For Stephen King fans, the name Stephen J. Spignesi should be quite familiar. He’s written a slew of books about Stephen King, and has been noted as an authority on King and King’s body of work.
As I’ve said before, one of my favorite things to read is books about Stephen King. Go figure. Anyone who wants to know more about King and his work should take some time reading books by Stephen J. Spignesi. His passion for King and his work shine through his research. In The Shape Under The Sheet, Spignesi writes, “Stephen King’s work became something beyond entertainment for me; I realized that I was privileged enough to be witnessing the creation of a true American literary giant.”
One thing I appreciate about Spignesi is that he is factually correct – something not true of every book/work about Stephen King! I have often reached for The Shape Under The Sheet to fact check things before posting on the blog, or to fact check other authors who might say something that seems. . . iffy.
Spignesi is author of books like the massive Encyclopedia, The Shape Under The Sheet and the outright fun The Essential Stephen King , The Lost Works of Stephen King and The Stephen King Quiz Book. He has also written books about the Beatles, the Titanic, assassinations, recipes, the Beatles, ER, and even Native American History for Dummies – and so much more! He has also written fiction as well.
Talk Stephen King: Thanks for agreeing to answer some questions. Tell me a little about yourself.
Stephen J. Spignesi: I was born in a manger on a cold winter’s…oops…sorry about that.
I was born in New Haven, Connecticut and have pretty much lived here all my life. I graduated from Catholic grammar and high schools and then went on to graduate from the University of New Haven where I now teach. For 25 or so years I helped run a family jewelry business while also writing full-time. The business closed in 2001 and in 2005 I started teaching full-time while still writing around a book a year.
I’m the eldest of four siblings, a lacto-ova vegetarian, and I collect TV series on DVD (someday you can ask me about my collection, which I take great delight in). I always put copies of my manuscripts and published books on my Kindle, and I have a grey cat named Chloe who I love dearly. I also believe Wintergreen Altoids is one of the most under-appreciated candies of all time, and I can’t stop wondering what ever happened to Pudding Pops.
TSK: Please tell us a little about your novel. Most of us know you for your non-fiction.
SJS: I’ve written one novel so far that’s been published. (I’ve got five or six in manuscript currently making the rounds of publishers.) It’s called Dialogues and came out in hardcover from Random House in 2005, and is now in mass market paperback from Bantam. I teach it every semester to my Composition and Literature students. Rather than ramble on, here is what the publisher said about the book:
In this electrifying debut, Stephen Spignesi reinvents the psychological thriller with a chilling tale of mounting intensity. Ingeniously crafted and crackling with suspense, here is a puzzle within a puzzle, at the center of which stands a hauntingly enigmatic young woman whose story will challenge everything you think you know....
Six people have been murdered in the animal shelter in which they worked. One unlikely woman stands accused of the crimes. Her name is Victoria Troy, and she is the most improbable of cold-blooded killers. A lover of animals, petite, brainy, and gifted with a sharp sense of humor, she too worked in the shelter, in an anguishingly difficult job. What could possibly have provoked her to murder six of her own coworkers--some of whom were her friends.
Who is Tory Troy? It is up to Dr. Baraku Bexley to find out. An astute psychiatrist hired by the court to determine whether Tory is mentally competent to stand trial, Bexley must explore her complicated background and her unusual convictions as he interviews her in the Connecticut psychiatric hospital in which she is confined--and also talks to others who have known her.
What Bexley learns about this gifted young woman comes almost solely from these interviews...but is that enough to explain the divide between the person Tory seems to be and the terrible crimes she’s accused of committing? Others find her difficult to fathom too: her lawyer, her nurse at the hospital, her mother, one of her former teachers; but all seek the same objective, to learn the truth no matter where it leads--or what secrets it may reveal about Tory, about the nature of evil, about us all.
Fiercely engaging and morally provocative, Dialogues is a rush of adrenaline that will keep you riveted from the first page to the last.
