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Writing Life: Pinch Me; or, How Stephen King Changed My Life

ISSUE:  Summer 2004

Last year, two days after Christmas and around three that afternoon, I passed out in the foyer of my home in Montclair, New Jersey. I hadn’t even had a drink, and I considered that fact, lying there on the hardwood floor, staring up, coming back to myself. It’s odd how exhaustion works its way through denouement, scattershot dysfunction, and emotional chaos. The damn thing apparently crashes into tiny moments of clarity. A sort of pristine presentation of the events that got you there. In my case, lying on my back with a lump coming fast.

My wife passed away six months earlier. I had taken seven months off my job to work this siege with her. My “job” is acting, so taking time off isn’t an intricate deal. You announce that you aren’t auditioning for awhile and then hope somebody, anybody, gives a shit. In my case, I knew nobody would, so I said a prayer for the American theater, hoping that it would survive my absence, cut a swath through the Montclair Public Library, and stayed home reading and, of course, talking everything out.

My wife took routine with her. I’m told this happens; in fact, I was told this would happen, but I’m an American man, and if I wasn’t going to be told at least two hundred times a day, why tell me at all? What I mean is, we go on; we don’t necessarily know how we do, but we do. This is not to say there wasn’t some order to things. The celebration of a life offers escape for awhile. The duties, the responsibilities, the comforting that eventually turns back onto you until the ceremonies of memorial put the period to it.

I went back to work. Did a Third Watch. Did a Law and Order. Recorded some fun books. Got myself back on the voice-over circuit and scored the coveted voice of the shaky bladder in a pharmaceutical industrial film. I had some dates too, although one of them, a morning coffee on the Upper West Side, scared me off the circuit for awhile. I looked across the table at this beautiful woman I knew to be an accomplished classical actress and got a lump in my throat. I wasn’t sure fifty-six-year-old men should go gaga over fifty-year-old women, so I shut it down.

As Christmas approached, always a wonderfully greedy time, a determination came on me to make this one a re-creation of the kind my three boys were used to. Same food, same stories, same obscene pile of gifts and bulging stockings. Their girlfriends too. And so they all came. My actor from L.A., my rocker from New York, and my Forest Service firefighter from New Mexico. They came for tortellini in brodo, duck, filet mignon, magic coconut squares, and zucchini bread. Look out. I’m cooking. I’m cleaning. I’m an idiot.

Ten minutes after I put the middle one, the last to leave, in a car for the airport, I’m down there, on the floor in my foyer, getting washed in, as I said, this clear overview. And I saw the problem as if it was written on the white plaster ceiling. I hadn’t sat down to write for five months. I hadn’t done the one activity that I have essentially based my silly life on, or at the very least, the details of that life. Every daily event that confused me, every person that eluded me was explained and somehow appreciated by that selfish act of words for thirty years. Approaching nine novels, forty-four plays, countless stories and poems. It wasn’t important that they have a destination, an audience, a publisher, or a production (most of them, almost all of them, didn’t). What these curious, odd works revealed was a kind of inconsistency of the heart. A changing personal worldview on paper. In other words, if I didn’t write it, I didn’t get it. A compulsion by any other name.

I began to write again and began to feel better. This time out, working a corner of the basement my boys had dubbed the “pit of despair,” I finished a play (I’m still not sure what it’s about), got halfway into another, and began yet another novel. I no longer crawled up the cellar stairs crying, “Somebody stop me.” Thankful to be lost in my self-centered reverie. Joyful to be lining things up again. Grateful not to be on my ass in the foyer.

In August I decided to sell the house. This stuff is not easy, as anyone who has kids, even adult ones, and has tried to move on knows. The place pulsated with treasures. Any yard sale of my complete inventory would easily bring several hundred dollars. Still, there were my sons’ baseball card collections, their retired high school baseball and football cleat collections, their empty beer bottle collections, and, of course, the squirreled-away and forgotten plastic bags of marijuana that had eluded a father’s spot inspections of three teenagers. (By the way, boys—I found them—thanks.)

I wrote the boys explaining my intentions and drove west. It was a rough plan, it’s true, but there was a definite arc to it. I’d drive to Jemez Springs, New Mexico, to visit with my middle son, head on up to San Francisco, where my classical actress was playing Benjamin’s mother in the national tour of The Graduate (a role she did for a year on Broadway, when I decided being gaga was all right), and drop down into Los Angeles, where I was booked on an episode of The Practice. All the way to New Mexico my pea brain was flying with projects real and imagined. The notebook chamber of my mind filled to overflowing with new American classics. I love daydreaming, don’t you? Since I’m an actor, everything is fiction. Try breathing life into some of the crap I’ve done to make a buck and you too would run screaming into the world of make-believe. What was I thinking when I first pulled on tights and a tunic? This looks good? Jesus!

