Stephen King is probably the greatest living writer.
If you read that statement and immediately thought it was wrong and such names as Martin Amis, Jonathan Franzen or Salman Rushdie sprung to mind, you would be well advised to stop reading at this point, have a lie down and then enjoy some herbal tea.
I’m not an intellectual. I don’t enjoy literature (whatever that is) as much as crime fiction or thrillers. Kingsley Amis, Martin’s father, felt the same way. He liked thrillers and preferred Ian Fleming to Flaubert (much to the chagrin of his son).
By the way, in case you’re wondering whether you yourself are an intellectual, you can always tell by taking Billy Connolly’s test.
The test is simple – If you can listen to the William Tell overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger, you’re an intellectual.
Apart from his considerable gifts as a novelist, Stephen King is a marvellous wit, raconteur and a man of considerable patience. One of his tales concerns an encounter with an elderly fan who had particularly poor timing. When touring, King would usually spend his early mornings doing the rounds of various television and radio breakfast shows, promoting his latest novel. In the afternoon there would be signings and events, in the evening a dinner with booksellers and industry people before either a late flight or a ridiculously early start the next day. Even if you’re doing something that you love, that kind of schedule is exhausting and when this particular story takes place, King is at that stage of the tour where he was feeling pretty wrung out.
During one such dinner, King felt a dark and powerful force take hold of him. It started with a fever, then cold clammy skin, followed by a surge in his bowels that could only be described as ‘commanding.’ He left the table in a hurry and dashed to the newly refurbished bathrooms in the stylish 80’s restaurant where he was being treated to dinner. The bathrooms were, well, very new, in that the bathroom stalls had no doors. By that I mean, no door, not a half door, not even a screen, nothing - just a cubicle wall on either side of a proud, and very public, toilet. King rushed past the bathroom attendant who looked to be 105 years old and sat down to empty what, at that stage, felt like his very being.
Head resting against the cold tiles lining the stall, his trousers at his ankles, wondering (a) if he would ever walk again and (b) how much ice he could pack into his underwear - King shuddered, swore under his breath and closed his eyes as the ancient bathroom attendant shuffled towards him, pad and pen in hand – ‘I saw you on breakfast TV Mr King, can I have your autograph?’
Did he sign it?
Of course he did.
He’s Stephen King.
The attendant was obviously star struck and no matter what, he wanted that autograph.
I can relate to that, to an extent. Over the past year I’ve met some of my writing heroes; writers that I admire enormously and read greedily. When I met some of them I was also in the process of writing my first novel, The Defence. There was that awkward, nervy moment before I blurted out ‘oh, I kinda’ do a bit of that writin’ stuff too, you know,’ and immediately wished that statement had remained unblurted. But I needn’t have worried, Colin Bateman, John Connolly, Declan Burke, Jeffrey Deaver, Brian McGilloway and others, were more than encouraging. But I suspected that some of them had that ‘LA actor’ story in the back of their minds. You know the story -
‘Did I mention I’ve moved to LA? Yeah, I’m an actor now.’
‘Really? Which restaurant do you work in?’
That kind of thing.
If they did have that ‘LA actor’ impression in their minds, and who can blame them, then they were both kind and sensitive enough not to show it. I suspect it’s because many of them were once an aspiring, frustrated writer trying desperately to get published and maybe they had that moment when they met one of their writing heroes.
This brings me neatly to a legend of crime fiction, who must remain nameless, and their story about not meeting Lee Child. The nameless legend was at a crime writing festival and wanted to meet the creator of Jack Reacher. A group of writers were outside the venue talking to Lee Child. The unnamed legend described that awkward kind of hanging-back-thing we all do whilst nervously awaiting that opportune moment to interject and introduce oneself.
The anonymous legend waited. Some people departed. There was space to nip in and hold out an open hand to a fellow legend. He seized his chance to introduce himself to Lee Child and he duly nipped, he extended the hand, he took a breath and…. at precisely the same moment an excessively large bird turd exploded across the impeccably tailored jacket that contained Lee Child. The moment was gone, along with Lee Child who presumably departed in order to assemble his sniper rifle before exacting Reacher-esque revenge on the offending bird.
So you see, poo doesn’t always assist in meeting writing legends. Particularly when said poo is released from a high altitude.
Is there a lesson in this?
You’re damn right.
If you want to meet Lee Child, wait until he sits his ass on the toilet.
Well, actually, no, don’t do that. Lee is well over six feet tall, charming and polite, of course, but even so, if you approached him inappropriately whilst in a lavatory, he would probably snap your neck with his bare hands (a sniper rifle would be a tad unwieldy in a toilet cubicle).
The truth is, if you wanted to meet Lee Child you should have gone to Killer Books.
He’s super-cool. I met him last weekend at Brian McGilloway’s brilliantly curated Killer Books Festival in Derry/Londonderry. I met lots of other fantastic writers including – said Mr McGilloway, Andrew Pepper, Stuart Neville, Declan Burke, Gerard Brennan, Claire McGowan, Alan Glynn and fellow solicitor/writer Des Doherty and all of them made me feel really welcome. Declan and Brian even introduced me to Lee Child. It is often remarked that crime writers are overwhelming supportive and welcoming of new writers. So they are, and I’m immensely grateful for their generosity.
This time (being only a semi-not-yet-published-idiot with the ink still wet on my publishing contract) after a genuinely friendly chat with writers that I admire and look up to, who have no business talking to a newbie like me, but who do so because they too are super-cool, I didn’t feel so much like an actor who had just moved to LA.
Well, actually, I did - a bit.
And I suspect I always will.
This piece was originally posted on Crime Scene NI, courtesy of the genial host, Gerard Brennan.