With the daring immediacy that a novel-in-conversations can deliver, Dialogues will confound, conflict, and possibly convert readers to the heroine’s hauntingly disturbing point of view. Here is one of the freshest first novels of the year. In a mental hospital in Connecticut sits Tory Troy, a young woman facing six particularly grotesque charges of felony murder. Tory--bright, blunt, and empathetic--has spent the past year as a certified animal euthanasia technician; it was in the Waterbridge Animal Shelter that the police arrested her. As readers, we come to know her through the dialogues conducted with the doctor the court has appointed to assess her competence to stand trial--and through further conversations with the nursing staff, her mother, her one-time English professor, her lawyer, and others. Her singular perspective on the world--intricate, contrarian, deeply felt--makes Tory a fascinating but enigmatic guide to the darker regions of the human soul. In a novel that is distinctive not only for its subject matter but also for its unorthodox and riveting structure, author Stephen Spignesi leads us into Tory’s world and leaves us there to find our way out. Each dialogue reveals something new or confounds our assumptions about her. Each time we believe we understand what has happened, difficult questions and insights arise. Gathering pace as the case reaches the courtroom--and then far beyond it--Dialogues will leave us both breathless and deeply moved.
TSK: You’ve written a LOT of books. What’s your favorite?
SJS: There’s more than one, actually. I’ll give you my Top Ten (in no particular order):
TSK: When people find out about your work on Stephen King, do some people give you that look that says, “You read him?”
SJS: I sometimes get an “I can’t stand that stuff!” type of response, but I perceive that to mean a general dislike for horror. I also commonly get an “I love/hate his movies” response. When I explain that I write about his written work and his significance as an important American writer, suddenly they get interested. I’ll get asked questions and I have a few standard answers about the best of his work.
A very common approach that I use is to ask them if they’ve seen either The Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile. Of course they have, and of course they loved them, so when I then tell them, “Stephen King wrote them,” they’re immediately amazed and usually won over as to my thesis of taking him seriously as a writer.
TSK: A lot of us have read with interest your books about Stephen King. In fact, my copy of The Essential Stephen King is worn to tatters! What books does Stephen Spignesi read about Stephen King? Were there any particular works that have been helpful in studying King?
SJS: I’m a big fan of the others who have written about King, particularly George Beahm, Bev Vincent, Michael Collings, Rocky Wood, Anthony Magistrale, and Tyson Blue. I’ve read almost all of their books about King and loved them all. They’ve all been helpful in the sense of giving me insights into how other experts perceive King’s work, but my books about King are so thematically-focused that ultimately the books of others serve mainly as background research rather than influences.
Some memorable titles that stand out for me include George Beahm’s literary biography of King, as well as his Stephen King Country (not to mention his monumental look at the art of Stephen King, Knowing Darkness) ; Michael Collings’ literary analyses of King (his Starmont volumes); Bev Vincent’s Road to the Dark Tower and Illustrated Companion, and Tony Magistrale’s book about The Shining. Kevin Quigley has also been doing some really interesting King-themed chapbooks that I greatly enjoyed. Also, I’d be derelict if I didn’t mention one of the books (along with Beahm’s The Stephen King Companion) that started it all, Douglas Winter’s The Art of Darkness.
TSK: In your book The Essential Stephen King, you listed IT as the number one novel. Does this mean it is your personal favorite work of King’s as well?
SJS: Yes, it does mean that IT is my personal favorite. However, The Shining and Misery come in at an extremely close second for tie as personal favorites.
TSK: If you were writing TESK today, would IT still hold the top spot, or would it have to step aside for another work?
SJS: That’s a good question. I haven’t changed my mind about the placement of almost every other work on the list, so essentially I’d have to ask myself if anything he’s published since 2000 been of such excellence that it would kick IT out of the top slot. The answer, for me, is no.
I would, however, move things around a bit to get 11/22/63, Lisey’s Story, Duma Key, Under the Dome, and probably Cell into the Top 20, or maybe Top 25. If you study my ranking, you’ll note that novels are all in the top 50 or so, so those major works would have to be included. All the new Dark Tower books would fall under the one single Dark Tower ranking, which is number 10.
All bets are off, though, when Doctor Sleep is published. Considering the excellence of The Shining, I am greatly looking forward to it, but am very curious as to whether or not it will equal the literary merit of The Shining, which is the most taught King novel at the high school and college level. I taught The Shining when I taught my “New Gothic Horror of Stephen King” course at UNH. Hardly any of the students had read it, but they were all blown away by it.
TSK: Speaking of TESK’s rankings, did you get any reader feedback on slipping The Stand down to the lowly, humble second spot?
