'Stephen King Talks About Getting Happy' (2012)

Here’s another review of an important artist on stage in Lowell, Mass. On December 7, 2012, Stephen King kicked off the Chancellor’s Speaker Series at UMass Lowell’s Paul Tsongas Center, the sports and events arena downtown along the Merrimack River. This series is reserved for A-List figures and does not happen every year. King was followed by Meryl Streep in 2014. This month the university announced that Oprah Winfrey will be featured on November 18. Ticket sales and sponsorships provide money for student scholarships. This essay, first published on the RichardHowe.com blog in Lowell, is collected in History as It Happens: Citizen Bloggers in Lowell, Mass. (Loom Press, 2017), available for purchase online.

Stephen King and Andre Dubus III at the Tsongas Center. (courtesy of UMass Lowell)

Stephen King and Andre Dubus III at the Tsongas Center. (courtesy of UMass Lowell)

Stephen King Talks About Getting Happy

IN THE SAME YEAR THAT UMASS LOWELL and the National Park Service celebrated Charles Dickens’s famous visit to Lowell in 1842, the University hosted the author who is arguably the Dickens of our time when it comes to readership and popular interest—that would be Stephen King, the guy who grew up in the gritty dooryards of northeast Maine with an outsized passion for reading, writing, rock’n’roll, and the Red Sox. He brought his one-man literary power station to the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell last night. “This is my first stadium show,” he shouted to the capacity crowd of 4,000 people (The area behind the stage was blocked off). There was a lot of yelling, arm waving, and fooling on stage as he bantered, reflected, and preached. He was both pitcher and catcher to his friend and fellow author Andre Dubus III, just right as questioner and listener—and the face of the English Department, which gained $100,000 for scholarships on this night. Five thousand dollars came from a raffle of the two signed armchairs that the guys used on stage.

When I was growing up as a writer, I read about the mass audience for poetry in the Soviet Union. Poets could fill sports arenas for their readings. In Lowell, I’ve seen 1,000 people show up for a group reading by Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and fellow Beat writers. Maya Angelou read to 1,000 in the Smith Baker Center for Middlesex Community College. Lowell Memorial Auditorium drew more than 1,500 for David Sedaris last year, and pulled in a similar-sized audience for Garrison Keillor. Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot in their prime filled large performance halls. I’ve never seen anything like the scene last night. King joked at one point that it felt like a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. He’d mention a book title like The Shining or The Tommyknockers as if name-dropping “Free Bird,” and cheers and applause would erupt. Both he and Andre plugged in to the electric author-love.

The program came in three sections:  Steve and Andre talking shop, King reading a new story about death and regret, and audience questions. About 20 lucky people got a chance to ask a question, including fans who had traveled from Chicago and Pennsylvania and an 11-year-old girl who charmed everyone when she said out loud, as if pinching herself, “I’m speaking to Stephen King,” before posing her question. To the woman who asked about Red Sox management decisions, Steve said re-signing David Ortiz was an act of good faith that Red Sox Nation needed.

Stephen said you have to get a buzz off what you are doing as a writer in order to stick with the solitary work. He told touching, gossipy, funny, inspiring, and profane stories about his journey from a rookie writer whose devoted wife fished his first novel Carrie out of the trash (he got $2,500 for an advance payment on the hardcover publication . . . and then $200,000 for his share of the paperback publishing rights) to the rarified air of cultural royalty who honored a request from Bruce Springsteen to meet for dinner in Greenwich Village. “Yes, I’d like that,” he told his Rock and Roll Remainders-bandmate and music critic Dave Marsh who had carried the request from The Boss.

Andre closed out the first part of the program by reading a passage from Stephen’s book about writing in which the author describes regaining his strength and capacity to create after being run over by a car many years ago. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

December 8, 2012