So, imagine my cell phone ringing outside of Farmington, New Mexico. I picked it up in true actor fashion, convinced I’d been canned from The Practice before I even got on the set. After a tentative hello, my friend Claudia Howard, who puts the voice talent together for Recorded Books in New York, tells me to pull over. I do. (Claudia is five feet tall and pushes the scale at about 100 pounds, but when she says pull over, people do.) Several years earlier I had shown Claudia a copy of my third novel, The Memory of Running. She was new to the small list of poor souls who get shown a nonstop, unpublished stream of material from McLarty. Usually I inform these dear people that another masterpiece is on the way, and God bless them and keep them, they never chop me down, even if they’re tempted to put me out of my misery, or at least take a hammer and break my writing fingers. (I mean it, guys, thanks. XXXXX.) But Claudia indeed liked it enough to give in to my begging and lobby her bosses at Recorded Books Headquarters in Maryland to publish it directly onto tape. It was thrilling beyond belief when they agreed and I repaired to the booth with Claudia as my editor/engineer.

Reading your own work out loud is a revelation. When you’re reading another author’s work, famous or not, you’re at their literary beck and call. You always assume they say what they want, the way they want. It’s necessary to the job to give reverence to that writer as if they’re in the room with you. But yourself, well, that’s another story altogether. I found that every instance where I tried too hard, got too clever, or generally ran too full of myself leaped off the page and into my mouth like a bad oyster. You can’t fool yourself is what I’m getting at. When I’d look up in midsentence, at Claudia on the other side of the glass, at the digital monitor, and say with all sincerity, “Who wrote this shit?” I was experiencing self-editing at its finest. (Subsequently, I recorded all of my other novels privately and discovered the same ultimately happy separating of the wheat from the chaff.)

The book was added to the catalogue of Recorded Books’ wonderful collection of recordings, and after some sweet letters from listeners who were kind enough to rent it, a visit to a Middlebury, Virginia, library for a discussion of my novel, and readings from some works-in-progress, The Memory of Running was nominated for the Audie Award for best original recording. (A recording of The History of the Theatre, read by Derek Jacobi and a bunch of other English actors with stupid, silly accents, won.)

Now, off to the side of a high desert road, Claudia was telling me she had gotten a copy of my novel to the great Stephen King, who thought enough of it to devote his entire column in Entertainment Weekly, “The Pop of King,” to it, to me, and to my publishing struggles. To say I had a moment of levity is not overstating the fact. I do not have many of them, and praise, when it has come, has usually been from people who love me, not a legendary storyteller who I believe will take a rightful place among the great writers of the century. I was feeling pretty perky. That’s right. I’m bad. I’m damn bad! Hey, man! Fill it up! I got a chick to see in ‘Frisco. That’s in California, right?

I called my agent, Jeff Kleinman of Graybill and English in Washington, D.C., and filled him in on my visions of grandeur. A beautiful paperback edition with perhaps several thousand dollars in advance. After all, I estimate I’ve spent about $5 million in mailings over thirty years, so right is right. (And by the way, is there a rule against returning spurned manuscripts, even with self-addressed return envelopes? C’mon.) Jeff is a sweet, smart, young guy who deserves better than someone who struggles to listen and often doesn’t play well with others, but he’s forgiving and, thank God, has a real understanding of this thing called the publishing world. I left him to contemplate our next move, actually got down on my knees at a Navaho gas station and said a prayer for Stephen King, then sang along with Van Morrison all the way to the San Francisco theater district.

It probably seems indulgent and certainly doesn’t move my little narrative along, but love, especially love at my age, has been nothing less than startling. You’d think the big histories of life would preclude hope. That maybe it’s better to sink comfortably in reflection and count yourself lucky to be alive, children healthy, pension looming. Well, not for this dog. I have stood at the edge of a San Francisco hotel bed and howled like a coyote. Yeah!

Anyway, Kate (my actress) agreed that maybe Stephen King’s article would get me published. Something classy. Some small house that appreciates compulsive writers. I howled some more and left for L.A. and The Practice. I played a judge and modestly say I was very good. I mean it’s either guilty or innocent. The rules are simple. And Sharon Stone was in my episode. It’s a good thing Kate had already laid claim to me, because you can imagine how these surpassingly beautiful movie stars long for guys who play judges in TV shows. Picture me with my gavel and robes. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Have you reached a verdict?” I mean, it’s just irresistible stuff.

