Stephen King is more than just an author – he is a cultural icon, a legend of his craft and the face of an entire literary genre. So it goes without saying that there is some serious interest in his work, his life and what makes the King of Horror tick.
Take it from me, it’s almost impossible to get a chance to chat with the man so many of us hold near and dear to our horror-loving heart. Thus, we are left searching for the next best thing – exhaustive works that not only give us a look into the works of Mr. King but also provide a fascinating spotlight on the man himself.
Stephen Spignesi is one of these people who have provided Constant Readers with some of the best installments of King-related literature you will find. From trivia books and spotlights on unpublished works to random facts and an encyclopedic breakdown of King’s catalog, Spignesi has been hailed as “the world’s leading authority on Stephen King” by Entertainment Weekly. No small compliment considering the Constant Readers Nation that exists.
Spignesi is no one-trick pony, either. When he isn’t crafting his next King piece, he’s adding to his mountain of publications mostly rooted in pop culture.
In between hours of research and typing, Mr. Spignesi was kind enough to pull up a chair and talk shop with Mangled Matters.
MANGLED MATTERS: You’ve been knighted with the coolest title ever, “the world’s leading authority on Stephen King”. The cliché question to ask here is what was the first book of his you ever read? But I’d like to know what book made the most significant impression on you?
STEPHEN SPIGNESI: That was an unimaginable honor when Entertainment Weekly reviewed my SK Encyclopedia and christened me that. But I guess back then there weren’t a lot people researching and studying and writing about King. Today I usually modify it to say “ONE OF the world’s…”. With people like Bev Vincent, Robin Furth, George Beahm, Tyson Blue, Kevin Quigley, and many others out there writing about King, I happily share the title!
The first King book I read? The Shining. I had missed Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot and had to go back and catch up after reading The Shining. I read it in 1977, and I was blown away. And when I looked into who this guy was, and realized that he had written The Shining before he was 30. I wanted to give up writing right then and there and go jump off the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge. What’s funny about that is that I always use the exact same story about The Beatles to encourage my students (college freshman) that they’re never too young to pursue their passion and seek out their joy, I would tell them, “Just remember, The Beatles changed music, and the world, before they were thirty.” The same can be said about Stephen King.
As for the book that made the most significant impression on me, it’s probably a tie between The Shining and IT. I consider IT King’s magnum opus. Yes, I know many fans consider The Dark Tower his greatest achievement, but that’s eight books. His greatest single-volume novel is, to me, IT.
MM: When and why did you decide to cover King’s career in such an expansive way?
SS: A raging case of OCD, undiagnosed but likely borderline personality disorder, and a dash of agoraphobia thrown in for fun. But seriously, folks…try the veal and don’t forget to tip your server.
The notion of doing the King encyclopedia came after I had finished my first book, Mayberry, My Home Town, which is an Andy Griffith Show encyclopedia. I told my editor I’d like to try the same approach (chronicling the people, places, and things in King’s writings) for Stephen King’s work, little realizing what that would entail. It ultimately took five years with an assistant to research and write the SK Encyclopedia. The work I did for that book led directly to the two Quiz Book spinoffs, which I worked on with input from King’s editor. Then I realized I had all these rarities and little-known works, which led to the Lost Work of Stephen King (my most popular book on Goodreads). And then The Essential Stephen King came years later when I felt it was time for a career-wide overview of his greatest works. I then took a break of 18 years and came back last year with Stephen King, American Master. King’s work has always been an important part of my artistic and intellectual life. I love reading his stuff (and told him so in the copy of American Master I sent him) and also find great literary merit in his writing. Best of both worlds for me.
MM: There was a 9-year gap between your Second Stephen King Quiz Book (1992) and The Essential Stephen King: The Greatest Novels, Short Stories, Movies and Other Creations of the World’s Most Popular Writer (2001). With a multitude of other projects going on at that time, how long did The Essential Stephen King… take to put together?
SS: It took two or three years, but that’s misleading because it sounds like it took two or thee years to write. The writing was fairly quick and took maybe six months. The two or three years prior were spent assembling all of King’s known body of work, re-reading everything, and then putting together a draft Top 100 works, which I re-tweaked up until I turned in the manuscript. I had to re-familiarize myself with close to 1,000 pieces of writing—everything from the novels, novellas, and short story collections, to the nonfiction, essays, plays, poetry, introductions, childhood and college writings, and so forth. And as you note, I was working on around twenty other books during that 9-year period.
