Crossing paths with mega-author Stephen King stopped being an option for the average Joe sometime back in the early 80s, which also happens to be when I was born, so the odds of this “Constant Reader” ever meeting her favorite author (who, with the publication of his first novel Carrie in 1974, found himself on the fast-track to worldwide best-selling fame) were slim. I knew this. I accepted this, but yet, I always hoped the opportunity might someday arise.
And on a recent winter evening, that is exactly what happened.
So how did it happen? For me, this is how to meet Stephen King.
1. Read his books. Become a fan. Share the love.
I picked up my first Stephen King paperback (the Night Shift anthology, with its eyeball-strewn bandaged hand cover, already worn and creased by my older brother) when I was ten. The slithering whisper of the title character from the story “The Boogeyman” was my first taste of that unique combination of delicious horror and well-crafted story that Stephen King is just so darn good at, and I was hooked.
Over the years I worked my way through the signature massive tomes like IT and The Stand. I read On Writing and learned to fear the dreaded adverb. I met cockadoodie Annie Wilkes in Misery and the woman in room 217 at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. I read the Bachman books, the Straub collaborations, The Green Mile serials, and the Different Seasons novellas. Trips to Maine with friends during the summers of the early 2000’s led to lengthy analysis and debates about the pending outcome of the complex and beautiful Dark Tower series, with its hungry lobstrosities and fragile rose. On one trip we even drove to Bangor, stopping at the Paul Bunyan statue and standpipe featured in IT, as well as the author’s house, with its famous gate.
2. Get lucky and know the right people.
This past June, my sister Courtney got an email from her alma matter, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, announcing tickets would soon go on sale for an upcoming event they were calling “A Conversation with Stephen King” as part of their new Chancellor’s Speaker Series. It was billed as a one-night-only event, where attendees would be treated to a question and answer period between King and moderator Andre Dubus III (UMass Lowell English professor, friend, and fellow bestselling author), a live reading, and questions from the audience. Aware of my devotion, she forwarded the email to me with the words “Any interest?” Does Pennywise the clown like balloons? After my rapid reply, she snapped up two tickets and presented them to me as a birthday present in August, tucked into King’s latest book, the historically thrilling 11/22/63. Ecstatic, I drew a large red circle around Friday, December 7th on my calendar. “STEPHEN KING” I wrote in capital letters underneath.
3. Get even luckier.
As if seeing Stephen King read aloud wasn’t enough, a few days before the event I got a phone call from my stepdad Arthur with even better news — instead of just attending the event, I was also going to get to attend the reception beforehand where I’d have the opportunity to possibly meet my favorite author. Be still my horror-loving heart.
4. Be polite, but persistent.
On the big night, clutching my copy of IT (a used British hardcover edition) I made my way into the Tsongas Center with Courtney on the UMass Lowell Campus. We took the elevator up to the private reception in a lounge area overlooking the arena, which was mostly empty when we arrived, but would soon hold a sold-out crowd of 3,000 people. Seated at a table among dozens of other guests, sipping wine and snacking on appetizers, I wondered with increasing butterflies when he would show up, how long he would stay, and if I’d actually get a chance to talk to him.
I knew right away when he arrived. A slight buzz registered near the entrance of the room, followed by a smattering of camera flashes. I slid off my seat and began gathering up my coat, purse, phone, and camera with clumsy urgency. What if he was just walking through and I’d miss him? I hurried to where the action seemed to be, motioning to Courtney to follow, and then there was Stephen King, perched on a stool at a table and wearing regular blue jeans and a black tshirt. The kind with a pocket on the front. He was thin, with salt and pepper hair that reflected his 65 years, and wearing small wire-framed glasses. A small crowd had gathered around him with the beginnings of a line, like a budding balloon string. I joined it, willing to be a bit pushy but hoping not to, and a few moments later, I was handing over my copy of IT to my favorite author and asking if he’d mind signing it. Like most nervous people, I rambled. I apologized for its worn state but said that I had moved a half dozen times since getting it but I just couldn’t ever leave it behind (hahaha). He opened it up and signed his name, handing it back with a smile, saying “I always like to see a well-read book.” Success!