SJS: I got some feedback, but I think most of my readers realized and understood that I was trying to focus on literary merit and the quality of the two most important elements of fiction: plot and character. IT excels in both those categories, especially plot. King writes two parallel novels — 1958 and 1985 — and switches back and forth, and the reader never gets lost. I think it’s his magnum opus.
Fan popularity wasn’t allowed to factor into my decision. My co-author and best friend Mike Lewis and I used similar criteria to rank the 100 best Beatles songs in our Here, There, and Everywhere. Musicality, Lyricism, Production, and Performance were the four criteria. Again, fan popularity did not matter. We get a lot of complaints about our ranking for that book. Fans get upset when their favorite isn’t on the list. It doesn’t matter to them that a song may be musically inferior (three chords) or lyrically simplistic (bland, one-dimensional lyrics), etc.
I always try to concentrate on the quality of the work. For many readers, The Stand is more fun, and I understand that and can relate to it. But I feel IT is a better novel and thus, its number one rank.
TSK: Both you and Stephen King have written quite a lot about the 60’s. King through fiction, you through non-fiction. What is so important about the sixties?
SJS: It was a seminal decade in the history of the United States and the world. It redefined everything: civil rights, voting rights, LGBT rights, and women’s rights. Art and popular culture were, in a sense, reinvented, and politics, freedom, and commerce all took on new meanings. Feminism was born, as were movements in support of Hispanic rights and African/American rights. The antiwar movement railed against the Vietnam War and we lost JFK, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and others. It seems as though Americans woke up in the Sixties. Thus, it is fertile territory for an artist, no matter what area or element of the decade you want to study and write about.
TSK: You gave four years of your life to The Shape Under The Sheet. Did you feel like it was “complete” when you were done, or did you just decide “I’ve got to stop someday!” What was the signal for you that the work was whole?
SJS: The latter: I knew I had to stop. I knew the book would never come out if I didn’t set a stop date. King has never stopped publishing, so you have to set your sights on a specific year and say, “Okay, this is when it will be published; thus, I have to stop researching and writing here.” Which is what I did. Also, the publisher was getting a little anxious, considering the book had been announced. Plus, I had other books I wanted to write.
TSK: You indicated with The Shape Under The Sheet that you wanted to give the constant readers (and I guess the world) an “ultimate reference.” Of course, that was published over 20 years ago now. Any plans to update the volume – turn into volumes?
SJS: It’s highly unlikely I’ll ever be able to update the book. My life has changed drastically with teaching full-time and also maintaining a book-a-year schedule. The research alone would require a massive commitment of time, and frankly, there isn’t a publisher who would be able to pay me to do it. It would be great fun to do it, but I can’t see how everything could conspire to allow me the time and funds to do it. Maybe if I hit Powerball…
TSK: I loved all of The Shape Under The Sheet! One of the really unique points was the information gleaned from your interview with David King. What is he like?
SJS: Dave is a consummate gentleman. He had rarely (or possibly never before) spoken about his brother and their childhood and he went out of his way to provide me with items from their youth and to talk about the family.
Can you imagine what it must be like to be Stephen King’s brother? Anyone who finds out who your brother is, is going to immediately ask millions of questions (and possibly favors) and it has to be extremely difficult to be yourself, instead of “Stephen King’s brother.” Yet, Dave lives a quiet life, has a wonderful family, and is utterly normal. To this day, I am extremely grateful for all his help with Shape.
I know you’ve interviewed or spoken with Robert McCammon. What is his take on Stephen King? Is he offended or excited when fans and constant readers note the similarities in their work?
SJS: Rick is, likewise, a gentleman and a total professional. Some writers do not like to acknowledge influences on their work, or their particular genre. When I asked Rick if King had influenced his own writing, his answer was along the lines of, How could he have not? which is gracious, self-effacing, and yet completely recognizes the massive — and that is the appropriate word — influence King has had on both genre fiction and American fiction.
But McCammon is a brilliant writer in his own right. King has influenced us all, but the cream of the crop, the great American writers who have their own voice and something to say, like McCammon, have written works of art that are theirs and theirs alone in terms of artistic sensibility. Art is everywhere and artists everywhere are influenced by other artists.