MM: That window from 1992 to 2001 was a busy one for King! Was it difficult creating The Essential book with King churning out so much work during that time?
SS: This is a common problem when writing about artists who are very productive. Your question intuits my situation correctly: I had to keep an eye out for anything he released during the period I was working on the book. My goal was to consider everything up until I was finished. I was in the same situation recently with my Elton John book. The manuscript was due on June 1, and Rocketman was released on May 31. So I had to go see it the day it opened and then write that chapter for the book immediately. As for Essential, I ended up being able to include everything through Dreamcatcher, which came out the same year.
MM: During your research for your projects, I assume you have found some real gems as far as unearthed information. What is your favorite ‘find’ while navigating the Stephen King universe?
SS: It certainly has to be the manuscript for People, Places, and Things (thanks, Dave), and the text of the short story “Squad D.” “My Little Serrated Security Blanket” was a cool find, too. I think I and a few others in the King community were the first to read the People, Places, and Things short story collection. Also, Stephen King’s brother David sent me a bunch of things from his archive for me to use in the Encyclopedia that had never been seen before. Real rarities.
MM: I imagine you have quite a King collection of your own. Is there a particular item that you hold near and dear to your heart?
SS: Even though anyone who subscribed to the newsletter may have the complete set, I really love owning the complete Castle Rock newsletter, all four years of it. I also have the Grant Dark Towers, and a personally inscribed to me Double Feature by Owen King with a cool drawing of a projector he did on the title page. Owen quizzed audiences from my Stephen King Quiz Book on his Sleeping Beauties tour with his dad. I also have some photocopies of unpublished manuscripts that I really love, because they provide real insight into King’s creativity and, with his handwritten editing notes, the mechanics of his writing. This is valuable to me as a researcher. Art exists in a spectrum and I really revel in studying and understanding the development of artists I love over their career. Throughout my career I have made a point of studying the artist’s work, and only tangentially touching on their biography. I do it with King, and Woody Allen, Robin Williams, Elton John, and others.
MM: Is there a novel of Mr. King’s that you may not be as particularly fond of as the masses?
SS: Dreamcatcher is not a favorite. Nor is The Tommyknockers. I’m not crazy about Cell. In nonfiction, I don’t like Faithful, mainly because I don’t like sports so the reading is a chore. This is also my reaction to the New Yorker essay “Head Down,” which won King all kinds of sports-writing awards. It’s a slog for me. I just don’t like sports, so sports-writing doesn’t engage me. Frankly, though, I can count on one hand stuff I’m not crazy about versus the rest of King’s body of work.
MM: Do you have any other King-related projects in the pipeline?
SS: Yes, it’s in the early stages but I’m working on Stephen King’s Kin: The Writings of Tabitha King, Joe Hill, and Owen King.
Also, I’m working on two limited edition publications for Dave Hinchberger’s Overlook Connection Press. They are an expanded signed illustrated edition of Stephen King, American Master and The Lost Work of Stephen King, Vol. 2. I’m woefully behind on both.
I’m also trying to figure out a way to update The Essential Stephen King, but a solution is playing hard-to-get at this point. I’d have to cut too many titles from the first edition to accommodate the 18 years of writings King came out with since 2001. But I’ll figure it out. I hope.
MM: What are you currently working on?
- #TIL: Quirky, Hilarious, and Mindblowing Facts and Trivia About Everything (Skyhorse, 2020)
- Elton John, Fifty Years On: The Complete Guide to the Musical Genius of Elton John and Bernie Taupin (Permuted Press, 2019)
- Robin Williams, American Master: The Complete Guide to the Movies and Comedy of a Lost Genius
- Crystal Palace, a Dickensian novel set in 1850 during the Great Exhibition in London that’s half finished. I’m co-writing it with Rachel Montgomery, a former student of mine. We first met in a Stephen King course I taught at the University of New Haven and now write together.
If you fancy yourself a Constant Reader, do yourself a favor and check out Stephen’s Amazon page for some great deals on his King-inspired works!