Constant Readers the world over are rejoicing over the news that Stephen King is returning to Castle Rock, the small town he created, nurtured and nearly destroyed in works such as The Dead Zone, The Dark Half and Needful Things. Joining him as co-writer of the new novella “Gwendy’s Button Box” is Cemetery Dance founder and publisher Richard Chizmar, fresh off his successful short story collection A Long December. Recently, the two authors answered a few questions from our Bev Vincent about their highly anticipated collaboration.
Bev Vincent: Steve, what can you tell us about the genesis of “Gwendy’s Button Box”?
Stephen King: I had the idea for the story last July, and thought it was a little like Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button,” but could be its own special thing. I liked it because it basically postulates putting the fate of the world in the hands of a child (like Trump).
BV: At what point in the writing process did you seek out a collaborator?
SK: I didn’t know how to finish it. So it just sat there until this January. I didn’t seek out a collaborator; one kind of fell into my lap. I’ve corresponded via email with Rich Chizmar for years. I sent him “Gwendy,” and basically said, “Do what you want, or it will stay unfinished.”
BV: So, set the stage for us, Rich. You’re sitting at your computer one day and you get an email from Stephen King asking if you’d like to work on a story with him?
Richard Chizmar: Steve and I email and text pretty regularly about a wide variety of subjects. On that particular day, we started talking about round-robins (multi author projects) and collaborations. He mentioned that he had a short story he couldn’t finish and I told him I’d love to read it if he ever wanted to send it over. The next evening, I remember it was a Friday and I was on my way to my son’s hockey game, “Gwendy’s Button Box” showed up with a note that read: “Do what you want with it.”
BV: When you picked yourself up off the floor, how did you respond?
RC: I sat in the parking lot and read the manuscript, and emailed Steve back right away. My response that Friday night was “Absolutely! Yes! I’d love to finish it!”—but I was also moderately terrified. I let the idea settle over the weekend and when I sat down to write my story notes on Monday morning, moderate fear blossomed into full-blown terror for about an hour or so. How in the hell was I going to collaborate with Stephen King? Right?! Thankfully, the feeling didn’t last, and the story just sort of took over and stole me away. The nerves disappeared, and before I knew it, I found myself in Castle Rock.
BV: Given that he’s been rereading all of your books and stories for his Stephen King Revisited project, Rich seems like an obvious choice—he’d be familiar with Castle Rock and its history and geography. What was it like working with him?
SK: Working with Rich was very easy. For one thing, he knows my stuff, backward and forward—probably better than I do. I didn’t give him any direction (that I remember), just let him run with the ball. He did a terrific job of bringing it home. My confidence in him came from reading his short fiction. And he’s good with suburban family life. Terrific, actually; very loving, which gives the scary stuff extra bite. He wrote the middle and the end. I did some work on the end, expanding it, and there it was. Tout finis.
BV: Did you discuss story possibilities externally or did you just write and see where the story took you?
RC: The unfinished story that Steve initially sent clocked in at just over 7,000 words. I sat down and blazed through a lot of pages in the next three or four days and quickly sent them to Steve before I had a chance to chicken out. He did a pass of his own, and sent it back to me for another run at it. Then, we did the whole thing all over again—one more draft each. We did discuss some possibilities via email, but mostly we just ran with it. We each tweaked things the other had written and went off in our own directions. The whole process was fascinating and so much damn fun. That’s what I kept telling Steve: this is fun!
BV: I was impressed by how seamless the writing was in the finished product. I couldn’t tell who wrote what.
SK: If it seems seamless…well, that’s always the goal, isn’t it? You don’t want the reader to be jarred by one voice giving way to another. (It may have helped that we were men writing from a girl’s POV.) The secret ingredient is that we both went over the story, giving it additional layers—you’ll see the same thing, I think, in Sleeping Beauties, the collaboration with Owen.
BV: There must be a temptation to try to imitate Steve, but nothing in the story felt like imitation. How did you approach this?
RC: I truly never gave it a moment’s consideration. I just sat down and started writing and let the story take me where it wanted to take me. I didn’t try to do anything different stylistically than I would have had the entire story been my own. And, somehow, it worked. When we were finished and I read over the completed story, I was astonished to find that there were times when I couldn’t immediately recall who wrote what.
BV: What was it like to work in someone else’s well-established universe? How did you make sure you were “playing by the rules”? Is this something you’ve done before with another writer—working in an established setting?
RC: I’ve collaborated a handful of times before, but never in someone else’s specific universe. Fortunately, I know Steve’s work very well, and I also have some good friends walking around with a wealth of King-related knowledge in their heads (Bev Vincent and Brian Freeman are two that come to mind), so playing by the rules wasn’t an issue at all. I didn’t find working within an established universe the least bit confining or restrictive either. I honestly just kept thinking “I’m in Castle Rock,” and tried my best to honor the ground I was walking on. I felt a very real responsibility to that.
BV: Steve, why did you decide to return to Castle Rock? And does “Gwendy” tie in to the newly announced Castle Rock series on Hulu?
SK: I went back to Castle Rock with this one before JJ [Abrams] sold the series to Hulu, so that didn’t play a part. Mostly, I just…well…missed the place!
BV: When commenting about your recent collection, A Long December, Steve said that you set your tales “in no-nonsense, middle class neighborhoods I can relate to.” How do you envision Castle Rock? Is it a bad place, a place that attracts bad people, or is it just an ordinary town with a history?
RC: I think Castle Rock is a pretty ordinary town with a colorful history, like a lot of small towns tucked away in New England. Now, Derry…there’s a bad place that attracts an awful lot of bad people. I think Castle Rock makes perfect sense for the story of “Gwendy’s Button Box.” It fits.
BV: You’ve had a long and productive writing career, not to mention an illustrious publishing career where you continue to publish many terrific authors. How does this experience rank in terms of your career to date? Do you have future collaboration plans?
RC: It’s the cherry on top, no question. I’ve always been a big dreamer, but I never dreamed this big. Not even close. As for future collaboration plans, I’m actually writing a story right now with my 18-year-old son, Billy. It’s about a haunted lighthouse in Canada and will appear this summer in an anthology called Fearful Fathoms. We’re having a wonderful time with it.
BV: Steve, do you plan to work with Rich again, or with other writers in the future?
SK: I don’t have any plans to collaborate again, but no plans NOT to, if you dig.
BV: Speaking of Stephen King Revisited…will we be seeing more entries in this series soon?
RC: Yes, very soon, I promise. The next two essays will cover The Talisman and Skeleton Crew.