Sometime that week, Jeff called and told me perhaps we should retype the manuscript, as some of the portions, especially those still in longhand, might be a little too difficult to read, and also while we’re at it, why don’t we throw in a few commas and periods. Picky. Picky. Picky. So with item in hand, he marvelously coordinated the sending of manuscripts with the new Entertainment Weekly edition containing Stephen King’s article. I was excited but far from convinced. It would be wonderful, of course, to see my novel between covers, but still and all, the article, the thought of a great writer like King, was separate unto itself. It was enough to have that. More than enough. True. I mean, STEPHEN KING.

And I was busy. I lined up a Judging Amy episode, recorded the amazing Ed McBain’s The Furious Bandersnatch, one in the great series of 87th Precinct novels, and began to prepare for the unabridged recording of Salem’s Lot, by guess who? So I was pretty distracted, back in the actor’s routine, when Jeff called to say there was an offer. One hundred thousand dollars.

“Take it! Take it! Take it,” I suggested.

“I think we should wait,” Jeff said.

“Ahhhhhh!” I sighed.

So we waited, and this incredible tide of offers began. Offers from publishing companies I knew to be first-class operations, even if they derived a lot of their revenue from steaming off the postage from the self-addressed stamped envelopes of desperate, hungry writers. And with the offers came delightful phone conversations with publishers and editors who absolutely adored my book. I can say that. They did adore it. Actors have built-in shit detectors. We don’t know much, but we sure know when we’re being lied to, which is almost all the time. I admit, I wallowed a bit in the praise and took copious notes on their suggestions. I don’t bring much ego to the table. I listen to everything. I’m pretty sure anyway. Actually, I’m lying. I’m an egomaniac. Don’t tell me what to do. Let me think it’s my idea. You don’t become an actor because you top out on the mental health charts, and sitting in a basement with a pencil, five or six hours a day for thirty years, only adds texture to your condition. Yet, even for a complete loon, the mere fact that some storied editors and publishers wanted my work made me sit and reflect on myself in general and my writing in particular.

The next step in the process was clear. I drove back up to San Francisco for some more howling. Kate’s play was moving to San Diego, and she was able to spend a few days in L.A. with me. We bought a fax machine so I could hold in my hand any material Jeff thought was important enough for me to understand. I have to hold things and read them. Explaining anything over the phone goes against the actor’s grain. Conversations are two-way deals, and we are only interested in the part that has us talking. Well, maybe not all actors. I’m sure Derek Jacobi and those pals of his on the Audie Award—winning recording of The History of the Theatre listen intently to one another’s silly and stupid English accents. But I digress …

A few weeks later Kate’s show moved on to Austin and Houston. Jeff had set up an auction for all interested parties, and I acted, read, wrote, and stayed as close to my new fax machine as possible. On the day the final offers for The Memory of Running came in, after some last-minute discussion with, as I mentioned, these mighty editors and publishers from seven different houses, I sat stunned by the completeness of each proposal and overwhelmed at the decision to be reached. I spoke with Jeff, Kate, and my children and then chose Viking. My editor will be the tremendous Ray Roberts, and any paperback editions would be through the incomparable Penguin books. I closed my eyes and decided I couldn’t go wrong with any deal I accepted. They were all in the surreal range. I faxed each son and Kate the offer sheet and took a jog. Then I had a drink. Then a cigarette. I’ve got to stop that. Jogging isn’t good for your bones as you grow older.

I called Stephen King in Bangor, Maine, and told him the news and thanked him, or at least I’m pretty sure I did. How can I thank him for what that selfless act meant to me and for me? I’m not the brightest bulb, but I know that without that article, the impetus to sit down with a fifty-six-year-old’s unpublished manuscript, no matter how good I knew it to be, would probably not be there. Which, of course, leads to another consideration. After years of writing whatever I damn well felt, how do I maintain the ingeniousness of my line when now it will, at least, be read. I can’t write The Memory of Running again, and I don’t want to. Okay, it’s a nice dilemma, given the advance and all, but it’s that connection of the word to me I don’t want to lose. But then again, I could dress better, and the beard could be trimmed up, and maybe if I talk slower I’ll sound younger and cooler. Wow. Help!

I sold the rights to the movies. Yep, Warner Brothers, baby. Boffo deal. You look marvelous. Let’s do lunch. Oh, and I waved to Bruce Willis on the Warner lot, and he waved back. I’m pretty sure it was Bruce. Sunglasses. Baseball cap. Collar up. Maybe not.

So there it is. Kate and I drove east over the Thanksgiving holiday and pretty much are resolved to live and work there. Unless we go to L.A. to live and work there, that is, which is possible, providing we don’t live and work in the Rockies. I want to continue to act because it drives my writing and is what I am, God help me. So everything has changed, and nothing has. If you see me, pinch me. Yeah!


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