After our meeting, a young woman stepped up to present him with a drawing she had done of him, then promptly burst into tears. He stood up, gave her a hug, and chatted with her some more before posing for a photo. I took a moment to love him for his kindness, but then my heart sank. A photo! How had I missed getting a photo!?
5. Make friends. Get scrappy. This is Stephen King!
“You forgot to give me your camera!” Courtney said, and she was right. I had been so nervous I had forgotten to ask, but now the thought of leaving without a photo was heartbreaking. I turned to my sister and told her it was time to get serious. By this time Mr. King was wandering through the crowd, stopping periodically to visit with a table, sign a book, or pose for a photo. He chuckled and grinned and asked questions, appearing to feel right at home, the way I imagine he does among his fellow New Englanders. “He’s so normal!” Courtney said.
We made our way over to the opposite side of the lounge, where a couple and their pre-teen son were also watching his progress. The man looked excited, and gestured to us. “You guys need to get over there!” he called. “He’s met all of us clowns before — it’s the prettiest girls in the room and the young people he wants to talk to!”
Assuming we were the pretty girls he was referring to, and his son the young person, we modestly agreed, then urged his son forward. “You’ll regret it if you don’t!” I said. Then, a few moments later, after seeing the boy smiling next to his new favorite author while the camera flashed, I took my own advice and gently muscled my way back to Mr. King while Courtney befriended a kind and bubbly server who had finished handing out her tray of spanikopita and was now also encouraging us to “go for the photo.”
Hovering behind his elbow, I waited. As he turned I began, “Mr. King, I’m sorry but I was so nervous before I forgot to ask if I could get a picture with you.” Before I had even finished the sentence his arm was around my shoulder (with Courtney on the other side) and we smiled at the server who was hoisting up Courtney’s clunky DSLR camera.
While we waited, smiles frozen with dozens of eyes on us, a voice from the crowd called out “Hey Stevie, not too bad!”
Everyone laughed, even Stevie, who then told the fumbling server in a slow voice, “Oh, don’t hurry…”
The laughter from the crowd doubled, and I took the opportunity to briefly lean my head onto his shoulder in sheer delight before the second photo could be snapped — the one above.
Flush with the kind of pure joy that comes from a dizzying mix of excitement, adrenaline, and childlike awe, we clutched our books and belongings and made our way to an empty pair of seats in the arena, then settled in to wait for the official event, which would start at any moment.
On stage were two chairs and side tables, which were soon occupied by Mr. King and Mr. Dubus. It took about 5 seconds for me to recognize Mr. Dubus as the man in the crowd who had called out his approval for Mr. King posing with his arms around two beaming young women. Well, OF COURSE it was.
After a fun and spirited conversation between the two men (an easy thing between old friends), Mr. King read an excerpt from a new story he’s working on titled Afterlife, and then took a series of questions from the crowd. His answers were thoughtful, honest, and funny — just like everything he does — and when the evening ended, the packed arena rose to its feet to applaud its home-region hero.
The event was a resounding success for the debut event of the UMass Lowell Chancellor’s Speaker Series. In addition to the delight and enrichment of hosting Mr. King (who also toured the campus that afternoon and spoke to creative writing students), the author donated his speaking fee to help endow a new scholarship fund in his and his wife Tabitha’s name. He then autographed the chairs from the event so they could be raffled off, with the proceeds adding to the scholarship fund.
The evening was also the thrill of a lifetime for this Constant Reader, who finally figured out how to meet Stephen King, a literary and regional legend of a man, who has contributed so much to my imagination and writer’s toolkit. I can’t wait to read his upcoming novels Joyland and Doctor Sleep (a sequel to The Shining) in 2013. Can you?