A Night at The Ryman with Stephen King

A Night at The Ryman with Stephen King

Stephen King’s End of Watch Book Tour
The Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, Tennessee
June 11, 2016
by Blu Gilliand

End_of_Watch_coverAs a born-and-bred Southerner, I knew that Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium was one of those places I was supposed to visit at least once in my life. Built in 1892 by a steamboat captain for the evangelist that led him to salvation, the Ryman Auditorium (originally known as the Union Gospel Tabernacle) soon became more than a church—it became a gathering place/entertainment hall, hosting everything from political rallies to opera to ballet to, beginning in 1943, the Grand Ole Opry. These days, the Ryman plays host to comedians, rock bands, country singers, and, yes, bestselling authors.

When I read that Stephen King would be stopping at The Ryman, a mere four hours from my front door, as part of his End of Watch book tour—and on a Saturday, no less—I knew it was a chance I couldn’t pass up.

Although it would be my first trip to The Ryman, it wouldn’t be my first time seeing King in person. Back in November of 2009, I traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, where he was signing copies of Under the Dome at a
Barnes & Noble. While it was thrilling to stand right in front of my literary idol, it was an encounter that lasted all of 15 seconds—just enough time for King to scribble his name while I mumbled something about what an influence On Writing had been on my own work. He thanked me, I think, as the Barnes & Noble crew hustled me out of the way. Awesome? Yes, but kind of unfulfilling, too.

This time there would be no signing, but I was okay with that. I’d read enough reports about King’s talks (and watched enough of them on YouTube) to know that he is as entertaining in person as he is on the page. That’s the experience I wanted this time around.

King’s Nashville stop took place on June 11. A couple of things you should understand about Nashville that day: 1) It was hot, as in upper-90s hot; 2) it was smack dab in the middle of the 2016 CMA (Country Music Association) Music Festival, a week-long celebration of country music that packs an additional 80,000-100,000 people into the already-cramped downtown area. The Ryman stood at the epicenter of most
of the CMA activities, meaning there was a steady parade of concert-goers streaming past, probably wondering who we were in line to see.

The Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, Tennessee
The Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, Tennessee

After getting inside (and hustling upstairs to snag one of the Hatch Show Print-designed posters), I took a few minutes to soak in the atmosphere. The Ryman is beautiful in an understated way, with its hardwood floors, stately pews, and stained glass windows. I couldn’t help but notice that, while there were a lot of people staring at their phones to pass the time before the show started, there were at least a handful who’d brought books along to read.

When Stephen King finally strode out on the stage to a standing ovation, his joy was evident. After hugging author Donna Tartt, who introduced him (after being introduced herself by author and Parnassus Books co-owner Ann Patchett), he just stood center stage for a moment, soaking it all in. “A standing ‘O’ in the Ryman,” he said. “Well, it’s all downhill from here.”

He immediately launched into several stories from his days with the Rock Bottom Remainders, mostly familiar anecdotes that he’s shared in interviews and talks in the pat. Music was a recurring theme for the
evening—at one point he said, “I’m going to talk about writing, but I’m in the Ryman so cut me some slack!”

When he did get around to the writing, he talked about Gerald’s Game, sharing the story about having his son, Joe, try to accomplish the method he envisioned his heroine using to get out of her predicament
(it didn’t work, so he had to think of something else). He talked about scaring himself as he wrote about the woman in room 217 in The Shining, and how he made the decision to publish ‘Salem’s Lot as his second book, even though he knew it might brand him forever as a horror author. Curiously, he talked very little about End of Watch, the new novel his current speaking tour is promoting. But hey, with us he would
have been preaching to the choir—everyone who bought a ticket to the event was getting a copy of the book.

He briefly mentioned the book he is working on with son Owen, a novel set around a women’s prison in West Virginia. I was so excited, thinking I was going to break this news on Cemetery Dance Online, only
to find out later that night that he’d mentioned it at previous talks. (According to a number of outlets, it will be called Sleeping Beauties and should be out in 2017.)

My copy of ‘End of Watch’ and the poster from Hatch Show Print.

When discussing characterization in his stories, and how he wanted to make sure there were real people in his stories for people to root for, he illustrated his point by comparing the movie franchises Friday the 13th and Halloween. “You’re rooting for the kids in Friday the 13th to die,” he said. “John Carpenter’s Halloween is the polar opposite. You’re not rooting for Michael Myers in Halloween.” King went on to say he’d like to take a crack at writing Jason Voorhees’ biography one day. “I would like to tell his side of the story,” he said.

There was a short Q&A session filled with uninspired questions; the most entertaining portion of this was when a clearly inebriated woman began asking a question about Eyes of the Dragon in what can only be
described as a tires-squealing-on-asphalt voice. King stopped her and said he loved her voice because it reminded him of Yeardley Smith, the actress best known as the voice of Lisa on The Simpsons, and told a story about working with Smith on Maximum Overdrive. Later, when asked which of his books he’d recommend to someone about to read Stephen King for the first time, he said, “It’s not my job to recommend a book. I want them to come to what they like.”

Before closing out the night, King remarked, “Everything is happening in Nashville this weekend,” he said. “The CMA Fest, Bonnaroo is close by…and look at this place, full of people who read books.”

Although I wasn’t among the 400 lucky souls who got a signed copy of End of Watch, and although I’d already heard variations of many of the stories King told beforehand, I was anything but disappointed. King is an engaging speaker and a brilliant storyteller, and he held us all in the palm of his hand for the hour or so he was on stage. I don’t know how many more of these tours King will undertake, but if he comes anywhere near your town, don’t miss a chance to see him.

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