In 1973 Stephen King was a teacher and an aspiring author.
Alongside teaching high school English classes at HampdenAcademy, he wrote short stories which he sold to men’s magazines. In the evenings and weekends he worked on novels. And on Friday afternoons he “liked to get drunk.”
Times were hard: he was driving a knackered car which he couldn’t afford to fix, his wife Tabitha was working shifts at Dunkin’ Donuts, and they had no telephone as they couldn’t afford the monthly rent. In his memoir, On Writing, he says, “I’d think This isn’t the way our lives are supposed to be going. And then I’d think Half the world has the same idea”.
One night he started working on an idea for a novel that had been simmering in his head for a while. It was about a high school girl with telekinesis powers.
He wrote three pages, then crumpled them up “in disgust” and threw them away.
The next evening, when he came home from school, Tabitha had the pages in her hands. She had spied them whilst emptying the waste-paper basket and had smoothed the crumpled sheets out and sat down to read.
She urged him to continue. She wanted to know the rest of the story.
He told her he didn’t know “jack-shit about high school girls”.
She said she’d help him with that part; “You’ve got something here, I really think you do.”
So he continued writing and realised something profound in the process. “Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
In Spring 1973, his novel Carrie was accepted for publication with an advance of $2500.
His wife asked him if he could now quit teaching. “I told her no, not based on a twenty-five-hundred-dollar advance and only nebulous possibilities beyond that.“
So life went on. And not much changed.
Then one day he received a call from his publisher, Bill.
“Are you sitting down?” Bill asked. He had good news. The paperback rights to Carrie had been sold for $400,000.
King didn’t think he had heard him right and asked him to say the number again, very slowly and very clearly, so he could be sure he hadn’t misunderstood. By the time he put the phone down, half an hour later, he was shaking all over.
When his wife came home a little later, he took her by the shoulders and told her about the paperback sale. “Tabby looked over her shoulder at our shitty little four-room apartment, just as I had, and began to cry.”
Stephen King has written more than fifty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers (Carrie, The Shining, The Stand, Misery…)
He has sold more than 350 million copies.
Many of his books have been turned into celebrated films, such as Stand by Me, The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption.
He has been called ‘America’s greatest living novelist’.
And all because his wife rummaged through a bin one day.