Today on Boxing the Octopus's "Three Questions" series, we welcome author Bev Vincent, whose book The Stephen King Illustrated Companion, has been nominated for a 2010 Edgar Award.
When I first met Bev, he was the president of the Woodlands Writers' Guild, and I could tell right away he was a man with serious plans for going pro. And sure enough, he's made good on many of them. From his website:
Bev Vincent is the Bram Stoker Award nominated author of The Road to the Dark Tower, an authorized companion to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. He is a contributing editor with Cemetery Dance magazine and has published over fifty short stories, including appearance in the Bram Stoker Award winning From the Borderlands anthology, the MWA anthology The Blue Religion edited by Michael Connelly, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Doctor Who: Destination Prague and All Hallows. Visit his online store for links to anthologies and books.
BtO: Congratulations on the Edgar nomination, Bev! Can you tell us a little about how your admiration for the work of Stephen King grew into your two books focusing on his work? We'd love to hear, too, any details you can share on what it was like working with King on these two projects.
BV: Thanks! I’m thrilled and delighted to be considered in the same category as the likes of PD James and to have my work recognized by the Mystery Writers of America.
Back in the 1990s, in the burgeoning years of the Internet, I was a member of a USENET newsgroup called alt.books.stephen-king, where we discussed King’s works. I’m the sort of person who, when someone asks a question, I’ll look up the answer if I don’t know it off the top of my head. Because I had good reference books at hand, I gained a reputation as something of a know-it-all.
Though I never expected it, that reputation encouraged publishers, publicists and others to supply me with behind the scenes information. Apparently I had an authoritative disposition, so I became a credible and reliable source of King news, and the reputation grew.
In 2001, Rich Chizmar asked if I would be interested in writing the King news, reviews and commentary column for his Cemetery Dance magazine. Since that was an extension of what I was already doing for fun, I agreed—and I’ve been writing News from the Dead Zone for the better part of a decade. That affiliation has opened up a lot of doors for me. A few years ago, for example, I got to spend two days on the set of Frank Darabont’s movie The Mist, which was filming in Shreveport, Louisiana.
BtO: What fun!
BV: Over the years, people asked me when I was going to write a book about King, but I always deflected them. I knew he wasn’t fond of biographies—he’d rather people focus on his work than on the details of his life—and he’s so prolific that to write anything meaningful about his vast literary career would be a daunting project, to say the least.
However, when I heard that he had finished the first drafts of the final three books of his magnum opus—his Dark Tower series—an idea occurred to me. Since the writing of these books spanned most of his publishing career, and since the novels crossed over into most of his non-series books, an exploration of the Dark Tower series could be a manageable way to look at the bigger picture.
I pitched the idea to King, saying that if he hated it I would drop it immediately. Instead he said he was flattered that someone wanted to take his work seriously. He reads Cemetery Dance (he’s published fiction in that magazine), so he was familiar with my style and approach to his work, which helped, I think.
The second thing I said in that pitch—which was uncharacteristically forward of me—was that in my wildest dreams, the Fed-Ex truck would pull up in front of the house with the manuscripts for those last three books (which weren’t scheduled to be published for another two years) so I could start working right away on what would become The Road to the Dark Tower. The next day I heard from his administrative assistant: the manuscripts were on the way. The day after that I had 2500 manuscript pages sitting in front of me.
BtO: Wow! That's amazing. And amazingly generous of King.
BV: That endorsement—that magnanimous display of trust—gave me the ammunition I needed to attract the interest of NAL (a division of Penguin) and to get a literary agent. It also allowed me to have my book ready for publication at the same time as the seventh book in his series instead of a year or two later.
I tried not to bug him too much during the writing process. He’s an incredibly busy guy. I did fire questions off to him by e-mail every now and then. When I was done, he read the manuscript to fact check but requested no changes. Then he supplied a very complimentary blurb for the front cover.
The Stephen King Illustrated Companion came about because of The Road to the Dark Tower. When Barnes & Noble decided they wanted to publish a King readers’ companion, I was contacted to see if I would be interested in writing the text. When I saw their previous books on Poe and Jane Austen, I was sold. Their books are informative, but also beautiful and fun.
Knowing King’s aversion to biography I did my best to put a literary analysis spin on the book—it is biography through the lens of his fiction. How did what was going on in his life at the time bubble through into what he was writing?
For this book, I didn’t interact with King at all. He granted the publisher access to his literary archives at the University of Maine and to family photo albums. The documents expert from becker&mayer! (the book packager who produced the book for Barnes & Noble’s imprint, Fall River Press) went to Maine and visited the university and King’s office to find material that complemented my text. King had veto power, but he didn’t exercise it. His cooperation, though, turned the book into something that collectors, fans and casual readers alike have enjoyed. You can spend hours opening all the little envelopes and exploring the reproduced documents. Most of the enclosed material has never been seen before.
BtO: As a King fan, I'm definitely intrigued! So how has studying King's work influenced your own fiction?
BV: I’ve often said that if King decided to write romance novels, I’d still read them because it is his ability to create believable, charismatic, sympathetic characters that attracts me to his work. [Gratuitous note from Colleen: Believable, charismatic, sympathetic characters are what romance is all about! :)] That’s his biggest influence on my own fiction—the way he regularly demonstrates that everything arises from characterization. I used to plunge into writing stories driven purely by plot without much regard for the characters who were populating the story and how they were affected by what was going on. Now I don’t start a story until I know the main characters and understand what they want.
I don’t believe that my style or subject matter is strongly influenced by King, or any other individual writer. I was probably imitative of some writers in my early days. We probably all go through that phase. I hope that my style is the sum of everyone I’ve ever read plus a unique ingredient that comes from me. One of the greatest compliments a member of an online critique group paid to me was his claim that he could recognize a story as being mine because of the voice. The fact that someone else thought I had a distinctive voice was gratifying.
BtO: What's next for you? Are you interested in continuing to work with both fiction and nonfiction in the future?
BV: My primary focus for 2010 is going to be on revising the first draft of a novel that my agent thinks has promise. It’s a daunting process, ripping it apart and rebuilding it from the ground up, but I like the book a lot and I think it will be worth the effort. I would love to get a novel published, and then another and then another after that!
However, if another fascinating non-fiction project came along, I would certainly be open to considering it.
Thanks for being with us, Bev. Again, congratulations on the latest award nomination and best of luck as you reimagine and revise your novel! I hope you'll stop back by to field any questions from our readers.