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 supply 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.
There was a lot of shouting, 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, who was magnificent as the primary questioner and listener—and the face of the school’s English Department, which gained $100,000 for scholarships on this night. Five thousand dollars came from a raffle of the two armchairs that that guys used on stage and which the featured guest signed boldly in front of everyone at the end of the show.
But back to the crowd. When I was growing up as a writer, I read about the mass audience for poetry in the Soviet Union. Favored poets would fill sports arenas for their readings. In Lowell, I’ve seen a thousand people show up for a group reading by Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and fellow Beat writers. Maya Angelou read to 1,000 in Smith Baker Center for Middlesex Community College. The Lowell Memorial Auditorium drew 2,000 or more for David Sedaris last year, and a similar sized audience for Garrison Keillor. I’ve heard that 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. Everything worked as if this was the tenth and not the first time the University had tried something like this. About 20 lucky people got a chance to ask a question, including people 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.
Somebody is going to enshrine this Lowell visit by Stephen King in a book the way Dickens wrote about his own visit to the city in the travel book “American Notes.” I hope Andre writes an essay about it. We will have Dave Perry’s account from the University’s reporting staff. Both of them witnessed the whole spectacular happening. Andre closed out the first part of the program by reading a passage from Steve’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. Here’s the closing thought:
“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.”
Stephen King (Web photo courtesy of firstpost.com)