On Tuesday, October 16th, I went with Erin Underwood to Memorial Church in Harvard Yard to see Stephen King speak on behalf of The Year's Best American Short Stories 2007. King reiterated his guest-editorial introduction (short fiction is "alive, but not well") which was entertaining and insightful, and the series editor Heidi Pitlor also gave some introductory words about the challenge of reading 4,000 short stories in one year. Three authors from the anthology also spoke--Jim Shephard, Karen Russell, and Richard Russo.
It was wonderful to hear the editors explain why they chose the stories they did, and it was especially awesome (in the full, true sense of the word) to see King, one of my writing heroes, expressing enthusiasm for the writing of others. It's easy for writers to enthuse about their own writing; we are often our own favorite topic of conversation. Some writers though--seasoned writers, brave and confident in their own abilities--can put aside ego and rhapsodize about the work of others. This is what Stephen King did, with grace and intelligence and enthusiasm and courage. He spoke on his own writing only briefly, in response to questions leveled directly at him, and then only in the abstract, as he shared a few insights into his process and explained why he had accepted the Year's Best guest editorship so readily. King admitted that he'd lost touch with the short story form, and felt the best way to refamiliarize himself with it was to go out into the wild and read as many short stories as possible in a year.
So Stephen King got up in front of 1000 Cantabrigians in the chapel in Harvard Yard that night and told us why he loved the stories that the attending authors wrote. He moved, and smiled, and gleamed, and glowed ... with passion about the stories in this year's anthology. He wasn't bragging on his work, but their work, the work of the honored authors. King gave a fine and convincing song and dance of support, threatening the audience members with retribution if they didn't seek out the honored authors' work after the talk. He said he had his ways of making sure we went out and bought their novels and short story collections. He said it with a twinkle in his eye. I'll haunt you. I mean it.
It was a nice evening. The editors were proud. The authors were humble, yet clever. They answered questions graciously. The entire panel enthused about the book and made self-deprecating jokes. But the best part of the whole night was when the three honored authors read excerpts of their work aloud. I must admit that they weren't the best readers I've ever heard. Hopefully, they wouldn't be offended to hear this, being bookish people, and likely more comfortable expressing themselves on the page than reading out loud to a packed room. They squeaked and paused, spoke with too much intonation or too little. Karen Russell gave the best performance, reading about girls raised by wolves in a tiny, kittenish voice bursting with cleverness, but one hopes she'll put a little thunder into her delivery next time. Despite iffy orational skills, the three authors were obviously (Karen Rusell--deliriously) talented writers, and I enjoyed the readings immensely. But the delightful thing, the thing that will stay with me FOREVER, is that whenever one of the authors read a sentence that made my heart give a kick of pleasure, Stephen King's head would snap forward and he'd stare out at the audience with this Christmas-morning look on his face that crowed, "See? See how good this is? I TOLD YOU SO!" Every time I got a shiver, Stephen King's head would snap to front, and his eyes would glisten with love for the written word.
There was a man, renowned for his love of the Red Sox, sitting in a packed church in Cambridge during Game 4 of the 2007 ALCS talking about reading. READING. When asked the inevitable, tiresome question, "What advice would you give to new writers," King got a look on his face like a man with too many fillings chewing aluminum foil, and quickly muttered, "Read a lot, write a lot," and I remembered the last time I saw the man live on TV. He was sitting in Fenway Park during a game with his nose in a book.
So I arrived at Memorial Church thinking that King's greatest love was writing, that it was writing that had won out over Wakefield pitching against Cleveland, but I left the church with King's long-suffering words echoing in my heart--readalot, writealot. Stephen King is a writer, sure, one of the best, but when he spoke to us there at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard that night, he did his best to preach the gospel of reading fiction.
Read a lot, write a lot.
Amen and hallelujah.