was working full-time at another job. Also, I understood I wasn't ready—the scope was too big for me at that time. I put the book aside and thought someday maybe I'd go back to it.
I'm glad that I didn't go forward with it then. In 1973 the wound was still too fresh. Now it's going on half a century since Kennedy was assassinated. I think that's about long enough. I recently saw Robert Redford's film The Conspirator about the Lincoln assassination. That was a hundred fifty years ago, but it's still kind of a shock to see the president of the United States assassinated by a lone gunman.
How does having a modern character going back in time affect the way you depict the 1950s, as opposed to simply setting a novel then?
Jake Epping, my main character, makes several different trips into the past—every trip takes him back to two minutes before noon on September 19, 1958, and every trip is a complete reset. Little by little he gets used to it, but the contrast between his twenty-first-century sensibility and the world of that late fifties and early sixties is jarring in a way that Mad Men isn't. And sometimes it's pretty funny, as when Jake gets caught singing a risqué Rolling Stones tune and tries to convince his girlfriend that he heard a song containing the lyrics "she tried to take me upstairs for a ride" on the radio!
We're pretty well anchored in the present, the world that we live in as it is now—a world where there's four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline, where men and women have a certain equality, where there's an African American president, where we have computers. When you first go back to 1958, the trip is jarring. Yet the longer Jake stays, the more he feels at home in that particular world. Eventually, he doesn't want to leave it. He's gotten fond of his life at a time when you didn't have to take your shoes off at the airport.
The act of writing is almost an act of hypnosis. You can remember things that are not immediately accessible to the conscious mind. I felt extremely challenged as I began this book. Could I really capture the sense of what it was like to live between 1958 and 1963? But writing, like anything imaginative, is an act of faith. You have to believe that those details will be there when you need them.
The more I wrote about those years, the more I remembered. I used research when I fell short but it was amazing how much came back to me—the sound coins made when you dropped them into the machine when you got on the bus; the smell of movie theaters when everybody was smoking; the dances, the teenage slang, books that were current, and the importance of the library in research. There's a funny sequence where Jake needs to find somebody and is very frustrated; if he had his computer he could simply run a search engine and get what he needed in two or three minutes. There weren't Jetways then; you walked out of a terminal and mounted the steps to get on a TWA plane. Now, TWA doesn't exist anymore, but that's the airline carrier that brought Lee Harvey Oswald back to Texas.
When researching the music of the day, do you listen to those songs as you write?
I've always been a pop music fan. I have a good grasp of music between 1955 and now—it's just one of the places where my head feels at home. It's also one of the indicators of how American life changes and what's going on at any particular time.
One of the epigrams for 11.22.63 is "dancing is life," and dancing is something that has always interested me. It's symbolic in so many ways of the courting ritual. The changes in dancing mirror the changes in the way we court and love and live over the years. I went to YouTube to watch videos of dances from the fifties and the sixties and that was an interesting thing, to watch people do the Stroll and the Madison, the Lindy Hop, Hell's a Poppin'—fantastic stuff. I'm crazy about music and I'm crazy about dancing and some of that's in the book.
I listen to music all the time. Not when I'm composing fresh copy, but when I'm rewriting or editing, I've always got it on and it's always turned up really loud. I also have certain touchstone songs that I go back to—they drive my wife, my kids, my grandchildren crazy. I'm the sort of guy who will play Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" twenty-five times until I discover the song was written by Dolly Parton and then I listen to the Dolly Parton version forty times.
The music that made the biggest impression on me was rock 'n' roll from the early fifties. I tried to get into the book the excitement that the kids felt to hear someone like Jerry Louis, Chuck Berry, or Little Richard. The first time you heard Little Richard your life changed. The first time I heard Freddie Cannon do "Palisades Park" I thought to myself, "This makes me feel so happy to be alive."