Going back to the Beatles, think about how many bands and songwriters today have been influenced by the Fabs. The list is endless and ongoing. And look at King: he himself has acknowledged being influenced by Poe, Twain, Dickens, John D. McDonald, Richard Matheson, Don Robertson, and many others. This is what art is all about. And there’d be no Dark Tower series at all if King hadn’t read and been influenced by Robert Browning, right?
TSK: I know that you “study” Stephen King. When you read a King novel for the first time now, are you simply enjoying it, or does the research continue?
SJS: All of the above. When I read King, I cannot help but notice the literary skeleton of the story, the man behind the curtain, the shape under the sheet. I read him as a fan, a King researcher, and an English teacher. It’s an all-consuming experience.
TSK: What do you think of the King movies? Got any favorites?
SJS: The Darabont collection — The Woman in the Room, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist — is extraordinary. Other standouts for me include The Dead Zone, Kubrick’s Shining, Misery, Stand By Me, Carrie Dolores Claiborne, Apt Pupil, and 1408. I’m also a huge fan of the short film Paranoid by Jay Holben (based on the King poem from Skeleton Crew) and the Golden Years TV series.
TSK: You said you are a Woody Allen fan. I loved Radio Days! What Woody Allen movies are you passionate about. . . or does being a Woody Allen fan mean by definition you like all of them?
SJS: I am a HUGE Woody Allen fan. I think he is a filmmaker and writer of, and for, the ages. And I’m not just talking about his films. I’m talking about his stand-up comedy routines (which I transcribed verbatim off his albums), his books, his plays, his essays, and more. He is the classic artist. His short stories and essays in Getting Even, Without Feathers, Side Effects, and Mere Anarchy are literally laugh-out-loud funny.
As for favorite movies, my number one is Manhattan, followed by Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Midnight in Paris, Whatever Works, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Love and Death, Stardust Memories, and Mighty Aphrodite. I even love Wild Man Blues, the documentary about Woody touring Europe with his jazz band.
I love Woody one-liners (Did you hear about Cyclops? He got a middle-eye infection.”). I am currently in the ongoing process of replacing my VHS copies of his movies with DVDs. I also hope to someday update my now out-of-date Woody Allen Companion. As far as I know it’s the only book to completely deconstruct every comedy routine he performed and every short story he had written up to that time. Woody is a genius, a brilliant writer, and a supremely accomplished artist. And I like his glasses.
TSK: Wow, I could go on writing questions all day, because I really do enjoy your work on King! I’ll stop here, but is there anything you would ask if you were given permission to interview Stephen J. Spignesi?
SJS: Yes, there is something I’d ask Mr. Spignesi:
In your book, The Odd Index, in the chapter “39 Acts of Select Mayhem in 2 Three Stooges Films,” you write “Moe dials Shemp’s eyes, thinking his face is a phone.” Do you see a deeper subtext in the fact that the metaphorical instrument of abuse is a communication device — that Moe uses Shemp’s face as a phone?
To which I would answer:
The Three Stooges were notable for their allegorical, metaphorical, and symbolic use of communication devices in their work. In a scene in Brideless Groom, Shemp’s fiancée compresses his head in a letter-press, an older type of printing press.THANKS STEPHEN!
In Punch Drunk, the Stooges drive a truck with a PA system playing music through a wall at a prize fight at which Larry had been hired to play the violin ringside. Larry’s violin is smashed by Curly who, it turns out, goes nuts anytime he hears violin music.
In Three Sappy People, the Stooges answer a phone call intended for three psychiatrists Ziller, Zeller, and Zoller and then assume the doctors’ identities. In They Stooge to Conga, Curly impersonates a telephone repair man to spy on spies.
In Goof on the Roof, the Stooges attempt to install a television antenna on their friend’s roof and they ultimately destroy his house. Oftentimes, the mishaps involving communication devices result in eye jabs, punches, pokes, and other forms of retaliatory punishment, usually inflicted by Moe upon the other Stooges.
What is this saying? That communication errors can result in “damage,” both metaphorical and literal? That effective transmission of whatever the message might be can assure a placid response? The semantic and semiotic impact of these scenes manifest a sociocultural paradigm that…what’s that? You meant a question about Stephen King? Oh. Sorry. Okay. I’m done.